Each year, nearly five million American children don their tan and green Scout uniforms. Kathleen E. Denny’s recent study in Gender & Society shows that along with earning badges and honor, Boy and Girl Scouts are trained to meet the organization’s vision of proper men and women.
This vision not only includes emphasis on traditional gender roles, but also, surprisingly, critical thinking and creativity for the girls and discipline and obedience in the boys.
Denny compared the messages contained in the respective groups’ handbooks and the activities around badge collection. She found that the boys’ thick, squat handbook still reflects the Boy Scouts’ original emphasis, demanding individual tasks and memorized information. In contrast, the girls’ brightly illustrated handbook encourages working in groups, solving problems creatively, and doing one’s best. While the boys learn facts about why we have a government, girls are encouraged to design their own. Most interestingly, Girl Scouts are even taught to engage in protests and defend their beliefs. It seems that the Scouts’ version of the “modern woman” is smart, creative, and ready for marriage and motherhood (well, once she’s earned the “Looking your Best” and “Caring for Children” badges).
Through Denny’s study we get a glimpse of how two popular organizations conceptualize, and help realize, their image of the ideal man and woman. It’s a good reminder that boys will be boys and girls will be girls—it just takes separate handbooks and years of training.