So many of us talk about how concerned we are with the gender stereotyping that restricts both our daughters and sons. We do the obvious things like make sure they have a selection of toys to play with (including fire engines and baby dolls), tell them about and try to interest them in role models and historic figures or characters of all genders and backgrounds, and refrain from admonishing our little boys for crying or our girls for not wanting to wear dresses. But sometimes things slip below our radar and we may say or do things that we don’t realise are reinforcing negative or restrictive gender stereotypes.
For example, calling a girl who likes sports and climbing or rough play a ‘tomboy’; it seems an innocent and innocuous label, meant to demonstrate that a girl can like and do all the things that boys do, but when you think about the word itself, it is signifying that a girl who does these things isn’t your average female precisely because she likes doing them. This reinforces the idea that ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ girl behaviour is the opposite of this — all babies and role play and frilly dresses. Proudly exclaiming that your daughter is not a ‘girly girl’ with a hint of disdain for those types of girls and pride that she is not like that may be great for her self-esteem in that moment, but what message does it send over time, to children of both sexes? Does it not indicate that being interested in the typically feminine activities associated with girls’ play are somehow silly, inferior or less worthy of respect than activities more commonly associated with boys? In our quest to make sure our girls know they can do, say or be anything they want, have we begun to denigrate the actions, thoughts and activities of girls who do fit the stereotype of what girls are meant to do and be good at? And, consequently, are we setting the stage for adult women and mothers to be denigrated and undervalued, since they carry out the bulk of childrearing and domestic chores, unpaid and volunteer work, caring, nursing and teaching roles that require the very skills we put down as ‘girly’?
This isn’t a new question I’m asking, I know. Since the 1980s, after women had ridden the crest of second-wave feminism to full-time jobs competing directly with the menfolk on their turf, it’s been a trend on the rise. We say it ‘takes balls’ to do something aggressive or cut-throat; we still throw around phrases about ‘growing a pair’ and having ‘hair on our chests’ and learning to ‘man up’ to signify that we have courage, brains or convictions. We say ‘girly’ and ‘frilly’ and ‘prissy’ to indicate someone who is a bit precious, too soft and simple for their own good. We know that in any way indicating that we need special allowances or have biological differences to men (such as those associated with hormonal changes, pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding or menstruating/menopause), especially in front of male colleagues or superiors, can be damaging, a way to get ourselves put on the ‘Mummy track’ where promotions are few and pay is abysmal. But is ‘acting like men’ at work and expecting our daughters to denounce girldom for more worthy pursuits traditionally associated with boys actually helping any of us, or is it hurting us?
I’m all for encouraging children of both genders to be themselves and pursue their dreams no matter where that puts them on the stereotype-conformity spectrum. Presenting strong role models for equality and helping them to identify harmful cultural beliefs and how to break them down is indeed important. But we don’t need to put ourselves down to do it. We shouldn’t feel ‘lucky’ if our company provides well-paid maternity leave, flexible scheduling and a place besides the toilets to pump milk; it should be a right and a standard across the board, for all women. Continually marking out specifically female traits or biological processes as troublesome or something that WE have to figure out how to do or conceal doesn’t help us to be more like men and get ahead, it helps make sure that women are not valued for who and what they are and what resources they bring to the table. Encouraging our daughters to hang with the boys and turn their noses up at the girls playing with dolls is setting them up for a big shock down the line when they become mothers themselves and find out first-hand that doing the work of caring is actually a valid, worthy, difficult, onerous, thankless task that is put on a ideological pedestal but treated with about as much respect as gum on a shoe.
We are not ‘just’ mothers and our daughters are not ‘just’ girls. Not only do they need to see that, but our sons do too, for it is they who we need to reach; we’ve done a good job letting our girls know that it’s okay to break out of the gender mould but now it’s our boys who need to start pushing boundaries and shattering stereotypes. Letting our children know that girly girls are just as great as ‘boyish boys’ and that they don’t have to be either, that they should just be themselves, may be the key to garnering greater mutual understanding and respect down the line — at work, at home and in all public spheres.
Noble Savage: I am a writer, a feminist, a mother of two, a wife to my partner of nearly 12 years and a doula-in-training. I am somewhere left of liberal, hold no religious beliefs and am incapable of sharing cheesecake.