Last Sunday was International Women’s Day. My sister and I went to the final day of the Women of the World Festival (WOW) on the South Bank for some female solidarity and inspiration. It was a fantastic event and we got so much out of it, despite the fact we were both a little hungover from the night before (well, I had a weekend off and had to cram a lot in, including a good deal of alcohol).
We went to several lectures at WOW and discussions which covered some pretty hard hitting subjects but the closing speech by Jude Kelly, the founder, was just brilliant. In the face of so much misery and apparently insurmountable problems facing women around the world, she spoke about how we can all make a difference in our everyday lives. The way in which we teach our kids to see gender, their rights and the rights of others is key to this. As the mother of three young children, I am already very aware of what a massive uphill battle we have ahead of us on that score.
I am determined that my little girl becomes a strong, empowered woman who feels that there are no barriers to achieveing what she wants. I’m equally determined to ensure that my boys are not pressured by the male stereotypes they face and that they learn to respect women and see them as equals.
But at the tender ages of six and four, some very firm gender ideas have already crept into the heads of my eldest two. H said to me just the other day, on seeing some female footballers on television, “I didn’t know girls could play football”. A year or so ago he even asked me “do some ladies go to work?” This one totally baffled me as I work two days a week myself, which I pointed out to him. Also, all bar one of the teachers at his school are women, but he somehow didn’t view that as a job. He absorbed the fact that yes, ladies can and do work but then said “But ladies can’t be the boss can they, Mummy?” I gave this very short shrift, reminding him that his teacher, head teacher and me are all his boss right now. This he acknowledged readily when pointed out but I was thrown as to how such apparently obvious things in his day to day life can be overruled by some random idea gleaned from television and books that men are authority figures and women are not. This seems especially odd when, like many small boys, the vast majority of the authority figures in H’s young life are women. Pretty much all, in fact, apart from Daddy and his Grandads.
My answers to H’s somewhat depressing gender biased questions are always unequivocal. Yes, women can do everything men can do. But the fact that he asks the questions means he already sees being a woman as somehow being a restriction to what you can do, to what you can become. He is happy to be corrected but I am angry about those ideas creeping into his little brain so young.
Luckily, M is in no way under the illusion that girls are inferior. She is determined and strong willed, with no suggestion in her head that she might not be able to match up to a boy. At least not yet. In fact, she seems pretty sure that girls are considerably superior. However, she does have a strong sense of what are ‘boy things’ and ‘girl things’. She loves pink, fairies, flowers…. all very much girl things in her book, which is no surprise, considering how our little girls are surrounded by Disney princesses and all things sparkly from such a young age.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to stop my little girl from loving all that stuff. I was a pretty girly girl myself at that age and, sandwiched between two brothers, M doesn’t have a huge outlet for her pink, sparkly side. I’ve certainly let her – even encouraged her – to indulge in it. She has the dress up princess gear, wands, fairy wings, dollies and ponies. Just like so many four year old girls.
But I am frustrated that the girls toys and books are all so bloody passive. I don’t think that is what little girls want any more than it is what boys want. Saying that doesn’t seem like anything new or controversial to me. Kids have loved adventure and excitement since the dawn of time. As children, my siblings and I played with both traditionally male and female toys, often all mixed up together in crazy medleys. But our use of girl toys wasn’t in the least bit passive; it was all pretty high octane. Hell, our My Little Ponies lived in aggressive tribes and killed each other for land. Possibly not quite what the toy manufacturers had in mind but we loved it.
Nothing has changed for the next generation. One thing my M loves best is to play with superheroes with her big brother. But she is a girl and she wants to play with girl superheroes. She wants to fight, rescue and be generally awesome as a female character. I’ve managed to find her some small Wonder Woman and Cat Woman figures but that is about all there is out there. There are hundreds of different versions of Batman, Spider Man, Superman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you name it, but they are almost exclusively male.
Besides superheroes, M loves many characters targeted at girls but the ones she adores are not meek princesses in towers. She loves Elsa from Frozen. Yes, a Disney film but one of the most powerful and kick ass heroines Disney ever created. She has magical super powers and is basically a superhero in all but name.
M also loves the Tinkerbell franchise. I was sceptical about these fairy films but actually, having been forced to sit through a couple of them, I think they might just be the best thing out there right now for little girls wanting adventure stories showing female characters being pretty ace. At first sight, these pert little fairies seem to be no more are a bunch of dolled up, wasp-waisted dolly birds in pretty dresses. And they are, but they are also the heroes. They do it all by theselves and they win the day without a boy fairy in sight. I like that and M bloody loves it.
Yes, Tink and the gang are pretty nails, under their cutesy looks. So, with a general lack of girl superhero characters in the shops, we now have a full set of Tinkerbell fairy toys. They join forces with H’s Batman and gang and go kick some baddie ass.
I love that M doesn’t want to be a moany girl kicking about waiting for a prince. She wants to be Elsa or Tinkerbell. She wants to be in the middle of the action, winning. I am grateful that she has a big brother who leads the action filled games they play, to help M keep up this fantastic craving for adventure.
As the kids grow, I know I will have to keep a very vigilant eye on those damaging gender messages because they are everywhere and they don’t do either boys or girls any favours. I will be doing my very best to keep those messages in check and to help my kids see them for what they are. It won’t be easy, but at least I have Batman, Tink and the team on my side, fearlessly fighting oppression and socking it to the baddies with strength, cunning and a little bit of fairy dust.