What do you see when you look at the picture above? (Let’s ignore the lipstick and blusher for a moment). Sweet little girls in dress-up outfits? Or the dangers represented by early gender stereotyping? Sadly, there’s growing evidence that it should be more the latter than the former.
It was recently reported that girls as young as six think that ‘brilliance’ is a male trait and that pay inequality starts in the pocket money years. Our culture emphasizes strength and intelligence for boys and ‘femininity’ and appearance for girls. The campaign group Let Toys Be Toys lobbies retailers on this, recently calling out The Early Learning Centre for showing boys as superheroes, wizards and doctors, ‘rescuing’ the little girls dressed as princesses and ballerinas in interchangeable bouffant dresses.
In their excellent ‘Sounds Familiar’ report, The Fawcett Society found “gender norms, stereotypes and over-protection” all hold young women back.
“Boys and girls are treated differently from their earliest years. When asked if there were different expectations (of them), the answer was a resounding ‘yes’.”
Whilst some of the larger, more enlightened retailers are trying to restore the balance, it’s a trend that’s been escalating in recent years.
“As they grow into toddlerhood, boys’ clothes tend to be more robust and functional, with pockets and sturdy fabrics, whereas girls’ attire is more flimsy and designed with a focus on appearance, not activity.” Laura Bates, writing in the Guardian
And while their brothers run about freely, well-meaning mums and grandmas further restrict their little girls’ activities with warnings about taking care not to spoil their pretty dress…
I once watched a one year old girl trying very hard to stand up, but constantly thwarted by the long, flouncy dress her mum had put her in. To me, it looked like the modern equivalent of Chinese foot-binding. Girls constrained by their clothing, trussed up in a fairytale version of femininity before they can even stand up or string a proper sentence together.
It’s all Cinderella’s Fault
Of course, all children love dressing up, but it seems this is no longer limited to the play room, with any social occasion deemed to be a chance to dress up like Elsa or Belle or worst of all, Cinderella (totally reliant on the handsome prince and SHOES MADE OF GLASS FOR GOODNESS SAKE to save her from a life of drudgery). Parents blame peer pressure, but Disney has spent many years and billions of dollars creating this Princess Culture – it didn’t happen by accident.
So it has to be time for some pushback. How about we show our daughters some other toys, some other movies, some other role models?
Education is more important than indulgence, and peer pressure has never meant giving into a child’s every demand. Every little girl deserves the opportunity to stretch her imagination and develop her potential – not have her choices constrained by a narrow set of cultural expectations before she even starts primary school.
We’ve developed a culture where established prejudices mean children are self-limiting their options at an extraordinarily young age.
Curriculum and Culture
There’s a serious lack of women in STEM professions – but successful, pioneering female role-models are often absent from history and the curriculum – as illustrated by the movie Hidden Figures or the complaints about homework questions posted on parent forums. Labelling chemistry sets and Lego ‘for boys’ just exacerbates this.
“Young women felt let down by the school curriculum, because a lack of teaching about the achievements of women in history.” Fawcett Society
In the 70s, we grew up with Wonder Woman and Charlie’s Angels. None of those women needed a handsome prince to come and rescue them. I had a toy garage and a Scalextric alongside the Barbie I inherited from my cousin. But my Barbie thought she was the Bionic Woman. She’d swim across the shark-infested kitchen sink (having borrowed Action Man’s scuba kit first, of course) and bungee jump from our kitchen balcony with only my dressing gown belt for safety. If someone had given her a pink princess dress she would’ve used it as a parachute.
This is part of a bigger cultural problem which needs to be tackled on many levels. The lack of strong female role models in mainstream media and culture, the vacuous (and undressed) celebrity/selfie culture and the easy availability of online porn means girls – and boys – are growing up with a very narrow set of expectations as to what it means to be a woman. Combined with inadequate and outdated Sex & Relationship Education, we now have a situation where 59% of girls aged 13-21 have experienced sexual harassment at school.
Employers know men are more likely to be over confident in their abilities, going for jobs they’re not qualified for (hello ‘President’ Trump). Women are more often promoted or appointed on experience, men on potential. Limiting female confidence at such an early age will never address this.
This pink princess epidemic isn’t just harmless fun, as these surveys show. If you asked any parent whether they wanted their daughter to have less confidence, less courage and fewer life opportunities than their son, no doubt they’d be horrified you even suggested it. So we all have to fight back against this – mums & dads, aunts & uncles, godparents and grandparents…
We owe it to the next generation of young women.
The stereotypes are damaging for boys too, even if there are clear ways men end up benefiting from the system in terms of money and power. My 3-yr old son wore a Frozen dress & fireman’s jacket on his 3rd birthday but now has somehow absorbed that dresses are for girls and that he shouldn’t want anything associated with girls/femininity. Nothing I say seems to be able to change this, the force of social convention
Is overwhelming. It’s sad to see him so curtailed in his imaginative possibilities and how angry it makes him without him understanding why. He begs me to wear a sequin dress to work as I now seem to be his outlet for colour, sparkle and fun in dressing up. It also means his expectations of girls and women have changed. Obviously I try to present a different view and encourage him to feel free and uninhibited, and to treat all people as individuals rather than as genders. But I still feel he is like a little piece of the patriarchy in the making and, in him, I can see how sad and distorting it is for men too. We have to put a stop to this early gender stereotyping and policing – for everyone’s sake.
Absolutely right, Isabelle. It’s damaging for all children.