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1Many studies bring to light the importance of enjoying competition and the hierarchical relations associated with it in definitions of masculinity. The “spirit of competition” is used to interpret gender differences in such varied areas as academic study orientations, professional careers, and leisure activities. This agonistic penchant has been shown to be a central feature of “hegemonic masculinity” (Connell, 2015) [1] as well as a source of masculine domination (Bourdieu, 1998) [2] and its associated costs (Dulong et al., 2012) [3]. It is from this perspective that we can best apprehend Hilary Levey Friedman’s study as it relates to gender studies. By focusing on children’s involvement in competitive after-school activities (defined as “organized activities run by adults where records are kept and prizes given out”, p. 8), she shows us how young girls can be initiated early into various forms of competition. More specifically, while the central research concern in this book is the reproduction of academic inequalities, it offers precious insight into the conditions under which girls engage in these activities and how they appropriate the spirit of competition they are led to develop there.

2The book is based on a study of children aged six to twelve and their parents living in a major conurbation in the northeast United States. Through interviews and observation of an almost exclusively middle-class population, the author studies the wellsprings of involvement in three competitive activities: chess, soccer and dance. For each of her case study activities she observed ordinary practitioners in one urban and one suburban field site. The study is based on 16 months of observation and 172 interviews with families, including children themselves and activity instructors. The cross-tabulated data are quite dense, though it is regrettable that so little from the interviews with children was cited in the analysis (especially in the last chapter, concentrated on their perspective). Most of the book is about what motivates parents to enrol their children in these activities, rather than on their socializing effects. The three activities attract quite different practitioners: most chess-club participants are boys; dance studios attract almost exclusively girls, most from lower middle-class families, while soccer clubs are more mixed and attract the highest proportion of children from highly educated, high-income middle-class backgrounds.

3The first chapter, “Outside class: a history of American children’s competitive activities”, recounts a socio-historical process that affected all three activities: the intensification and generalization of competitions and contests. According to the author, this historical movement led to an “explosion of hypercompetitiveness” starting in the 1980s; she cites a series of indicators of the process: a remarkable increase in participant numbers (to 3 million children in soccer, 400,000 in chess); the development of new types of competitions due to the multiplication of youth leagues and age categories; ever-earlier rankings; and coach or instructor professionalization. With these points in mind we can understand how it is that greater numbers of girls have come to participate in competitive activities: a wider offer of strongly competitive practices, including in activities like dance that did not use to fall into that category.

4But the inflation of competition should be related to the social groups that appropriate it. Drawing directly on a study by Annette Lareau (2011) [4], Friedman explains that the rise in children’s involvement in competitive activities reflects their middle-class parents’ understanding of childhood, wherein considerable emphasis is placed on supervised activities designed to develop their skills. [5] Friedman shows that parents who support their children’s investment in competitive activities expect this to help them develop skills that will facilitate academic and professional success, regardless of sex. She identifies five types of skills in these parents’ accounts: “internalizing the importance of winning”, “bouncing back from a loss to win in the future”, “learning how to work well under time pressure”, “learning how to perform in stressful situations”, and “being able to perform under the gaze of others”. Together, these traits constitute what she calls “competitive kid capital”, a resource that parents are intent on developing in their children so they can succeed in the American educational system, which is particularly attentive to extracurricular activities in its selection processes, notably for admission to prestigious universities.

5This development, while encouraging girls to engage in competitive activities, does not efface gender differences when it comes to areas of investment. In this connection the author notes that gender-based oppositions were strongest and most rigid in the children’s narratives. Participation in the different case study activities reveals differences within the American middle class. Dance remains a highly female activity, one that foregrounds traditional femininity by emphasizing physical appearance; it fits the expectations of parents at the bottom of the middle-class hierarchy. While the multiplication of dance contests means that competition in dance is now quite developed, that competition is shaped by the importance attributed to gender conformity. Competition in dance concentrates on the aesthetic dimension of the activity, and priority is given to support and assistance behaviour. In this respect, soccer is its diametric opposite: positive emphasis is on aggressive, self-assertive femininity. Parents who have their daughters play soccer expect it to develop their self-assurance and confidence, qualities they consider favourable to obtaining jobs that involve a high level of responsibility. These children belong to the upper middle class, and are sometimes quite harshly critical of activities like dance, deemed appropriate for “girly girls”, a term that delegitimizes the version of femininity favoured by families with less economic, social and cultural capital. Chess, meanwhile, is described as a hybrid case: girls who play it are called “pink warrior girls”, a term that suggests a kind of aggressiveness that can nonetheless be reconciled with feminine bodily norms.

6While Friedman’s research focus was middle-class parents’ intense investment in child rearing, she also sheds light on the gendered aspect of their child rearing practices, showing how gendered models vary within the middle classes. More attentive observation of distinctions between the different types of capital might have shed still more, or different, light on those internal differences.


  • [1]
    Connell R.W., Messerschmidt J.W., “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the concept”, Gender and Society 19, no. 6, December 2005, pp. 829-859. Published in French under the title, “Faut-il repenser le concept de masculinité hégémonique ?”, Terrains et Travaux, 27, 2015, pp. 151-192.
  • [2]
    Bourdieu P., La domination masculine, 1998, Paris, Le Seuil, 134 p. Published in English as Masculine Domination, trans. Richard Nice, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2001.
  • [3]
    Dulong D., Guionnet C., Neveu E., eds., 2012, Boys don’t cry! Les coûts de la domination masculine, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 334 p.
  • [4]
    Lareau A., 2011, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Berkeley, University of California Press, 480 p.
  • [5]
    Lareau contrasts this view of childhood to the understanding prevalent among the working class, much more concerned about “the accomplishment of [the child’s] natural growth” than activities for organizing children’s free time.
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