Crossing Gender Lines Essay, Research Paper
Engl. 1210 Sec. 001
Joy Ellen Parker
Crossing Gender Lines
Author and feminist Alix Kates Shulman said once: “Sexism goes so deep that at first it’s hard to see, you think it’s just reality” (McEneany). That quote sums up perfectly the way our society runs. There is no class teaching children how to act according the their gender. Yet little boys and little girls learn at a very young age what is expected of them. They get ideas about their gender roles from their parents, their school teachers and subconsciously from the toys they play with and the television shows they watch.
Even before the children are born, parents begin choosing clothing and decorations by color based on the sex of the baby. The stereotype of pink, pastels, yellow and white for girls and bright or dark colors like green, blue and red for boys has long been a part of out culture. How many times have you heard kids argue over toys because the girls don’t want the icky boy color or the boys don’t want the gross girl color? The issue of color may go deeper than just fighting for toys. Studies have been done showing that school classrooms, especially for younger grades, are typically decorated in “boy” colors and reflect an environment that is most comfortable for boys (Bruning 23). Parents and teachers may be able to help reverse this thinking by buying toys in gender neutral colors and by using the same colors for boys and girls.
Children start to define their gender identity in early preschool (Zhumkhawala 47). This means that the toys children are given go a long way to further (or help change) gender stereotypes and inequality. In general, boys are given trucks, blocks and doctor’s kits, encouraging them to build, explore how things work and be active. Girls on the other hand are given dolls, kitchen sets, and play make-up. This is essentially saying that all that is expected of girls is that they become good mothers and wives and they look pretty. Basically, girls toys teach them to accept things as they are, and be ladylike and passive while boys toys encourage them to create and explore, never giving them the idea that there are limits to what they can do.
Parents usually encourage these ideas without even realizing it. For example, girls are praised for playing with dolls but boys are often ignored for displaying nurturing behavior. Likewise, boys get attention for being good at sports while girls don’t often receive encouragement for being active. As Bruning points out in his article “Separating the Sexes in Toyland”, these kinds of stereotypes are destructive because they limit our potential (22). It is not difficult to notice that in general little boys are more spatially and mathematically inclined and little girls are more verbal (Arbetter 16). However, a study done in 1992 called “How Schools Shortchange Girls” found that young boys who play with dolls develop better motor skills and girls who play with blocks develop better math and science skills (Zhumkhawala, 48)
Besides the toys they buy, parents affect their children’s concept of gender roles in the way they interact with them and by example. For one, parents tend to play rougher with boys than with girls, enforcing the idea that boys should be tough and girls should not act out. Also, Girls usually spend more time with their mothers and boys with their fathers. Therefore, girls end up doing “girlie” things like playing with make-up and helping Mommy make dinner. Boys do “manly” things like playing catch or helping Daddy in the garage. It wouldn’t take much for parents to change this. A father and son could include the daughter while practicing sports. A son could help his mother in the kitchen or even take care of a younger sibling. Parents should try to avoid telling boys to “stop crying and act like a big boy” because hearing that enough over time could make them think that it’s not okay for boys to show emotion. They should also steer clear of telling girls repeatedly to “mind their manners and act like a lady” or a girl may not feel that it is ever all right for her to speak her mind or stand up for herself.
Teachers too, can be biased, usually favoring boys. Research has shown that teachers typically wait longer for boys than for girls to answer a question. This subtly reinforces the idea that less is expected of female students. In addition, Zhumkhawala says “most teachers – even in preschools – pay more attention to boys than girls. Boys get more chances to speak, more praise and suggestions, more hugs” (48). When confronted teachers explained that this is because girls seem to be doing well without so much attention. Trudy Hamner, author of The Gender Gap in Schools: Girls Loosing Out suggests that we separate education to make it more equal (86). Of course, very few families can afford to send their children to private boys and girls schools. But recently several public schools have been test-driving separate classrooms for girls in math and science. Some critics believe that separate classrooms give the impression that girls aren’t as smart as boys and therefore need special attention. The girls who participate in these programs, however, love it. They say that not having guys around makes it easier to concentrate on learning rather than worrying about competing or being made fun of for a wrong answer (Hamner, 88-90).
Parents and teachers are not the only ones who influence a child’s view of gender roles. Television programs further stereotypes, again by showing children how they are “supposed” to act. For starters, there are more men than women in children’s programs and the women are portrayed most often in family roles. Males on TV are shown as knowledgeable, independent and aggressive. Females are shown as romantic, submissive, emotional and timid (Morgan, 951). According to Nancy Signorielli “studies have found that viewing is related to giving more sexist responses to questions about the nature of men and women, how they are treated and their roles in society (104). In addition, commercials geared toward boys tend to be fast paced and action filled; for girls, quiet and feminine with soft background music. To combat this, parents simply need to pay attention to what their children watch and limit the programs that contain blatant gender biases or stereotypes.
As we’ve seen, there are a variety of things that influence children as they develop concepts of how their gender should act. At first, it’s difficult to see the problem. Our society runs smoothly as it is, with most of it’s need being met by one gender or the other. But imagine if some of the barriers between men and women were erased. What would be possible if more women were doctors and politicians and more men were primary child-care providers? The answer could be a simple as changing the way our children play with their toys.
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Signorielli, Nancy. “Television and the Perpetuation of Gender Role Stereotypes.” AAP
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Zuhmkhawala, Sehba. “Dolls, Trucks and Identity.” Children’s Advocate. Nov.-Dec.