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An Intro to Gender: Part One
Transcript of An Intro to Gender: Part One
What is gender?
It's not the same thing as sex.
Sex is more of a biological classification.
Sex comes down to hormones and what kind of genitalia a person is born with, and/or the gut feeling that one is male or female.
Gender is more of a cultural classification, encompassing all those things -- behaviours, clothing, toys, etc. -- we identify as related to masculine or feminine.
There's no natural connection between certain types of toys and a child's sex. The idea that boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls is something that we, as a society, have built up over centuries.
What effect does this have? If it's not natural, then why do we persist in promoting such separate gender identities?
Most of us have started our lives listening to a lot of stories; storytelling is a major part of what it means to be human, and we've always raised children with stories.
Looking into the classics of children's literature reveals a lot about the ideas we've grown up with.
Noticed anything yet?
All these classics, enjoyed by millions of children for multiple generations, are about boy characters.
There are only two classic children's books about girls that have had similar longevity:
That the only stories worth telling are about boys?
What does this teach kids?
Certainly, this undermines a girl's self-worth, but it also puts pressure on boys to be at the center of everyone's attention.
That boys should always be at the center of our attention?
It's difficult to progress and create new representations of gender equality when texts from 10, 20, even 80 years ago, are recycled into "new" children's entertainment today.
Unfortunately, even newer children's books and TV shows focus disproportionately on male central characters.
Sure, Super Why might be in a group of four, with an equal number of boys and girls, but the show is named
Notice how in this promotional picture the girls are far in the background. They're even smaller than the pig.
But we'd already been shown that stories featuring a girl main character could be incredibly popular given the success the Annie radio show.
But the arrival of TV was dominated by shows about boy characters.
Even the puppet was a boy.
Even the talking horse.
It ran from 1930 to 1942, and it attracted 6 million listeners at a time when the US population was only around 125 million. It's obvious, then, that a story about a girl could be very, very popular.
It's worth pointing out that out of the 113 characters on the TV series
Thomas & Friends
, only 15 are female, and they rarely play an important role in the show's plots.
The people who work on the island where the stories take place are always male.
The person in charge of the island is Sir Topham Hat; he appears in every episode.
I'm often asked about
Dora the Explorer
when I discuss gender representation in children's texts, and she offers us an excellent case study.
Each episode of
Thomas & Friends
has a title, which frequently indicates who the episode's story will be about (for example, "Not Now, Charlie!" and "Percy's Lucky Day"). Out of its first 17 seasons (1984-2014), of over 400 episodes, male characters' names appear in an episode title 265 times, and female characters' names appear 17 times.
The problem was that, while both boys and girls loved Dora, parents were only buying Dora merchandise for their daughters. This meant that Mattel and Nickelodeon were only making half the potential merchandising profit offered by the Dora audience.
Dora's television show debuted in 2000 and ran until 2006. She was an instant hit with children, but she presented the show's marketers and merchandisers with a quandry.
Rather than try and break down the barriers between gender constructions by trying to create merchandise that appealed to boy and girl Dora fans, the show introduced....
And so the show was able to exploit all the usual gender stereotypes and market boys' and girls' merchandise in all the usual ways.
Diego's slogan is "Go Diego go!"
He spends a lot of time doing rugged, active things like swinging from vines.
When he's not swinging from vines, he likes to do other adventurous things:
Promotional pictures of Dora tend to be less active:
And you can see how Diego has to tone down his vine-swinging when Dora's around. More vine-hanging, really:
So you can see how, in the case of
Dora the Explorer
and so many other cultural texts like it, the problem was the solution, and the solution was the problem. Instead of challenging stereotypes about gender roles, our culture reinforces them.
Once Diego arrived on the scene, the show was able to shift adventurous, active characteristics onto him, which freed Dora up for more stereotypical "girl" behaviour, and girl merchandising:
When I first started examining gender representations in kid culture, I got a bit depressed by it, and so I turned to
, of which I had such fond memories.
Believe it or not, it took the show
to come up with its first female muppet.
Hang on, let's take another look at the male muppets one more time. Just look at the incredible variety of characters -- so many ways of being a boy!
So after two years, the people at
applied their incredible imaginative talents and came up with their first female muppet:
And they called her Prairie Dawn.
Now, aside from all the usual female stereotypes (the bow, the ruffles, the flowery dress, the thick eyelashes, the overwhelming presence of bright pink), you can see how literally diminished her presence is in the following promotional picture:
It would be hard to overstate how much kids focus on size as an indicator of importance and power. They develop their consciousness of the world while being smaller than everyone else, while all the big people get to make all the decisions. From this perspective, how important does Prairie Dawn look?
But wait! Sesame Street was not done yet! They soon introduced another female muppet, and they really broke out the creativity this time!
Nor did Betty Lou fare any better in the size department.
What I find fascinating about the case of Prairie Dawn and Betty Lou is just how incapable the show's creative team was of imagining more than one way of being female. It never seemed to run out of different ways of being male, so why did they rely so heavily on a stereotypical model of girlhood?
When we grow up on stories about boys, do we lose our ability to imagine similarly interesting girl characters?
More than 20 years later, Sesame Street managed to develop a handful of female muppets that deviated from the Prairie Dawn-Betty Lou paradigm, but notice how Zoe is characterized in this promotional picture:
The eyelashes, the necklace, the bows, the bouquet of flowers.... And is it just me or does she seems to be posing in that come-hither way female celebrities do when they're on the red carpet?
Another character, Abby, sports all the markers of that age-old standard of delicate femininity, the fairy.
Oh, the hours I spent with this show, learning how to read and co-operate! The whole message of Sesame Street is equality and inclusiveness! Urban kids, rural kids! White kids, black kids, hispanic kids! Boys
I want to return to the idea that millions of children grew up with
's suggestion that there are many unique and varying ways of being a boy, but only one way of being a girl (Prairie Dawn/Betty Lou).
We see the same message in other popular, longstanding children's texts....
Often, a female character can only make it into the plot by being a mother, or a love interest, as if these were the only two things a girl were good for. In
, Kanga is the only female, and she appears because she is Roo's mother. In
, all the smurfs are in love with Smurfette.
This pattern -- of creating a story about a boy, with a large supporting cast of male characters with one or two female characters (often only one, who is the love interest for the main character) -- renews itself over and over again in kid culture.
Again: what is the message to kids about which gender is more important? Which is worth more attention?
But as we've seen from the capitalist logic of
Dora the Explorer
, there's a lot of money to be made from both halves of the audience. In order to really profit from kid culture, you have to have stories about girls, too, in order to sell girls' merchandise.
Unfortunately, the overwhelmingly dominant representation of female characters in kid culture has relied on a single stereotype:
It follows us as we grow up:
This is a picture from a recent G8 summit, where the leaders of the world's top industrialized nations meet.
Animated films are by far the dominant story-telling mode of today's kid culture, but even though they're several decades older than the classics of children's books, we see the exact same gender inequality.
There's no single greater media influence on girls today -- the world over -- than the Disney Princess empire. It's everywhere. Because Disney owns so many media outlets (tv stations, radio stations, cable companies, film studios, magazines, websites, publishing companies...) it can endlessly promote all its products in every corner of society.
No matter what ethnicity or culture a female character might be, she must fit into the princess mould: she must be unrealistically thin, busty, with giant eyes, plumped lips, massive hair, etc, and her story must be resolved by finding a man.
This is even the case for Mulan, who is a brave warrior, and for Pocohontas, an important historical figure (who never had any kind of romantic relationship with John Smith in real life -- the movie creates this romance so that her story will fit the princess storyline).
Therefore, girls learn that the only model of femininity is this very narrow, completely unattainable Disney Princess example.
The specific Princess stories can often be disturbing, from a critical perspective.
For example, in
The Little Mermaid
Ariel gives up her voice so that she can have a perfect human body. What is the message here? That a beautiful face and body are enough to attract a man? What is the symbolic power of the voice, in terms of identity and individuality and expression? What does it mean that Ariel gives it up to attract a man she barely knows?
Beauty and the Beast
, Belle is abducted, locked up, isolated from her family, screamed at, and controlled right down to what she can eat and when she can eat. But she stays with her abuser, as if it is her job to rehabilitate him. Even scarier: it works. Are we teaching girls that if they're in an abusive relationship, they should stay, because if they love him enough, he'll change and everything will work out?
In 2012, Disney Pixar released the film
, which was celebrated as a progressive, ground-breaking, politically correct princess movie, because its princess, Merida, doesn't end up with a prince at the end of the film.
Merida is also presented as a powerful character through her strong will and her almost supernatural skills in archery.
It's problematic, however, to think that Merida was really all that progressive. First, she's still a princess, so she's clearly meant to be perceived as part of that brand identity.
Physically, Merida follows many of the same princess characteristics, with gigantic sparkly eyes, a mass of flowing hair, glowing skin and a tiny waist.
Second, the plot still centres on marriage (will Merida marry who her parents want her to marry?), and so marriage remains the central issue of the princess' life.
Third, by the end of the film Merida learns humility, as if her behaviour (angrily defying her mother's order to marry a man she doesn't even know, let alone love) were in poor taste. Really, what other option did she have?
But finally, we know that Merida was never really meant to be all that different from the other princesses because of what Disney's done to her in the aftermath of
It's easy to see that Merida's been glammed up and sexualized in several ways, and they took away her bow and arrow.
Here she is after being inducted into the Disney Princess pantheon -- no longer Merida the brave, but just another one of the girls.
There was a public outcry about the changes, which caused Disney to withdraw their plans, but months later, the "new and improved" Merida has crept back into their merchandise.
You might notice that most of the princesses have been glammed up lately. Look at the original Cinderella compared to the new version:
Again, there's a imperative to homogenize the princesses and heighten their glamour so that they look more and more like one type -- one stereotypical way of being a girl.
A similar thing has happened to Pocahontas and Mulan.
Okay -- that's it for part one!
The reason why I've focused so intensely on the texts we experience as children is because an enormous amount of brain development happens when we're very young.
New research in brain plasticity has revealed that our experiences affect the structure of our brains: the neurons that fire together, wire together. So, if a child grows up continually seeing stories with boys as the main character(s), that child will become predisposed to seeing the world as a place where boys are more deserving of attention than girls.
And: if a girl grows up with the understanding -- confirmed thousands and thousands of times over her childhood -- that the girls who get attention are the ones who are "pretty princesses," then their brains will be geared towards that assumption.
There is strong statistical evidence that this message -- that girls are of less interest and importance than boys -- translates into very real social consequences.
2/3 of minimum wages earners in North America are women.
Full-time working women earn an average of 42% less than full-time working men.
Men are four times more likely than women to negotiate a higher starting salary.
Only 19 of Canada's top 500 companies are led by women; more than half of those companies have no women on their boards....
...depsite the fact that the total return to shareholders is 34% higher for companies with the most women executives on their boards, as compared to those with the fewest.
In the Western English-speaking world, wives do 70-80% of a family's unpaid labour (cooking, cleaning, household finances, shopping, etc.), not including childcare.
In married or common law heterosexual relationships, women do 16 hours more housework per week than men, even when both the woman and man work full time outside the home.
When they have kids, she'll do five times more childcare than he will.
Let's return to kid culture for a bit. We've been looking at the narrative dominance of boys in books, tv and movies.
When it comes to women's participation in politics, Canada ranks 50th in the world, behind Rwanda, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates.
A professor at the Manchester Business School in England has found that when she asks her students what salary they expect to be making in five years, on average the men predict they'll deserve $80,000 and the women, $64,000 -- 20% less.
In another study, American college students were asked to rate, and then test, their scientific ability. On a scale from 1 to 10, the female students rated their ability at 6.5, and the men rated theirs at 7.6. After taking a quiz, the women predicted that they'd gotten 5.8 out of 10 questions right; the men predicted they'd gotten 7.1. What were the actual test scores? Almost the same: 7.5 for the women and 7.9 for the men?
After the test, students weren't told their scores, but they were invited to participate in a science competition for prizes. 71% of the men signed up, but only 49% of the women did. This shows how women's lack of self-confidence translates into lost opportunities for them.
Similarly, one corporate study found that women only applied for jobs when they had 100% of the necessary qualifications; men applied when they only had 60%
A Columbia Business School study found that men consistently rate their performance on a set of math problems as 30% higher than it really is.
In a series of Yale School of Management experiments, students were shown a fictitious female CEO who talked more than the others around her. Both male and female students rated the CEO as less competent and less suited to leadership than a male CEO who talked for the same amount of time. When the female CEO was adjusted to speak less than everyone around her, students rated her as much more competent.
Girls, having been raised with the message that they're less important than boys, are suffering real consequences of this inequality as they grow up.
In another sense, we should consider how girls are brought up to feel about their own social usefulness. In other words, when we ask kids what a fire fighter does, or what a doctor does, or what an astronaut does, they have a pretty clear idea of what those jobs are. Fight fires! Help sick people! Explore space!
But what happens when we ask kids what a princess does?
I asked my 3 year old daughter this question, and after a long pause, she replied, "Um... Sit?"
Not exactly a portrait of social usefulness!
This crucial matter of what we have the potential to DO with our lives, and how this potential is limited for girls, is illustrated perfectly in the following series of children's books:
You'll notice that only three out of the twelve roles have been given to girls, and out of those three, only one has any clear social usefulness: the nurse. Only one of the boy's roles is similarly unrealistic as a future career choice: the pirate.
These books were published in 2011.
On average, when women and men work the same job with the same qualifications, women make 96% of what men make. However, working mothers make only 76% of what men make, whether the men have kids or not. More than 86% of women in the Western world become mothers.
It's impossible, for example, to find Mulan merchandise that shows her in her armour. Though in the film she hates the bride outfit, she always wear it in the film's merchandise because that way, she fits in with the princess branding.
Beauty and the Beast
makes a big deal about Belle's love of reading, you can't buy a "Belle's Little Library Set." You can, however, buy a Disney Princess Make-Up Centre that features a special colour palette for Belle, because that fits in with the overall princess marketing.
Some feel that
marked real progress for the Disney Princess brand, since it features two sisters whose love for each other saves the day. This is a fair point, but the film is still very problematic.
First, the film's attempt to integrate romance into the plot is clumsy and forced. When you see some of the
merchandise, it's easy to see why the film tried to shoehorn male characters into the plot:
A lot of The merchandise insists that each princess have her prince -- they are frequently portrayed as a set, in order to fit into the branding.
Second, as one parent points out in
The Princess Problem
by Rebecca Haines, "I didn't like when the girl turns into the frost princess and her dress becomes lower cut and has a higher slit in the skirt. Why did she need to become uber sexy?"
Artist David Trumble, who has critiqued princess culture in his work, has noted that "it's hard for me to imagine a girl celebrating finally being free and unrestricted by getting
Trumble also points out that Elsa seems to trade one cage for another cage: first, she's covered up and restricted by heavy clothes and a corset, but then she's covered with overt signs of sexualization (heavy make-up, high heels, glitter, low-cut bust) that cover up or distract from her natural appearance.
Here's Elsa before her transformation:
And here's Elsa after:
Here, for example, is a make-up artist's rendering of what Elsa would look like without make-up, to give you an idea of just how much "product" is involved in creating the supposedly more empowered, "real" Elsa."
The two films I actually think indicate some real progress for Disney are
-- neither, interestingly, have anything to do with princesses.