ABC TV The Drum has just repeated an episode that explored male violence against women and children and other men, based on power and a sense of “what they could get away with”. The consensus of the four panelists, all professional in this area of hopefully social change was that the attitude of little boys needed to be explored, and changed where necessary.
What concerns and puzzles me is a perception I came across in the 1970’s (?) about the developing of male/female gender stereotypes in young children. Does it amount to an observation of socialisation that has been discredited, and thus abandoned?
In this dynamic scientists studied the toys that boys and girls played with. Yes, it was stereotypical as little boys played with guns and soldiers in uniforms and little girls liked dolls and tea sets. The colours of the toys reinforced their forming gender roles; toy soldiers were in camo or battle browns and black. Girls’ dolls and tea sets were pinks and pastel colours and floral patterned.
The scientists tried to reverse these stereotypes. But boys and girls would not comply. Boys wanted their army guns; girls their pink Barbie dolls. (Okay, in the sitcom Ross when he was a child dressed in his mother’s jewellery and dresses and made cups of tea. He even had a song: “I am Bea, I drink tea; won’t you come and dance with me?”) But these boys and their female counterpart are the exception, rather than the rule.
So the researchers devised an alternative stratagem. For girls, they made army guns coloured pink with floral patterns all over. Boys were given tea sets of dark, army colours, in jagged shapes. Both boys and girls took to the reversal without an argument.
Methinks, for any change to happen in our machismo, militaristic society, we need to understand how children learn this gender coding so early in life. What the researchers found even more alarming than this genetic coding was that for boys it was accompanied by a generous acceptance of aggressive, anti-social behaviour. “Oh, you have to expect that from our boy; he’s a boy, after all.” We at all levels of society, from parents outwards, were reinforcing this anti-social, mutually exclusive gender coding.
Recently, I had dinner in a casual club where two mothers sat at an adjoining table; one had a boy aged about six and a younger daughter; the other had a slightly taller, older son. The children started playing raucous games. The boy constantly avoided his little sister, in spite of her obvious need to be included. But what I found more alarming was a game the younger boy started where he tried to strangle his friend; perhaps he was too (innocently) enthusiastic but the older boy kept moving out of reach. The mothers sat, chatting, seemingly impervious to the games their children played.
For the #METOO movement to succeed we have to begin in early childhood. Some months ago, my neurologist showed me photos of his four month old boy. I asked if he was developing intelligence/ articulation skills. My prof said: “I don’t care if he’s intelligent; I just want him to fit in”. So, perhaps the movement has already begun.
Just wanna play football for the coach.