Social media and the schoolgirl: power, performance and resistance

  • Jessica Heal

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis explores the online performance and discursive construction of schoolgirl femininity. It is based upon interviews with girls between the ages of 12 and 15 in three maintained secondary schools in the UK, using smartphones and drawing to support the conversations. Drawing on Foucault and Butler’s theorisations of power, performativity and resistance, the thesis finds that peer popularity is a vector for maintaining patriarchal norms by patrolling the most appropriate forms of digital and schoolgirl femininity. Methodologically, this thesis highlights the value of considering peer popularity within gender and education studies, as a mechanism to trace the flow of power, from societal to micro-level interactions both in school and online. The most ‘powerful’ form of femininity is characterised as hyper; an investment in outward appearance and sexualized behaviours validated by social media metrics. This hegemonic femininity actively patrols and enforces hetero-normative behaviour and the school is revealed as a modern-day panopticon in which smartphones act as surveillance, ready to capture and share any failures that are distributed through various online and offline tools to shame. The intersection of the online and offline in schools creates heightened pressure to balance authentic yet perfect forms of femininity that can be experienced as impossible to maintain, a fairy-tale authenticity. Within this contradictory discourse, however, lies the possibility of resistance for some girls. Those outside the most popular group counteract the prevailing discourses with tools to release them from the pressure of performance; and demarcate less patrolled digital spaces where alternative subjectivities can be practised. These resistances are underpinned by conscious compliance, a sense that the current peer power systems and values will be short-lived, and therefore are more tolerable. The thesis provides an in-depth understanding of how social media magnifies the role of the school as a site of traditional gender role production through the culture of peer ranking and hierarchy. It shows how the power that the most popular girls seek to wield is a paradox: the performance required to gain status situates them in subordinate hegemonic position. Given the salient nature of the subject matter, numerous contributions to both academia and policy are made, revealing the lived experiences of young women both in school and online. Social media is found to shape the way relationships and gender formation interact online and in school, demonstrating the need for further work to be done in readdressing gender inequity in education and society.
Date of Award1 Aug 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorErica Burman (Supervisor) & Ruth Mcginity (Supervisor)


  • Peer networks
  • Foucault
  • Popularity
  • Performativity
  • Resistance
  • Education
  • Gender
  • Hyper-femininity
  • Social Media

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