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It’s hard work being a smart girl: How today’s schools and screens retell some very old stories about gender and learning

Senior Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University Michele Paule explores real and media worlds of the high-achieving girl at the start of the 21st Century to show how girls are still struggling with some persistent myths about how they learn and how they should be.

In a study conducted across English secondary schools, internet forums and teen TV, Paule explores how girls respond and relate to stories—both experienced and fictional—about ‘smart’ girls:

“One of the most surprising findings of the research was how far back ideas about brilliant, erratic boys and dull, conscientious girls reach—right back to ancient Greece—and also how little actual scientific evidence there is underlying these ideas, even in an age of popularized neuroscience.”

“One of the most surprising findings of the research was how far back ideas about brilliant, erratic boys and dull, conscientious girls reach—right back to ancient Greece.”

Michele Paule, Senior Lecturer in Media, Culture and Communication

“Yet girls, and those who work with them, still form the impression that their success is due to diligence rather than intelligence, that girls’ hard work somehow skews exam results, defrauding boys of their rightful place at the top.

“Girls themselves are aware of how limiting popular stereotypes of feminine achievement can be: geek is not necessarily chic, and intelligence has to be balanced with a hefty dose of femininity if a girl is not to risk social exclusion. As one participant noticed ‘even Hermione gets her teeth fixed’.

“The stereotypes are limited in other ways too. On the project’s www.smartgirls.tv forum, one girl asks, ‘Do you have to be posh to be smart?’ The answer is, depressingly, ‘yes’. For example, Dr Who companion Rose Tyler is excluded because ‘she is blonde and off a council estate’. Another respondent describes how she herself was sent to elocution lessons by her parents to combat prejudice against her regional accent. The project’s findings suggest that schools and the media still have a way to go to create conditions in which girls find it easy to thrive intellectually. As one school interviewee neatly summed up: ‘We need better stories’. Teachers and TV producers, over to you.”

A former secondary schoolteacher, Michele Paule is Senior Lecturer in Media, Culture and Education at Oxford Brookes University. She is currently researching girls’ ideas about leadership across different European contexts.Girlhood, Schools, and Media: Popular Discourses of the Achieving Girl is published by Routledge and is available for pre-order.