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Egalia Preschool and its Effects on Gender Performativity
Veronica Pacheco
CMC 300 – Fall 2011
Paper 2
Pacheco 2
A preschool in Sweden called “Egalia” has taken extensive steps to remove all
stereotypes of gender bias in an attempt to create a “gender neutral” school. These efforts can
be drawn from Judith Butler’s theories on performativity of gender, in which she discusses a
difference between gender and biological sex and argues that the performance of gender
identities is culturally constructed. Egalia is attempting to remove this cultural construct by
raising the children in an environment where gender performance is avoided. However, when
applying this idea to the theories of Michel Foucault, it can be argued that the repression of
these behaviors will in fact lead to an obsession over the discourse and embed gender further
into their identities.
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Theorist Judith Butler discusses the performativity of gender in “Gender Trouble:
Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.” She argues that a difference exists between
biological sex and the concept of gender but that it cannot be completely separated, and takes
into account the concepts of both “History of Sexuality” and “Discipline and Punish” by Michel
Foucault in order to make this point. Butler says that gender is a performance that is culturally
constructed and people need to take a self-critical view on their gender identities and parody
the traditional gender roles in order to avoid being placed in certain stereotypes that are based
on a heterosexual discourse. A preschool in Sweden is trying to avoid these gender stereotypes
by creating a “gender neutral” school where traditional gender roles are discouraged and
children are taught to avoid them. However, when applied to the works of these two theorists,
it can be argued that this school is actually repressing gender to the point where it becomes
obsessed over rather than ignored, and the efforts of the school turn it into an establishment of
power that becomes associated with gender. The school doesn’t appear to be taking a critical
viewpoint, but rather trying to ignore a field of discourse that is impossible to remove.
“Egalia” preschool has taken actions that they believe will help to remove gender roles
from society. In order to do this, they have become a “gender neutral” school, where the
children are not referred to as “han” (him) or “hon” (her) but instead referred to a neutral word
“hen” which is not actually part of the Swedish language (but is used in some gay and lesbian
circles). In the same regard, instead of being called “boys” or “girls” they are called “friends.”
At the school, toys are placed in strategic manners that try to prevent gender classification,
such as dolls being placed right next to building blocks and encouragement of the children to
play with both regardless of their sex. Teachers are trained to encourage the children to avoid
Pacheco 4
the stereotype of a “normal” family in their play, such as being told to try having two mothers
while playing house. Even the story books have been carefully chosen to attempt to avoid
stories of the stereotypical “traditional” families. For example, instead of the story of
Cinderella, where a girl falls in love with a handsome prince, there are instead stories such as
one about two male giraffes who are trying to adopt a kid. Every aspect of the children’s school
lives is carefully planned down to the smallest of details in order to remove all stereotypes of
The amount of focus that is placed on avoiding traditional gender roles can be analyzed
through the hypothesis of repression that is discussed in “History of Sexuality” by Michel
Foucault. Foucault argues that the repression of sexuality has led to it becoming a core part of
identity. By placing so much focus on avoiding sex, the subject becomes obsessed over.
“Under the authority of a language that had been carefully expurgated so that it was no longer
earned, sex was taken charge of, tracked down as it were, by a discourse that aimed to allow it
no obscurity, no respite.”(Foucault 1504) Instead of sex being avoided, the topic is constantly
focused on. In addition, an institution of power is created. “But more important was the
multiplication of discourses concerning sex in the field of exercise of power itself: an
institutional incitement to speak about it, and to do so more and more; a determination on the
part of the agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit
articulation and endlessly accumulated detail.” (Foucault 1503) The “repression” of sexuality is
actually creating a discourse that is discussed and focused on.
It can be argued that Egalia preschool is doing the same thing with gender roles. By
placing so much focus on avoiding the stereotypes, the school is actually creating that discourse
Pacheco 5
in the lives of the children who attend there, and establishing itself as a power institution over
the topic. It is not possible to completely eradicate the discourse of gender stereotypes,
because the children witness them in their lives outside of school. Parents, media, and other
influences outside of the preschool expose them to the performance of gender that is being so
painstakingly avoided within the school. Therefore, the extreme actions taken at the school
expose the lack of gender roles, and the noticeable difference becomes something to be
focused on and creates a fixation on the topic rather than allowing it to be ignored. The subject
is constantly on everyone’s minds and constantly discussed, thus not really ignoring it at all but
instead multiplying its significance.
In addition to the ways in which the school attempts to repress traditional gender
performances, it is also establishing itself as an institute of power. The Jay Belsky, a child
psychologist at the University of California, Davis, says “The kind of things that boys like to do –
run around and turn sticks into swords – will soon be disapproved of. So gender neutrality at its
worst is emasculating maleness.” The school is not simply giving the children a choice to cross
gender lines, but it is actually forcing them to do so through an internalized discipline. This
forms the school as a power institution over the children. Although the school claims that
“Egalia gives them a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be” (Soffel), the children
are actually being taught to go against any behaviors that might fall into the stereotypes. For
example, if a female student chooses to play with a toy that is stereotypically seen as feminine,
they are likely to be told not to and encouraged to instead play with something that is less
associated with their gender. “To even things out, many preschools have hired ‘gender
pedagogues’ to help staff identify language and behavior that risk reinforcing stereotypes”
Pacheco 6
(Soffel). The school attempts to control the children’s behaviors and prevent any behaviors
that are associated with specific gender identities. The children learn to associate gender
performativity as something controlled by the school, and it becomes connected with the idea
of power.
The control that the school maintains over the children ties in with Foucault’s
arguments on discipline in regards to surveillance. In Foucault’s discussion of the
internalization of discipline, he explains the prison panopticon in which prisoners constantly
believe they are being watched from a tower above them and therefore discipline themselves,
regardless of whether they are actually being watched or not. At Egalia the children are being
watched to make sure they do not perform certain behaviors. This surveillance is evident to
them to the extent that even when they are not being watched, they will behave as though
they are, constantly thinking about and remaining conscious of the discourse. This is the true
concept of power that Foucault is trying to convey, in which the school does not have to
physically force the children into avoiding the stereotypes but instead the children have
internalized the school’s power and follow the discipline on their own. Foucault discusses how
the forbidding of sexual behaviors will cause a Christians to “transform your desire, your every
desire, into discourse” (Foucault 1504). In the same way, Egalia’s policies on gender roles will
cause the children to think about every action they take and whether it is acceptable within the
school’s policies or falls into a stereotype.
When analyzing this through the concepts by Judith Butler, who draws many of her
theories from Foucault, gender performativity is deeply embedded in every aspect of the school.
Butler makes the key point that gender is a cultural construct and not directly related to the
Pacheco 7
scientific facts of biological sex. A female is not born feminine, but rather is taught to perform
femininity. Butler claims, “Acts and gestures, articulated and enacted desires create the illusion
of an interior and organizing gender core, an illusion discursively maintained for the purposes of
the regulation of sexuality within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality” (Butler
2549). The concept of a gender identity is merely an illusion that is created because of gender
performance, which is culturally constructed. However, Butler also claims that this gender
discourse cannot be removed, and sex and gender have become tied together.
“According to the understanding of identification as an enacted fantasy or incorporation,
however, it is clear that coherence is desired, wished for, idealized, and that this
idealization is an effect of a corporeal signification. In other words, acts, gestures, and
desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the
surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never
reveal, the organizing principle of identity as a cause” (Butler 2548).
This quote summarizes Butler’s argument, in that gender performance becomes something that
is produced and signified through the sexed body, making it impossible to remove gender
identity from biological sex. The children at Egalia all play with dolls that are anatomically
correct because the school claims it does not want to deny the different biological sexes, but
instead, “What matters is that children understand that their biological differences ‘don't mean
boys and girls have different interests and abilities’” (Soffel). However, the children have
already had the experience outside of their school realm that has taught them the cultural
constructs that belong to male versus female. These constructs are part of what Butler
describes when she talks about gender performativity and the way in which gender becomes a
Pacheco 8
performance rather than an identity. Therefore, the attempts to remove a gender identity,
such as those of Egalia preschool, prove impossible. The gender becomes reflected through the
biological differences of the two sexes. Once children become aware of these differences, they
already have become aware of the gender performance that goes along with it. Butler argues
that instead of trying to eradicate gender identity, a self-critical view should be taken and the
performance should be changed. Egalia is not attempting to give the children the capabilities to
change their gender performance, but is instead trying to remove the discourse to make the
children believe that gender performance does not exist.
The reason this is impossible is all connected to Foucault’s theories on repression,
discipline, and power. Butler’s argument of gender performativity as incapable of being
removed from the sexed body is derived from the idea of this power. “In the context of
prisoners, Foucault writes, the strategy has been not to enforce a repression of their desires,
but to compel their bodies to signify the prohibitive law as their very essence, style, and
necessity” (Butler 2547). Butler argues that the same concept has been applied to gender and
sex, where the cultural pressures for certain gender performances have come to signify the
essence of the physical body. Therefore, even though she argues that gender is not an identity,
it is still impossible to remove it and the only thing that can be done is to change it.
The problem with Egalia’s attempts is found in the fact that there are two power
institutions fighting for dominance. Foucault makes the claim that power is only able to be
exercised over free subjects. In other words, physically enforcing discipline is not the same as
enforcing it through a constructed idea of power that creates internalized discipline. At Egalia,
the school has constructed itself as having power that becomes internalized in its students.
Pacheco 9
However, the children are also exposed to the power and discourse of the outside world
through means such as media and personal experience. The punishment and discipline of the
power structure that is not within the preschool’s system is creating the gender performativity
that Butler discusses. Butler quotes Foucault when he says, “It would be wrong to say that the
soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is
produced permanently around, on, within, the body by the functioning of a power that is
exercised on those that are punished” (Butler 2547). Egalia is treating the gender roles as the
“ideological effect” that Foucault discusses. However, because it is actually an exercise of
society’s power, it is not able to simply be removed. Thus, even though Egalia is also
establishing itself as a power to be internalized by its students, it does not remove the concepts
of gender performativity that have already been instilled in them. Instead the conflicting
disciplines will enhance the focus on gender roles by constantly forcing the students to remain
conscious of the discourse.
Even if Egalia was to be a vacuum, free from the outside influence of society, gender
neutrality would not exist. Instead what would occur would simply be a reversal of the idea of
stereotypical roles. If children are taught to avoid the stereotypes that are currently associated
with their gender, they will instead be compelled to go to those that belong to the opposite
gender. Therefore, the function of the school’s power on the children would create a discipline
in which they would internalize the performance of the opposite gender. Regardless, the
children already have established the idea of opposing gender roles because Egalia is not in a
bubble which is free from the influence of the outside world. Because of this, some people
argue that “an obsession with obliterating gender roles could make the children confused and
Pacheco 10
ill-prepared to face the world outside kindergarten” (Soffel). The children are forced to operate
within the power of the school while they are there, but they have to work within the power of
a heterosexually dominated influence when they leave. This split set of ideals creates a
hypersensitivity to gender and its signifiers, which defeats the school’s efforts to remove the
However, despite the fact that Egalia’s goal of complete gender neutrality cannot be
reached, it may still be of some benefit towards the overall goals of Judith Butler. Butler claims
that the best approach towards the issue of gender performativity is a self-critical approach
that blurs the lines between genders. The examples she uses are drag or cross-dressing, where
there is a “distinction between the anatomy of the performer and the gender that is being
performed” (Butler 2549). In regards to Foucault’s repression theories, Egalia’s attempts to
remove gender are actually creating more discussion and obsession over the topic. This
obsession means that the children become very aware of the different gender identities, and
are therefore capable of taking this self-critical approach because they can easily differentiate
between the gender and the sex. The teachings of the school will not overpower society, as
children will still associate feminine and masculine signifiers with their respected genders (and
probably more so because of their increased sensitivity to the subject). However, this increased
sensitivity will also allow them to take the self-critical approach that Butler recommends. By
knowing the signifiers of each gender, they can choose to parody the gender roles in the same
way as drag or cross-dressing. All they have to do is be aware of the discourse and choose to
take the opposite route, so that their biological sex and their gender performance do not match
up. Thanks to the increased focus on the topic through the school, the children are completely
Pacheco 11
aware of the discourse and can begin this self-critical process at a very young age, breaking
down certain barriers and helping to create a distinction between sex and gender.
In conclusion, Egalia preschool is a very controversial and unusual approach to fixing the
problems of gender inequality. It claims to create a gender neutral environment in which
children will be raised free from gender stereotypes and able to make decisions based purely
on their true identity. However, Butler argues that it is impossible to remove the true identity
from the performance of gender due to the fact that gender and sex have become linked
through cultural signifiers. This point is reiterated through the arguments of Michel Foucault,
who brings the ideas of power and internalized self-discipline to the table. However, in the
same way that sexual repression created an obsession with the discourse, repression of gender
roles creates a fixation on gender in the minds of the children. This can work towards a goal of
breaking down gender barriers because it gives the children the tools to be self-critical and
perform outside of the gender norms. If the children manage to use the awareness they have
been given then Egalia will be accomplishing its goal, just in a manner different from their
original intentions. Gender roles will not be eliminated, but the children will have the ability to
cross lines and perform gender signifiers outside of those which belong to their biological sex,
as described and recommended by Judith Butler.
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Works Cited
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. By Vincent B.
Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 2540-2553. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. The Norton Anthology of Theory
and Criticism. By Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1490-1502.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. By
Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1502-1521. Print.
Soffel, Jenny. "No 'him' or 'her'; Preschool Fights Gender Bias." Huffington Post. 27 June 2011.