Friday, September 7, 2012

Princesses and superheroes: the consequences of gender roles

I've my regular column on the ABC today, 'Princesses and superheroes: the consequences of gender roles'.

I'm exploring the 'pink princess' play of young girls, and its consequences for teenagers and adults. A sample:
There is little longitudinal evidence linking 'feminine' play to teenage and adult attitudes and behaviours. 'Feminine' play, and play solely with other girls, has been associated with lower participation in sport, although this relies on potentially unreliable adult recollections, and a small sample size.  
In other research, 'masculine' childhood interests strongly predicted adult 'masculinity' amongst women, which was strongly associated with careers, rather than home-making. Another study suggests that early longings for marriage, often a theme of 'feminine' play, predicted lower aspirations for careers in male-dominated fields. 
Anecdotally, it's clear that many of the tropes of childhood reappear in adult life: women clinging to ├╝ber-feminine compensatory bridal fantasies, for example. But this says nothing about the specific and variable causes of gender identity, and their relationship to psyche and society. One cannot base one's parenting and schooling on a few selected stories. 
But suppose we ask a different question: What lessons would we like to teach, assuming we can? (Note the 'assuming'. It's possible play has no straightforward and universal message.) In particular, what kinds of exemplars do we hope to give our children when we say, implicitly or explicitly, 'this is a male' and 'this is a female'.  
The point is not that so-called 'feminine' traits are bad and 'masculine' good, or vice versa. Indeed, the terms themselves are confused. There are just traits, which are taken up variably in the population. And good characters need a balance of these: physical courage, emotional sensitivity, intellectual ambition, for example. The point is that we might be inadvertently encouraging our kids to take up some traits - attitudes, values, practices, codes - rather than others, and these will limit their lives in unnecessary ways.


Rolly Christian said...

Hi Damon,

The anatomically incorrect presentation of Barbie has always been a bug-bear for me. Why has this poor dolly been moulded with clearly oversized breasts? That’s got to have some subliminal influence on poor body image and increased plastic surgery for adolescents.

Toy story aside, what about the sub-cultural prejudice, aka “artificial gender construct” levelled at girls living in Australia wearing head masks.

“Ok Fatima, we’re off to the shops this morning. Here darling put this on.”

“Mum! It’s too hot and I can’t see well with this thing on crossing the street.”

“Why doesn’t Ishmael have to wear one?”

“Because he’s a boy darling. There’s no danger in seeing his little face.”

What a shame. I can see huge problems of balance with the sexualisation of children for profit produced here in decadent West and the subjugation of girls and women to be inferior citizens generally elsewhere or leaking culturally here too.

The Truth is “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28. God the Creator, our Heavenly Father doesn’t create 2nd class citizens. He wants us all as loving equals together, children in His family of love and respect.

Damon Young said...

For the record, the Barbie doll was apparently modelled on a 'naughty' doll from Germany, based on a cartoon.

The Mattel boss, Ruth Handler, travelled to Germany in 1957 and found it, having been told by her engineers that a more anatomically rounded doll (to put clothes on) was impossible.

She took the German doll back to the United States, and Barbie was based on this.