Kids stories to counter stereotypes
When I pick my son up from nursery, just before he sees me, I get a tiny snapshot of what he does in the ‘independent’ part of his life. It’s always different: sometimes he’s breastfeeding a doll in the way I feed his baby brother; building a tower; or wearing a tutu and manically rocking one of his mates crammed into a toy cot. At home, he loves my nail varnish and shoes; he wears a football shirt; he watches princess shows and Paw Patrol; he wants a pair of sparkly socks like my brother’s Christmas pair, and he loves ‘demolition Lego’. And I want to forever protect his freedom in experiencing things, without the wagging finger of ‘society’ telling him that some things may be better suited to him than others.
On the surface, that wagging finger seems much less conspicuous than it has been in the past – but Lewis Hamilton’s public shaming of his nephew in a dress on Instagram, is an unfortunate example of a reaction to a child expressing themselves outside of, what Hamilton saw as, ‘the norm’.
Children’s clothes are differentiated by colour and design. Because my son is ‘male’ he is supposed to like motorised vehicles, lions, soldiers; and who on earth decided that dinosaurs are predominantly reserved for the appreciation of boys?! (In September last year John Lewis removed the gender labels from their children’s clothes, putting dinosaurs on dresses in the hope of reflecting ‘gender neutrality’). Girls get the florals, the cute animals, the Disney princesses. Toys (not all, but many) are gendered; people even associate activities with gender (when my son told someone he wanted to start ballet – they suggested he try street dancing instead).
One evening, my son told me I was beautiful. When I told him that he is beautiful too – he said: “No, I can’t be beautiful Mummy, I’m a boy!” Even the concept that language is gendered is seeping in.
And none of us are immune to the traps of bias. Last year BBC2 aired a show called No More Boys and Girls: Can our Kids go Gender Free?, in which Dr Javid Abdelmoneim explores whether the way we treat boys and girls in childhood is the real reason we haven’t achieved true equality between men and women in adult life. Check out this brilliant clip on unconscious gender stereotyping when it comes to children and their toys:
[arve url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWu44AqF0iI” /]
Some people had very strong reactions to this show, particularly in relation to this clip, expressing their alarm at seeing ‘children in drag’.
The influence of any form of stereotyping in children and adults is a complex debate influenced by historical, cultural, social, and religious factors. But it strikes me that the place to start confronting some of these issues, is at home, and in the stories we tell our kids. Stories are, after all, how we make sense of the world. We all have that that nostalgic urge to pass down the ‘classics’ that were part of our childhood (I can’t wait for the day when I can subject my boys to The Wind in The Willows; how I wish I could read like Alan Bennett). But perhaps we should take an objective look at some of the stories that we tell: perhaps some of them reinforce the wrong types of messages. For example, the other day I watched The Little Mermaid with my son – here’s a recap of the bones of the story:
The Little Mermaid (Ariel) wants to be where the people are. Life under the sea is small-time and she’s after a pair of legs with which to explore the world. There’s also a guy up there, Eric, who she really fancies.
Ariel makes a deal with a demonic octopus, Ursula, who gives her legs in exchange for her beautiful voice.
So Ariel washes up on the shore, naked and silenced, struggling to walk. Her mates, a fish and a seagull, help her fashion a dress out of an old sail – just in time for when Prince Eric turns up. (luckily, Eric is strong, and at hand to carry her about).
Prince Eric is like, “Hey, you’re hot” and Ariel tries to reply but remembers she’s lost the power of speech.
Turns out, in order the break this spell, Ariel needs to be kissed by Eric. But Ursula is one step ahead and transforms herself into a spitting image of Ariel – just with black hair (you know, because in stories like these: blackness = badness).
And Eric is all, like – hmmm I’m not sure who I fancy now: do I have more of a penchant for redheads or dark sultry sirens?
Anyway – it’s all alright in the end – Ursula is defeated, Eric and Ariel are the real deal – she leaves her life under the sea and gets to be a real life princess, saved by a kiss.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with anyone wanting to be a princess, and there’s nothing wrong with dreaming about falling in love. Just because I’m not a fan of The Little Mermaid, this isn’t a petition to ban Disney classics and other traditional stories; it’s about finding a balance. I don’t want my sons learning from stories that women are fragile and need to be saved; that a kiss is all it takes.
In Julia Donaldson and Axel Shaffer’s Zog, when Zog and Prince Gadabout are set to fight over her, Princess Pearl exclaims:
Stop you silly chumps!
The world’s already far too full of cuts and burns and bumps.
Don’t rescue me. I won’t go back to being a princess
And prancing round the palace in a silly, frilly dress.
I want to be a doctor and travel here and there.
Listening to people’s chests and giving them my care.
Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty is inspired by the allied women
of WW2 who worked to provide the food and equipment needed in the war effort. In the story, after her inventions were laughed at by her uncle, Zookeeper Fred, Rosie’s great-great aunt inspires her to keep going. when Rosie thinks her engineering flop is a failure, her aunt teaches her that:
Life might have its failures, but this was not it.
The only true failure can come if you quit.
Sitting next to my copy of The Wind in the Willows, is Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls – from which I’ll tell my boys the stories of women like Amna Al Haddad, The Bronte Sisters, Hatshepsut, Maria Callas and Maya Angelou. (For all you devotees of this wonderful book, Part Two of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is out at the end of the month).
I’d like my sons to hear stories that aren’t just about alpha males and stereotypical princes. Being a ‘man’, just like being a person, is a combination of lots of different things. Free to Be You and Me (which, by the way, was originally published in 1972, seventeen years before Disney adapted Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid), has poems and songs that encourage kids to be comfortable in their own skin, to find their own individuality and to learn to accept others:
What are little boys made of?
Love and care
And skin and hair
That’s what little boys are made of.
(from What are Little Boys Made Of, by Elaine Laron)
David Walliams’ The Boy in a Dress is about Dennis, a twelve year old boy who comes from a very ordinary place – he loves football, but he also loves Vogue magazine, and wearing dresses. It’s lovely, and you can watch it too: the BBC made it a Christmas special of 2014.
Some great examples of stories that teach children that we can love and build a family with whomever we choose, are shown beautifully in
books such as And Tango makes Three, which is about the true story of two penguins in New York Zoo, Roy and Silo, who adopt and egg an create a happy family with baby penguin, Tango. Mommy, Mama and Me is a lovely book aimed at younger kids about a family with two mummies, and their normal, everyday lives together.
I want my children to learn that our way of doing things isn’t the only way, or the ‘normal’ way; that Disney’s concepts of ‘beauty’ are not the rule and that families and couples are all different. If you and your kids really want to be where the people are, make sure you have a copy of The Great Big Book of Families in your house. Amazon has categorised this book under “alternative families”, and because this annoyed me so much, I feel the need to capitalise: DEAR AMAZON, THERE IS NOTHING ALTERNATIVE ABOUT INCLUSIVITY! (Phew, thanks). The book explains that there are mummies and daddies, daddies and daddies, mummies and mummies, or sometimes just one parent. Families are big or small, they come from different places and they all live in different types of homes. It explains that people’s holidays differ, as do the schools we go to and the food we eat. It also teaches us that we all deal with our feelings in different ways:
So families can be big, small, happy, sad, rich, poor, loud, quiet, cross, good-tempered, worried or happy-go-lucky. Most families are all of these things some of time.
These are just a few examples of stories available for kids, that encourage freedom of expression; stories that celebrate diversity and encourage inclusivity; stories that tell us we are free to be, you and me.
There are lots of organisations spreading the right messages when it comes to challenging social norms and stereotypes. Tiger is a Bristol based not-for-profit co-operative working for young people by delivering a comprehensive programme of workshops that address gender based barriers to well being, aspirations and well-rounded futures within school and beyond. Just Like Us was founded because growing up LGBT+ is still one of the most challenging experiences young people can face. They are building a national network of university student volunteers, giving kids the skills they need to communicate with impact, and sending them into secondary schools to share their stories, bust stereotypes, and explain why LGBT+ equality is everyone’s issue.
Here are some facts:
- Discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity are facts of life for the 150,000 (or more) lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) pupils in UK secondary schools: 25% attempt suicide, 50% self harm and 96% still hear homophobic remarks.
- These negative experiences undermine aspiration, reduce performance and limit the potential of LGBT+ pupils. Schools remain uncertain about how best to teach and support all pupils about LGBT+ issues.
- In the workplace, too, LGBT+ young people often lack the confidence to be themselves, with 35% of 18-29 year old LGBT+ people not out to any colleagues.
Let me know what you think: are gender stereotypes deeply embedded in society, or do you think this article is just another example of ‘PC lunacy’? firstname.lastname@example.org