The trouble with gender roles

All men are liars, said Roberta Muldoon, who knew this was true because she had once been a man. – John Irving, The World According to Garp

A likes to dress up. She has always liked role play and enjoys it very much to this day. She will dress up as anything. It could be a polar bear, a turtle, a witch or Harry Potter. She just likes the feel of trying out different roles. She does not distinguish between what is ‘girlish’ and what is ‘boyish’ she just dresses up however she feels like. And this gives her a freedom to pursue different kinds of expressions that I believe are very valuable for her.

She has always liked to paint herself with the designated face pencils I’ve bought her and lately she has taken to experimenting with my make up. I very rarely wear make up but I have a few items I have picked up through the years. A will spend hours in the bathroom painting herself with lipstick, rouge or different eye shades. She uses the colours differently than I would have done and usually paints her whole face. Then she comes out for me to admire her art work.

I have been ambivalent as to whether I should talk to her about natural beauty and how make up really isn’t necessary when you’re young (or ever). But I have resolved to thinking I shouldn’t try to persuade her one way or the other. I’d much rather she experiments from time to time because she enjoys dressing up and painting her face than I’d want her to feel like it’s not okay to try to express yourself in certain ways.

It is a controversial subject around here. There are many different approaches to make up, from totally banning it until the children are teenagers to encouraging your child to wear it. But I don’t want to do any of these things since I think banning it puts a certain value into make up that has you thinking it is something you wear when you are older for reasons yet unknown and it makes it a kind of forbidden pleasure. And encouraging it is just weird. I think it is problematic to put that kind of value into make up when obviously one should only wear it if one feels like it. No matter one’s age, or gender, or orientation.I would never tell A she can’t paint her face. I wouldn’t tell A she couldn’t paint her face if she was a boy either. I think it is paramount to be free to experiment and express yourself in all kinds of ways growing up. It is here the foundation is laid for how well you know your own preferences when you are older.

A doesn’t only like to dress up and paint her face. She likes all kinds of activities. Tree climbing, biking, swimming, playing video games, watching movies, reading books, roller skating, playing with lego, playing with dolls, slacklining, ballet etc. etc. These are activities that many children like (and grown ups too for that matter). And I think they are activities that all children should be able to try out to the extent they wish. I have never put emphasis on a certain activity because I thought that would be more suitable for A to do given her biological sex. I want A to be free to engage in whatever activity she chooses so that she can try out everything she wants to to see if she likes it and what she likes the best. How else will she learn what feels good for her?

When A was born I had chosen not to know her sex because I didn’t want to have any preconceived ideas about my child or any preconceived expectations about what kind of person she would be. Many people choose to know their child’s gender beforehand for different reasons but some because then they can buy clothes of the ‘right’ colour and gender specific toys and so on. I didn’t want to do that. In fact I think it’s scary how much emphasis is put on dividing people based on their gender. It still shocks me to hear the expressions a ‘girl’s colour’ and a ‘boy’s colour’ used even though I’ve heard it many times. And most children in the Western world are exposed to this kind of language from the moment they are born.

A loves her short hair. She has tried growing it longer on several occasions but she always ends up cutting it off. She cuts it herself and she is always thrilled by how it looks and feels afterwards. She likes short hair. But she dislikes when people mistake her for a boy. And I am always surprised that people consequently do this because of her short hair. I can see how sometimes you might think she’s a boy. But always? And always because of her short hair? There is a notion here (in Denmark at least) that young girls have long hair. As a matter of fact, all the other girls we know who are A’s age have long hair. I am not bashing long hair (my own hair is long) I am merely pointing out that there is a norm here that could make it difficult to do things differently. Also, we know very few young boys who have long hair, though I think it is more common than the young-girl-short-hair scenario.

In our society, especially through mainstream media, we are constantly target for extremely stereotypical, sexist, patriarchal etc. narratives about gender and gender roles. I am appalled by some of the TV shows that A sometimes watches and, alas, really likes. But I don’t want to tell her what to watch and what not to watch. And don’t get me started on some of the commercials that mix in with her games on the ipad. It. Is. Terrible. The way gender is portrayed as a completely defining character trade. This way of talking about gender is so inherent in our language use I think a lot of people don’t even think about it. Of course one way to be rid of this particular issue would be to not have a TV (it is actually not something we have had for that long and we are considering selling it) and to not use electronic devices like ipads and computers etc. I have a lot of thoughts on this matter, but since this post is not about that I will not get into it here.

As a parent I think it is important to be aware of these stereotypical narratives. At least so that I can talk to my child about them and let her know that we are all different people with different ideas and preferences. And you don’t have to act a certain way or wear certain clothes just because you are a girl or a boy. I hope that if we talk about it often enough and I am able to convey the necessary knowledge about stereotypes and gender roles, that A will feel equipped to follow her own path. And that she will have a strong enough foundation to not conform to any restrictive and rigid norms.

I am no expert on this subject and I don’t mean to step on anyone’s toes, though I probably am stepping on some (but then I hope they are the right ones. Wait, what?) I simply think we should be aware as parents, and as people in general, what kind of signals we send to our children. There is nothing wrong with talking about feminine or masculine character traits or subscribing more to one than the other. It is the conformity that is problematic. If we teach our children to conform to certain behaviours or looks because we think that is more appropriate given their biological sex I am afraid we could possibly damage their self esteem.

Say you are a girl with short hair who likes to run around naked in your back yard in the rain and shout loudly (enter A). Shouldn’t you be able to do this without anyone raising an eyebrow? Granted, this is a funny image and of course you’re allowed to be amused. But don’t be offended. Or say you’re a boy with long hair who likes to wear a skirt and play with dolls (enter….anyone…hello?) shouldn’t you be able to do this without anyone making fun of you? I think you should.

I loathe expressions like ‘be a nice girl’ or ‘you are my big, strong boy’ for many reasons. For starters it is completely condescending and totally manipulating, but it is also sexist. And that is probably the worst part.

Another aspect of this is how we talk to our children, especially girls, about beauty. I try to be very conscious about how I talk to A about beauty. I think it can be potentially problematic to put too much emphasis on looks. There is nothing wrong with talking about beauty of course, but putting too much emphasis on it could, for young children, devalue other, just as important, if not more important, features. Beauty is not a character trait. It is external. And it cannot be defined just like that. Beauty has a thousand different expressions and all colours and shapes. Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. And there is nothing wrong with talking about beauty. Surely, the beauty of our world is something worth talking about. But there could be something potentially wrong with how we address our children on the subject.

If, for example, a young girl is always told how beautiful she is, what could this do to her self esteem? Could it bring her to think she must always look a certain way to be beautiful, or that beauty is what makes her valuable, or that beauty, in and of itself, is something she must strive to be all the time? And what about the young boy? Does he also want to hear how beautiful he is?

I don’t have all the right answers here. Maybe not any of them. But I do know this. Gender roles are to be questioned and devalued not conformed to. And we can best do this by starting with how we communicate with our children about them.

What are your thoughts on gender roles in our society?

Here is A in some of her many, wonderful expressions. I adore each and every one of them.

 

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