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Successful girls? Complicating post‐feminist,

neoliberal discourses of educational achievement
and gender equality

Jessica Ringrose

To cite this article: Jessica Ringrose (2007) Successful girls? Complicating post‐feminist,
neoliberal discourses of educational achievement and gender equality, Gender and Education,
19:4, 471-489, DOI: 10.1080/09540250701442666

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Published online: 12 Jul 2007.

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Gender and Education
Vol. 19, No. 4, July 2007, pp. 471–489

Successful girls? Complicating post-

feminist, neoliberal discourses of
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educational achievement and gender

Jessica Ringrose*
2007 Ltd (online)

This paper examines how an ongoing educational panic over failing boys has contributed to a new
celebratory discourse about successful girls. Rather than conceive of this shift as an anti-feminist
feminist backlash, the paper examines how the successful girl discourse is postfeminist, and how
liberal feminist theory has contributed to narrowly conceived, divisive educational debates and poli-
cies where boys’ disadvantage/success are pitted against girls’ disadvantage/success. The paper illus-
trates that gender-only and gender binary conceptions of educational achievement are easily
recuperated into individualizing neo-liberal discourses of educational equality, and consistently
conceal how issues of achievement in school are related to issues of class, race, ethnicity, religion,
citizenship and location. Some recent media examples that illustrate the intensification of the
successful girl discourse are examined. It is argued that the gender and achievement debate fuels a
seductive postfeminist discourse of girl power, possibility and choice with massive reach, where
girls’ educational performance is used as evidence that individual success is attainable and educa-
tional policies are working in contexts of globalization, marketization and economic insecurity. The
new contradictory work of ‘doing’ successful femininity, which requires balancing traditional femi-
nine and masculine qualities, is also considered.

In the wake of feminist-driven policy gains to promote girls’ educational attainment
during the 1970s and 1980s, in the mid 1990s an educational discourse of ‘failing
boys’ gained ascendancy in public debates and educational policy in the UK (Epstein
et al., 1998). Broadly speaking the ‘failing boys’ discourse draws on specific measures
of girls’ superior educational achievements as compared to boys, to support claims
that girls have reached unparalleled levels of success and feminist interventions into

*Institute of Education, University of London, 20 Bedford Way, London, WC1H AOL, UK.

ISSN 0954–0253 (print)/ISSN 1360–0516 (online)/07/040471–19

© 2007 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/09540250701442666
472 J. Ringrose

schooling have been met, and may have gone ‘too far’, so that girls’ achievements are
continuously positioned as won at the expense of boys (Arnot et al., 1999; Francis,
2005, p. 9). The discourse of boys’ failure positions the truth claims being made
about girls’ educational victories and later work place success as a ‘feminist triumph’
that is somehow productive of a culture wide ‘crisis of masculinity’ (Walkerdine et al.,
2001, pp. 175, 112). This ‘moral panic’ over boys’ underachievement has continued
to dominate educational debates for the last decade in the UK and internationally (Ali
et al., 2004; Francis & Skelton, 2005).
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In this paper I explore how the truth claims about contemporary educational equal-
ity and girls performance that gained ascendancy the mid to late 1990s and led to
panic over failing boys, have solidified and intensified in the new millennium into a
new seductive narrative about girls’ educational and workplace success, where girls
have become a ‘metaphor’ for social mobility and social change (Harris, 2004;
McRobbie, 2004). I will suggest the ongoing educational debates on gender and
achievement contribute to a much wider neoliberal, meritocratic cultural shift, where
girls educational success comes to signify equality, progress, girl power and girls’
having ‘come a long way, baby’.
This paper is also concerned, however, to problematize the notion that these shifts
can be characterized as simply as ‘anti-feminist’ or a feminist backlash, as suggested
by many feminist commentators on the failing boys debate (Mac an Ghail, 1996;
Kenway, 1997; Weiner et al., 1997; Epstein et al., 1998; Jackson, 1998; Arnot et al.,
1999; Heath, 1999; Harris, 2004; Davison et al., 2004; Aapola et al., 2005). I will
explore how situating the debate as anti-feminist is inadequate and look at the notion
of ‘post-feminism’ as more useful in explaining the complex relationship between femi-
nist discourses and neoliberal economic policies and discourses, which are dramatically
reshaping the realms of education, work and family. The paper suggests the current
educational policy terrain is distinctly ‘post-feminist’, arguing that specific forms of
liberal feminism are recuperated to sustain a neoliberal climate of educational reform.
Angela McRobbie suggests post-feminist discourses:
… actively draw on and invoke feminism as that which can be taken into account in order
to suggest that equality is achieved, in order to install a whole repertoire of meanings which
emphasize that it is no longer needed, a spent force. (McRobbie, 2004, p. 4)

Through analysis of media coverage, I suggest that this is exactly the dynamic that
characterizes policy and public debates over education and achievement. In this
debate gender equity is celebrated and feminist concerns for girls recuperated, and
thereby rendered outmoded and obsolete. We find also, as I illustrate, chronic anxi-
eties over the supposed ‘feminization’ of education, where girls success comes to
denote a new ‘school girl fiction’, where girls’ achievement at school becomes synon-
ymous with an overarching ‘feminist victory’ that is at boys’ expense (Walkerdine,
1990; Foster, 2000).
In considering the nuances of ‘the cultural space of post-feminism’, McRobbie
(2004, pp. 5–6) also suggests, however, that feminism must be ‘taken into account’.
That is, ‘feminism must face up to the consequences of its own claims to representation
Successful girls? 473

and power’—the ways that feminism has been ‘engaged with’, ‘incorporated’ and is
consumed, reworked and reintroduced into popular culture and public debate, often
in dramatically unexpected ways needs to be traced (McRobbie, 2004, pp. 5–6). We
need to engage with the complexity of the post-feminist gender order as a:

… field of transformation in which feminist values come to be engaged with, and to some extent
incorporated across, civil society… [and yet] the active, sustained, and repetitive repudiation
or repression of feminism also marks its (still fearful) presence or even longevity (as after-
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life). (McRobbie, 2004, p. 6, emphasis added)

As I have suggested elsewhere and will argue in this paper, post-feminism is usefully
understood ‘as part backlash, part cultural diffusion, part repressed anxiety over
shifting gender orders’, that ‘calls upon feminists to recognize feminisms (in the
possessive and plural) own implications in the social phenomenon feminists seek to
analyze and critique’ (Ringrose, 2006, p. 2).
Taking up McRobbie’s complicated challenge, in this paper I consider how specific
forms of feminism, like liberal feminism (which is based on a dualistic, binary gender
theory) have contributed to a vicious rhetorical cycle of ‘girls’ victimization vs. boys’
victimization’ in educational debates (Jackson, 1998). Conceptualizing gender as an
abstract, stand-alone ‘variable’ organized around a male/female binary is not an
invention of educational research and policy but rather a legacy of liberal feminist
influences in the public sphere (Eisenstein, 1996). Liberal feminist conceptualiza-
tions of gender have led directly to narrow measures of performance by gender
difference, now used by the Government to ‘prove’ high pupil achievement for girls,
school effectiveness and gender equality more generally (Hey et al., 1998; Jackson,
1998; Murphy & Elwood, 1998; Francis, 2005). One problematic effect of a gender-
only liberal feminist analysis has been the idea that gender presents us with an ‘obvi-
ous variable’ for measuring (in)equalities in educational research and elsewhere
(Hammersly, 2001). The gender equations rip gender out of a sociocultural context
and rely on an abstract and dislocated ideal of equality. What is consistently
concealed is how issues of equality for boys and girls in school are much wider than
gendered achievement, and how achievement is related to issues of class, race, ethnic-
ity, religion, citizenship and space/location of schools, as well as to gender (Gillborn
& Mirza, 2000; Walkerdine et al., 2001; Lucey, 2001; Reay, 2001).
It is therefore the taking up, or complex diffusion of liberal feminist categories of
analysis in the public sphere and not simply an anti-feminist backlash (although reactive
anxieties over feminism abound, as I will show) that is productive of the mythology
of girls’ educational success. The most ironic, disturbing effect of the current post-
feminist, neoliberal gender equity discourses in educational policy is the steady
stream of resources focused on boys supposed underachievement and needs at every
level of the educational agenda, which has now resulted in a massive neglect of girls
in terms of resource allocation and policy and research concerns (Osler et al., 2002;
Crudas & Haddock, 2005).
What I want to also suggest, therefore, is that we are now witnessing a shift away
from a crisis of masculinity and a problematization of the turbulent conditions of late
474 J. Ringrose

modernity and globalization, towards a celebratory, neoliberal discourse of girls’ new

found equality as a formula for the hard work needed to attain educational and career
success (Harris, 2004; Walkerdine & Ringrose, 2006). Recent media attention has
shifted even greater emphasis on to girls’ educational performance as evidence that
individual success is attainable and educational policies are working at school and
later at work, indicating the enormous influence of the educational discourse of girls’
success in school upon wider popular cultural consciousness. Despite the glossy
veneer of the girl power story, however, the feminine continues to be taken up in
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contradictory ways, as a site of both problem and possibility in this neoliberal context
of adaptation to market forces. The discursive constitution of the successful girl also
entails both feminine and masculine qualities are to somehow be juggled, creating
massive contradictions for girls. My conclusion points to the need for new research
examining the complex, contradictory effects of the successful girls discourse, and the
need to remain vigilant as to how some feminist discourse can feed into neoliberal
formulas and fantasies of girls as ‘metaphors’ for educational success and equality
(McRobbie, 2004).

The panic over ‘failing boys’

Both the first and second ‘waves’ of feminist/women’s movement focused on gender
equality in education as a ‘manifesto’ goal (Sanders, 2001; Arnot et al., 1999). Arnot
et al. (1999) note that in the UK in particular, the development of what they call
‘educational feminism’ in the wake of feminisms’ second wave, was central to the
post-war era of social democracy, by initiating a global social movement which
demanded equality of outcome, gender equity in society and a ‘gender blind approach
to education’.
Feminists at this time looked at inequalities in schooling, with girls and women
excluded and marginalized in the curriculum, content and practices of education
(Weiner, 1997). With their focus on ‘equal opportunities’ as a key element of
progress, liberal feminists in particular placed particular importance on issues of girls’
and women’s equal access and achievement by subject. The dominant argument
during the 1980s was that girls were doing poorly in school and later the workplace
because of girls’ gendered subject ‘choice’ with more girls in home economics and
languages than sciences and mathematics (Kelly, 1981, 1985). Feminist research also
illustrated, however, that despite sexism across every level of schooling, girls were not
underperforming at primary school levels in any subject (and were outperforming
boys in high school subjects like English) (Walkerdine, 1989).
Equal opportunities policy was finally formalized in education 1988 with the
advent of a National Curriculum in England and Wales, which introduced common
curriculum for both sexes. For the first time, girls and boys had to take the same core
subjects and ‘league tables’ were introduced to catalogue GCSE results to gauge
performance across gender. The new league tables showed that girls were outper-
forming boys in language subjects and were also rapidly catching up in math and
science at a rate not matched by boys’ improvements in languages.
Successful girls? 475

Figures in 1995, for instance, illustrated that seven-year-old girls had gained a head
start in mathematics and science (81% of girls reached the expected level of maths
compared with 77% of boys, and 86% of girls and 83% of boys reached the expected
level in science) (Arnot et al., 1999). By 1996, public debate would be shaped by the
new facts of ‘gender equality’:
● Girls out perform boys at ages 7-, 11- and 14-years-old in National Curriculum
assessments in English; achievements in maths and sciences are broadly similar.
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● Girls are more successful than boys at every level in GCSE

● Girls are succeeding in ‘boy subjects’ such as technology, maths and chemistry
(adapted from Jackson, 1998, p. 78).
According to Arnot & Phipps (2003, p. 3) these statistical patterns of female perfor-
mance were touted as ‘one of the most significant transformations in the history of
social inequality in the UK’.
Indeed, the findings proved shocking vis-à-vis dominant cultural knowledges about
boys’ and girls’ performance in school, and a furor broke out in British society. From
the news that girls were doing better than ever in school, concerns over a shocking
new ‘gender gap’ between girls and boys emerged and claims about boys’ underper-
formance were made and exaggerated by the media (Epstein et al., 1998). Headlines
ranged from ‘Girls doing well while boys feel neglected’ to ‘Is the future female?’; with
reports claiming ‘the under-achievement of boys’ has become one of the biggest
challenges facing society today’ (Guardian, 1995; Panorama, BBC1, 1995; Times
Educational Supplement, 1997, in Cohen, 1998).
A ‘sex-war’ mentality took hold (Jackson, 1998). Girls’ success was apparently
spelling boys’ downfall, and a ‘moral panic’ over ‘failing boys’, said to be a conse-
quence of feminist gains in education, was borne. What was dubbed a ‘crisis’ in boys
underachievement in school took on the guise of ‘fact’ through measures of female vs.
male achievement in various levels of Governmental school testing and subject
performance (Reed, 1998).
In the mid to late 1990s, feminist critics responded to this shift with great anxiety
and concern calling it variously a ‘backlash’, a ‘reversal’ of feminism, and an ‘anti-
feminist’ politic, noting the failing boys discourse ‘set up a binary opposition between
the schooling of girls and that of boys, according to which, if one group wins, the
other loses’ (Epstein et al., 1998, p. 4; see also Mac an Ghail, 1994; Kenway, 1997;
Weiner et al., 1997). As noted by Epstein et al. in 1998:

… the current moral panic around boy’s ‘underachievement’ has produced a key opportu-
nity for challenging gender inequalities in schools but it is one which is fraught with
danger. As with all such moments, a reactionary recuperation of feminist insights and
concerns is also possible. The task of the moment is to ensure that this does not happen.
(Epstein, 1998, p. 14)

Rather than receding in importance, the most recent international research

indicates a ‘media frenzy over boys’ underachievement’ also erupted in Australia and
spread slightly later to US, Canadian and other contexts influencing an international
476 J. Ringrose

‘panic… that boys in school are being shortchanged’ (Davison et al., 2004, p. 50;
Francis, 2006). Vitriolic and reactive panics over boys and girls achievement have
continued in the form of an outrage over the ‘feminisation of education’, and claims
that supposedly new ‘softer’ modes of testing and curricular interventions in the wake
of feminist intervention are having devastating effects on boys. In 2002 a Daily Mail
article summed up this anxiety in a story about how the ‘system has become unfair
and discriminatory against boys’ due to ‘a wholesale feminization of the education
system’, where:
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Girls began to be privileged over boys at school… Teachers gave priority to girls in class-
room discussions, playground space and sporting fixtures. The ‘masculine content and
orientation’ of textbooks, topics and tests was obliterated in favour of female references;
teachers were forbidden to use ‘sexist’ language; and male teachers’ bonding with boys
through jokes or shared allusions to football had to be reprogrammed out of the system…
[which was] disastrous for boys. For rather than men being masters of the universe as femi-
nists contend, their sense of what they are is fragile. Unless their particular male charac-
teristics are acknowledged and supported, they start sliding downhill and some go off the
rails altogether. (Phillips, 2002)

Responding to the ‘crisis’, Governments in many countries are further entrenching

a failing boys and successful girls dichotomy through ‘shifts in policies which refocus
on the educational needs, body image, mental health and leadership for boys in light
of the argument that young women are outperforming young men in school and
beyond in almost every aspect of personal development’ (Aapola et al., 2005, p. 8).
The most recent British research indicates ‘the moral panic over boys’ perceived
underachievement’ continues to ‘dominate the current gender agenda, and channel
debate into a narrow set of perspectives associated with the policy drive to raise “stan-
dards” in education’ (Ali et al., 2004, p. 1; Francis & Skelton, 2005). Australian
research has pointed to a discursive shift from a ‘deficit framework’ that oriented
equity policies for helping girls ‘measure up to’ boys, to a deficit model for boys—‘a
current depiction of girls as actively succeeding, and even beating boys in male educa-
tional terrain’ (Foster, 2000, p. 207). Canadian research is now exploring how a
media driven ‘perception among some parents/guardians and educators that boys in
school are being shortchanged’ is being taken up by Government organizations
responsible for education with as yet unforeseen effects (Davison et al., 2004, p. 50).
Francis (2006) notes that although the US has been slower to join this debate, due to
a traditional focus on ethnic inequality rather than gender and performance, recent
concern over ‘boys’ underachievement’ has amplified, with such sensationalist titles
appearing as The war against boys (how misguided feminism is harming our young men)
(Hoff-Sommers, 2000).
It is not surprising in the face of consistent onslaughts that feminists internationally
continue to label these trends part of an ‘anti-feminist’ agenda and backlash (Lingard,
2003; Aapolla et al., 2005; Francis & Skeleton, 2005). Media reports on ‘poor boys’
and panics over an encroaching ‘feminization’ are easily pegged as reactive—they
exist as symptoms of the ‘gender anxieties’ in our contemporary period of gendered
instability and flux (Segal, 1999). But I think it is important to trouble this idea of
Successful girls? 477

feminist innocence, of feminism as simply open to reversal, recuperation and backlash

into its ‘anti-feminist’ form, within the gender and achievement debate. I want to
unpack how feminist truth claims have influenced the debate, and how some forms
of feminist analysis are actually complicit in and productive of gender binaries, a point
that is neglected or side-stepped in the conventional positioning of the failing boys
discourse as anti-feminist backlash. I want to map out how gender reversal logics
operate, and think about how a post-feminist framing might be helpful for analyzing,
in a genealogical spirit (Foucault, 1980), how feminism figures in complex ways in
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the minefield of the gender and achievement terrain. By specifying which feminist
logics are implicated, in which ways, in the post-feminist gender wars, we can, to my
mind, carry forward the important work of a decade of critique of the failing boys
discourse (i.e. Mac an Ghail, 1994; Kenway, 1997; Weiner et al., 1997; Epstein et al.,
1998; Aapolla et al., 2005; Francis & Skeleton, 2005, p. 4), with renewed, and very
specifically defined feminist agendas.
The term ‘post-feminism’ is contested, with some associating the term with post-
modernist, post-foundationalist moves to destabilize and deconstruct gender
(Brooks, 1997; Gamble, 2001) and others associating the term with an anti-feminist
‘backlash’ (Whelehan, 1995). I see post-feminism as complex representational
terrain, temporal, political, theoretical (etc) where both backlash and destabilization
result. I also find the idea of post-feminism a useful conceptual tool that helps in tracing
the complex effects of and implications of various forms of feminism (like liberal and
neoliberal feminism) over time in popular culture and beyond. The concept of post-
feminism is particularly useful in locating how the success of a particularly liberal
feminist discourse needs to ‘be taken into account’, to use McRobbie’s phrase, as
central to the production and solidification of the gender dichotomous logic in
contemporary neoliberal educational policy and public debate. In order to make these
arguments, I will begin by looking at how gender as a category is taken up taken up
in contemporary educational debates, the media and popular culture.

Testing gender equality? Neoliberal discourses of achievement,

performance, success and failure
Discursive shifts in debates over educational achievement are linked in important
ways to massive restructuring of education systems in most western countries over the
past few decades in the wake of a rapidly changing global economy and labour
markets (Giddens, 1998). In direct contrast to the naïve, reactive assumptions about
a ‘feminization of education’, brutal strategies to increase school effectiveness
through pupil achievement and new regimes of testing have continued to gain inter-
national importance as a means of making the nation state marketable with increasing
pressures on schools to mediate issues of economic insecurity and produce a suitably
flexible and adaptable work force (David, 2004).
In this global context, debates on school ‘effectiveness’ through identifying and
measuring standards of teaching and learning performance and excellence are
increasingly consonant with ‘neoliberal’ Governmental policy contexts that stress
478 J. Ringrose

individual attainment, flexibility and adaptation in education and work as the means
of succeeding in contexts of social, economic and political transformation and insta-
bility (Morely & Rassool, 1999; Francis, 2006; Walkerdine & Ringrose, 2006). In
British schools, the drive to ‘improve standards’ has meant an increased emphasis on
exam results. According to Benjamin (2003) a current obsession with testing has
international reach, producing a ‘techno-rationalist’ culture of ‘curricular fundamen-
talism’ which demands schools and teachers valorize specific, quantifiable versions of
‘achievement’ and ‘performance’. Educational policy discourses which focus on
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issues of ‘performativity’ and standards of excellence as part of a wider attention to

measurable school improvement have flourished in current economic and Govern-
mental contexts (Youdell, 2004; Francis & Skeleton, 2005; see also DfES, 2003).
‘Third way’ ‘New Labour’ policies continue to promote assessment as a primary
mode of improving institutional, group and individual standards and effectiveness in
schooling (Fairclough, 2000). New Labour policies have meant incorporating neolib-
eral tenets of educational achievement as the means of addressing issues of social
exclusion and demonstrating Governmental ‘action’ on issues like gender equality
(David, 2004). Equity discourses sit alongside demands for ‘school improvement’
and both issues are to be gauged through specific criterions of ‘evidence’ about
performance like examination results. David (2004, p. 14) notes how in a climate of
‘public policy discourses about school improvement and effectiveness [equity issues]
have been defined in very specific and traditional ways’. One of these ‘traditional’
ways school effectiveness is measured and equity is to be addressed is through an
increased reliance on gendered measurements where girls’ and boys’ performances on
testing are compared, in ways that constructs a ‘gender gap’ that is only statistically
evidenced at the higher levels of assessment and ‘simply does not exist’ in any gener-
alizable form (Gorard et al., 1999, p. 11). In the UK and elsewhere, however, the
narrow parameters of the gender and achievement debate, oriented toward tracking
testing results at the GCSE level (in terms of girls and boys performance) continue to
produce a dominant educational narrative that gender equity has been attained or
even surpassed, because girls’ performance at certain levels exceeds that of boys
(Francis, 2005, p. 9). Students’ performance by gender provides an exceptionally
easy, though dramatically simplified criterion for demonstrating school effectiveness
in terms of gender equality.
As noted by Lucey the rhetoric and policy behind the concept of ‘excellence’
promoted by New Labour sets up a difficult binary ‘excellence is produced within
dynamic relation to its opposite and therefore depends upon the continued presence
rather than eradication of failure’ (Lucey, 2001, p. 182). The dynamic of success and
failure plays through a gender binary that continues to reproduce a ‘failing boys’
discourse, as evident in a slew of recent press reports reminiscent of the mid nineties
like the BBC story: ‘Girls keep outstripping boys in exams’ (BBC News, 2003).2
While close attention to the details reveal the article is reporting on how it is at ‘the
top end (that) the gender gap is widening, with the growth in the number of girls gain-
ing grades A to C being grater than the rate among boys’ the message is one of all boys
losing out to girls once again (BBC News, 2003).
Successful girls? 479

Another recent Observer headline proclaims: ‘Exam results reveal gender gulf in
schools’ (Hill, 2005). Drawing on data from the Department for Education and
Skills, the article states surveys of A level results from 1500 both state and indepen-
dent schools showed ‘girls are up to 115 percent more likely to achieve an A or B
grade than boys’ (Hill, 2005, p. 1). The article declares ‘the shocking extent of under-
achievement by boys in some of Britain’s leading schools has been revealed in a report
which for the first time shows the huge differences in the performance of girls and boys
across the country’ (Hill, 2005, emphasis added). It is extraordinary that although
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issues of boys’ underachievement have dominated the policy arena and public debates
on education for over a decade now, the article represents the findings as ground-
breaking in order to underline the grave extent of the problem facing boys.
One teacher called upon to discuss the results, Professor Tony, principal at the City
College in Birmingham, blamed ‘the local culture’ for boys’ underachievement,
We have three buildings dedicated to women-only-education in Birmingham and boys
have now become the problem instead… We are trying to re-engage boys through voca-
tional and activity based courses but we are fighting against a heady local cocktail of male
unemployment and an extreme drug culture. (Quoted in Hill, 2005, p. 2)
Here we find a distinctly post-feminist representational context where feminism is
found culpable in the production of a culture of male unemployment and drug addic-
As Becky Francis has recently argued a ‘poor boys’ dimension of the failing boys
discourse maintains a powerful hegemony (2006). Girls’ success is continuously
framed through an oppositional dynamic of boys’ failure, and the enormous complex-
ity of educational issues involved in struggling for ‘equality’ greatly muddied.
But how or which sort of feminism contributes to the gender dichotomous repre-
sentational terms of the debate over educational achievement?

Liberal feminism: gender binaries and equality vs. difference

As I have illustrated, the debate on gender and achievement is framed through a
narrow binary conception of gender so that the unitary category of ‘girl’ is simplisti-
cally pitted against the unitary category ‘boy.’ This stems from the particular gender
perspective in use. A major goal of post-war ‘education feminism’ was toward a form
of gender neutrality or ‘gender blindness’ in educational outcome (Arnot et al., 1999).
This equality perspective was rooted in the British equal rights feminism of the nine-
teenth and early twentieth century which aimed to extend to women the same rights
and privileges as men through identifying areas of unequal treatment and eliminating
them via legal reforms (Pilcher & Whelehan, 2004, p. 38). Equality became the
primary platform of ‘liberal feminism’, which extends a liberal ethos of equality of
rights, and has focused on eradicating gender difference as a way toward gender
equality (sameness) (Bryson, 1992). Feminist ‘difference’ theorists argue, in contrast,
that women’s inherent difference be valued, and that strategies to have equal-ness
(which leave the masculine norm intact, against which feminine difference is
480 J. Ringrose

positioned as something to be transcended towards sameness with men) are inherently

patriarchal (ibid.). Poststructural feminists are trying to go beyond this dichotomy
between equality and difference critiquing both the equality perspective and differ-
ence perspectives as essentializing of gender, and missing how gender is differentiated
by other forms of difference (Young, 1990; Squires, 1999).
Indeed, more than two decades of feminist theory has illustrated the conceptual
problems with gender analysis organized as a binary between man/woman or mascu-
line/feminine that does not account for how gender is always differentiated by other
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‘intersecting’ or ‘articulating’ axes of experience and identity, and multiple social

discourses including those that are productive of social class, race and ethnic based
inequalities (Carby, 1982; Hill Collins, 1990; Mohanty, 1991; Brah, 1996; Skeggs,
1997). Gender, taken as a stand alone variable or measure can be used to prove either
the ‘facts’ of gender inequality or equality, in ways that radically decontextualize expe-
riences of schooling and achievement and equality issues from economic and cultural

Earlier [feminist] work failed to construct a political language—and an activism—around

equity beyond competing claims about oppression. We seemed in the 1980s Britain to be
unable to ‘think through more than one difference at once’. (Mercer, cited in Hey et al.,
1998, p. 129)

Liberal feminist equality discourses that focus on gender as a stand alone, undiffer-
entiated, monolithic variable set the terms for reactionary debate. Measuring for
equity through gender-only frameworks (manifest as liberal feminist discourses)
embeds knowledge into a binary, oppositional framing that actually incites reversal,
with very difficult effects for a feminist politic or movement by impeding a more
complex ‘politics of difference’ (Brah, 2000). The very aims of educational parity via
gender sought by ‘educational feminists’ have created an abstract equity schematic
that works to simplify and individualize the social, to decontextualize gender from all
class, cultural, racial and economic dimensions through which gender manifests as an
axis of experience and identity. In popular debate the prominence of the gender wars
means factors such as social class, ethnicity, race and culture are conveniently
obscured despite many suggesting these provide much stronger indicators of perfor-
mance in school (Gillborn & Mirza, 2000; Lucey, 2001; Reay, 2001). The treatment
of gender as an undifferentiated, essentialized and monolithic category of analysis
distorts the issues involved with educational equality and school achievement. We are
repeatedly returned to a ‘melancholic’ heterosexual narrative—an endlessly repeating
and cyclical, rigid gender binary (Butler, 1990). This defensive ‘sex-war mentality’
oscillates backwards and forwards in dangerous and simplistic ways (Jackson, 1998).
The reasons why liberal feminism has been taken up in the public sphere are
complex, but relate to the way a liberal ethos for a de-raced and de-classed ‘women’
who is to secure individual rights and choose to become ‘somebody’ reconciles
completely with a neoliberal programme of individualization, autonomous self-hood
and self-responsibilization for either success or failure in globalizing contexts
of marketization, insecurity and risk. Other feminisms are less amenable to this
Successful girls? 481

individualist ethos. This is what is meant by a ‘post-feminist’ moment, space or

terrain—it is a set of discursive ‘conditions of possibility’ (Foucault, 1980) brought
into being in the wake of feminism(s) proliferation. This view allows us to trace the
capillary, manifold effects of a specifically liberal feminisms’ cultural diffusion and its
uptake into the public sphere.
The effects of the gender dichotomous framing and the easy ‘recuperation’ of
liberal feminism to make repeated claims of gender equality within the educational
terrain of policy, research and schooling have been dire indeed. An overwhelming
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assumption that girls are ‘not a problem’ in spaces of school in particular has resulted
in a massive neglect of girls experiences, and a failure to allocate resources to girls’
needs in school (Osler & Vincent, 2003; Crudas & Haddock, 2005). There has been
a general failure to conceive of gender as a relational category, and a refusal among
policy-makers to differentiate gender analysis and categories of girl/woman and boy/
man so that resources could be allocated to economically and/or racially marginalized
girls and who fall outside this convenient rhetoric of girls success and boys’ failure
(Aapolla et al., 2005; Archer, 2005; Francis & Skeleton, 2005; Francis, 2006). Femi-
nist research increasingly illustrates the ‘other side of the [so called] gender gap’ in
achievement is that most girls are still experiencing male dominated classrooms
cultures, leaving girls to simply ‘make the best’ of things (Warrington & Younger,
2000; Francis, 2005).
What is also amply evident, and what I want to explore further, is how the burgeon-
ing discourse of successful girls is not bounded within an educational ‘field’ or
‘domain’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992). The educational failing boys’ discourse of
male disadvantage, which is based almost entirely on gender-differentiated test
results, inculcates what Foster (2001) calls in the Australian context, a ‘presumptive
equality’—the widespread belief that women have achieved equality with men in
society. These sets of presumptions orienting educational debates bolster the quint-
essential post-feminism argument ‘that girls and women are doing fine, feminism is
unnecessary… the movement is over… girls have attained all the power they could
every want’ and may actually ‘have too much power in the world’ (Taft, 2004, p. 72,
emphasis added). The successful girls discourse has a widening scope and powerful
reach, spreading in complex ways through the realm of globalized popular culture
inspiring, on the one hand, dread and anxiety over the ‘feminization’ of culture, and
confirming and co-constructing, on the other, the girl as metaphor for neoliberal
discourse of personal performance, choice and freedom, and its auxiliary and mutu-
ally reinforcing discourse or ‘rationale’ of individual responsibility for self-failure in
the ‘global education race’ (Rose, 1989; Mahoney, 1998; Beck & Beck-Gernsheim,
2001; Harris, 2004).

The post-feminist signification of the discourse of girls’ success

As the oppositional logic of the failing boy has taken greater hold—the failing boys’
polarity, its ‘absent signifier’ the successful girl, attains ever greater status as ‘common
sense’ truth (Gramsci, 1971; Derrida, 1978). One of the complex effects of the failing
482 J. Ringrose

boys discourse is, therefore, the contemporary ‘proliferation’ of discourses (Foucault,

1980) sustaining the motifs of successful girls. This discursive production incites
multiple new meanings and truths about girls’ success and a shift in attention to the
feminine and to girls’ educational attainments as evidence that individual success is
attainable and educational policies are working. This new truth contributes to a much
larger shift in the ‘gender order’ (Connell, 1987). A shift that is shored up through a
proliferation of post-feminist stories, images, and representations of the newly
successful girl—girl power, girls having it all—discourses where girls are heralded as
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the new ‘global winners’ (Harris, 2004; Taft, 2004). These discourses of feminine
success are contradictory, however—both wildly celebratory and deeply anxiety
Discourses of girls’ successes in school have implicated wider debates over the
gendered effects of globalization for international economies (Walkerdine et al., 2001;
Harris, 2004). The portrayal of girls’ success as an international phenomenon is
evident in a host of recent news reports, based on a survey from the OECD, which
proclaims a new ‘Global gender gap in education’ (BBC News, 2003, emphasis
added).3 These claims are based on findings that ‘girls out-performed boys in reading
at the age of 15 in all 43 countries included in the respected study’ and women have
‘overtaken men at every level of education’ (BBC News, 2003). As another story based
on the survey laments: ‘In the space of a generation, boys have gone from expecting
to be the best at school, to an assumption that they will be the worst… around the
world girls are winning the academic race’ (BBC News, 2003).4 This claim of global
equality made despite the fact that the UN’s key Millennium Development Goals for
gender and education—that all girls would be able to receive at least primary educa-
tion were missed by a huge margin in 2005 (Aikman & Unterhalter, 2005).
Success at school is directly connected to success at work in the representation of
these issues: ‘They (girls) are better at school, much more likely to go to university
and are expecting to take the better-paid jobs’. Yet another story ‘Girls top of the class
worldwide’ claims ‘the 1990s have seen a remarkable change in women’s expectations
and achievements’ noting ‘in the UK, ‘63% of girls expect to have white collar, high
skilled jobs by the time they are 30, compared to only 51% of boys’ (BBC News,
2003).5 And another recent Guardian report declares ‘across the UK, there has been
a revolution in educational achievement over the last 30 years, of which girls had been
the primary drivers and beneficiaries’ (Smithers, 2004, emphasis added). But do
these ‘great expectations’ signal the ‘revolution’ being claimed, or do they indicate
more about the representational dimensions of the issues of gender and achievement
where girls are positioned as unambiguous winners, objects of both fear and desire in
a brave new post-feminist world? Are the high achievements of some girls increasingly
garnered to fuel a story of widespread success that legitimates a current social/
economic/political context of risk and insecurity?
As warned by McRobbie, as a post-feminist discourse, this educational narrative of
girls’ success makes a leap from educational attainment to career success, where girls’
are ‘championed as a metaphor for social change’ generating a host of new ‘reper-
toires of meaning’ (2004, p. 6). We see how the specifically educational-based
Successful girls? 483

discourse of the failing boy contributes to a much wider common-sense understand-

ing that girls have come out the new global winners not only in educational spheres
but in the world of work, so that ‘the complex and rapid socio-economic changes
generated by globalization, de-industrialization and the retreat of the welfare state
[are seen to] have been more advantageous to young women than young men’
(Aapola et al., 2004, p. 8).
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The feminine as both problem and possibility

Walkerdine et al. (2001, p. 112) go far, however, in deconstructing the intensification
of discourse of girls’ success in the UK as based in part on results from high achieving
girls at high achieving schools, which repeatedly obscures how achievement is always
a ‘class related phenomenon’. Offering longitudinal data on girls from both working
class and middle class backgrounds these authors demonstrate how class cultures
continue to shape educational outcomes for girls, and argue attainment figures based
on gender alone, mask how high performance is based in the superior performance of
particular girls:

The resounding success by girls that has been spoken of in recent years is primarily about
middle class girls and it has set in train a debate about a crisis of masculinity in post-indus-
trial or deindustrialized societies. The effect of this on boys and men has been dramatic.
It was formerly relatively easy for boys to obtain employment that did not require high
levels of literacy, a particular accent or stylish attractiveness… However, fewer of those
kinds of jobs exist in affluent countries and so boys are now being pushed to remake them-
selves as literate, adaptable and presentable: it is this that has produced a crisis for ‘work-
ing-class masculinity and it is this that sets girls’ educational achievement as a particular
problem in the present… It is as though the success of girls has somehow been responsible
for the dramatic and distressing changes that have happened over the last twenty or so

The representational politics around girls’ achievement outlined by Walkerdine et al.

indicate a distinctly post-feminist cultural space. As this passage indicates, in this
gendered terrain girls and women and the feminine can be held accountable for all
manner of cultural effects. Against the crisis of masculinity, the feminine becomes a
site of contestation, of anxiety but also desire over what is possible in the brutal condi-
tions of contemporary schooling where success and failure are legitimized through new
regimes of testing and achievement. Girls come to represent both dire problem and
fantastical possibility of the promise for success in conditions of social insecurity.
Historically, the problem of the feminine has traditionally been one of feminine
passivity and lack vis-à-vis desire/action/expression defined as masculine (Grosz,
1990). As noted succinctly by Fine (1988) girls’ educational experiences have
historically been limited by ‘a missing discourse of [female] desire’. Foster picking up
the binary of desire/lack, notes that the earlier educational discourse of female lack,
where girls were ‘constructed as lacking the necessary masculine learner subjectivity
as well as the necessary male defined knowledge’ posed little threat to hegemonic
masculinity and may have even reinforced it (Foster, 2000, p. 209). In contrast, the
484 J. Ringrose

recent discursive shift toward representing girls as successful constitutes a problem

because it ‘invokes a more normative male orientation to desire that of actively seek-
ing and pursuing achievement’ (ibid.). It is when girls transgress the constitution of
the feminine as lack into masculine desire that they become constituted as a threat
(Walkerdine, 1993). It is the dangerous dimension of female desire, expressed in
claims about successful girls’ that repeatedly invokes reactive concern over boys. This
concern is profoundly post-feminist because it comes in the wake of cultural shifts
enabled by feminism, yet seeks to recuperate these in the most simplistic and opposi-
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tional of ways into a story of feminism having gone ‘too far’ (Francis, 2005).
The shift in the onus in debate from the object of the failing boy to the successful
girl, also, however, marks a shift away from a problem oriented discourse, that there
is a problem with the effects of globalizing economic changes for masculinity onto a
success based discourse of femininity. In a context of neoliberalism and ‘choice biog-
raphies’ the qualities ascribed to femininity have a central place in a discourse of success
(Aapolo et al., 2005; Walkerdine & Ringrose, 2006). The desegregation of gender in
schooling, higher education and many jobs, places the distinction between ‘men’s and
women’s ‘roles’ and ‘domains’ into question, radically disrupting the social construc-
tion of gender. The qualities of reinvention, adaptation, flexibility, malleability to
outside market forces that are in demand are ones that are traditionally feminine. The
gender shifts we are witnessing require that both men and women increasingly perform
what Lisa Adkin’s (1995) calls an ‘aesthetics of femininity’ and adaptation. Femininity
is marshalled in new ways to sustain an educational arena obsessed with academic
achievement that is itself merely part of a broader neoliberal ethos of individualization,
competition and marketization (Walkerdine & Ringrose, 2006). Dianne Reay suggests,
however, in contrast to this argument and the reactive ‘feminization of education’
thesis, that in education with its ‘growing emphasis on measured outputs, competition
and entrepreneurship, it is primarily the assertiveness and authority of masculinity
rather than the aesthetics of femininity that is required and rewarded’ (2001, p. 165).
The task, then, is to somehow juggle both feminine and masculine attributes, for girls
to inhabit and take up sights of masculine and feminine desire (Walkerdine, 2005).
This is the new highly complex and contradictory work of ‘doing’ girl, and of perform-
ing complex dimensions of specifically ‘bourgeois’ success in increasingly neoliberal-
ized sites of schooling and work (Walkerdine & Ringrose, 2006).
The feminine, therefore, takes on new meaning as site of crisis, anxiety and desire
in contemporary educational discourses and in wider socio-economic and political
contexts (Harris, 2004; Aapola et al., 2005). We find a story that implies it is possible
to win and be successful in the shifting global economy, and girls and feminine
subjects, because of their flexibility, adaptability and hard work in spheres of educa-
tion and work are the prototypes for this success. This radically decontextualized,
success based discourse represents a solidification of neoliberal preoccupation with
individualizing logics that inculcate youth to continually re-adapt and reinvent them-
selves to the shifting conditions of globalization. This is the ‘free market feminism’
described by McRobbie (2004), where girls have become the new poster boy for
neoliberal dreams of winning, and ‘just doing it’ against the odds.
Successful girls? 485


This paper has suggested we are witnessing a discursive proliferation around the motif
of the successful girl—a figure that signals massive public ‘gender anxieties’ and
‘gender desires’ in rapidly transforming institutional and economic contexts (Segal,
1999). Girls success at school signifies the surest inculcation of a brave new ‘post-
feminist’ world, where issues of gender inequality are positioned as no longer posing
a problem, and where success is held up as there for the taking for ‘a kind of young
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woman celebrated for her “desire, determination and confidence” to take charge of
her life, seize chances, and achieve her goals’ (Harris, 2004, p. 1). Girls’ new found
‘equality’ and power becomes a meritocratic formula, a signifier, a ‘metaphor’ for the
hard work needed to attain educational and career success.
We need to continue working out the complex effects of the post-feminist, neolib-
eral discourse of successful girls. There are massive contradictions now facing girls and
boys within an educational terrain where feminine qualities of adaptation and flexi-
bility, and masculine levels of assertiveness and performance are rewarded, but it is
girls who are viewed primarily to be adapting and succeeding (Walkerdine & Ringrose,
2006). While this paper has traced some of the discursive sites of contradiction, we
are seeing new empirical research exploring girls experiences in such schooling
climates, and the difficulty of navigating spaces of contradiction and ‘impossibility’ in
these new subject positions where girls are to be both ‘bright and beautiful’, ‘hetero-
feminine/desirable and successful learner’, ‘aggressor and nurturer’, among other
highly contradictory subject locations enlivened through the discourses of successful
girls (Archer, 2005; Niemi, 2005; Renold & Allen, 2005; Youdell, 2004; Walkerdine,
2005). This research challenges, for example, the notion that femininity is ever valo-
rized, illustrating how girls’ performance of hard work, cooperation, and flexibility is
still pathologized as feminine, in the minefield of gendered regulations and expecta-
tions that inform schooling (Walkerdine et al., 2001; Francis, 2005, Renold & Allen,
2005). The reactive ‘feminization of education’ thesis mobilized in the educational
debate is also exposed as ludicrously simplistic, in the wake of the painful costs of living
contradictory gender identities in today’s schools.
This new research reminds us again that measures of so called gender equity in
academic achievement do not necessarily translate into ideals of wider social equality
inside or outside of schools (Murphy & Elwood, 1998; Niemi, 2005). Rather there
are devastating effects when girls are positioned as ‘not a problem’ and resources
siphoned away from addressing girls’ learning and emotional needs at school (Osler
et al., 2002; Crudas & Haddock, 2005). We need a great deal further research to
continue mapping the effects and implications of the post-feminist, girl power,
‘gender order’ in education and beyond (Connell, 1987).
In this difficult representational context key issues remain over how feminists can
continue to complicate and disrupt these claims to gender equality: How are we to
reinvoke feminisms’ legitimacy in what I’ve been calling a post-feminist discursive
gender terrain that continuously ‘undoes feminism, on the basis that it is “always
already known”’? (McRobbie, 2004, p. 13). How can feminism influence debates
486 J. Ringrose

over education, without evoking a ‘gender seesaw’ once again (Collins et al., 2000)?
Which feminism(s) do we ‘do’?
Addressing such questions involves returning to the core tenets of feminist episte-
mologies to reconsider difficult philosophical questions about equality vs. difference,
to continue asking questions about whom the multiple subjects and objects of femi-
nist theory and political change are to be (Young, 1990). The gender shifts we are
witnessing are in part the ‘reactionary recuperation of feminist insights and concerns’,
but they also involve a more complex relationship between feminism, discourses of
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equality and the new neoliberal formulas for success, which are dramatically reshap-
ing the realms of education, work and family, I have been tracing (Epstein et al., 1998,
p. 14). Liberal feminisms’ gender-only analysis has culminated in measures of equity
through gendered test results, which violently obscures socio-economic difference.
This brand of feminism is also therefore culpable in and productive of a post-feminist,
neoliberal politics that holds up the ‘girl’ as proof that an individualizing ethos of
hierarchical competition, performance and standards in education is working. It is
only by staking out the type and scope of our feminist analysis very carefully that our
feminism will not be complicit with simplistic gender analyses, and will not as easily
be co-opted into the seductive discourse of successful girls.

The author would like to thank Debbie Epstein for her help in developing some of the
ideas in the paper, and Emma Renold and Merryn Smith for reading and comment-
ing on previous drafts.

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