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 über-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.