Before you read further: Today’s post shouldn’t come across as an extremist feminist rant, but more as an examination of how our culture may very well be stifling and causing unintentional harm to both young boys and girls by forcing them to fit into certain roles.
I was reading “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics“, a research report from the American Association of University Women, which lays out many of the challenges women face in those fields. One of its points is the role that stereotypes play in how girls perceive their own success in these fields, and how gender stereotypes play a role in girls’ confidence. The report is fascinating and accessible; I highly recommend reading it.
When I was a teenager in the 1990s, I sort of assumed that by the time I have kids, we would be living in a relatively gender-neutral world where all children would feel free to try all kinds of things. Well, obviously, that didn’t happen yet and I do not see it changing. Toys shop still have its “pink” and “blue” sections. I am surprised with the rise of the color pink to define girls (less than 100 years ago, believe it or not, that color was associated with boys and blue with girls!). It’s clear that gender stereotyping issues appear early in life (after all, it was Barbie who famously proclaimed “math is hard!”). And over the years, the vast majority of the gifts given to kids are gender-segregated: crafts and clothes for girls, Legos and building toys for boys. It’s so hard to find a gender-neutral toys.
Our culture does tend to pigeonhole girls, it also does the same for boys. Girls may be teased for playing with toys that aren’t “girly” enough, but boys in our culture aren’t exactly free to deck themselves out in pink and play with dolls and purses.
While I don’t have children, it’s impossible to not notice both the pink phenomenon and the princess phenomenon. Do these well-marketed phenomenons play into gender stereotypes?
Little girls eventually grow out of this princess stage but they retain the message that perfection, and appearance is what is important. That it is better to look good than to feel or to think positively about their actions and activities. Girls eventually equate how they look with how they feel; they only feel positive about themselves when they think they are pretty and stylish and thin enough. This is encouraged by the massive marketing industry that starts with movies and TV and then moves on to toys, cosmetics, and clothing. It is everywhere. And it is overwhelming. How do you convince girls that “fat is not a feeling” when Kate Moss says “Nothing tastes better than skinny feels”?
I deeply connect to the way that girls are socialized, even though I grew up in a time when Lego ads featured girls and my mom dressed me in red. I too had a Barbie girl, and I remember how my mom tried to help me view all girl culture – more critically. However, I was an adult when the Princess phenomenon began. Fairy tales should not really blamed for anything, but treated more as symptoms and representations of issues. Cinderella with Little Mermaid, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty get pretty much equal second billing together. However, let’s admit that not all Cinderellas are created equal. (It is gratifying to see that Daisy selected Wonder Woman as a favorite character.)
Remember the furor surrounding the Twilight novels?? After having read the first, I wasn’t eager to read the remaining series, feeling that it was a story that more or less glorified a very unhealthy relationship between two teens–and this had nothing to do with the fact that Edward is a vampire. I was, rather, disturbed by Bella’s lack of self-identity and with how Edward exercised an inordinate amount of control over her. But why girls might find the series so compelling: Bella isn’t the prettiest girl in the school, she isn’t the most popular, she doesn’t dress the most provocatively and, yet, she’s the one girl in school who captures Edward’s attention. Maybe girls are just relieved to find a book in which the romance does not center around sex or around the extreme “hotness” of the female character. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that there just might be something to it.
I am teeny-weeny concerned about what our consumer-driven/ Disney princess/ Facebook culture is doing to our little girls. I am concerned about the way girls “package themselves” as a brand in the online world, and the permanence and rapidity of information exchanged by kids on the web. The girls need to develop their inner selves rather than just packaging their outer selves. In trying to be hot and sexy at all times, girls are becoming more and more disconnected from any sort of healthy sexuality. In defining themselves so emphatically by their looks, growing numbers of girls are describing sex in terms of how they thought they looked rather than in terms of how they felt.
This means that, not only are girls sometimes made objects by boys, they are also making objects of themselves. Rather than defining who they are based on how they think, what they feel, what they believe, girls are defining themselves according to their physical assets.
Personally, I wanted to be a princess-fireman. A princess with a back-up plan. I didn’t pay heed to it earlier, but this makes good sense now. Sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you would hope, sometimes the prince leaves the princess with a mortgage on the castle and there she is princess struggling to make ends meet. What parent would want that for their daughter? What daughter would want that for herself?
People say boys are more difficult when they are young and girls are more difficult as they get older. Agreed. Little boys don’t like to sit still. Or follow rules. Or use toilets. But raising girls to become the type of women that they should be (that we need them to be) requires a great effort. I would want to teach my girls to rise above worldly expectations (and acceptances) and be virtuous, confident, independent, pleasant, balanced, remarkable, noble.