The messages children get about gender, and how they should act according to their gender start from a young age.
On a daily basis they are bombarded with messages that may seem insignificant on their own, but it’s the little things that add up to the big things.
From the day they are born children receive messages about who they should be and what makes a ‘real man’ and a ‘good girl’. Sonshine magazine and Let Toys be Toys have shared some powerful posts about this in the past week. Clothes, toys, language and books all play a part. And collectively have a huge impact.
So what are the little things?
Here are just a few things I noticed on my 5 year old son being exposed to on Sunday.
Watching Octonauts where there are more males characters than females. The message: Men are more important/valued than women.
In his school reading book, a version of the Elves and the Shoemaker. He reads about ‘the bootmaker and his wife'. The message: Women are secondary to men and only seen in relation to men. Women are possessions.
Watching a superhero programme on Disney+ where the ‘goodies’ are fighting the ‘baddies’. The messages: Problems are solved by violence. People are either good or bad, there is no redemption and no nuance.
Now, these messages on their own won’t have much of an impact. But this was just one day. A day when we didn’t even leave the house. Children are bombarded with these messages ALL DAY, EVERY DAY. And over the course of the years that has an impact on how they think about people, about men, and about women.
The media tells children that men and boys are important, powerful and strong. That they are superheroes and villains. That they should solve problems with aggression. That weapons are their domain. That they are predators. It tells them that men are angry. Dominant. Superior. Solo.
It tells them that girls are delicate. Pretty. Should defer to men. Are viewed in relationship to a man. That they need rescuing. That they are less intelligent. That they should look a certain way. That they should be interested in clothes, gentle animals and cooking (but not eating)
It tells them that girls are emotional and talk about their problems with friends. But that boys don’t do this. That this is weak.
Obviously, there are lots of things in life that can counter these messages, but the very real risk is that these add up to a culture of toxic masculinity as boys learn that they have to hide or suppress their feelings, and that anger is the only acceptable emotion for a man. It leads to men who see women as objects to be possessed. This leads not only to male violence (and violence towards women), but also to high levels of male suicide.
Gender-based messaging perpetuates gender inequality and a lack of understanding. It therefore perpetuates gender-based violence, as well as violence against those who don’t conform to gender norms.
We all have a part to play in changing the narrative. My part will be through children’s books. Through calling out these messages every single time I see them. And through countering the messages my son will be exposed to on a daily basis.
How will you play your part?