Shouldn’t the Madhatter be a Girl? He’s Having a Tea Party After All!

Shouldn’t the Madhatter be a Girl? He’s Having a Tea Party After All!

I have really been grappling with the idea of “girl stuff” vs. “boy stuff” lately and it’s a conversation that I have had with many of my friends who are likewise trying to navigate the concept of gender with their children in our modern age. In an effort to make sense of this, I reached out to fellow International Baccalaureate educator and creativity wizard, Tim Fletcher to help me explore this idea in a guest blog post. Tim is an avid dancer and Middle Years Programme (MYP) performing arts teacher at The Inter-Community School in Zurich, Switzerland. I am excited to share his ideas and I hope they are as thought-provoking and insightful for you as they were for me. Enjoy!

 


 

I knew I was different. I thought that I might be gay or something because I couldn’t identify with any of the guys at all. None of them liked art or music. They just wanted to fight and get laid. – Kurt Cobain

There is something incredibly sad with this quote from Cobain, a guy that went on to make music that defined a generation and most likely resonated strongly with those that he could not identify with growing up. What it does show is the huge disparity between the perception of gender role play and the reality. What Cobain found interesting was disregarded by his peers as not being ‘masculine enough’, yet his through his own path he became a revered figure. It is a complex subject which I can reflect on from a personal perspective, having started ballet in a small rural city at the age of six, but it has many wider implications about how our brains are wired, how society reinforces that wiring and what we can do to change those perceptions.

What gave me the desire to ask my mother to start ballet so early? Why was I driven to dance, that it became such a driving factor in my life that it turned into a career? To be perfectly honest I have no idea, I must have seen it – and that was it, I had to dance. It is a decision that shaped my life, took me travelling, introduced me to my wife, etc. My whole being was attracted to movement and moving, and still is.

Not to say I didn’t like doing the boy things too. I ran around with toy guns and built spaceships, I just did ballet as well. Now I got lucky, my friends accepted that ‘Tim just did ballet’ and never questioned it or its masculinity. But in lots of situations it is questioned, take this anecdote, for example, the given starting point for this blog post: During a recent sleepover, my daughter creeps over to me and whispers “I think when I grow up, I’m going to be a boy”. My eyebrows raised and a curious grin comes to meet her gaze. “Really, what makes you say that?” She confesses, “Well, I like boy stuff like robots and remote control cars”.  “Ah, I see”. “and I don’t think it’s fair that boys get to have all the fun, why can’t us girls play with those things? And furthermore, I don’t think it’s fair that us girls only get to play with Barbies. Maybe boys would like to play dress up as well. What do you think?” My 7-year-old explains what prompted this revelation–her girlfriends prefer to play with Barbies all day and she gets bored with them after a while. So she feels like she’s not “girl enough”. The socialisation of this situation is frightening in that seven year old questions herself and feels she may not be “girl enough”, like Cobain, when we don’t fit – we feel ‘unnormal’.

As soon as young children figure out the difference between being boy or girl (we’ll stay with the binary for sake of not exploring another theme) they start to play out roles. Although, the exact cause of gender identity remains unknown, biological, psychological and social variables clearly influence the process1. These are reinforced by older siblings, peers, education, media, toys, marketing and most of all parents. Very quickly children fall into what they hear in the playground, like ‘boys are dumb’, ‘girls aren’t strong’, etc… and let’s not start with the parents who bolster these attitudes.  

We are quick to jump on the bandwagon today and blame marketers, toy manufacturers and tv producers that create gender specific products and content for today’s youth, not to mention the sickening phenomenon of pink for girls, blue for boys (which only took hold in the early eighties). In fact, we have been going in reverse with gender neutral toys, so much so, that when you wade through the mass selection in a toy store it represents more a vision of the 1950’s than the 21st century.  Surprisingly, it’s only the last three decades though that the toy industry has made massive strides backward, making a buck and greed has driven this trend. But it wasn’t always this way, check out this letter from Lego that came with a set of bricks in 1974.

lego to parent

Marketers and our environment contribute to this problem of gender identity and what is “normal” or not. All that being said, there is now some growing evidence to suggest that we may actually be predisposed to certain types of toys based on our gender. Recent studies with rhesus monkeys showed how female and male bias may be biological in what types of toys they preferred to interact with. In this study, male monkeys took to the trucks and females to the dolls. And there is a lot of historical reasons to support this, men hunted and built the shelters, woman cooked and bore children. Then these roles were repeated and repeated, and repeated, until very recently. It provides us with a framework of why the world is constructed as it is and why some people have trouble surrendering to modern structures.

This creates what we call ‘norms’. Most males probably have a predisposition to building and most females to nurturing, within a bell curve of sorts. Most people fit into (more or less) this type of behaviour, which is fine. Although, these norms can be twisted. We know through psychology that we categorise and compartmentalise as a coping mechanism. It is impossible for me to think of every person as an individual, with uniques traits, likes and dislikes, etc. So my brain groups them by their ethnicity, nationality, gender, clothing, etc. These rough categorisations have associated attributes from my specific environmental socialisation, i.e. my opinion, based on my experience, to a particular ethnic group, gender, etc – determines that… and violà I have a sweeping inaccurate impression of someone I saw for a second on the street. Although it is inaccurate, our impressions of others defined by this categorising, creates cognitive comfort.

What is not fine is giving into it and judging people for not fitting into the stereotypes we have built of the world, like when a girl prefers to play with robots and a boy prefers to do ballet. Even worse berating them for being different. Many parents who insist and tell their child that they are an individual, special and can do anything often struggle when the child falls from the realms of normal gender play. This cognitive dissonance must also cause some discomfort for the child “Mum says I’m special and can do anything… except, as long as I don’t play with dolls and stick with trucks”.

This is why we have a responsibility to educate, establish acceptance and shape a new set of norms, which is the responsibility of all those I listed above that contribute to this predicament. So, what can we adopt to remedy this perception problem?

Asking children why they think one way to challenge the stereotypes is a good place to start. Why is it stupid to brush and stylise the doll’s hair? What could you learn from doing it? Could the plaiting of hair give them ideas to build in different ways? This could be supported by showing innovative building designs but also showcasing successful male hairdressers. Breaking down false stereotypes can be done rationally, and emotionally. There can be an appeal to the emotions in the context of a game or competition. Children facing gender opposite tasks during a game will often “get on with it” because of the nature of competition and through doing, their actions may appeal to their emotions – that actually, it feels alright.

What can happen by observing different toy vehicles in action? The tyres make different patterns which could be the formation of an eventual print on the material. There are an unlimited amount of ways we can look at using gender specific toys in a variety of ways if we allow ourselves. In terms of creativity, it is a well-documented technique that putting odd things together can have very productive and unique outcomes, as I have covered in this post. It could be introduced as a rule of playing with gender opposite toys at home or in the classroom. How can I apply this toy, or playing with this toy, to an area of interest for me?

But most importantly we must be installing a new ‘norm’ of acceptance with what children are drawn to and indeed prefer to engage in. If that interest manifests it could shape their lives, so we have more female physicists and male midwives. I hate to think what would have happened if I had not been allowed, and indeed encouraged, to follow my passion for movement and attend ballet classes.

  1. https://www.cliffsnotes.com/study-guides/psychology/development-psychology/psychosocial-development-age-02/gender-development

nela_painted_1

If you would like to read more from Tim and his research more specifically into creativity and education, check out his blog, Learn Creatively. He has a lot of interesting ideas about the intersection of art, learning, and inspiration.

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Judy Imamudeen

Judy Imamudeen

Developing learners as leaders is my joy! As a highly qualified International Baccaluearate (IB) teacher and educational leader, I am committed and passionate about executing its framework and empowering students in creating a future world that works for everyone.

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