Treating girls and boys equally is the key to creating an empowered generation who can truly discover themselves.

If you want to get the right-wing Twitterers frothing at the mouth and having internal spasms over the encroachment of the ‘libtard’ overlords, then release a programme called ‘No More Girls and Boys’. See what they did there? They even put ‘girls’ before ‘boys’. Which of course, did not go unnoticed by some. So what turned out to be a spectacular piece of television on BBC2 last night, certainly managed to ruffle a few feathers on social media among those who are more than comfortable with the status quo.

It was a fairly provocative title I suppose, with the implication that we can somehow try to eradicate gender, however as anyone who actually watched the 2-part documentary will understand, that was not the aim of the experiment. I won’t fully summarise the programme here (it’s available for a while on BBC iPlayer if you’re curious), but the presenter clearly set out at the start that this is about ensuring that we are raising boys and girls to be able to participate in a modern society that is supposed to be gender-equal. However, as the programme clearly showed, the class of seven year olds considered themselves anything but equal at the start. Clear biases towards supposed male superiority were shown, with girls lacking in confidence and overly focused on their appearance, while boys struggled with empathy and expressing any emotions other than anger.

What was truly revealing however was how fast these pre-conceptions were able to be turned around, through a series of simple experiments that involved treating the children as true equals, by removing the references to gender that they were regularly exposed to. The girls were able to find out for themselves how strong they truly are, and they all got to meet people working in careers that would traditionally be thought of as careers of the opposite gender. It was truly magical to watch their little minds open.

As the parent of a 3 year old girl, I found this fascinating. I’ve always thought of myself as a mum who values gender-equal child rearing, but these experiments made me realise we all still have a long way to go, and society is largely not on our side with this (a look round any clothing or card shop will tell you that). Why does it matter? Is it just a #FirstWorldProblem? I don’t believe so. The key to success in life seems to largely rest on having bucketloads of confidence, and yet right from the start, little girls are encouraged to be small, cute, quiet and passive. My personal view is that girls clothing, while not necessarily being ‘inferior’ for it’s femininity, does little to encourage an adventurous spirit or an inquiring mind. The same goes for the ‘pink aisle’ in toyshops, and very often girls may feel they are completely restricted to that pink aisle, with it’s Barbies, babies and little pink vacuum cleaners. Of course, children should be able to play with whatever they want to, but as ‘No More Girls and Boys’ showed with an experiment on cross-dressed babies, the adults chose specifically gendered toys for them to play with, showing that what we may think are the child’s free choices, are in fact heavily influenced by adults and cultural expectations from the start.

All of this has caused me to cast my mind back twenty years to when I was in primary school myself, and the notable instances of gender imbalance that I experienced there. My own daughter is due to be starting there very soon, and so naturally I’m curious as to whether the treatment of girls and boys has advanced very much in those twenty years. One incident that particularly stands out was when the eight year old me was reprimanded by a boy younger than myself for wearing a Jurassic Park T-shirt, which was ‘for boys’ apparently. Now at this age, dinosaurs were my life and this film was just the greatest thing ever as far as I was concerned, so I think I must have given him a lengthy speech on why he was very, very wrong, but it bothered me nonetheless. I remember going home and checking with my family that my T-shirt was ok. I was extremely relieved to find out that it was, since I had the duvet cover, the action figures and everything, and there was no way that lot was going to be removed. It stuck with me though, that sense of being invalidated over something I truly loved, and made to feel it was not for me. It wasn’t nice.

Of course, it is not really the children that perpetuate this problem, but rather the adults that have instilled the ideas in their minds. Many of the teachers I had at that school were wonderfully supportive, but I do recall some moments that make me raise an eyebrow all these years later. One of these being ‘Nursery Duty’, which we got to discover once we reached Year 6, that glorious position of Top Of The School, when you finally get the privilege of sitting on the benches at the back of the assembly hall. Naturally, being at the pinnacle of such glowing maturity, there were certain responsibilities that had to be undertaken – SATS exams, cycling proficiency tests, and… the dreaded Nursery Duty. This involved a rotating group of about 4 pupils who would devote half of their lunch break to helping out in the school’s nursery class. A nice idea perhaps, to help foster nurturing abilities, however it only applied to the girls in the class. The boys could go off and learn to play cricket with our male teacher instead. When my friend and I found out about this we were rightly fuming. I remember going home and declaring angrily to my family “This is not right, it’s sexual discrimination”, to which my Nan laughed and said I sounded like I’d swallowed a dictionary. There was nothing we could do about it however, for this was Nursery DUTY goddamn it, and so it was for Queen and Country that we would have to sit this out.

And so we dutifully did our duty, and yet I couldn’t help but feel that some sort of terrible mistake had happened. That here I was, not even eleven years old yet, and somehow I had been consigned to spending part of my precious lunchtime wiping the snotty noses of a bunch of four year olds and telling them off for running, while occasionally getting accidentally called ‘mum’. All because I was one of the girls. I didn’t know anybody with young children, and so I had no clue what to do with them. I recall even asking one if he needed me to brush his teeth for him, and he assured me he could do it by himself. We had no training whatsoever, yet somehow we were qualified for this. Because female. Cricket on the other hand, I did have experience of, as I used to play this in the garden with my grandad, and yet the very idea of a girl playing cricket in school was strictly off the cards. We would look on helplessly as the boys spent their lunchtimes honing their sporting prowess while we girls were sent to help look after the kiddos. This seems crazy, give that as pre-pubescent kids, the bodies of boys are girls are basically the same, save for the vital bits of anatomy. There was no reason why we could not have had cricket lessons also, or why the boys could not have learnt a few parenting skills in the nursery.

One day however, I finally got my chance with a cricket bat. It was an outdoor P.E. lesson, and for some reason (I’m sure there must have been one, but I can’t recall it now), the teacher had decided it would be a jolly good wheeze to have a game of cricket… with a football. Now why, an actual weighty full-size football was in this incidence used as a cricket ball, I have no idea, perhaps it was because he considered real cricket balls to be too solid and therefore a hazard to the delicate girls, I don’t know, but this was basically a game of his own invention. We were divided into boy-girl teams and set to play this bizarre game of whack-a-football against one another. Right from the start my friend and I had issues with this. For starters the boys had all had mountains of practise at cricket in school, while the girls didn’t have a clue what to do. We stood in line waiting for our turns as one after another the girls failed miserably at even hitting the ball while the boys joyously whacked it all over the place, whooping at their victory. A certain anger began to well up in me at this point. I began to find it hard to contain my sense of deep and growing indignation at this exercise in ritual humiliation of the female members of my class. The smug face of the teacher as he looked on, the disappointment of the girls team as not one had managed to hit the ball yet, the boys self-satisfaction at their own superiority. Suddenly it was my turn. “I can do this” I thought to myself, “I play cricket”, and so when that football came at me I gave it the most almighty whack with the bat and watched, with sheer amazement as it flew right up into the air and disappeared over some trees. I quickly ran between the wickets as the girls cheered on madly. It felt amazing. I was not in any sense a popular kid, I was a bit of an oddball to be honest, and positively crap at sport normally, so to have my class cheering me on like that felt fantastic. As the cheers died down, queries were immediately made as to how on earth I’d managed this. You know, being a girl and all. I just explained I played it at home with my grandad, as I basked in the glow of being Girl Of The Match. Oddly enough I didn’t sense any kind of resentment from the boys, but rather a certain kind of respect.

It was while in the same class that another incident springs to mind. My friends and I had spent several break times on a little archaeological dig of our own making. We had discovered a sizeable rock, with a peculiar shape that was jutting out of the dirt and so we decided to excavate it. After much dedicated scraping and pulling, we finally tugged the rock free. It was angular and probably slightly larger than a football, and very heavy for a ten year old. My best friend and I were extremely proud of this rock. While the others girls slowly lost interest after the dig was over, we kept this rock in a safe place in our corner of the playground and cherished it like a little stone pet. Then one day, a bunch of boys from Year 5 came along and stole it.

The outrage was real. They had transported the rock over to one of the other playgrounds, where they guarded it at all times, so as to protect it’s magical powers. They had had named it ‘The Kestrel’ for reasons that have entirely escaped me now, and so with this new name it took on a rather mystical quality, which made our desire to thieve and possess it all the greater. They knew we wanted it back, and they weren’t going to give it to us. They tried trading us all manner of small rocks, that were apparently equally magical, but we weren’t having it. The Kestrel was ours. We tried convincing them of this since it was our archeological dig that had unearthed it in the first place. They maintained it was theirs because… theft is property, right? And so war was on. Every time that break time bell rang, the struggle resumed. We would steal it from them, and they they would steal it back. This went on for a while, until they hid it away in a special secret place. We vowed to find it and never stop until we had victorious possession of that rock once more. The plotting was intense, we schemed for days. And so it was inevitable that shit would soon get serious. As soon as the break time bell rang, we both sped out of the classroom, down the stairs and into the playground. According to plan we were the first ones there, and little did they know, we had discovered the location of the rock. Before the boys had a chance to defend their precious Kestrel, we ran to it, lifted it up together and barely containing our mirth, carried it like that all the way to our little territory on the far playground and finally heaved the thing into a bush. We were in hysterics, as the other kids were just beginning to emerge into the playground, while already we had completed our mission.

But when they discovered the absent Kestrel this was the last straw for the boys. They loved that rock, and this latest capture was going too far. So they had no choice but to resort to the final and most serious option of war – they promptly threw a hissy fit at our teacher and told on us. So it came to pass that after school one day my friend and I found ourselves hauled up in front of our teacher (who was none other than Mr. Football-Cricket himself) and forced to explain ourselves. With deeply innocent faces, we assured him that while we understood the boys feelings on this, it was certainly a tragedy all round, as we were equally distressed at the original theft of our archaeological trophy rock. But when all was said and done, we weren’t really at war. It was all a bit of fun, and we were just playing, right? His response to this was… interesting.

“What I don’t understand” he mused down at us, “is why on earth two Year 6 girls, would want to play with Year 5 boys”.

Excuse me, what? Um, just… because? The thought had never even crossed our minds, that there could be some issue with this. As an adult I now see what he was doing was falling into the age-old trap of basically blaming females for any problems they may encounter with males. It’s all pretty innocent at primary school level of course, with “Sir, he stole our rock” being an example, but follow this through to it’s natural conclusion, and you get downright victim blaming. Don’t want to be harassed on public transport? Sit in the women-only carriage. Not paid enough? It’s your fault for taking time out to have children or not being confident enough to ask. Don’t want to get raped? Don’t get drunk or wear short skirts. Getting men to take responsibility for their behaviour starts early on with the messages we give to our kids. If girls are taught that they have to constantly take on the blame for their issues with boys, they will likely continue to think like this in adulthood.

And so, you may or may not be wondering, what happened to the great and wondrous Kestrel in the end? Well, the boys managed to thieve it back once more, and we decided this was not on. So one day we actually took it upon ourselves to enter the school playground on a Sunday when no-one was there, re-capture the rock and with some considerable effort carried it over to the school pond and flung it in with a glorious splash. When the poor lads found out about our victory, they were devastated, and I have to say, never had I felt a greater sense of triumphant glee. Not even when whacking a football with a cricket bat. But it was not without a little sadness, for now we had all lost our rock. Of course, the problem with ultimate victory is that there is nothing left to win, and so that heralded the end of rock-gate and our games with the boys.

And so to summarise, despite the somewhat provocative title of ‘No More Girls and Boys’ there really are vital lessons to be learned here about how we treat our children and what we expect of them. This is not about ‘letting kids be kids’ as so many online commentators have railed (over the sound of the missed point whooshing above their heads, no doubt), but facing up to the kind of kids WE are consciously or unconsciously shaping them into, by failing to challenge the status quo. Too many people seem angered by an experiment that was clearly beneficial to all the children involved. Why? The men getting wound up about this online perhaps need to question why they feel so threatened by the new-found confidence of a class of 7 year old girls. In short, we seem to have a long way to go before attitudes fully change, but I believe we are making progress all the time towards a fairer world for our girls and boys, where there is truly nothing that can hold us back. Until then I will just try my best to raise a little girl who can hold her head high and whack that ball.

And when times get tough, I guess we just have to believe in ourselves, whack that ball as hard and as high as we can, and then don’t stop running, until we get to that place where we have every goddamn right to be. 🙂

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2 comments

  1. I’m in the US, haven’t seen the program. I’ve got a 15 year old son and a 19 year old daughter.
    I’d be interested to see the program.
    I wonder what you mean by clear biases toward male superiority were shown?
    What do you mean by little girls are encouraged to be small. It generally isn’t until puberty hits that there are big differences in height between girls. For me, until puberty I was always one of the tallest kids, so I’m curious how being small works.
    Seven year old boys are most likely behind their female peers in verbal skills, so I am sure they didn’t put on the best show for the program.
    As a female growing up, I often struggled and felt boxed in by cultural notions of what it mean to be female. Having had one boy and one girl, I often thought about nature vs nurture. We can’t discount nature’s influence, and I could see that fairly early with my son.
    Despite sometimes feeling boxed in by cultural notions of feminity, I was never the kid who wanted to whack at the ball.

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    • Hi Kate, thanks for your thoughts!
      The biases towards male superiority included the children coming out with gems like “men have better jobs don’t they, because they get into president easier”. There’s also a quote I spotted online about how people have said ‘isn’t she tiny’ and ‘what a big, strong boy’ even though in both cases the baby was 7lbs 8oz, an average size. To be honest, I wasn’t the sort of the kid who wanted to whack the ball either (I normally hated school sports), but in this instance for me it symbolises that moment of empowerment against a system that I felt wanted to hold us back. But of course, there are as many different experiences of being female as there are females. 🙂

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