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Interrogating the Ideological Centre of School Spaces: Spatial Reinforcement and Resistance of Cis-normativity in Alex Gino’s George
Academic Essay by Julia Tikhonova
Functioning as microcosms of society’s social inequalities, schools often mirror social norms and ideologies, providing a significant context in which children begin to form and understand gender identities. The complex cultural arena of this “hidden curriculum” is portrayed in Alex Mino’s George, wherein the protagonist struggles to find a means to express her identity as a transgender girl. While an important focus of the book includes the impact of peer interactions on George’s marginalization, my analysis will instead align with the perspective of sociologist C.J. Pascoe, who writes, “Rather than address individual practices or identities …, I look at the school itself as an organizer of sexual practices, identities, and meanings” (26, emphasis mine). It is imperative also to acknowledge and interrogate the processes by which school spaces not only contribute to, but are essential to, the centralization and institutionalization of normative identities—through which diverse identities are marginalized. As such, elementary school spaces pervasively reproduce cis-normativity—that is, the set of norms rooting from the belief that gender is a binary category that naturally follows one’s assigned sex. Yet, considering schools solely as unsafe, cis-normative locations alone renders an incomplete analysis, as the text reveals the complexities of elementary schools as sites of both safe and unsafe spaces. I will argue that George portrays how school spatial dynamics, through both their existence and their discursive reinforcement and policing, have the potential to simultaneously reinforce and resist normative discourses of gender. After a brief theoretical overview of the logic of cis-normativity, I will demonstrate how the novel presents the school’s spatial discipline of cis-normativity, which remains bound and reinforced by educators’ and students’ discourses; next, I will engage with the ways in which physical school spaces also provide ways to explore, affirm, and support transgender children. Through the above, George shows the complex and multifaceted ways in which school spaces impact and (re)imagine youths’ perceptions of belonging.
Particularly in elementary school, many factors of children’s identities and subject positions are formed and reformed within the social world of the classroom. CJ Pascoe notes that in classroom spaces, “masculinity and femininity [are] produced as opposite and unequal identities primarily through heterosexual practices, metaphors, and jokes” (50). Although Pascoe’s nuanced research, and much other scholarly work on identity building within schools, highlights the multiple ways in which heteronormativity is institutionalized from elementary school onwards, it is imperative to note that whilst problematizing this issue, scholars often unintentionally disregard other logics simultaneously operating beneath its surface. In particular, discourses of the constructed sex/gender binary typically conceal the inextricable operation of cis-normativity, as its logic relies on and necessitates opposite-sex cis-normative gender. Indeed, without the cis-normative assumption that the “categories” of men and women are always stable and natural, heteronormativity itself is dismantled. The way in which the hidden curriculum within school and classroom spaces are organized relies upon normative assumptions of what theorist Judith Butler coins “the heterosexual matrix,” wherein “gender identity [is] constructed as a relationship among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire, [being] the effect of a regulatory practice” (24). In other words, the heterosexual matrix, an implicit code that regulates society and the classroom space, describes normative expectations of a seemingly natural, stable connection between a person’s assigned sex at birth, gender, gender expression, and sexual orientation. Being perpetuated by a myriad of institutions, including schools, the pervasiveness of this cis-normative expectation explains why some people tend to conflate gender identity or expression with assigned sex, as well as the social anxieties that emerge when these factors are not aligned.
The regulatory construction of binary, cis-normative gender pervades throughout school spaces in George; as such, the gender binary being built into institutions impedes children’s and educators’ abilities to imagine a space for gender diverse youth, and instead facilitates a space of fear for transgender children. For instance, the text consistently refers to the space of George’s classroom as “Room 205.” Enclosed, labeled institutional spaces such as this one function to reinforce what Michel Foucault, in his famous Discipline and Punish, refers to as “protected place[s] of disciplinary monotony” (141)—in other words, normalized and codified sameness. Thus, Room 205 is defined throughout the text by the inscription of social practices and regulations, functional to the disciplining and reproduction of normative binary cis-gendered bodies. In one scene after “Room 205” is evoked, George comments, “The students tromped up the cold, dark stairs. Their footfalls echoed heavily … Two handrails ran along either side of the wall … the girls walked up with handrails on their right. The boys had handrails on their left” (50). Here, the emphasis on two mutually exclusive genders is literally built into the architectural space of the school. The parallel image of heavy echoes of students’ footsteps demonstrates the confining walls of this social structure, controlling the bodies that inhabit the space. The hidden curriculum that disciplines those who fall out of the confines of cis-gender conformity is reflected within the children’s socialized unquestioning obedience of separation; for example, the school’s enforcement of opposite handrails—and the children’s subsequent surveillance of one another to ensure that these two lines are kept separate for girls and boys. Significantly, careful attention to the text’s word choices of “tromped,” “cold,” “dark” within this scene, coupled with the imagery of heavy echoes of footsteps, implies that this binary ritual is not a happy one. Rather, it evokes a visceral eeriness, as well as the sadness of seemingly irrecoverable conformity.
A similar cis-normative binary exists within the school’s bathroom spaces, clearly evidenced as the most unsafe and traumatic space for trans children within the school. George “hated the boys’ bathroom. It was the worst room in the school […] the whole room was about being a boy” (16-17). The perception of what is means to “be” a boy is institutionally imposed by this space, wherein compulsory boyhood is distilled into what happens within, and the meanings that are permanently attached to, this particular space. Here, Judith Butler’s notion of the “heterosexual matrix” functions as a code for the institutional regulation of gender, as well as for normative assumptions of the unwavering linearity of assigned sex, gender, gender expression, and sexuality. This is mirrored in Kuvalanka, Weiner, and Mahan’s study of mothers of transgender girls, wherein one child expressed her school bathrooms as mechanisms of keeping children “segregated.” For one of the trans children, this is expressed as “a reminder to her all the time that she was not fully accepted at school as any other girl” (371)—a reminder made even more constant due to the daily necessity of using the bathroom space. Beyond such persistent reminders of her lack of belonging, the immense lack of safety that George feels within this space is epitomized as she compromises her health and well being in order to avoid the bathroom: “[s]he never drank from the water fountain at school, even if she was thirsty, and some days, she could make it through the school day without having to go [to the bathroom] once” (17). Evidently, George’s intense aversion to the bathroom gestures to both the psychologically and physically embodied trauma caused by the school’s institutional regulation of the cis-gendered hidden curriculum.
This institutionalized cis-gender divide clearly privileges cis-gendered students, as the children in George are depicted emulating the school’s spatial organization of cis-normative structures and rituals, portraying their subconscious obedience to the school’s spatial discipline. As in school-regulated spaces like the gymnasium, the bathroom, and the stairwell, within the space of the school yard, there is a clear divide between “girls’” play and “boys’” play: “Maddy, Emma, and several other girls were gathered in a circle, gossiping […] Jeff had a circle of kids around him too […] the boys around him huddled in close” (56-7). Importantly, this gendered gathering is intimate: boys and girls are separated off and huddled in circles, close around each other. For gender fluid and trans students, there is not a safe space to belong to within the schoolyard; just like at the handrails in the hall, they must choose one mutually exclusive circle to interact with, or else be alienated from interactions with peers, which are necessary for children’s well-being at school.
The systemic spatial discipline of school spaces in George is also mirrored within both educators’ and students’ discourses and understandings of gender. Some teachers, such as Ms. Udell, assist in policing the boundaries of gender, barring students from exploring gender identities. When George auditions for the part of Charlotte, Ms. Udell exclaims, “Was that supposed to be some kind of joke? Imagine how confused people would be” (70). Immediately delegitimizing George’s agency and the authenticity of her identity, the teacher fails to recognize George as someone capable of making her own decisions, simultaneously failing to provide a safe space for exploring possibilities beyond cis-gender, binary identities. The teacher displays the harmful capacity of power relations between children and adults; particularly, she depicts, as scholar Tania Ferfolja argues, how “information on non-heterosexual [and non-cisgender] identities and relationships is still regulated by adults. The discourse that it is potentially dangerous for adults to provide information on non-heterosexuality because students will take it up” still dominates (158). The danger and anxieties that Ms. Udell feels when exposed with possibilities beyond the cis-gender binary, contributes to her failure to facilitate support and safety to George, instead focusing on the harm—or, more specifically, the confusion—that others will supposedly feel. Her reaction of shock, as well as relegating guilt and the burden discourse onto George, is a common reaction of parents when their trans children disclose their true gendered selves.
Beyond reifying the binary-predicated ideology of cisnormativity, Ms. Udell’s prioritization of others’ well-being and confusion, rather than of George’s safety, depicts the normative desire to preserve what Butler coins “intelligible gender,” accomplished when people are read as maintaining a semblance of “coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire” (23). The teacher’s response to George’s request reflects the societal anxieties that result from a perceived incoherent gender. This same anxiety is shown after George discloses to Kelly, and she responds with, “’What? That’s ridiculous. You’re a boy. I mean’ – she pointed vaguely downward at George-‘you have a you know what, right?” (90) Kelly’s confusion, exuding biological essentialism, reflects not only social failures, but failures of the education system in its lack of teaching and creating a safe space for students to understand gender diversity beyond binary cis-gender. For this reason, George’s societally-deemed “incoherent or discontinuous gendered being” (Butler 23) exists only in relation to those who do conform to intelligible gender, and who are thus able to interrogate and attempt to regulate her by reminding her of the boundaries of “normalcy.”
The safety of George’s classroom space is compromised by her classmates, Jeff and Rick. As Caitlin Ryan writes, “the complexity of work that students do when they talk, play and act together holds significant implications, as these are ways that cultural and social meanings are constructed [within] classrooms” (80). Indeed, Jeff reflects the extreme negativity of cis-normativity, as he discursively regulates the boundaries of intelligible gender and acceptable masculinity. The text introduces Jeff in the way that he positioned himself as a new student: “[Jeff] started a few fistfights and threatened most of the boys at first” (13). In opposition to his aggressive and dominant masculinity, Jeff bullies George by calling her a girl: “He’s such a freaking girl” (89); “…some girl is crying over a dead spider” (12). Through centralizing himself in relation to femininity or other, non-normative, “incoherent” masculinities, Jeff reiterates male control, and implies that ‘being a girl’ connotes a loss of power. In particular, delegitimizing “girlness,” or femininity, provides Jeff with a social currency through which he can navigate school spaces. As such, Jeff, being “the dominant group, performs and perpetuates a conformist heterosexual masculinity … attempts to impose and maintain power over those who challenge normative masculinity” (Kehler 260). Aside from infantilizing femininity, Jeff’s interactions reify a cis-normative binary that denies transgression. George feels threatened and traumatized by Rick’s very presence: when he is near, “George cringe[s], recognizing Rick’s voice behind him” (89). Here, George displays a physical fear and trauma in response to Rick’s presence within the classroom space. In fact, within any space at the school, “she wanted as much distance from Jeff and Rick as possible” (19), feeling a lack of physical and emotional safety. Through these physical reactions, it is clear that gender is not only socially constructed, but also has real physical consequences as well.
While the text considers the implications of the centrality of cis-normativity within George’s school, it is imperative to understand that the school simultaneously resists this by providing safe spaces wherein she imagines possibilities for revealing her true gendered self. As she plays Charlotte in this school play, George feels safe and free in the space of the stage, and it is this particular school space that helps her reveal her gender identity and helps her mother realize its authenticity. In contrast to the heaviness with which students’ feet trudged up the stairs to Room 205, upon the stage George feels that her body is “as light as air” and “like she was floating” (153). The imagery of lightness in this scene symbolically lifts the burden from George. Indeed, the stage is a space that feels natural to her, as it seemed “she had been onstage since the beginning of time” (156), and it is through this experience that she feels she has “found herself (156). Evidently, it is through the school space—both the classroom in which George strongly identified with Charlotte, and the stage where she demonstrates her gender—that gives George the opportunity to realize her true identity.
While school spaces, particularly when discursively policed by adults, have the capacity to hurt and delegitimize children’s gender identities, they may simultaneously operate to give opportunity and voice to those seeking safety. When George goes to the principal’s office, a sign in the back of the room has a transformative potential for the space: “A sign in the far back corner showed a large rainbow flag flying on a black background. Below the flag, the sign said SUPPORT SAFE SPACE FOR GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDER YOUTH. Reading the word ‘transgender’ sent a shiver down George’s spine” (125). Here, not only does George feel safe, but she also has a subconscious embodied reaction to ‘seeing’ her identity in the room. The sign demonstrates that gender is not only social and performative, but also physical as well: George’s body physically reacts to the space, and the feeling is not one of trauma, as when she is in the bathroom or in gym class, but one of recognition, validity, and hope. This is reflected in the first things she thinks of after noticing the sign; after imagining this safe space for gender diverse students such as herself, George notes, “Maybe they could talk about makeup together. Maybe they could even try some on” (125). The school space has a transformative potential here, as George’s fear is supplanted by a list of hopeful possibilities, and knowledge that she is able to interact with children like herself. Significantly, after George’s performance in the school play, the principal draws attention to the safe space again, reassuring, “My door is always open” (161). This discursively situates the principal’s office as a permanently safe, open, and supportive space for George, allowing her to reimagine her sense of belonging within the school. Importantly, being the office of the principal, this is the focum of the school’s institutional authority, which plays a significant role in legitimizing George’s identity.
In reading George, it is clear that elementary school spaces, as institutional organizers and perpetuators of gendered practices, have the interesting capacity to both reify and resist normative standards, acting simultaneously as sites of trauma and of possibility for exploring gender diversity. Being mediated by dominant discourses of cis-normativity, spaces such as the classroom, bathroom, stairwell, and gymnasium contribute to George’s isolation and lack of belonging; yet, other school spaces, such as the stage and the principal’s office, facilitate—and in fact, are integral to—George’s developing agency and identity. What is particularly fascinating about this multifaceted function of school spaces is its discursive affirmation and policing by educators, administration, and students; while George’s teacher and classmates discursively legitimate the centrality of cis-normative ideology by Othering different identities, her principal invites support for diverse identities through the use of inclusive language on the poster in her room. Thus, the potential to ignite positive change and social justice necessitate the de-centralization of cis-normative ideology, perhaps through rethinking the language we use. Discourses are malleable and fluid, and are transformed by people themselves—thus, by conscientiously changing how we talk and think about the world, we can challenge the central power structures that marginalize certain identities.
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