Discuss: Teaching Classic Gender Roles

After the mixed reaction to the Embryo video, here’s a tougher nut to chew on about gender roles.

The following 6 minute short film is about a girl who loves a boy and a boy who loves his bike. The film took first place in Tropfest Australia 2008, “the world’s largest short film festival.” It has me thinking about how we raise our children, from toddlerhood.

[Video via Neatorama via I Am Bored]

Before I became a parent, I would have called this film “sweet.” Today, I see it as a “classic” film, classic meaning chock full of age-old stereotypes.

Consider: a girl ensconced in pink is obsessed with changing herself to attract a boy rather than being happy with who she is. Doing things to attract the attention of the other sex is one thing, but she changes herself for him (learning to ride without training wheels by herself) and changes her possessions (removing pink doodads from her spokes, and later painting her bike black with a pen).

Meanwhile, the boy shrugs and ignores the girl for being a girl, and rejects girlish things (her pink spoke doodads, and the color and style of her bike).

The message conveyed is that it’s good for girls to change themselves for boys and for boys to eschew girls and girlish things unless they become boy-like.

I’d be okay with the film if it ended with the girl’s triumphant jump from the boy’s bike ramp, leaving him in the dust. But no, after the credits roll, we learn he reluctantly accepted her pretend/fantasy marriage. Translation: her efforts paid off.

My reaction is probably pronounced because of an experience last weekend at a grocery store…

I was in line with my 4-year-old daughter behind two high school cheerleaders. The clerk said to the girls with a smile, “She’s checking you out.”

In fact, my daughter was probably just looking toward the cheerleaders because that what you do when you’re in a line — you look forward. Or, maybe she was trying to figure out why girls would wear ultra high skirts in winter, at 8 a.m.

Then, when we got to the head of the line, the clerk laid on thick compliments about my daughter being cute cheerleading material. Oh, and it’s such good exercise.

I said, “Oh dear God, I hope not.”

Okay, I didn’t really. I politely smiled and said nothing. Sometime I’ll write about the non-ballet non-cheerleading activity my daughter enjoys that is athletic, social, musical, co-ed, cross-generational and a real confidence builder with public performances.

My true reaction is due to the whole not-embracing-gender-stereotypes pink-in-moderation no-princesses no-Barbie thing. It’s fine for you and your kids. Some of my daughter’s friends are entrenched in that culture. It’s just not the choice we’ve made for our daughter. Make no mistake — girls embracing the pink princess syndrome is a parental choice, not some genetically determined outcome.

So, as a cultural outsider, I view the short film as very traditional. I’m supposed to be amused at how far the girl goes to woo the boy and think it’s amusing / sweet / precious / darling when she wins him. And by the same token, a traditionalist accepts the boy’s earliest reactions toward the girl as normal.

Normal? Half my daughter’s friends are boys. The 9-year-old boy across the street from me has non-romantic girl friends. Anyone can enjoy digging in the dirt, riding bikes, playing with a dollhouse or dressing up. The only conflict arises when a child has be taught a gender stereotype. And yes, by avoiding the Barbie aisle at Target I am teaching her a reverse stereotype of sorts, I suppose.

A while back my wife and I wrote parenting vision statements summarizing the qualities we wish to instill in our kids.

My wife: “My children will be self confident, resilient, and live a life concerned about the people in the community and world around them.”

Me: “We will raise our children to be ambitious, empathetic, and have a spirit of endurance.”

Can those qualifies be achieved equally well with a fairy wand or a toy hammer? Yeah, I suppose, but they are not necessary.They’re simply pervasive in our culture (America’s culture anyhow).

I’m wondering how you reacted to the film, and to what degree you do or don’t encourage gender stereotypes coming at your kid(s) from popular media, playmates and even strangers.

See previously: Ideas for anti-princess syndrome baby shirts (I never did get one made).


11 Responses to “Discuss: Teaching Classic Gender Roles”

  1. bfos7215 says:

    You are correct. Avoiding things that you are afraid are stereotypes is no better than forcing them on children. It really comes off as impacting the happiness of your child just so other adults will see how enlightened you are. It really has little to do with the children.

    I don’t really look forward to my daughter getting prissified. But, if that’s what she wants, I’m not going to feel like she let me down. That would be extremely unfair to her.

    I’d suggest just relaxing a little and let them be themselves.

    I can’t watch the clip right now. But, if having the boyfriend made this girl happier than wearing pink. Then, there’s really no problem with her making that decision. Good for her, I say. Especially, since it sounds like it was her decision for what made her happy…not her parents.

    January 19th, 2009 at 11:47 am

  2. jen says:

    I have to say, I do disagree with the idea that a love for pink sparkly things is a parent induced preference. My daughter, who was dressed in bright reds and other primary colors as often if not more than pink, whose bedroom is decorated in red, etc., is in. LOVE. with. pink.

    Can we change that? No. But we do encourage that she try things on that aren’t pink, or that she play with toys that aren’t sparkly princess paraphenalia.

    And as a result? She’ll happily play dinosaurs and cars as often as she plays baby dolls or wears fairy wings.

    But the love of pink and sparkles? I certainly didn’t do a whit to encourage that. it just was. And is.

    I think it’s important, no matter what your child’s preference, to teach your kids to embrace the idea that nothing is ever, ever out of reach based on the fact that you’re of a particular gender.

    (We still have yet to see a Princess movie. And I think that goes a LONG way in preventing a princess obsession).

    January 19th, 2009 at 11:52 am

  3. Magda says:

    I wonder how different the film would be if, instead of the little boy, there would be a second little girl who was absorbed with different little girl things, wanting to be one of the “big girls.” Viewing it this way, I don’t think it would change the message much.

    The way I see it, the little girl tries to make a friend who will play games she likes with her. She goes out of her way to try to conform to what the little boy likes, but after succeeding where he fails, she realizes that listening to his ideas isn’t getting her anywhere, and that her ideas are just as good, even if they are different (or, in this case, “pink”).

    When I was really little, I loved pink and purple … but I also loved Legos and Lincoln Logs. As I got older, I started to disdain things for being “girly.” Last year I realized that pink is a good color on me … and was uncomfortable with it, ’cause it’s “girly.” I understand the need to make sure that a child’s horizons are not needlessly narrowed, but what’s wrong with liking “girly” things? (Not including specifically “romantic” or “sexed” examples, like short skirts.)

    My father didn’t want me to have a Barbie because she was materialistic, not because she was pink. I remember playing with my one Barbie doll: her head went on and off. I played with my friend’s Barbie playhouse, too: stick Barbie in the elevator, slam it up to the top and she’d come flying out!

    January 19th, 2009 at 12:29 pm

  4. AJ says:

    The thing is, pink is mostly limited to North America and Europe and places we’ve exported our culture. A century ago the colors assignments were reversed. Pink was boyish; blue was girlish. Some people blame Disney (the color of princess dresses changing), but I expect Disney was reflecting a change in our culture.

    The pink-blue thing begins before birth with decorating the baby’s room. Then pink Onesies, and later seeing other girls wearing pink and playing with pink toys. Girls merely embrace the pink world that has been set before them.

    I know I’m in the minority. I’m just here to say it’s possible for a parent to choose against pink and have it be okay. The only caveat is that you have to warn parents ahead of time with respect to birthday gifts.

    We haven’t banned pink though. My daughter has a pink princess gown for dress-up play, but she also has a firefighter’s outfit and other non-girly things. But I won’t buy a toy that has been intentionally pinkified, such as a pink Etch-a-sketch.

    January 19th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

  5. bfos7215 says:

    If that’s all it is, that’s fine. But, the tone of the article, especially the beginning, is that it is bad for girls to come anywhere near the girly “stereotype”.

    January 19th, 2009 at 1:12 pm

  6. AJ says:

    Yes, I still roll my eyes at the stereotypes in the film. And yes, there are messages in the film that I would never teach my daughter. First and foremost, never change who you are for the sake of love.

    If I come off as brusk, well, that’s sort of a mindset I get into when I encounter gender stereotypes.

    January 19th, 2009 at 1:21 pm

  7. Allison says:

    I’m with you AJ. I did not like the short film for many of the same reasons you put forth. I watched it before reading your full article and didn’t catch the after the credit moment which to me made the whole thing that much worse.

    I have a son and we are mindful of gender stereotypes but perhaps not nearly as mindful as we would be if we had a girl. Sadly I think there is still more sexism and pressure to confirm to stereotypes for women then men in our society. Though I think there is a growing problem with male stereotypes and gender roles in our society too. This issue is one that gets me fired up because I have been challenging gender roles in one way or another all my life. There are definitely some very entrenched biases in our culture that I feel need to be changed for the good of everyone.

    My son’s clothes have been pretty genderless since birth, we also steer clear of slogans and licensed characters. Most of what we are doing at this point is just limiting media in general so very little TV and his toys are all pretty neutral. I also am very lucky to have a wonderful husband who is an awesome role model. We both work and we both split the household chores like cooking, cleaning and laundry.

    If I did have a girl I think we would be pretty close to what you have suggested. There wouldn’t be a complete ban on all things pink, girly or princess but I would definitely not be buying those things without deep consideration and would work in ways to discourage buying into the female gender roles plastered all over our society.

    When it comes right down to it I don’t see taking some precautions to avoid or challenging gender stereotypes as indoctrinating my children to my beliefs but more as leveling the playing field so they can be freer to decide what they REALLY are interested in.

    January 19th, 2009 at 3:46 pm

  8. Kara says:

    Around here instead of aiming for “gender neutral” we aim more for “gender equality” in terms of toys. We have a dolls, trucks, fairy princess outfits, and blocks. My son’s favorite toys for a while were those tiny My Little Pony toys and while not my taste and not sure why he decided he wanted them, after several months of him asking for them we bought him some. We still occasionally play ponies.

    While I don’t want to encourage the “a girl’s worth is in her appearance” meme, I also don’t want to shun things that are (in our society) viewed as feminine and aid in the continuation of our society viewing those things as less worthy because of their gender association. I’m glad girls can wear pants and play with cars without anyone thinking twice about it, I hope that someday boys can wear skirts/dresses and play with baby dolls without eyebrows being raised.

    January 19th, 2009 at 6:01 pm

  9. Maria says:

    This film is definitely cute and classic. From a girl’s point of view, this girl and boy are doing just what little girls and boys do. Little girls like to play dress up, pretend to get married, play mommy, and play house. Little boys pretend to be super heros, pirates, and soldiers – and girls are yucky. Is this because as parents we lead our children to believe that is what is expected of them?

    For the most part children copy what they see and hear around them. They see the sterotypes that the adults around them set before them. Even in this day and age, women are the care givers and men are the bread winners. Pink is for girls and blue is for boys. From birth we lead our children to believe that this is the way the world works.

    When we decided to have a baby we wanted a girl. We got a boy and now we are both thankful. In my opinion there is too much pressure on girls these days to look pretty, be thin, and wear sexy clothing. Sometimes I can not believe some of the clothing I see little girls wearing.

    As parents it is our responsibility to raise our children to believe in themselves for who they are and not feel the need to have to change to meet anyone’s expectations.

    January 19th, 2009 at 6:35 pm

  10. Ticia says:

    I came at it from a different viewpoint on the whole princess thing. I’ve been teaching my daughter that she is a princess, because a princess is a valuable thing who can change her world, and is someone to be fought for, not treated like trash. However, my princess loves Batman and gets into sword fights with her brothers, and does quite well.

    I’ve also taught my boys that they are knights, and they have jobs too. Their job is to protect their sister and Mom, and to help others who need it.

    It’s a work in progress, and we’re still working out the kinks, but so far, I have a girl covered in pink, because she did decide on that as her favorite color who is wrestling with boys. So, we got a bit of the middle ground.

    January 20th, 2009 at 6:19 am

  11. Jennifer E. says:

    When I worked in a dollar store many years ago, I was restocking some shelves near the toy department and overheard a little boy and his mom. The boy had picked out a “pink” toy, and the mom refused to buy it because it was “for girls”. I have been mindful of the gender issues in children ever since.

    January 23rd, 2009 at 8:56 am

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