Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rejecting gender stereotypes

I am a feminist. No, I don't burn bras and I don't hate men. Feminism has become sort of a dirty word, conjuring up images of brawny women who don't shave their armpits. Nothing could be further from the truth. What feminism is, is simply the belief that men and women should be treated equally (note: equal doesn't mean the same). This is a belief I've held for a long time, since I wrote my thesis on perspectives on equality for women way back in NUS, and I touched on my views briefly in this post.

I feel the need to write about this because it has great bearing on the way I bring up my kids. Don't get me wrong - I do recognise that there are inherent differences between men and women. Despite my determination to raise my kids as gender-neutral as possible, Lesley-Anne is as delicate and fastidious as the next girl and Andre naturally gravitates towards toy cars and soldiers. Nevertheless, gender differences tend to be magnified, so that men and women are often compared to as coming from different planets. In reality, men and women have more similarities than differences, as a human race.

An MCP friend of mine once argued, "It's like an apple and a pear! Men and women are not the same!" My retort was that an apple and a pear are both fruit - they have more in common than they are different.

The problem is that society plays up gender differences (even imagined ones) from the cradle. At the hospital, relatives coo over the new male baby "oh, he's so handsome!" and female infant "oh, she's so pretty!" when in reality, the only way they can tell the gender of that wrinkled bundle is from the colour of the swaddling blanket.

From a very young age, children understand the way they are expected to act in relation to their gender. When boys get into scrapes, they're often told, "Don't cry, you're a boy. Don't be a sissy." Girls hear "Why are you so dirty and untidy? You should be more ladylike." These gender stereotypes are reinforced if their parents have traditional roles, ie dad goes out to work, mum stays home to cook, clean and look after kids.

Once again, there is nothing wrong with these roles, but what I'm saying is that contrary to popular belief, many gender traits not inborn - they are learned. From examining the world around them, kids form their worldview and believe that this is the natural order of the universe. Which may not be a problem if the kids are able to accept these stereotypes in their own lives but the minute they encounter something contrary to what they have internalised, the inevitable angst will set it.

A boy who grows up thinking he should be tough and like tough guy stuff like sports is more likely to hide or smother his passion for music and theatre, for instance, or risk facing the wrath of his parents and ridicule of his peers. A girl who has Wall Street ambitions may feel they are unrealistic as her sole purpose in life as a woman is to be a good wife and mother.

In both scenarios, you will have unhappy children who are more likely to grow up to be unfulfilled adults because they have conformed to societal norms against their hearts' callings. Worst case, they will feel that there is something inherently wrong with them because they are not able to embrace their roles like other "normal" people.

Gender stereotypes have real consequences. Women have struggled with issues of a glass ceiling, menial labour and unequal pay for decades. Men have not had it easy either, mostly with having to live up to expectations of what constitutes being a "man". Like this phrase, "but if I let my son play with dolls, he will grow up gay!" My personal view is that if that's his inclination, forbidding him to play with dolls will not prevent it from coming true. All you'll end up with is one in the closet or worse, one that pretends to be otherwise and lives a lie as an unsatisfactory husband and father (there are many of these out there). If he doesn't have the inclination in the first place, playing with 10 Barbies will not "turn" him. What is more likely to be true is that if you fill your son with all that macho BS, he'll probably grow up to be a jerk.

Whether you have a son or a daughter, both will benefit from a loving family that teaches responsibility, honesty, independence and respect for others. These cut across gender issues. As far as possible, I try to instil in my kids that they can be anything they want to be (unless like in the Baby Blues comic, they want to be giant carnivorous lizards) - they should not be hampered by myopic gender roles narrowly defined by society. In this day and age, I still hear comments like, "it's not so important for her to be smart, she's a girl." Hang on a minute as I throw this Barbie doll at you.

It's difficult because we're still living in the backdrop of an Asian patriarchal society, although mindsets are slowly changing. So even though I try to imbibe gender equality in my kids, it's an uphill battle. Last year, Andre told me one of the girls in his class played soccer with him and a group of boys. Instead of therefore acknowledging that girls can play soccer too, as I'd hoped, he said, "she's not really a girl." (It was meant to be a compliment.) We may laugh but when you think about it, we adults are guilty of this as well. If we see someone not behaving according to our ideas of what men and women should do, do we consider the possibility that our perception might be wrong or do we dismiss that person as perhaps possessing some "faulty" biological wiring?

It's a philosophy worth fighting for and I will continue to treat both my son and my daughter equally. They have the right to equal opportunities to pursue their dreams - Andre shouldn't get priority over Lesley-Anne just by the mere fact that he's a boy... nor vice versa. And that's what being a feminist means.


eunice said...

As Asians, I think the gender stereotyping is quite obvious. I remember when Sean was born and in-laws cooed 'oh he's going to join the commandos when he grows up, just like his dad and uncle'. YOu should have 'heard' the silence when I said 'maybe he wants to be a ballerina. If so, good for him'. LOL

I too try not to instill the boys/girls things. But someone Sean does come home and say things like 'but girls can't do this', to which I reply 'girls can do something that boys can't do...give birth!'. I know, bad mum.

Lilian said...

A girlfriend of mine tells me that girls at a certain top girls' school are constantly told they can be as good or better than men; so much so that many grow up to be aggressive unmarried women constantly wanting to prove they're better than men. Just anecdotal, doesn't mean it's true.

Someone once challenged me, "Hey, are you the type of mother who won't let her sons play with guns cos they're too violent?" I said No, he said Good...then I added, "But I'll also let my sons play with dolls if they want to." He looked at me incredulously.

In London, I bought a toy kitchen for the boys, made by Tefal; the electric kettle, blender etc were so real! When Eddie complained to his friends, some of these jerks kept taunting me, "Ay, you want your boys to be sissy ah?" I told them the sissy boys I know usually have fathers who are jerks spouting macho-shit.

monlim said...

I think part of the problem is that it inevitably becomes a competition. Like why must it be "as good as" or "better than" men? Why can't it just be everybody being given opportunities to be as good as they possibly can (or want), regardless of gender? Then we won't have this issue about men being threatened by women or women being insecure about men.

I don't allow guns in my home too, although that doesn't stop Andre from pretending that his lego or car is a gun. But I believe strongly that by allowing it, you're endorsing violence. Kenneth says he'll still have to do NS but I remind him that there's a difference between teaching an 18-yr-old how to use a weapon for defence and allowing an 8-yr-old to wield weapons to pretend-shoot others indiscriminately just like on tv. I think if more parents will reign in their boys when it comes to such things, you'll have less aggression in schools.

monlim said...

Oops! Lilian, I just realised you didn't say you forbid guns :P Anyway, that's my view lah. Andre doesn't have dolls cos he doesn't want them, but he does have stuffed toys. And both my kids play the masah masah stuff too.

Lilian said...

I was just making a point to that guy who challenged me; I don't buy gun toys at all. Eddie's the one who would go to Toys R Us looking for such toys, but the boys play with them maybe for a day, and it's always too noisy (the kind of plasticky shiny guns that make wahhh wahhh wahhh siren-like sounds) and pretty soon I can't take it and I'll remove the batteries or throw them away. The boys do like their Star Wars-like blades/swords though.

And no, I don't buy them dolls either, as I said, I just wanted to make a point to that guy haha. My point was, IF my kids wanted to play with guns/dolls, I won't stop them. Seriously, the boys have NEVER said BANG BANG in all their lives; they just don't play that kind of stuff.

But soft toys, ohhh, they love their soft toys. When I get mad at them, I pick up all their beloved friends, threaten to trash them. After some begging, I'll just say the toys will go to jail for a while. I think I've said before once I beheaded Brian's beloved soft toys cos he made me so mad, the boys still remember till this day.

monlim said...

Wah, behead soft toys! Hahaha, you're so fierce lah. I think that's possibly the worst punishment I can give to l-a, she'll probably be scarred for life! For Andre, the biggest threat probably is to throw away all his toy cars.

Anonymous said...

I didn't allow guns in my home too and I make that known when people are asking what birthday presents to buy so it has been pretty good until recently when a few super soakers got sneaked in by way of birthday presents when we moved to a condo with a pool.
As the 2 boys are now 10 and 12, and are already famliar with our thoughts against mindless violence, we thought they should be mature enough to differentiate between play and real- life.
Even before, when they were not allowed any guns and did not watch any TV, when they went to visit other people they seemed to have no problems picking up toy guns and participating in the games anyway! I don't know where they leanrnt it from. So maybe this is something ingrained in the male psyche.
Both boys are mad about soft toys and have about 350 of them (only 2of them were bought by me, REALLY!) but I noticed that they play with them differently from girls: no cuddling and hugging of the toys. They just use them as action figures - arranging them on the floor in a football match or making up stories around them, photographing and then animating them on their computers to make movies, or publishing newspapers and stories about them - usually some sort of epic battle, involving space ships and lasers. I think boys just sort of naturally gravitate towards warlike or and competitive activities.

My younger son enjoys baking and cooking. That's when he really calms down his usual hyperactive self and concentrates and has fun experimenting with different spices and sauces. I enjoy bonding with him in the kitchen. Thankfully, my in-laws raised their eyebrows but still ended up praising his creations and not saying anything about it being a "girly" activity.

monlim said...

350 soft toys?? Wah, Elan, you got a whole shop there! Yup, Andre and L-A play with their soft toys differently. As with your boys, Andre will use them as victims in his battle scenario or some other hair-brained plot but L-A will make little clothes for them and make belief social scenarios. Some things are just inherently gender-tuned, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Though I don't have a son, I grew up only with boys at home. So my take is exposure to such "violent" weapons is fine for knowledge purpose or from engineering angle like my brothers. Even without the toys, they make their own weapons?!?! So is there a way to deter them? No. Violence is a negative value that needs to be coached, with or without these weapons, it can creep into one's thoughts process once the thinking goes haywire....

I believe famous martial arts/warfare movie directors played alot such warfare games and toys for them to produce the scenes in their movies but they did not end up in jail because of their "violent" ideas.

It is imperative to know what impresses upon their thoughts rather than just the tools alone.

Of course having said this, exposure also does not mean 24x7 playing with the weapons...then like the 10k-hours imprint will be made after such a duration.

It is with some regret that I don't have a tiny man to deal with in the house now, maybe I am looking ahead that I will be missing the element of protection in future, the other reason for playing with weapons?? bwaaaaaaaah


Anonymous said...

Lilian, if I know which top girls' school you are referring to, from what I know about 90% of any cohort are married la...but divorces are highly contribute back to the single status.... :P LOL.....

Well,from the program "Time of Our Child" produced by BBC, they did an experiment dressing the boys as girls and girls as boys and placed them with different parents. And both phenomenon were true. The parents thinking the boy was a girl, gave girly toys to the child but the child gravitated towards boys' toys and vice versa. Initially the parents were very puzzled by the results. So both were tested true. Adults do indeed stereotyped the toys that the children should be playing. On the other hand, the XX and XY blueprint in the body of the 2 sexes also triggered their choice of toys by gender. So to me, God already has some things wired in his blueprint when he created these little babies.

As for equal opportunities which is totally in the hands of mankind, it WILL NEVER BE truly equal. However, living in my time now, I am already contented that we have come far enough to be vastly different from our fore-mothers days!!


monlim said...

QX: When L-A read my post, she cited from that programme as well! It's so interesting - there was this boy toddler bawling and the man, who thought it was a girl, kept waving dolls in front of the child even when he wouldn't stop crying!

Anonymous said...

Thats a poweful Issue but it depend upon person to person.

Cultural Myths

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