I watched a fascinating programme recently, on the ever-lovely BBC, regarding gender differences in boys and girls. It took some children and asked them a series of questions about gender, and the role of gender in their lives. What men and women, boys and girls, are worth to seven year old children.
It was not comfortable. Boys and girls alike felt that boys were stronger, more likely to succeed, and better at practical tasks. They associated words like pretty or dresses with girls; they associated girls with ‘softer’ work, like hair and make-up; they associated boys with ‘harder’ work, like engineering and science. Girls had poorer self-image; the boys were seen to have smaller emotional vocabulary.
The programme exploded all of these perceptions, taking apart each and every aspect of gender we force – consciously or not – on our children. Super heroes versus princesses; clever versus pretty: children and parents were shown that boys and girls are equally brilliant, equally capable, regardless of gender. It made their lives universally better. It was wonderful to behold. Imagine my surprise, then, when we went to our local supermarket, to buy a new pair of school shoes for my daughter.
Black, leather shoes for normal activity, and a pair of trainers to wear outdoors. We thought that we would have no issues finding her something appropriate, and ungendered. Then again, we’d thought the same thing in the past about pyjamas, about jeans, and about the views of our own parents.
(Just an aside, we have never put our daughter in anything overly pink and flowery. Her favourite colour is not pink, and we have followed her in that, helping her explore all of the colours. She has expressed no interest in flowery, frilly, so-called “girls’” clothes, much to the dismay of our families, most of whom think these are our choices, and that we are depriving her of something essential.)
What we found on the supermarket shelves shocked us. “Girls’ Trainers”: pink, sparkly, bedecked in unicorns; “Boys’ Trainers”: blue, matte, bedecked in trains and robots. How such a progressive supermarket could be sucked in to such a display of gender stereotyping is beyond me. In the end, we managed to find a white pair – still marked as “Boys’” – which she liked, and which would serve their purpose well. Not everybody wants to be defined by other people’s gendering assumptions.
And it wasn’t the first time she’s been on the receiving end of other peoples’ gendering assumptions either: I have already written about occasions where boys birthday parties were focussed on action heroes, and girls parties were all about horses – including the hideous sight of 3- and 4-year-olds having nail varnish applied to them. The dads I was speaking to were visibly uncomfortable with it.
And yet none of us spoke. We muttered it to each other, but said and did nothing. My partner was the only one to object strongly to it, and felt appalling for doing so. Was she depriving our child of something which was a natural part of her development? I mean, there were boys there putting nail varnish on too. Is it taking something away from our daughter when we don’t give her the option of going to the supermarket dressed as a mermaid? Will that stunt her future mental development?
Her teacher calls her “Sweetheart” – is this what she calls the boys too? Is it right that I have almost no concern about a female teacher using such terms for the children she teaches, but that I balk at the thought of a male teacher doing so? I’ve seen it in practice, and I was genuinely sickened by it.
The standard definition versions of our gender prejudices are unavoidable in our society, but to those of us who are willing to stand up to them, we are made to feel like we have three heads. We are made to feel like we are snowflake liberal fun-spoilers, when all we want is to bring up a child without the constraints society places on her because of what she has in her knickers. Not us.
Imagine you were a girl who didn’t like playing with pink dolls, or a boy who didn’t like playing with black guns? That you have your own mind, your own preferences and your own self-determined view of the world. You should be unstoppable. Imagine making your way in life knowing what you love to do, but being told that you can’t, because you’re not the right gender? That would break you.
We want to give our daughter full access to all of the toys, all of the clothes, all of the books, all of the opportunities which can be afforded her. That means her knowing that boys and girls are exactly as capable, as brilliant and as unstoppable as each other. To do anything else would be to do her a disservice. Yet we are the ones who are being seen as restrictive, and imposing ridiculous standards.
John Lewis have been lambasted recently for their introduction of gender neutral clothes. I sit here wearing a t-shirt I bought in the nineties; my jeans – dirty – are several sizes too big, and bought in a supermarket for less than a tenner. Hardly gendered clothing. The problem is that I cannot imagine gender neutral clothing for adults: it is too ingrained in my dumb mind for men and women to have very different forms of attire. Women have more latitude in this regard I’m sad to say. But children?
My daughter routinely wears “Boys’” jeans and you would never notice. We never told her she was “wrong”, because she isn’t. Clothes are there to keep the weather out, not define who you can and cannot be. Let choices be choices, without the weight of the end of the world dangling from their necks. If a boy wants to wear a dress to school, let him. Don’t drag your kids out of his class, saying vaguely that children are “vulnerable”, and need to be protected. It’s just a dress. Let the boy be.
The TV programme I watched showed the children that they were all equal, with the same value. They were all very happy to find this out. That’s one class of happy children; what about the rest?