American Sociological Association

Brilliant or Bad: The Gendered Social Construction of Exceptionalism in Early Adolescence

From kindergarten through college, students perceive boys as more intelligent than girls, yet few sociological studies have identified how school processes shape students’ gender status beliefs. Drawing on 2.5 years of longitudinal ethnography and 196 interviews conducted at a racially diverse, public middle school in Los Angeles, this article demonstrates how educators’ differential regulation of boys’ rule-breaking by course level contributed to gender-based differences in students’ perceptions of intelligence. In higher-level courses—where affluent, White, and Asian American students were overrepresented—educators tolerated 6th-grade boys’ rule-breaking, such that boys challenged girls’ opinions and monopolized classroom conversations. By 8th grade, students perceived higher-level boys as more exceptionally intelligent than girls. However, in lower-level courses—where non-affluent Latinx students were overrepresented—educators penalized 6th-grade boys’ rule-breaking, such that boys disengaged from classroom conversations. By 8th grade, lower-level students perceived girls as smarter than boys, but not exceptional. This article also demonstrates how race intersected with gender when shaping students’ perceptions of intelligence, with students associating the most superlatives with affluent White boys’ capabilities. Through this analysis, I develop a new theoretical understanding of how school processes contribute to the gendered social construction of exceptionalism and reproduce social inequalities in early adolescence.


Michela Musto





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