Random ramblings and TV-inspired activities

Friday, 9 September 2011

Why feminism matters if you're raising girls (or boys, for that matter)

Someone recently told me that we didn't need feminism any more, and things were pretty equal now. As I picked my jaw up off the floor, I barely knew where to start in pointing out just how far there is still to go. Feminism should be about equality, and we don't have that. We have damaging stereotypes about women, and damaging stereotypes about men; although the former outnumber the latter, it doesn't make either right.

The arrival of my daughter really brought this into sharper profile, as I start to look at the way things are marketed, and what it means to be raised as a boy or a girl. Leaving aside behavioural expectations, and 'sugar and spice' vs 'slugs and snails' ridiculousness, look at the visual signals. (I'm not going to get into the sexualisation of kids argument here, I haven't got time - the Bailey Review seemed to flag up some of the issues without setting anything in plce to actually deal with them.) But let's start with pink. Trying to find clothes that aren't pink, or don't feature some girly pink detailing, is extremely difficult. Part of me thinks that this is just so you 'have' to buy twice as many clothes if you have a girl followed by a boy, or vice versa. My son will sleep in pink babygros, and his jeans have pink trim on as they are hand-me-downs. It's actually easier to put a girl in boys clothes, as you can get more 'neutral' colours, and in trying to mix up her wardrobe to escape the pink-purple colour palette, yes I've bought boys clothes. (And, by the way, have you watched toddlers try to climb in dresses? It is a good tactic if you want to slow them down, that much is true.)

But it's not just clothes that are so clearly 'gendered'. Today I tried to buy a water bottle for my daughter, for preschool. One brand offered me either "Mighty Fighters" or "Pretty Princess". Pick a side, while I sign myself up to the 'Pink Stinks' campaign...

It may seem like a small thing to be hung up on trying to avoid wall-to-wall pink and princesses. But I do believe there is ultimately a knock-on effect. For instance, there was an interesting article on "princesses and the patriarchy" on a blog (which is sadly now defunct, but try this instead) which was brought to mind on reading an article about divorce: boredom is now the most commonly cited reason (phrased as "grown apart" or "no longer in love") and 7/10 divorces are initiated by women. (Feel free to read the comments below that article for a taste of misogyny in 2011.) I can't help but feel this situation might be related to the "princess met her prince and lived happy ever after" message that starts out in fairytales and continues to be played out in films, novels and TV aimed at girls/women. Most men aren't perfect Prince Charmings, and I'm not a perfect Princess either. But that's what we're sold.

In so many kids TV programmes, the boy characters outnumber the girl characters. Shows with a lead girl-character tend to be home-centred, (Peppa Pig, Olivia, Miffy), while shows with leading male characters are set in a wider range of contexts. We love Octonauts, but how often do the two female characters get to go out on missions, rather than it just being the central three males? I do wish Peppa Pig could be the 'brave knight' instead of the 'sleepy princess' in their role-plays. What it is to be a girl is drummed into kids, and to us, from a very early age. Becoming acclimatised to it takes the edge off, and makes it all the more insidious.

What got me thinking about this this morning was a feature on the news about how female contestants on University Challenge are likely to have abuse aimed at them online, in a way that just doesn't happen to their male counterparts.

And then there was some American businesswoman who had been invited on to comment (I'm unsure exactly who she was or why she in particular was on), and she says "In the nicest possible way, men are children". Frankly, that's just patronising to all concerned. It's not an excuse, and it shouldn't be put up with, just because "men are children". Men are not children. Men are adults, and responsible for their own behaviour. If they're not, how come they've got the right to vote?

There are so many ways that we don't have equality, and this woman's attitude of "keep your eyes on your goals and ignore it" whiffs of an "I'm alright Jack" attitude. Ignoring it doesn't change it, and things need to change.

Just look at some of the facts:

The gender pay gap in the public sector is 11%; in the private sector it's still more than 20%. That gap is unlikely to close in mine or my daughter's lifetime.

Neither I nor my daughter will live long enough to see equal representation for women in parliament.

GirlGuiding UK shows that girls under ten are linking body image and appearance to happiness and self-esteem.

Combine this with the fact self-esteem and happiness amongst girls are lower than ever, while eating disorders and body image obsession are starting younger and younger

Meanwhile you get pink products which say "I'm too pretty to do math" Hilarious, no? Why, in this context, am I surprised that female University Challenge contestants are getting abuse?

So yeah, there's a long way still to go before equality arrives on the horizon. Now excuse me while I get off my soapbox, I'm getting vertigo...

If you're interested, these people do good work and are worth supporting:

The Fawcett Society: The leading campaigners for equality between men and women in the UK
Pink Stinks: A campaign to challenge the culture of pink aimed at girls and promote positive gender role models
Object: Campaigning for a vision of a society free of 'sex object culture'


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