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Why Cultural Gender Role Messages Matter

 

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I remember when I was pregnant with my oldest.  We were decorating her room and hanging curtains.  We ended up returning a set of curtains because I thought they looked too “princessy.”  I didn’t want her room to be a castle.  I didn’t want her to be a princess.  I wanted her to be a kind, sweet, generous, compassionate, intelligent, determined, spunky child.  I didn’t want her to think the world has been handed to her.  I didn’t want her throwing temper tantrums for the latest frilly toys.  I wanted a daughter.  Not a princess.

 

Well, it’s five years later, and I am happy to say that I have daughters... who just happen to like dressing like princesses.

 

Seriously, with three girls under six, we are swimming in princess culture.  I don’t know exactly how it happened.  We never pushed the princess gear.  I still have yet to purchase a single Barbie doll.  We have more building blocks and legos than Easy Bake ovens and manicure sets.  And yet daily, I see a parade of princess dresses twirling before me, showing off their fancy.

 

I remember when this whole princess fiasco started.  My oldest was just over two, and she had fallen in love with the fancy dresses that caught her eye in Target.  I decided (like Pam later did on The Office) to give each of the princesses an occupation.  I don’t now remember what they all were, but I remember Snow White was a veterinarian and Ariel was an Olympic swimmer.  I wanted my girls to know that fancy can be fun, but it’s not what is important.

 

And then today, I opened up my newsfeed and found this article about The Children’s Place’s newest tee-shirts implying that all girls want is money and all they are good at is shopping and dancing and surely not math.

 

Whenever issues like this pop up, there’s a whole crowd of angry people who decry that a shirt is just a shirt, that people are making too much out of a simple fashion choice, and that parents who get offended by such shirts are relying on the culture to teach their children about themselves rather than doing it themselves.

 

To which curmudgeonly old me often replies, “hmpf.”

 

It always amazes me to think that people believe that culture does not influence our children.  Our culture influences us in ways we couldn’t even possibly begin to fathom.  The distance we stand from a person we are speaking to, the way we respond to hand gestures, the food we eat, the beliefs we abide by, our rituals surrounding death and new life, our relationships with our spouses and children and our friends, the clothes we wear, and what we believe about community and individuality are all deeply affected and informed by the culture we live in.

 

The thing about culture is that it flows on by beneath the surface of our lives.  We don’t think about it.  Our dominant culture is just what seems right or normal to us.

 

The hope is that by the time we are adults, we have learned to notice some of these aspects of culture and we have learned to tune some out, rebel against some, and graciously accept others.  As adults, we have the responsibility to look at our society and determine which aspects we want to inform our ideas about ourselves and our world.  Children don’t have that ability or at least haven’t learned to finely hone that ability.  

 

On the Fourth of July, my daughter asked me how the fireworks get in the sky.  I told her that people shoot them up with little guns.  She was floored.  She thought they just naturally occurred.  And why wouldn’t she?  She has no frame of reference.  My two year old is afraid of bugs.  To help her calm down, I tell her stories about how they are little baby bugs and they just want to play in the sandbox with her.  And she believes me.  Why wouldn’t she?

 

Children are born into a world where they know absolutely nothing.  They believe what they see and read and are told.  They believe what they are told about themselves.  They have no other choice.  The beliefs of others are their only frames of reference.  Their survival depends on them accepting the lessons all around them and putting them into work in their belief systems.  

 

And so when people make the argument that it is my responsibility to teach my girls about themselves and their world, I say absolutely.  Besides keeping them alive and sending them off on a road of morality and ethics, it is my number one responsibility as a parent, and it is not a responsibility I am willing to outsource to anyone else.

 

But I don’t have total say.  Every time I tell them they are smart, there are shirts like these that tell them otherwise.  Every time I tell them that money is merely a commodity and that it can never make them happy, there are messages everywhere telling them otherwise.  Every time I tell them ethics and compassion and empathy are important, they receive messages telling them beauty and youth and body type are infinitely more important.

 

My oldest is starting kindergarten in a couple of weeks.  I cringe when I think about the messages she will receive about herself and her world.  Right now we are able to control the messages she receives through the media and through other people.  That control will slowly and steadily begin to decay year after year as the culture in large starts to exert more and more influence.

 

Children crave peer acceptance.  It’s a normal part of development and individuation.  If the messages they are being given about girls is that they are vapid and dense, they will hope to emulate those standards just as they will hope to emulate the body shapes and hair types they see in magazines.

 

Our culture matters.  Regardless of how strongly we fight against it, it will have its voice heard.  My hope is that we can do everything in our power to make sure our voices are heard more loudly, and our messages are the ones that stick.

 


 

 

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Amanda Knapp is a stay at home mom to her three daughters.  She blogs about her life at Indisposable Mama.  

Comments (5)

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This article, and especially the reference to Children's Place shirts, made me think of my husband. I recently discovered that he hates the "What are little girls made of/What are little boys made of?" poem. I've never really thought anything about it, but he has always thought it makes girls sound like angels all the time, and boys run around like little demons.
It's amazing how much going to school does change their perspectives. And it's normal that peer opinions become more important as they get older. Like you, we were quite deliberate about the messages we tried to convey to our kids and those they were exposed to, before they started school. With the eldest, we of course had the most success, because he didn't have an older sibling bringing ideas home.
When he started preschool he had long hair (his choice - he wanted it in a pony tale like his dad), his favourite colour was purple, and he hadn't learned to associate pink with "girls stuff". In fact, I don't think he realised there *was* girls stuff and boys stuff. By the end of his preschool year his favourite colours were red and black ("Purple isn't even a colour, it's just a shade of blue" an older kid had told him), and wanted to cut his hair because another boy said he would like him better with short hair, and to be fair, because he was sick of getting mistaken for a girl.
Culture matters. Oh how it does.
Hello Amanda, what an insightful article presented with sensitivity and respect. I enjoyed reading this as a recommendation from a mutual friend: one thought I could offer for your readers on the topic of creating leadership in our children (we have a 3 yo daughter) as they grow older, is to purposely offer reasons why when directing them to do certain things - we've found when we explain the 'why' in the context of either serving others and considering what they might like, or to create awareness of avoiding a possible hazard, we've recognized the 'why' becomes a value we impart into the heart of our daughter, accepting that it's our values that are essentially the building blocks of the culture we end up creating. Trust this serves.
Thanks for this. My little boy loves princesses too. I mean their colorful and fancy and really really different from what he sees every day. I worry about what he will feel when he starts school and is told this is wrong for him to like. The other thing that has given me pause is that he wanted a pair of those little plastic heels and my knee-jerk reaction was that I shouldn't say no just because he's a boy, so I got them. I also now have a daughter. And I wondered if I would have bought little dress up heels for her, and now I don't know. It seems to be a sexualizing article of clothing. I'm still undecided. I'm really glad whenever I read other moms really thinking and considering these issues.
Mothering › Child Articles › Why Cultural Gender Role Messages Matter