If you have children you may begin to have conversations around the differences between boys and girls. Not physically but with the toys they like, the colors they prefer, the games they tend to play, the clothes they wear, how they act. It is inevitable as a parent to have these conversations as our children try and find their own space in the world and learn what it means to be part of a larger community outside of their immediate family. But what do you do when you hear sexist remarks creep into your preschooler’s mouth?
I recently took my 4 year old son to see a play loosely based on the story of Peter Pan. This altered version of focused on Wendy and Peter’s first meeting in the Nursery in which a saddened Wendy fears that her dreams would never come true. Through the use of pixie dust, Peter and Wendy are magically visited by various Disney Princesses all singing their associated signature songs (Ariel, Belle, Cinderella, Jasmine). The play was performed by 6 junior high girls and 1 adult woman – all with excellent voices. The costumes were well done and the set was fun and playful.
My 4 year old enjoyed the first two songs and then began to fidget uncontrollably in his chair. I asked him what was wrong and was shocked by his answer.
“Dad, there are no boys in this show!”
Looking around the theater I saw a handful of little boys and a few men in the room. We were definitely outnumbered. Something about the absence of boys in the show had quickly turned my son off making the show challenging to watch. To be fair he has only seen “Little Mermaid” so has little association with any of the characters in the show – but it was still a surprising comment.
Where did this attitude come from? He has been exposed to girls in movies, television, books, play dates, daycare, and school for his entire life. We are a house that watches shows ranging from Transformers and Thomas to Olivia and My Little Pony. He even loves the Disney Tinkerbell “Pixie Hollow” movie series. All of his teachers until a few weeks ago have been women – so why the change in attitude?
The play was appropriately cast with all girls – as the themes and songs were heavily girl focused. Even the role of Peter Pan has traditionally been played by a girl (Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan, Cathy Rigby). Had he simply endured through the two songs thinking that a boy or two would show up soon?
It also got me wondering: If my boy feels this way (about being a boy in a girls world), I wonder how girls feel in similar scenarios? How are girls typically portrayed in movies/tv/comics/books? Is there an even representation or is it weighted too far one way or the other? I also realized that I was viewing this through a males POV and that my perspective was also tainted.
If you look at the recent Avengers movie, which apparently appealed to everyone due to the incredible box office results, was not equal and fair in its representation of women. The Avengers team is made up of Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow. There is only 1 woman in the Avengers and 1 in S.H.I.E.L.D. (Maria Hill). The script is well done and allows every character their own individual story arc and time in the spotlight. We all know kids (and adults) have heroes and the selection, for girls, is limited in Avengers. While it is possible for little kids to like heroes of opposite gender it is probably pretty rare. If a little girl didn’t like Black Widow (or what about Leia in Star Wars) – their only options are the men.
Just as my son wanted to see a boy or two in his Peter Pan musical, girls probably want to see more options in their media.
Thinking that female representation was equaler and fairer in my youth, I took a look back at some of my favorite shows as a kid. I found I was incredibly wrong!
1) Voltron – 4 boys, 1 girl
2) Disney’s Gummy Bears – 5 boys, 3 girls
3) Transformers – None until s02e37, although Arcee is the one most remembered)
4) Duck Tales – 4 boys, 1 girl (this changed over time too)
5) Rescue Rangers – 3 boys, 1 fly, 1 girl
6) Tail Spin – 4 boys, 2 girls
7) Thundercats – 4 boys, 2 girls (later it was 6 boys, 3 girls)
8) GI Joe – Lots of boys with a scattering of female characters
Most of the girls in these shows were motherly or baby girls with a rebellious one thrown in on occasion. The other ones were girls that ditched most of their femininity in order to be accepted. I remember them better in my head but most probably don’t. For some boys they were probably hood ornaments, a character that ruined the “boyness” of their show, or just plain forgettable.
My son has also chosen to watch these shows:
1) Thomas the Train – Double digits worth of boy trains, with only a handful of girls)
2) Super Hero Squad – Mostly boys with girls coming in from time to time
I don’t know the impact that these types of images are having on the girls that my son is growing up with. Is it better now than when we were kids? Is it worse? Has it remained the same? While I haven’t been exposed to many new kid shows yet – I know that keeping an eye out for gender equality across all the forms of media that my son is exposed to has become of tantamount importance to me. I want him to see that there are no bad differences, only good differences. That girls are as capable as boys. I also don’t want the hyper-sexualized woman to be his primary concept of what girls should be.
My hope is that this was a random occurrence and doesn’t continue forward. Perhaps a moment of defiance at being bored. Either way – It is not the type of thinking/language that I want my son to be using around “girl” type activities. We will continue to introduce him to things directed at boys, girls, and everything in-between.
Exposure leads to familiarity which results in comfort. At least that is our hope!