How can we, as a culture and as members of the global community, involve, educate, and inspire girls in a positive way?
This is the question posed as part of the Blog for International Women’s Day, presented by Gender Across Borders and CARE.
There are many ways to answer that question, but I believe that one way to help girls is to make the experiences and stories of girls and women as relevant in our culture as those of boys and men.
From the time girls (and boys) are toddlers, they are introduced to a world where boys take precedence, a state of affairs that leads me to ask some important questions about children’s popular culture:
Why do the vast majority of children’s films tell stories about boys? Looking particularly at animated films, which appeal to the younger children I write about, it is nearly impossible to name any that feature a female lead unless she is a princess who gets rescued by a prince. There are similar discrepancies in animated televisions shows, especially once you leave the preschool demographic. I’m not suggesting we push male characters entirely to the sidelines, but why not change up the leads in a kids’ film once in a while? What if Cars had been about a female race car, or if Finding Nemo had featured a female clownfish lost and alone in the ocean? Seeing females in challenging situations would be good for both boys and girls.
Why is it that when female characters are present in a film, they are usually relegated to secondary, stereotyped roles, most commonly as moms or love interests? Limiting girls’ roles in popular culture limits their concept of what they can be. Such limitations can be overcome by parents, teachers, and caregivers, but when we allow our culture to pigeonhole females into traditional roles, we are also, unconsciously, teaching girls some harmful lessons about which traits are valued most in females—and that list does not include assertiveness, physical power, or independence. And what are we teaching boys to expect from girls? Passivity & prettiness?
Why are boys discouraged from reading stories about girls? It is conventional wisdom that girls will read stories about boys, but boys will not read stories about girls. A while back I looked into some online recommended reading lists for boys and found few, if any, titles with a female protagonist. As I said then, “By having their scope of interest narrowed, even with the best of intentions, boys will continue to believe that stories about women and girls are less interesting and less relevant to them, simply because they are about the opposite sex… If we ever hope to achieve sexual equality, we need to teach boys from a young age to value girls and women. Denying them stories about females is definitely a step in the wrong direction.”
Toys and games are also a part of a child’s culture, which leads me to ask why there has to be a “girls’” version of many toys. I wrote about the pinkwashing of board games in a post a long time ago, and things have not improved. Generic toys that have been “pinkified” include: microscopes, the Fisher-Price chatter phone, building blocks, laptops and electronic reading systems, cameras, LEGO, electronic keyboards, drum sets, Wii remotes, and cash registers. Even a new version of the Kobo e-reader features pink trim. This segregation of children’s play experiences again puts girls outside the main culture, telling them that the standard version of a toy is not for them; they should instead choose the pink version which is typically only available in the pink section of the store.
I’m sure there are other examples, but these are just a few that seem to crop up regularly in my work.
People often ask me why I make such a big deal out of gender bias in kids’ pop culture. “It’s only one film/book/TV show/toy,” they say. “Get over it.”
The trouble is, it isn’t just one film, TV show, book, or toy. Half of today’s school-age kids are not seeing their experiences represented in mainstream children’s pop culture, especially the big two—film and television. (At least in North America.) Gender bias pervades kids’ pop culture and it matters.
In 2001, in the Encyclopedia of Women and Gender, psychology professors L. Monique Ward and Allison Caruthers summarized the findings of some 76 different studies into the impact of media on children’s perceptions of gender. Although more research is needed, the authors concluded that “frequent or directed exposure to stereotypical images appears to strengthen traditional orientations to gender, while frequent or directed exposure to egalitarian images appears to weaken them.”[i]
Making more stories about females available to children would weaken the stereotype of the male as the supposedly more interesting, heroic, and capable sex. That is a change that would benefit both girls and boys. (I devote a chapter of my book to the impact on boys of male dominance in kids’ pop culture.)
Instead of making girls feel that they are not part of the story, our culture should be welcoming them. In the process, we will help girls see themselves as truly equal in value to boys, and show boys that girls and women are people they can be inspired by, learn from, and share experiences with.
[i] Ward, L. Monique and Allison Caruthers. “Media Influences,” in Vol. 2 of Encyclopedia of Women and Gender: Sex Similarities and Differences and the Impact of Society on Gender. ed. Judith Worrell. (San Diego: Academic Press, 2001), 696.