33 SES 07 B, Gender Non-Conforming Students
This paper draws upon poststructuralist theories of gender and nation in order to examine the spectre of the boy in the dress within two international contexts, Sweden and Australia. These two contexts have been chosen because, on the surface, they appear to be very different and yet as our analysis will reveal there are striking similarities around gender conformity and nation, although they play out differently.
We deploy discourse analysis in order to illustrate the how the boy in the dress is drawn upon as a problematic figure within these two different socio-political contexts, and argue that this figure represents a ‘tipping point’ between the tolerance and intolerance of gender diversity within educational spaces.
Two key moments will be analysed. In Australia, the recent (2017) postal survey on Marriage Equality saw a campaign run from a conservative right-wing group, the Coalition for Marriage, that included a television commercial featuring a concerned mother stating that, “School told my son he could wear a dress to school if he likes”. In Sweden, in 2016, the department store Åhléns chose an image of a child of African heritage and indeterminate gender to be the face of their annual Lucia marketing. This caused significant controversy and sparked a ‘Jag är Lucia’ (I am Lucia) campaign featuring notable Swedish celebrities dressed as Lucia, including footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović. These critical incidents act as illustration of how the power of cisgender normativity intersect with notions about the nation within educational spaces and public consciousness.
Our paper traces the contours of the two critical incidents and connects the panics to wider social fears around the learning, teaching and supporting of gender diversity within educational spaces. In Australia the Coalition for Marriage commercial was partly responding to media coverage of Safe Schools, a programme for schools that provided teachers with guidance for supporting same sex attracted and gender diverse young people. In Sweden both the Åhléns image and the ‘Jag är Lucia’ campaign responded to the Ödeshög Primary School that, in 2013, cast a boy as Lucia to the chagrin of traditionalists.
We link the boy in the dress in Sweden and Australia to the rise of the populist right. These movements are evidenced within Australia by reform agendas that position the social justice issues of diversity, difference and inclusion as ostensibly individual ‘problems’ for individual students, rather than as social-economic-political structures that work to disadvantage whole groups of people (Reimers and Martinsson, 2016).
In Sweden equality and tolerance of difference appear to have become ‘national values’. Norm Critical Pedagogy, which has its origins in the work of queer theorists, seeks to promote understanding of difference and diversity by challenging the privilege of the centre (Martinsson and Reimers, 2010; Reimers, 2010). It is considered to be ‘mainstream’ within Swedish education. However, Sweden, too, has seen the recent rise of the nationalist and populist Swedish Democrats, who have likened Islam to Nazism, and argued for a total ban on seeking asylum in Sweden.
The existence of the spectre of the boy in the dress within political, educational and popular discourse in Australia and Sweden challenges our understandings of how gender is able to be lived, understood and presented within nations that understand themselves as tolerant and progressive.
 Lucia is an annual Swedish tradition and school-based event that occurs before Christmas. Lucia leads a parade of characters and is traditionally female.
The authors will conduct a discourse and textual analysis of policy documents, media releases, and media commentary that explore dimensions of the following: Question 1: How is ‘the boy in the dress’ understood within political, educational and popular discourse within Australia and Sweden? Question 2: What can the boy in the dress tell us about social justice and democracy, difference and diversity within these 2 contexts? We will focus upon key policy documents including media releases and the advertising campaigns of the Coalition for Marriage and Åhléns. The theoretical and conceptual framework that we will deploy in our discourse analysis draws from feminist and queer theories (Ahmed 2004, 2010; 2017; Berlant 2011; Butler 1990, 2004, 2015), and critical sociological and educational research (Bengtsson, 2014; Gray, 2013, 2017, Harris and Gray 2014; Gray et al 2015; Kelly et al 2018; Røthing and Svendsen, 2010; Svendsen, 2014). This framework for analysis enables us to engage with the political terrain and offers us a way to understand how and where and why politicised understandings of gender diversity enter educational and popular discourse. The two critical incidents we explore in the paper will also be analysed in terms of the discourses they draw upon in relation to gender, politics, education and the popular imagination. In order to discuss Australia and Sweden and to avoid comparative research, we draw upon Kenway et al.’s (2017) ‘global ethnographies’. Conducting a ‘global ethnography’ enables researchers to examine the ‘complex connections’ between contexts and how they are shaped by global forces and imaginaries, and how, when and why these appear within political, educational and popular discourse.
Our analysis reveals that the boy in the dress has become a spectral figure that haunts politics, education and popular discourse within Sweden and Australia, albeit to different ends. We show how this figure is drawn upon within key moments in order to highlight a ‘politically correct’ politics that has ‘gone too far’. Here, we draw upon the work of Wendy Brown (2006) and her call to reconfigure how we understand tolerance. Brown argues that far from being a benign set of individualized practices, tolerance is a mode of governing the conduct of the everyday that (re)produces identities in particular ways. At the same time, tolerance discourse attempts to depoliticize a process that deliberately demarcates the boundaries between objects made acceptable or tolerable (Gray, 2017). We use Brown’s work to illustrate the ways in which the boy in the dress represents a tipping point where the limits of tolerance are breached and aversive responses ensue (ibid.). The boy in the dress as a symbolic figure is exposed here as operating, for some, with the perceived potential to bring down gender order and ultimately the nation as we know it. This spectre is far removed from the actualities of life for gender diverse people and communities and we conclude by suggesting that a shift needs to occur in how gender diversity is represented and discussed within political, educational and popular discourse.
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