We are assigned our gender on birth and from that moment forth, it’s the norm in our culture to be brought up according to that assignment. Baby girls are frequently dressed in pink, baby boys often dressed in blue. And understandably so, gender is an intrinsic part of our identity, and parents acknowledge that. By dressing our babies accordingly there is no space for mistaken identity.
Specific ‘gendered’ clothes and toys are widely available and this is problem enough in itself in the battle for equality. And just when I thought an awareness was growing around sexism: Bic releases Pink Girl pens, Kinder releases a line of blue boy eggs and pink girl eggs, and Clarks have announced that girls like shoes for fashion, and boys need shoes for adventures. This is all detrimental to the development of freer thinking around gender and sexuality, but there’s another problem though, which I believe is adding fuel to this fire. A problem rooted in the language we use and the way speak to boys and girls from a young age, and it’s so inbuilt in us, that we rarely notice we’re doing it. I believe this is the key to altering perceptions of gender and sexuality in the next generation.
“Boys will be boys.” “That’s not very ladylike.” “Boys can’t be princesses.” “Girls aren’t supposed to fight.” “Psssh, women drivers.” “Oh, you want to be an astronaut? That’s unusual for a girl.”
The true danger is in the stereotyping we do that goes unnoticed. I frequently work in classrooms as a drama facilitator. Recently I observed how myself, a colleague and a teacher called every girl playing a princess or mermaid ‘beautiful’ (two thirds of girls in this classroom would choose to play these roles), while we would call the boys playing knights and superheroes ‘brave.’ What were we doing? On the surface it seemed we were kindly praising them for their acting, but actually, we were setting up verbal expectations of what we consider success to be, especially in relation to their gender. In turn, they acknowledge that ‘beauty’ and ‘bravery’ are qualities to be praised. Girls are beautiful. Boys are brave. The problem here is that ‘beautiful’ does not imply that the work the little girl princess is doing is good, it refers to an aesthetic, something of which she has no control over. And research would suggest that these early experiences can hugely impact on our perception of ourselves as adults.
There’s an infuriating poster on the Underground at the moment, suggesting that women will find it easier break through the ‘glass ceiling’ if they are wearing the right suit. I expect there’s sadly some truth in it. But if we continue to raise girls believing beauty and image are factors of success, then we’re stuck in a rut and will never be able to smash through that glass ceiling. If we observe the language we use when speaking to our girls from a young age, ensuring it’s in more depth than mere aesthetics, we can give them the skills to approach that ‘glass ceiling’ with determination and the ability to identify that the change needs to be in the glass ceiling, not in themselves.
We tell boys and girls what toys are acceptable for them. We consistently define gender and what gender ‘is,’ or at least try to. We’re making those that don’t conform seeming outsiders, whether we mean to or not. When we define how males and females should behave, what they should like and not like, we set up expectations for our children. This impacts the view they have of themselves, what they are capable of achieving in their lives and whether or not they are ‘normal’ — whether or not they conform.
And so what becomes of those that do not fit in to the gender stereotype presented to them? Whether they are transgender or just non-stereotypical, all of these factors begin to impact on self-esteem. I see 5-year-old kids (and on occasion, teachers) in the classroom screech at a boy who stands up to play a princess: ‘But he’s a boy! Boys can’t be princesses.’ In my workshops, they can. But damage is already occurring. To those boys that want to try out being a princess, the screeches from their classmates that tell them it’s wrong may make them think twice next time. As children, we explore through play. These early games are the beginnings of a child’s exploration in to gender and sexuality — obviously without an awareness, but still the beginnings of exploration.
So I don’t call little girl princesses ‘beautiful’ anymore. Instead I value the way that they walk so carefully, or hold their hands so precisely. I notice the craft and effort behind their work. I don’t even commend the boys on their bravery, but on the skill in their acting. Our language can demonstrate or destroy acceptance. Our reactions will be observed by the children. They form their view of the world based on the influential adults in their lives — a shocked reaction or snide comment at the boy desperate to be a princess will not go unnoticed, no matter how discreet we think we’re being. I believe if we want to change the world for the better, starting with the language we use in a classroom with the smallest of children is probably a very good place to spark a revolution.