Mind the Gap: Children and Gender Stereotypes

By Giuliana Friselli

BBC’s No More Boys or Girls: Can our Kids Go Gender Free? confirmed many of my suspicions. Today, gender differences for young children are still significant and our supposed accepting values regarding individual creative gender expression have regressed.  In this observational experiment girls articulated a total lack of self-confidence and boys were unable to articulate emotion at all, displaying extreme over-confidence.  But when taught under a new atmosphere of gender neutrality, within weeks vast improvements were made.  They displayed more mixed play, with boys able to show more emotion and girls showing more confidence, performing better at spatial awareness tasks.

We’re in the middle of a progressively liberal ‘gender revolution’ where young adults are thinking outside the gender box, so why on Earth are we contradicting this by polarising gender for children when it should be the last thing on their minds?

Growing up in the late eighties I was never denied playtime with my favourite He-man toy or told to stop wearing boys’ clothes.  Outdoor adventure was always readily available, with little-to-no restriction under a watchful parental radar.  Even at primary school, my gender expression came with no barriers, allowing me to enjoy a natural freedom to explore my identity, equipping the tools of tolerance for my later years.  Like many androgynous girls of the nineties – and now a seemingly endangered species – we were commonly known as ‘tomboys’.   A sleep deprived parent on the wrong side of 30, my identity is an infinitesimally small part of my life now, but had children like me been around today we’d probably be destined for the gender identity clinic.   Similar sentiments have been echoed by actor Rupert Everett: “I really wanted to be a girl. Thank God the world of now wasn’t then, because I’d be on hormones and I’d be a woman. After I was 15 I never wanted to be a woman again.”      Consequently, it has jogged recent memories of seeing parents reduce the opportunities for gender creativity to occur, from boys being reprimanded for wearing Mum’s lipstick to energy-fuelled young girls coaxed into wearing highly impractical party dresses.  Yet, the happiest I’ve ever seen kids behave at a party was when they yanked their clothes off at the end of a sunny day and proceeded to run around the garden naked, in sheer delight.

It’s baffling that modern society is exhibiting a visible downward spiral of old fashioned gender stereotypes which live at the Darwinian North and South Pole of the gender spectrum, in which females are choosy, submissive and coy and males are strong, unemotional and systematic.  Bizarrely, in our walking-on-eggshells politically correct era, we avoid using such stereotypes among adults in the fear we will be deemed ‘sexist’, but are quite happy to unleash them on children who do not have the maturity or experience to distinguish satire from reality.

Children are not simply children like we could be – they are now either strictly boys or strictly girls with no movement for anything in between.  Despite being among those parents who endeavour to avoid excessive stereotyping we recognise the neon pinkness of our daughters is a stark contrast to the muddy boots we grew up in.  My daughter is yet to attend a birthday party without all the girls garbed in en vogue sparkly dresses, where everything is centred on looking like a ‘pretty princess’ – all the time.  Whether they’ve just been glued to watching Frozen and others alike, there’s a persistent breeze of superficial gender-specific commodification whirling around.  In much greater quantity.

It may be harmless fun to the parents, but this superficial world of gender socialisation is the foundation upon which children start to build their gender identity and it’s sleuthed its way into our lifestyles, reaching the acute senses of our children and encroaching the pure spaces of their natural world.  Greater traffic on roads means children spend less than half their time outside than they did just 10-15 years ago.  An increase in smaller families and older parents together with an internet culture of shock stories has made helicopter parenting more common.  Nurturing children in such attentive measure is being done under a binary spotlight and with more screens around there’s greater opportunity for a narrow notion of gender behaviour to shine before their very eyes on a perpetual basis.  Experts suggest this cultural shift of screen-watching is a huge paradox, building an enclosure which stifles natural creativity and thwarts healthy imaginative play that they would otherwise get from engaging with nature.  The need for an expert to tell us this is worrying on its own.

Mainstream entertainment and video games project unrealistic androcentric narratives spawning degrees of misogyny.  Young women are frequently sexualised with airbrushed femininity because of instant, often uncensored, internet content and we are yet to know how the explosion of this social-media-obsessed ‘selfie’ culture will impact our children, but it’s not looking promising.  Phrases like ‘man up’, ‘you kick like a girl’ and ‘grow a pair’ to describe boys who aren’t ‘macho’ enough, still litter our language and girls as young as seven –  yes, seven – are now having spa-pampering parties for birthdays.  It’s an insipid, sickly hyperbole of masculinity and femininity, for the worse.  The latter of which has been exacerbated by the vacuous decade-long Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Although helpful for busy parents-especially when you need your toddler on silent for half hour to catch up on endless chores-even Peppa Pig resorts to old fashioned gender stereotypes of the ‘nuclear’ family with Pepper always in pink and George, unsurprisingly, in blue.  I’m not inferring that a family of cartoon pigs is unsuitable, but reasonably, a ubiquitous reiteration of gender difference in a child’s environment will mould their brains to override a harmless nature of gender creativity.

If that wasn’t enough to convince you, the full flow of consumer capitalism and sexing scans since the ’90s has caused a hackneyed trajectory of the boys-are-blue-and-girls-are-pink rhetoric to be much more pronounced today, especially within marketing and advertising.  The colour concept was brought in to brand the genders to maximise profits for baby wear companies which is why so many kids’ companies still heavily categorise the sexes, especially in toys and clothing.  Even Clarks made archaic steps on gender by thinking it was appropriate to bring out a range of shoes called ‘Dolly Babe’ and ‘Leader’ this summer.  What next, for heaven’s sake?  For our daughters to slip back into the tight corset of a repressed coquettish Austenian character to impress their Mr Darcy?  (Well, it won’t work for John Lewis.)

It’s painfully clear that society is entrenched in a technological age where our consumer market is projecting everything but a healthy view on gender in children and is perhaps the cause for well-meaning parents inadvertently reinforcing these stereotypes, whilst naively underestimating its consequences.  It’s easy to forget we grew up with far less technology and with a better balance of outside and indoor time in our crucial early years.  With a primeval past of dial up and delayed gratification the outdoors was sometimes a revered distraction for many.

Unlike Jaden Smith and Shilou Pitt, unless children are born into the privileged and artistic realm of the super-rich elites where gender expression is unbounded then they’re set for this gendered world -a rigid binary construction which doesn’t reflect the rich tapestry and intricacy of our gender spectrum.  At all.  And in conjunction with gender identity cases soaring to unprecedented numbers where three-year olds are being admitted, it raises suspicion that this should happen in a supposedly gender-equal country.  If science shows that most boys and girls are biologically the same until puberty, then is it our environment which is partly the cause for this emergence?

Children are the most impressionable members of society and if we continue to widen the gap between boys and girls then those who creatively or innately digress from society’s expectation of their assigned gender may feel lost between two extreme worlds, possibly falling on a breeding ground of confusion and doubt.

It’s time to lessen the disparity between how boys and girls are treated.  This doesn’t mean responding with another extreme by making boys wear pink dresses or arming girls with toy guns.  Simply soften the emphasis of gender altogether by creating opportunities to encourage the freedom of individual creative expression.  It will allow for better adaptability and encourage natural talent whilst preparing children for a potentially difficult job market in the future.  Interacting more with the natural world will productively keep the inhibitive forces of stereotypes at bay whilst extending the mental wellbeing of our children in a positive and natural way.  We need to be aware of gender as a social construct and resist the temptation to pressurise children into being the extreme version of their assigned gender whilst being consciously aware of the external cues that dangerously reinforce it.

Let’s fill the gap for all children to walk freely.

***

About the Author

Giuliana is studying for an MA in Politics at the University of Essex.  Her areas of interest include current affairs, gender, sexuality, the environment and political philosophy.

Read more of Giuliana’s work here: http://through-our-senses.org/

 

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