Thursday, November 29, 2012

40 Years Later Are Our Kids Free To Be?

This morning, while driving our kids to school, I ended up having a very interesting conversation with them about gender stereotypes and sexism in advertising and media. Yeah...my kids are almost 6. But we were listening to Rosey Grier singing "It's Alright To Cry" from the Free To Be...You And Me soundtrack.

Sometimes there are moments in the middle of a lighthearted conversation where, as a parent, you suddenly get the sense that what you are talking about could actually be something that makes a shift in perception for your children. 

My son wanted to know all about how people used to think about boys who cried and showed their emotions. He wanted to know what boys could do and girls couldn't do. Which then opened the door for discussing things like what boys and girls are "supposed to" play with, do and like. 

Because I am constantly striving to be a more connected parent, I try to take all of their questions as seriously as they intend them. I answer their queries honestly and don't brush over things assuming the kids are too young to understand. After all, sexist advertising and gender stereotyping are issues that are aimed squarely at them, even if they don't yet know it, and I'd rather have discussed my beliefs with them before they are bombarded any farther by sources beyond my control!

I've spoken with the kids often about things like colors not being gender specific. Both of them really do know that pink, for example, is just a color and not for any particular gender. I've heard them both stand up to other kids and defend my son's use of the color in a project. They listen to me complain about how ridiculous Toys 'R Us is with their stupid "boy section" and "girl section" of divided toys. I've pointed out to them how few female characters there are in movies and movie advertising. They are starting to notice this sort of stuff even if they don't yet grasp how much it means.

Margot Magowan of Reel Girl often writes about the lack of female characters in movies on her blog. This seemingly insignificant fact, which goes unnoticed by so many of us, has real world implications:
"The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media released a comprehensive study on the lack of female characters in films. The study examined 122 top-grossing domestic family films rated G, PG, PG-13 from 2006-09. Of the 5,554 speaking characters studied, 71% were male, 29% female. That’s a ratio of 2.42 males to every 1 female, which has not changed in 20 years! A higher percentage of females than males are depicted in sexualized attire (24% vs. 4%) and as physically attractive. Females are also often portrayed as younger than their male counterparts, reinforcing the idea that youthfulness, beauty, and a sexy demeanor are more important for females than for males. It’s no surprise that this depiction is rooted in gender inequities behind the camera: only 7% of directors, 13% of writers and 20% of producers are female. Films with one or more female screenwriters depict 10% more girls and women on screen than do those films with all male screenwriters. It’s the male run film industry that creates our movies that in turn, creates the accompanying toys, lunchboxes, bed sheets, diapers, clothing and on and on." ~ Reel Girl
So, yeah...lack of girls in movies actually means a lot more than you might have thought. And it's not just important for girls. It's just as important to teach our boys that a world without strong, interesting, inspiring girls is a world lacking something really valuable. 

Hi girls. Your laptop has half the functions and costs less!
This afternoon, the site, Toward The Stars, shared an article on their Facebook page titled 16 Ways The Toy Industry is Stuck in The Stone Age. Each of these toy advertisements on their own might not raise an eyebrow, but collect them all together (and add a funny/snarky comment) and you really have to sit back and think Oh My God...we are all bombarded by this @&%@ every day. We have so much crap to fight through to be able to teach our children that they can try something outside of the box even though everything they see tells them they have to stick to previously defined gender roles!

I was just about the same age my children are now when Marlo Thomas released her groundbreaking album Free To Be...You And Me. 
Free To Be posited a world in which every boy “grows to be his own man,” and “every girl grows to be her own woman.” The land of Free To Be was a place where girls could grow up to be mommies and doctors, and they didn’t have to get married if they didn’t want to. It was a place where boys could cry or play with dolls without fear of scorn. It was a place where boys and girls could be friends, no matter what they looked like or acted like—unless the girl was a prissy princess, in which case she would be eaten by a tiger. ~ Dan Kois, Slate 
This month marked the 40th anniversary of Free To Be's release. Has much changed in those 40 years? Absolutely. We have more female senators serving than ever before, more female supreme court justices (including one Hispanic woman), as of this year there are 20 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. And just look at this amazing video of 9-year old Sam (Samantha) Gordon being interviewed because she's just gotten the cover of the Wheaties box for being an amazing football player.

If you can't see this video in your browser, please click here

But, I also have to wonder if Marlo and her team would have thought that 40 years after the release of their revolutionary album that we would still be battling a toy company who markets Legos specifically for girls, or a movie about Rapunzel that has to have its titled changed to "Tangled" and whose lead character has to share the movie poster with her male love interest because movie makers are so fearful that boys wouldn't see it otherwise...or even that a girl playing football would be such news.

As conscious, connected parents I think conversations about this sort of thing have to be part of our parenting habits. I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with girls liking pink or princesses, or boys liking trucks and race cars. I just think that our children should be allowed to experience the full spectrum of who they can be, what they can enjoy and not be limited in any way by a narrow-minded stereotype. Without allowing for all possibilities, how can we know for sure that we are connecting to the whole of who our children are or might be? And without that, are we really letting our children grow up to feel they are Free To Be?

For more on the topics of gender, sexism, the media and their roles in parenting, here are some of my favorite sites:
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