Launching LetMeBME: A Worldwide Video Project

What would happen if I start asking women and girls around the world to answer 3 simple questions? This is the first short film produced from a selection of the first contributions received ;-)

Eventually I would like to invite contributions from the men/boys, to see what is their view on question 1: I think it’s paramount to include all views and allow the project to be as inclusive and agenda-free as possible.

The project website www.letmebme.org is still under construction and I am looking for sponsors to effectively power the website with in-built video-uploading technology: this will bring the project to the next level as contributors will be able to directly share their uploaded videos through YouTube/Vimeo and other video sharing links. For now everyone interested in sharing their thoughts can send their short video via email to letmebme@mediasavvygirls.org or via tweet/facebook with the hashtag #letmeBME; our editor will upload all new contributions on a monthly basis.

In this era of social media and advanced video technology there is not excuse for not joining in and letting our voices be heard!

The Big Tween Market Machine: Why Pre-adolescents are Marketers’ Dream

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“What do you call a consumer who wants to buy everything you have, doesn’t care what it costs and is less than five feet tall? A marketer’s dream? Nope. You call them kids.” 

AdRelevance Intelligence Report, 2000

While marketing to children is nothing new – having first been introduced in the 1960s – the aggressive marketing to those on the cusp of adolescence (ages 9-14) is a phenomenon that has arisen much more recently, in direct synchronicity with the “internet age” and the rise of new media (1990s-present). This demographic, the so-called “tween” group (for “in between”), was in fact entirely developed by and for marketers, and took on economic significance before it took on cultural significance (1).  It would not be a hyperbolism to suggest that tween culture was, in fact, entirely manufactured by the marketing machine. To understand the aggressive and pervasive nature of tween marketing, it’s important to first understand why this arbitrary distinction was created. Why “tweens”? What tweens have to offer to marketers that is so important vs. what children and teenagers already provide as consumers? Why has this market exploded the way it has in the last decade? The answer boils down to the fact that tweens, being in a transitory period, face a great degree of sudden vulnerability. And, at the same time, they retain full access to parental funds. This juxtaposition of susceptibility to influence and spending power is more prevalent among tweens than it is among teens or children.

Tweens’ Influence on Household Spending

Tweens are too young to legally earn their own money in order to attain what they want, so retain a child’s relatively unquestioned reliance on (and thus access to) their parent’s funds. According to BusinessWeek magazine, “Of the reported US$ 51 billion spent by tweens themselves, an additional $170 billion was spent by parents and family members directly for them” in the United States annually (2).  In the UK, we have 11 million people aged 15 and under, with a remarkable total expenditure of £12 billion from children up to 18, money often coming from own pocket money (alas parent’s pockets!) and part-time jobs (2b). This does not merely represent an access to more money on the part of tweens, but also a far greater lack of discretion about what they will spend it on. Teens, by contrast, who have begun to earn and control their own funds, have more awareness of the fact that money is finite and needs to be prioritized around what they really want, introducing a level of agency and choosiness about what they buy which is the precursor to adult spending habits. At the same time, tweens have just enough independence to exert power over household spending decisions owing to a shift in family dynamics which took place during the 1990s, and is known to play a key role in modern marketing strategy.(3) This shift saw a large number of tweens living in households where both parents work and in single-parent households (in 1994, one in four households in the United States with children was headed by a single parent, up from one in eight in 1970 [Miller, 1994]), and led to far more responsibility being placed upon tweens and teens (e.g. grocery shopping duties, which fully one-third of tweens have), giving them greater purchasing power and more independence. (Cuneo, 1989; McLaughlin, 1991; Miller, 1994; Rickard, 1994)(3) Tweens have been shown to have more “discretionary purchasing power than younger children or older adolescents, to shop at least three times a week, and to save 30% of their spending money for higher ticket items.” (McLaughlin, 1991) This access and right to adult funds and influence over what is done with them combined with tweens’ unique psychological vulnerabilities make them extremely appealing to marketers, and has been a strong factor in the developing pervasiveness of marketing directed at them.

The Role of Peer Pressure in Marketing to Tweens

As mentioned earlier, tweens are in a unique phase of psychosocial vulnerability. Most children in this age group are going through a fundamental change in their place in the social hierarchy around them, moving from schools where they were the oldest, most respected, “coolest” kids, to environments that are new, alien, and place them as the youngest and most vulnerable members. They have to “start over” socially at exactly the same time as their own bodies are developing in sudden, often troubling ways. The tween years are a period of intense change: mental, physical, emotional, and social. This breeds an incredibly intense pressure to “fit in”. Most surveys conducted on the priorities of tweens note fitting in on the top of, or very near the top of, the list. Naturally, this creates a deep need to have what their peers have and look how their peers look — a marketer’s haven for creating trends around brands. Teens, by contrast, are increasingly rebellious and eager to carve out individual identities, meaning that mainstream pop culture (and therefore the marketing therein) is something many teens grow to define themselves against, rather than by, an obvious challenge to marketers (for whom mainstream appeal is the goal, as it brings with it maximum profit potential). The pop idols and Disney shows that were the height of cool when they were twelve are the epitome of “lame” by 15 or 16 — hence why many pop stars (e.g. Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus) are aggressively marketed to smitten tweens while often being almost universally loathed by older teens. Research confirms the fact that tweens place even more emphasis on brand names than do older adolescents (Cuneo, 1989; Fitzgerald, 1992; Koester May, 1985; McLaughlin, 1991; Simpson, 1994). They are particularly concerned with having the “cool” brands when it comes to clothing and other matters of appearance. They much more strongly associate conformity with the need for acceptance, approval, and harmonious relationships with others (Batra, Kahle, Rose, Shoham, 1994).(3) Today’s tweens are also the most “wired” generation in history (heavily using the internet and mobile devices), meaning this peer pressure travels with them everywhere they go, and thus so does the potential to market to it. Tweens are also far more likely to click on things like banner ads than other age groups and are more susceptible to viral marketing tactics that promote the spread of a message from one user to another. Marketing to tweens via interactive social venues like chat rooms, forums, and e-mail have been noted to be especially effective.(4) Due to this, the prevalence of online marketing (both obvious and subtly worked into interactive media) has risen sharply over the last decade.

The Impact of Puberty: Body Image and Gender Roles

No discussion of tweens could be complete without examining the role of puberty; the rapid changes taking place in tweens’ bodies throws how these young people relate to one another into chaos, thrusting gender roles into sudden and stark relief and raising big questions about sex, dating, marriage, and the possibility of having children. Little girls and boys who were simply playmates a year or two prior suddenly find they have to redefine their peer roles around their emerging sexuality. This creates a deep need in tweens to understand themselves as gendered persons, and tween marketing capitalizes on this by offering strongly gendered media that plays into tweens’ heightened body awareness and subsequent concerns about their appearance. While this newfound awareness is hard on the self-esteem of both genders, it has been found to be significantly harder on girls (owing in large part to an intense perceived pressure to be thin), with research conducted throughout the United States, Korea, and Australia showing that the body dissatisfaction which arises in girls during puberty “is associated with lower levels of self-esteem and increased likelihood of depression among early adolescent girls.” (Newman & Newman, 2006, p. 303.) The earlier a girl physically matures, the worse this impact tends to be, and the more likely serious consequences (such as eating disorders) become.(5) As self esteem is a “central component of personality and identity” and is centrally tied to one’s “confidence in one’s ability to think and to cope with the challenges of life and confidence in one’s right to be happy” (Clancy and Dollinger, 1993)(6), young girls’ desire to identify with themselves in a positive way (and thereby achieve greater agency and success) makes the consumption of images of beautiful, thin young women incredibly appealing—something tween television programming and advertising media taps into (and profits from) frequently. To assess this phenomenon, Ashton Lee Gerding, a humanities student, and Nancy Signorielli, professor of communication at the University of Delaware, analysed 49 episodes of 40 distinct American tween television programs that aired in 2011 on Disney Channel, Disney XD, Nickelodeon and the Turner Cartoon Network. They catalogued and examined more than 200 characters in terms of their attractiveness, gender-related behaviour and personality characteristics such as bravery or ability to handle technology (7): “Tween viewers are undergoing an important developmental stage and actively seek cues about gender,” said Gerding. “Television programming can play an important role in that development, so we examined tween television programming. Overall, girls were portrayed as more attractive, more concerned about their appearance, and received more comments about their appearance than male characters. However, female and male characters were equally likely to be handy with technology and exhibit bravery. This sends the message that girls and boys can participate in and do the same things, but that girls should be attractive and work to maintain this attractiveness”. “Tween television programs may help to shape the way kids think about the roles that are available for them. Therefore, we advise parents to watch these programs with their kids and talk with their tweens about their roles in society. We also advocate for media literacy programs that could mitigate some of the potential negative effects of these programs.”

Tips for Parents: How to Moderate the Impact of Tween Marketing

Marketing is an inevitable part of the world most of us live in, so parents cannot hope to entirely shield their tweens from the impact of marketing on their developing adolescence. Parents can, however, give their tweens tools to help them cope with the barrage, and parents should never undervalue their role in this area. No matter how pervasive the media and marketing have become, tweens still cite their parents as their biggest influence when it comes to important decisions, even in “private” areas like sexuality. Parents can, absolutely, make a strong difference in how teens interpret and deal with the media and the marketing that is so aggressively aimed toward them. Prof. Agnes Nairn and Ed Mayo with the help of UK charity Care for the Family completed a “pester power” online survey and published a pamphlet Pester-power: Families surviving the Consumer Society (2007) which include a comprehensive summary of “survival tips” adopted by parents against the current marketing pressure. The booklet can be downloaded from this link: http://goo.gl/Q34ME9 (10). In this blogpost I want to include some suggestions provided by the Media Awareness Network, the Canadian Paediatric Society, and Susan Linn (psychologist and author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood)(8), which should help parents navigate the murky waters of children commercialisation:

  • Start young. Children are influenced by marketing from a very young age.
  • Limit children’s exposure to advertising on television and on the Internet. Don’t allow them to have televisions or Internet-enabled computers in their rooms, and limit TV time to one or two hours per day.
  • Talk to your kids about how advertising works and what advertisers are trying to accomplish. Explain that advertising is a multi-billion dollar business whose goal is to get people to buy things, and that they are very good at it.
  • Encourage kids to think critically about marketing messages. You can start as small as you like: last year a Grade 6 math class in Thunder Bay, Ontario debunked a “fun fact” on a package of Smarties, which claimed that Canadians eat enough Smarties each year to circle the earth 350 times. They found that in order for the claim to be true, either the earth would have to be a lot smaller, or each Smartie would have to be 3.5 metres in diameter.
  • Help kids to understand the strategies used by advertisers. Talk with kids about specific ads: “How do you feel about the people in the ad? Do you want to be like them? Why or why not? Does the ad make you feel uncool for not owning the product, or that you’ll feel good about yourself if you buy the product? What are some other ways you could get those feelings, without buying the product? Has the ad used any ambiguous words or impressive-sounding facts and figures to make the product sound better than it is? At the end, did the announcer say anything like ‘some assembly required’ or ‘batteries not included’?”
  • Explain about product placement: if characters in a movie or TV show are using a particular brand, the advertiser probably paid a lot of money for it to be there.
  • Discuss how your kids can be smart, responsible consumers by knowing what is good for them and what is not, what is good for the environment and what is not, and what is good value for money.
  • Educate children about nutrition using your country’s Food Guide. Discuss whether eating only things you see on TV makes for a healthy, balanced diet. Make a distinction between “everyday” foods and “sometimes” foods.
  • Before going grocery shopping, decide exactly what you plan to buy, including snacks and treats. Having a list that you and your kids have discussed ahead of time makes it easier to avoid impulse purchases and set limits in the store.
  • Monitor your own media habits and buying habits, and change them if necessary. Children pick up early on what is important to their parents.
  • Most importantly, make sure TV, Internet, and video games “screen time” is well balanced with family time, active/creative play, playing outdoors, reading, and other activities without marketing attached!
Main references:
1. https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=bgsu1119390228&disposition=inline
2. http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2005-10-11/marketing-and-tweens2b. www.tgisurveys.com/tgi/Youth2006.PDF  and Youthscape Report: Attitudes, Behaviour and Spending Habits of UK Kids & Teens, Q4: 2013 https://www.marketresearch.com/Swapit-v3893/Youthscape-Attitudes-Behaviour-Spending-Habits-8261648/
3.  http://42051.faithweb.com/Tween%20consumes%20catalog%20clothing%20purchase%20behavior.html
4.  http://www.cdc.gov/youthcampaign/research/PDF/LitReview.pdf
5. http://www.brighthubeducation.com/teaching-methods-tips/3320-development-in-early-adolescence-puberty-and-low-self-esteem/
6.  http://www.drwrite.com/research/sample2.shtml
7.http://www.science20.com/news_articles/tween_programming_is_disney_promoting_stereotypes_or_creating_what_kids_want_to_watch-134661
8. http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/en/news/newsandfeatures/pages/target-market-children-as-consumers.aspx
9. http://www.slideshare.net/gerdavandamme/whitepaper-digital-marketing-to-generation-spongebob
10. http://www.careforthefamily.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/301-08-ppinf02-pester-power-booklet-10-september-2008.pdf

The Impact of the Media on Children Sexual Identities

Children using smartphones

This blog post continues the discussion of academic literature around the topis of media and children gendered and sexual identities (see the first part in my previous article on sexualisation).

The rapid development of the internet and mobile technology has brought with it the entrance of the media into our everyday lives in ways that we could not have imagined prior to the 1990s; children born from the mid-1980s onward have experienced a level of media exposure throughout their developmental years that was hitherto unheard of. This trend only continues to grow—and fast.  A study recently conducted by the family advocacy organization Common Sense Media found that 38% of children under the age of 2 have used a mobile device for playing games, watching videos or other media-related purposes. As recently as the year 2011, only 10% had.(1) In the UK, three quarters of 5-15 year olds have internet access at home and 71% have a TV set in their rooms, followed by 62% with a gaming console as well, and 54% own their own mobile phones (Ofcom, 2007). All in all, a great many young people have 24-hour independent access to media.

Of course, wherever the media goes, sex soon follows. Sex sells, after all, and in a world of increasing visual and auditory clutter, it’s one of the few tools left by which a piece of media can woo our fleeting attention. In a previous article, we both debunked some of the common misconceptions surrounding early exposure to sexualised media (such as the idea that it necessarily leads to higher rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion) and introduced the concept of agency; namely, the deeper debate between whether this exposure is removing some of the traditional negative stigma from female sexuality and encouraging the free expression of desire and choice, or whether it is encouraging sexual behaviour in such a way that young people are getting more and more willing to open themselves up to (or perpetrate) exploitation. In essence, are we dealing with the liberal encouragement of pleasure, or the destruction of natural innocence in favour of danger?

Proving either stance is fraught with obvious difficulty; while some studies have been able to show, for example, that teens who watch more than two hours of television per day are 30% more likely to have sex, regardless of parental attitudes, (parental disapproval was actually shown to more than double this likelihood) (2) assessing how much agency these teens wield on a case-by-case basis is challenging, if not impossible.

To illustrate, teens who watch more than two hours of television per day may well do so because they are having social difficulties at school, have few friends, and thus, are quicker to leap into bed with other teens when the opportunity arises. Such teens would seem to be acting for acceptance or under the influence of peer pressure, rather than acting simply because the media told them to. Similarly, teens with strict parents are much more likely to suffer from poor self-esteem (and therefore an even greater craving for acceptance) (3), which could explain why the rates get even higher for those teens whose parents have very strict attitudes about sex.

While one might still argue the wisdom of those teens’ choices, if the above were true, the young people in question would still be acting with agency, regardless of the media’s influence. So how, then, lacking hard statistical data, do we measure the effect of children’s sexualisation on agency, on later pleasure experienced as young adults, or possible exposure to danger? In other words, the contextual factors at play make very difficult to make a fair assessment of media influences, as how can researchers isolate media effects from all the other (cultural, social, economic) influences in children’s lives?

One possible avenue of assessment is the observation of those so-called Millennials, particularly the young women who were so aggressively marketed to during the “Girl Power” decade that was the 1990s, and who are now adults. Indeed ‘girl power’ has become now a well-established and very successful marketing tool and a branding of girlhood (Klein 2000).  When I think back to the mid-90s, I invariably remember a time when one could not turn on the television set or surf the internet without being bombarded by images of all-girl music groups strutting proudly in crop tops, brassieres, mini-dresses, and enormous platform shoes. Many of the fans of these groups, particularly the Spice Girls, were as young as five years of age, or younger, a fact which inspired a great deal of concern at the time. In 1994, for instance, Mary Pipher in her book Reviving Ophelia- selling 1.6 million copies – decried our media-saturated culture for “poisoning” young girls.(4)

Today, those little girls are all grown up, and form both a demographic that retains the attention of marketers and the backbone of “third wave” feminism. Those who work closely with both media and young women (see for instance Kathleen Rowe Karlyn from Genders.org) have noticed an interesting trend:

“As a teacher and researcher of film studies and television and the mother of three daughters in early adulthood, I’ve been following the emergence of girl culture since the mid-nineties.  Recently I spoke to a large group of academics and other professionals who work with girls about the ways such media icons as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess and the Spice Girls challenge familiar representations of femininity by affirming female friendship, agency and physical power. Part of that pleasure involves reclaiming the right not only to the term “girl” but to “girly pleasures” trivialized by the culture at large, such as shopping and dressing up…  In a punchy and knowledgeable survey of girl culture in Spin magazine, Ann Powers describes how girls aggressively flaunt traits formerly viewed as demeaning by both feminists and misogynists: prettiness, ‘brattiness’, and sexual flamboyance.  And so, while retaining the critique of beauty culture and sexual abuse from the Second Wave, young women have complicated the older feminist critique of the male gaze as a weapon to put women in their place, and instead exploit the spotlight as a source of power and energy. Thus girls do not see a contradiction between female power and assertive sexuality” (4)

If the above is true, it would seem the end result of the sexualisation of media consumed by children in the mid-1990s is one of power, agency, and primarily, the introduction of pleasure, rather than danger.

But of course, one cannot take the above to be true without acknowledging that the media does, in fact, have the power to influence young people’s attitudes about sexuality, in which case, the opposite of what is described above could as easily be considered true. And, if you have kept up with popular culture at all since the decline of the Spice Girls and their ilk, you have no doubt witnessed a masquerade of “girl power” with the return of troubling levels of misogyny and sexual exploitation. If I compare the current times with the 1980’s in which I grown up as a teenager, it seems evident that the situation has dramatically worsened (just consider the popular hyper-sexualisation of female characters currently characterising media and toy’s industries or the increasingly narrow beauty standards promoted by media and adverts).

In the early 2000s – at the same time as Paris Hilton and other similarly vapid but “pretty” socialites began to become adored by little girls – rap and hip hop rose to greater musical prominence, tugging misogyny along with their videos and lyrics. Rap heavyweight Eminem, for instance, infamous for his lyrics depicting threats of violence on girls and women (including his own mother), has enjoyed nearly a staggering 20 years of culture relevance. Eminem’s eighth album, released just last year (2013), casually builds on his existing reputation for misogyny, the rhythm is catchy but the other day I ‘ve actually decided to pay attention to one of the songs, I could not understand so I googled it and found out what it actually says: here we go (brace yourself!)

Snatch the bitch out her car through the window, she screamin/ I body slam her onto the cement, until the concrete gave and created a sinkhole / Bury this stink ho in it, then paid to have the street re-paved,” and: “I got 99 problems and the bitch ain’t one / She’s all 99 of them I need a machine gun / I take em all out I hope you hear this song / And go into a cardiac arrest, have a heart attack / And just drop dead and I’mma throw a fucking party after this.

Eminem is far from being alone in his troubling attitudes towards women: there are plenty of other singers – both males and females -willing to subscribe to this type of messages for the sake of profitable entertainment. As usual, sex sells and will continue to sell and music producers seem to play this card more and more. So, little girls today grow up watching their former Disney idols, such as Miley Cyrus, grind against singers like Robin Thicke, responsible for singing the notoriously problematic Blurred Lines, a song which blatantly tells a “good girl” that he “knows she wants it,” really. And then, of course, we have endless popular hip hop songs reducing women to “bitches” and “hoes” who, despite this obvious disrespect, willingly dance in the background of these singers’ videos, providing visual stimulation and nothing more than that. Many parents (including myself) wonder whether their daughters will see the transformation of Miley (or Britney and the like before her) as the natural passage from innocent girl to “real woman”.

Seen from this perspective, this appears mostly certainly as a culture of danger, particularly for women – as it encourages them to be available for exploitation and to accept violence – but also for young men, as it teaches them to see women and girls consistently in a devalued, sexualised way (with far less attention granted to their personality, charm, intellect, talents, etc..). By tying the concept of masculinity to being willing and able to ‘possess’ or use young women for sexual pleasure, young men who decline to join this trend are forced to put themselves at risk of bullying and isolation.

Prof. Rosalind Gill – a feminist and cultural theorist – suggests that “for young women today in post-feminist cultures, the display of a certain kind of sexual knowledge, sexual practice and sexual agency has become normative – indeed, a ‘technology of sexiness’ has replaced ‘innocence’ and ‘virtue’ as the commodity that young women are required to offer in the heterosexual marketplace” (7).

Braidotti (2006) conceptualizes a paradoxical “simultaneous displacement and refixing” of binary oppositions (e.g. masculine/feminine) as “one of the most problematic aspects of contemporary political culture” (9). She argues how the present culture produces, pushes and encompasses simultaneously opposite effects — degrees of gender equality with growing segregation of the sexes, resulting in gender trouble on the one hand and polarized sexual difference on the other.

How, then, are children today responding to and processing the danger aspect of this equation, which has become so prevalent in our post-millennial world? An interesting body of work has been produced by Prof. Emma Renold of Cardiff University and her associates – a research offering rich insight into how children navigate their sexual and gender identities in relation to the media and the sexualisation thereof.

Renold’s research revealed that girls feel a much greater pressure to conform to popular ideals of bodily attractiveness than boys feel, to the point of giving up “active” hobbies and sports to maintain a feminine shape. Girls also expressed a greater dissatisfaction with “dating culture,” with research showing that:

For some boys, simply having a girlfriend, any girl was enough to secure social status and popularity. In contrast, many girls highlighted the ways in which their status as girlfriends objectified them, particularly when girls attractiveness was rated and ranked. Many girls also resented how they were passed around and fought over by boys who wanted to claim them as theirs.” (5)

And yet, at the same time, girls found it more difficult to resist the pressure to be part of this dating culture than boys did. (5)

Likewise, girls who were deeply invested in “being girlfriends” were more likely to accept harassment and abuse, including keeping “nasty” text messages due to being “in love” and, true to the theory that male acceptance is hinging too heavily on female exploitation, young boys who were “positioned low down the gendered and sexual peer group hierarchies were also described as the same boys who would engage in harassing behaviour such as repeatedly asking girls out, or sending abusive texts to girls who refused to go out with them, or ended the relationship”.  Both genders reported instances of being “forced” via harassment by peers to engage in dating-related and/or sexual behaviour, such as being pushed and bullied into kissing.(5)

However, while the impacts of the “danger”aspect of the sexualization of the media can arguably be seen enacted in the above,it was also found that children are hardly passive observers shaped by the media without any awareness or agency of their own. In fact,

Many children offered powerful critical commentaries from nudity on MTV to air-brushed images of models in magazines. Many girls also drew a clear boundary between what their favourite celebrities would say, wear or do and their own lives. (5)

This important – and encouraging – aspect was also confirmed by the girls in my own research.

Renold’s research suggested that, if anything, rather than becoming more sexual in manner and dress due to the current attitudes toward female sexuality portrayed by the media, many young girls today so actively fear being labeled a “slut” that they prefer to cover up, and are once again moving away from being able to equivocate female power with aggressive sexuality. Many felt uncomfortable with the amount and the nature of sexuality expressed in music and music videos.

Children were also shown to be quite critical of sexual and gender norms, expressing the desire to fight issues such as sexism, but often not being sure how they could safely and effectively do so. Many children wished they could more freely express their concerns about issues to do with gender and sexuality in the context of their present lives, rather than in the context of their futures. Both boys and girls expressed the need for sex and relationship education that deals specifically with domestic and intimate partner violence “both within their communities and in their own and older relationship cultures,” showing that both genders are concerned about the levels of sexual violence they have witnessed.

In sum, children were witnessed to be practically crying out for a voice of their own, for better access to information and education regarding sexuality and gender issues, and for a meaningful way in which they could safely challenge entrenched gender and sexual norms while still in their formative years. Ergo, we can safely conclude that many children do not fall into these roles nor succumb to the pressures of the media due to passivity or lack of agency, but rather due to a perceived lack of viable alternatives.

In my own research what impressed me was the variety of roles these young girls would experiment with; phrases like “oh yes, but I do that only when I feel girly” were very common and often represent the “identity play” girls would constantly engage in. I love the term “contingent and ambiguous practices of identity” in Gonick et al.’s article (8) and I agree with their suggestion that:

“In posing the question “what comes after girl power?” we suggest that girls’ agency and resistance needs to be theorized as articulated and evidenced within the logic of the production of gender, the body, and sexual, racial, cultural (etc.) differences. This presents a complex, embodied equation of gendered subjectivity that is less about balances of agency (girl power) and compliance (girl victims) than it is about contingent and ambiguous practices of identity” (8).

Prof. Gauntlett (10) highlights the wide range of contradictory messages about gender and identities presented in today’s media as a positive factor, able to effectively widening the options available to young people’s in their own construction of identity:

“The contradictions are important (…) because the multiple messages contribute to the perception of an open realm of possibilities. In contrast with the past – or the modern popular view of the past – we no longer get singular, straightforward messages about ideal types of male and female identities (although certain groups of features are clearly promoted as more desirable than others). Instead, popular culture offers a range of stars, icons and characters from whom we can acceptably borrow bits and pieces of their public persona for use in our own. In addition, of course – and slightly contradictorily – individuals are encouraged to ‘be yourself’, and to be creative – within limits – about the presentation of self. This opens the possibilities for gender trouble, as discussed above. Today, nothing about identity is clear-cut, and the contradictory messages of popular culture make the ‘ideal’ model for the self even more indistinct – which is probably a good thing”.(10)

Regardless of one’s personal opinions on the level of pleasure vs. danger brought about by the media’s purported “sexualisation” of childhood, it should be agreed upon that children deserve a voice and a choice in these matters, one that is not drowned out exclusively by adult concerns or clouded by moral judgments. I personally believe that one effective way to foster agency in young people is to ensure that it is given to them before they have succumbed to the pressure to be “sexy” within the narrow parameters presented as acceptable by our heteronormative society. This can be effectively achieved through a more active discussion of gender practices and media content within the family to start with, and with much deeper and wide-ranging inclusion of media and marketing literacy, along with the discussion of topics relating to gender and sexuality, in the school curriculum, compared to what we have now.

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Main references:
1. http://mashable.com/2013/10/28/children-under-2-mobile-media-study/
2. http://www.webmd.com/parenting/news/20060403/media-messages-harm-child-teen-health
3. http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/positive-discipline/strict-parenting
4. http://www.genders.org/g38/g38_rowe_karlyn.html
5. Renold, E (2005), Girls, Boys and Junior Sexualities, Routledge.
6. Klein, N. (2000). No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Toronto: Vintage Canada
7. Gill, R. (2007). Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility European Journal of Cultural Studies 10, no. 2: p.72.
8. Gonick, M ,Renold E., Ringrose J., Weems L. (2009) Rethinking Agency and Resistance: What Comes After Girl Power? Girlhood Studies Vol. 2 (2), 1–9, Berghahn Journals.
9. Braidotti, R. (2006). Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press.
10. Gauntlett, D. (2007). Media, Gender and Identity, Routledge.

Gender differences are fun and sexy, indeed!

boy_girl_courtesy of raymond poort

Image courtesy of Raymon Poort

The most interesting and lively conversations I had about gender stereotypes and gender differences are definetly the ones with men and women whose way of thinking was practically opposite to mine. I am re-posting a comment to one of my reader here as my conversation with this reader has reminded me of all my past assumptions and believes about gender and it is somewhat amusing for me to see how my position regarding these issues has changed so drastically throughout the years.

The last twenty years of neuro-scientific research have highly disproved that there is actually much difference between male and female in term of how our brains are wired from birth. Lise Eliot (Pink Brain, Blue Brain) made a powerful example of this in her comparison of graphs (see page 12) regarding psychological /attitudinal gender differences compared to physical gender difference such height. While the difference in height is significant and cannot be denied, the difference in psychological and attitudinal characteristics are remarkably minimal and their distribution tend to overlap at all points of the curves: this means you can probably predict with reasonable degree of confidence on the basis on gender that a man will be taller than a woman, but in terms of psychological and attitudinal characteristics we cannot predict with confidence any of them on the basis of gender.


But what has been discovered by neuro-scientists in hundred and hundred of studies is something even more significant: it’s called ‘neuro-plasticity’. It means that while in previous years scientists thought that our brain characteristic (or ‘wiring’) was somehow fixed, now it is evident that the brain (its neurons and all its nervous pathways and connections, so-called ‘wiring’) develops and grows in response to the enviroinment, with the creation of new neurons and new pathways depending on the activities that we do, our thoughts, emotions, habits in response to our enviroinment. This means that our education, the messages we get from parents and society, the toys we play with and all other enviroinmental influences will mold and shape our brain from the day we born. This is why the brain differences between the two sexes are incredibly minimal at birth, to become something noticeable once adulthood is reached.


The trouble is GENDER DIFFERENCES ARE SEXY (to borrow again from Lise Eliot). How boring would be to think that we are not this explosive encounter and exciting clash of ‘Mars and Venus’? Our brain is naturally inclined to form categories and opposites. We love dichotomies and contrasts. Media and marketing thrive on this desire of men and women to be different, like being from different planets (see the incredible success of the 1992′s book “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus” of John Gray – which conclusions are much more based on what people experience, feel and see in their relatioships and every day life, rather than on solid scientific evidences). After all, the marketing of any product is based on something called ‘segmentation’… dividing a big mass of consumers into well defined categories and niches of people with similar characteristics (in this sense, marketers LOVE stereotypes!). To be honest I was one of the most firmly convinced individual about gender differences until just a few years ago (funnily enough). Coming from Italy, I’ve been brought up in a society and culture with strong patriarchal values, further reinforced by a even stronger religious values based on Catholicism. Naturally then, I’ve always been tempted to believe in BIG, undeniable, innate differences between men and women’s psychology: afterall, this was my direct experience of relatioships with most boys and men in my life! (How can someone ever deny such an obvious difference I thought? How can someone deny my own experience of things?)

But when I DID stop and look at the real scientific evidence out there, I had to question my believes and I gradually started to appreciate the differences between men and women (/boys and girls) as something which is acquired and grow through many years of “molding” our brain and behaviour under social and enviroinmental expectations. Reflecting on how we become like we are is a fascinating phenomenon and I know these discoveries are positive in terms of making girls and boys (the women and men of tomorrow) much more close and similar than what has been in the past.

THIS WILL BRING MORE UNDERSTANDING AND LESS POLARISATION. It will also bring more freedom for each individual to grow their feminine and masculine sides at their own leisure (all the more so as scientist have also proved that individuals with a good mix of masculine and feminine attributes/attitudes – so-called androgynous – are generally advantaged in both their social and emotional life). But this does not mean that the ‘sexiness of difference’ will disappear in our relationships (oh no! we don’t want that!), because that ‘sexy tension’ will always exist: it is between our individual characteristics, feminine or masculines or a mix of them. So that a masculine type (either men or woman) will be always attracted by a feminine type (either man or woman) and a feminine type will be always attracted by a masculine type: so that, in truth, to beat gender stereotypes is only to leave every boy and girl (alas every man and woman) free to follow their natural inclinations towards femininity/masculinity and express their individuality without ‘gender molding’ constantly applied to them. 


I am also convinced that the emphasis should not be so much on censorship, or an array of strict regulations and limitations applied to businesses, marketing and media productions (with exceptions of course, as I would gladly see Photoshop manipulations disappear from advertising practice) : after all, the profit interests at the basis of the system would make very unlikely a drastic change of direction, at least in the immediate future. I propose that the emphasis should be much more on making young girls and boys more critical towards media and marketing messages: by changing the way our boys and girls react to the environment we will allow them to be sophisticated and independent consumers, who will be able to shape the economic and ideological fabric of tomorrow ‘s world through their informed demand or rejection for certain products /media /marketing practices, their patterns of consumption. In other words, by educating children on concepts such as ‘gender stereotypes’, ‘objectification’, ‘sexism’ or ‘sexualisation’ we will be able to eventually affect the system from the inside out.

Additional reading:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2273972/Men-Mars-Women-Venus-Actually-planet.html

The sexualisation debate: innocence versus sexual agency

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There is no question that the pervasiveness of the media affects us all—regardless of age, race, and privilege—but the question of how much it impacts the developing brain of a child—particularly when it comes to their emotional and sexual development—and what the long-term consequences of this might be, is such a diverse and complex area of study that definitive conclusions have yet to be drawn. Millions of children are being subjected to marketing-driven media every day, much of it containing sexual overtones, whilst we look on with no real knowledge of how this will affect them ten, twenty, or thirty years down the road. Are we affecting our children’s self-esteem and their ability to be healthily intimate one day, merely for the sake of profit?

Several countries now ban advertising to children altogether in an effort to control the media; Sweden, Norway, Greece, and the Canadian province of Quebec have all instituted a ban on advertising to children under twelve in any way, shape or form, and a rising chorus of voices in the UK is calling for a similar ban. A recent petition letter (leaveourkidsalone.org), which was circulated by Jonathan Kent, writer and broadcaster, and Rupert Read, reader in philosophy at the University of East Anglia and chairman of Green House think tank —and subsequently signed by more than 50 authors, journalists, renowned academics, and leading childcare experts— implicates marketing to youngsters in a host of national ills, such as high rates of teenage pregnancy and underage drinking. Among other things, the aggressively sexual subtext in advertisements is seen as a powerful and insidious encouragement to engage in destructive and risky behaviours—an alluring voice that infiltrates the media to make partying and having sex seem “cool” to innocent young minds.

The letter claims that such marketing is “Designed to manipulate adult emotions and desires onto children as young as two or three”, a strong nod to the adult themes, such as sexuality, that are present in many advertisements. The letter also claims that marketing to youth, on the whole, makes them “harder to control” by turning them into little adults who demand what they want, when they want it, and aren’t afraid to express themselves verbally, physically, or sexually.

On the other hand, critics depict this move as a moral panic and argue that the commercial interests behind broadcasting aimed at children would make problematic, if not entirely unfeasible, a total ban on advertising to kids: a measure which would undoubtedly shake the whole foundations of children programming. One can easily imagine how the main stakeholders holding strong financial interests on the outcome of this debate – broadcasters and children products industries – are lobbying to make their voices heard.

Like in any important socio-economic issue there is always a political side to it. The issue of KGOY (acronym used for “kids growing older younger”) is often attributed to the increasingly strong influence of media on children’s mind, but I agree with Jackson (2006:251) that this line of thinking is not necessarily helpful to young people as they are based on notions of childhood as innocent and powerless, rather than acknowledging or seeking to increase children’s abilities to understand their world (for example, by enhancing their critical skills through media literacy interventions). Critical observers have questioned whether these experts truly seek to restore children’s agency and protect their ‘innocence’, or whether they seek to limit their free will and access to media in an effort to control social problems that would be better addressed by the government, for example by providing more useful and thorough social welfare programs (all of which are presently facing a decline in the UK).

Said need for critical examination is especially evident when one considers that in Canadian provinces like Ontario, where advertising to children under twelve is perfectly legal (and the media is, overall, little different to what it is in the UK), the rates of issues supposedly tied to early sexualisation—such as teenage pregnancy—remain relatively low (as do abortion rates, despite Canada’s notable lack of restrictions on abortion). And yet, across the border in the United States, where much of Ontario’s consumed media originates from, issues like teenage pregnancy are much more prevalent. When one weighs this information, the clear link between the media, early exposure to sexual content, and the “too much, too soon”social ills suggested by the team of English experts grows more tremulous.

This does not mean, however, that concern about the impacts of marketing and the media on children’s developing sexuality is mere moral panic, and nothing more. Statistics, at the end of the day, tell us little about the actual people behind them, and there is no denying that across the western world, overt sexuality is being displayed by young people—particularly young women—more often, more blatantly, and earlier on that at any other time over the past century (and perhaps much longer).

The issue of whether or not these young women have knowledge about and access to birth control (and the right socio-economic reasons to use it) tells us nothing of the emotional consequences they may be suffering as a result of possibly premature sexualisation and self-objectification. How do they feel about themselves? Is their body image suffering under the pressure of increasingly unrealistic beauty standards portrayed in the media and in the effort to be sexually appealing? Are young girls too willing to be intimate with any man that desires them, having been taught that they are simply objects for this desire? Are they able to be properly intimate with young men who have also been raised in today’s culture? Or, conversely, are young women finally being taught that female sexuality is not a ‘sin’, a dirty secret, but rather something to be reclaimed and expressed while also striving towards a successful career? Is ‘girls power’, as a feminist-inspired discourse absorbed by popular culture and challenging the idealisation of girlhood in our culture as repository of purity (based on the rhetoric of girls’ vulnerability and need for protection), leading to increased girls’ self-determination and agency?

In short, are we creating something revolutionary—acceptance of the sexual agency of young women —or are we setting girls up to be passive targets of exploitation, while pushing young men to aggressively exploit?

These are the main questions of the “pleasure vs danger” debate, which I will address in my next blog post. So far, I have tried to adopt a sitting-on-the-fence stance in the attempt to present more objectively the different sides of the argument. In a third article I will also be keen to clarify my own position on these issues. In the meantime, I am asking my readers to chime in and let me know their own perspective on things. ;-)

 

Main References
1. Jackson, Carolyn (2006). "Wild" girls? An exploration of "ladette" cultures in secondary schools, Gender and Education, Vol.18 (4): 339-360
2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9984366/Ban-advertising-aimed-at-primary-school-children.html
3. http://www.economist.com/node/4649
4. Currie D, Kelly D M, Pomerantz S (2009) Girl Power': Girls Reinventing Girlhood. Peter Lang Publ.

Gender Stereotypes: Where do They Come from and Why do They Persist?

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Questioning the origin of gender stereotypes is a complex and global issue, as multifaceted and layered as the cultures from which these preconceived notions originate. In Iceland, for example, almost no one (3.6%) believes that a woman has less right to available jobs than a man, whereas in Egypt, almost everyone believes such as an ineffable truth (94.9%).(1) What cultural variables could possibly account for this? Religion often takes the blame, but when one looks closer, different nations where the majorities are of the same faith often still exhibit a remarkable variety in the level and enforcement of gender stereotypes.

One hypothesis that accounts for the development of this discrepancy lies in the different ways in which various cultures practiced agriculture in the past. Ester Boserup, from whom this theory originated, found that gender roles are strongly correlated to plough use. Unlike shifting cultivation, which relied largely on the use of hand-held tools, plough usage requires “significant upper body strength, grip strength, and burst of power, which are needed to either pull the plough or control the animal that pulls it. Because of these requirements, when plough agriculture is practiced, men have an advantage in farming relative to women.”(1)

Naturally, as the centuries passed, it became thus assumed in those societies that men have an advantage when it comes to activities outside of the home (i.e. manual labour) whereas women specialise in those activities which take place in the home. The belief in this division of labour became so imbedded in these cultures that it effortlessly crossed over to those populations applying the same belief system to non-agricultural work.

To test this hypothesis, researchers combined pre-industrial ethnographic data from a wide variety of nations and ethnic groups which reported whether those societies traditionally practiced plough agriculture, alongside contemporary measures of individuals’ views about gender roles. Consistent with Boserup’s hypothesis, historical plough use was found to correlate very strongly with views on gender inequality today. (1)

In the digital age, where rapid and frequent cross-culture communication is a fact of life, the reasons why these stereotypes still persist is perhaps more baffling than their origins. After all, it is quite easy for someone from Egypt to observe the fact that Icelandic society is functioning perfectly productively, despite their belief that women work just as effectively outside the home as men do. Likewise, even countries with adequate workplace equality still have stereotypes about the preferences and natures of women and men as distint categories.

But when exactly do these develop?

The short answer would be, perhaps obviously, “in childhood.” Children become “gender aware” at a very young age (typically between three and five years of age, in our commercialised society even sooner), and begin to develop gender stereotypes almost immediately thereafter.(2) These concepts become rigidly defined between 5 and 7 years of age (Martin & Ruble, 2004), and begin to have lasting impact on identity and self-esteem by adolescence.(2)

Is this nature or nurture? It is a combination, but research seems to suggest that for the most part and at younger age, it is the latter. Children observe the roles of their elders, and begin to act them out in play with their peers as soon as they can walk and communicate enough to do so; through this process, they label themselves as being a boy or a girl, and begin to instruct themselves on what that entails.(2) “Imitation and instruction are vital components to children’s development. Adults promote this learning by role-modeling behavior, assisting with challenging tasks, and passing along cultural meanings to objects and events, all of which are components of gender development.” (Vygotsky, 1961)

Even if a child’s parents do not adhere rigidly to gender stereotypes, the pervasive nature of the media inundates children with preconceived notions about gender. Gender-typed messages are found on bed sheets, towels, bandages, clothes, school supplies, toys, and furniture (Freeman, 2007). Even the most well-meaning parent cannot shop for their child without exposing him or her to segregated pink and blue aisles for girls and boys. If aisles were thus segregated by race, most people today would be appalled, and yet it is considered normal where gender stereotypes are concerned (fortunately, activists, consumer groups and concerned parents are starting to react to this, demanding an ending to gender segregation in the marketing of children’s toys – see for instance the Lettoysbetoys and PinkStinks campaigns promoted in UK).

Likewise, adult role models are frequently shown perpetuating gender stereotypes via the media; for example, advertising related to computers typically depicts men and boys as “competent users, engaged in active or professional roles, while women and girls were passive observers or merely posed next to the computer while looking pretty or provocative.” (McNair, Kirova-Petrova, & Bhargava, 2001) This, of course, subsequently shows up in children’s play. It also keeps gender stereotypes perpetuated even as we move into a highly digital economy.

When a child enters school, this bias usually deepens, furthered by the biases of his or her teachers. “While unintentional, a teacher’s inherent biases can perpetuate unfair stereotypes and may be manifested in discriminatory classroom practices. For example, one group of teachers perceived girls as passive learners and therefore more “teachable” than boys.” (Erden & Wolfgang, 2004). In my research this was very evident as primary school girls (age 8-11) often complained of the double standard in terms of expected behavior from their teachers: boys would be allowed to be noisy and misbehaving in the class and playground to a much greater extent than the girls. An example is given by their conceptualization of “being a girl” as opposed to “being a boy” (see link http://thegirlsproject.webs.com/stereotypes.htm) Research shows that females often receive less active attention from their teachers, which reinforces lower aspirations of achievement and poor self-esteem. (2)

With all of these factors taken into consideration, it is logical to assume that gender stereotypes today are the product of cultural bias that is found on many different levels of society—in the home, in the media, on the playground, and in the classroom—which then perpetuates into later workplace, affecting our identity/sense of self and our relationship with others. Ending gender stereotyping, then, will take the concerted effort of many – parents, educators, activists, media producers, marketers, regulators, to name a few – to critically analyze and counteract gender bias found at all levels, in the media, the school system, the workplace, and the home.

 Main reading:
  1. http://www.econ.northwestern.edu/seminars/Nemmers11/Giuliano.pdf
  2. http://bit.ly/1pOb7Gv
References:
Boserup, E. (1970). Woman’s Role in Economic Development, London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.
Erden, F., & Wolfang, C.H. (2004). An exploration of the differences in prekindergarten, kindergarten, and first grade teachers’ beliefs related to discipline when dealing with male and female students. Early Child Development and Care, 174(1), 3-11.
Freeman, N. (2007). Preschoolers’ perceptions of gender-appropriate toys and their parents’ beliefs about genderized behaviors: Miscommunication, mixed messages, or hidden truths? Early Childhood Education Journal, 34(5), 357-366
Martin, C., & Ruble, D. (2004). Children’s search for gender cues: Cognitive perspectives in gender development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(2), 67-70.
McNair, S., Kirova-Petrova, A., & Bhargava, A. (2001). Computers and young children in the classroom: Strategies for minimizing gender bias. Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(1), 51-55.
Vygotsky, L. (1961). The development of scientific concepts in childhood. In K. Paciorek, & J. Munro (Eds.), Sources: Notable selections in early childhood education (pp. 11-18). Guilford, CT: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill.

Celebrities Speaking up about Sexism

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Last night I came across an interesting article in Huffingtonpost about Hollywood celebs speaking about sexism in the movies world.

How actresses are treated backstage is a clear reflection of a pervasive discrimination towards women/girls in the media. I think it is indeed positive to see that celebrities are starting to speak up candidly about these issues: after all, they are seen by many – young and old, men and women and everything in between – as role models to look up to, so their words and experiences can really sparkle a lively debate around gender equality not only in the media, but backstage, during the planning and production of a media product.

I think pictures can move around the web much faster than articles, so I decided to make an inspiring visual slide from this article to hopefully spread awareness. Ellen’s testimonial should encourage other actresses and celebs to speak up and their words can be amplified through social media, reaching more and more people.

You can read the article in its entirety by clicking the link below:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/25/sexism-in-hollywood-women-problem-inequality_n_4867219.html?utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false

 

The Scientific Evidence about Pink and Blue Brains

If you are interested in reading the scientific evidence of the actual (biological and genetic) brain’s differences between boys and girls/men and women, there are two important books which present and discuss a comprehensive – if not staggering – amount of neuroscientific research.

It is worth to note that both are written by neuroscientists who know their stuff, not journalists or specialised writers! Both books emphasizes the fact that new science discoveries have confirmed that the “neuroplasticity” of our brain make our biological characteristics not a fixed entity, but instead something which is constantly changing and molding through our thoughts moving through it (in other words our interaction with the enviroinment, as our thoughts are inflenced by it).

The first book is PINK BRAIN, BLUE BRAIN by Lise Eliot, PhD. I am reporting the synopsis verbatim as it is really self-explanatory of the content and conclusions of this work:

pinkand blue review

The second book is THE DELUSIONS OF GENDER by Cordelia Fine, which cover and raving reviews are copied below:

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reviews codelia fine reviews codelia fine 2

I have read both these books and I guarantee you that – once you start reading – you will find very hard to stop! Some of the conclusions really took me by surprise and I noticed that we are constantly fed inaccurate information by a stream of fiction-science astutely popularised by the media. These books have re-shaped drastically my many assumptions about girls and boys’s brain differences.

Don’t have the time to read a full book on the topic? Try this short booklet (8 pages!) by Patricia Campbell, PhD, it is from a fairly autorevole source (US Department of Education) and clearly written:

http://www.campbell-kibler.com/Stereo.pdf

Have a good read and please let me know your reflections too! ;-)

Help your Children Breaking Free from Gender Stereotypes

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(In response to a reader’s comment, this post discusses ways in which parents can help their children moving away from internalizing dangerous and limiting gender stereotypes. Read on!)

Gender stereotypes hurt both men and women. Boys might curb their emotions and girls their opinions in order to be accepted socially. Back in the 1960s Margaret Mead -famous anthropologist, a researcher passionate about observing gendered behaviour in tribal communities around the world (see her book: Male and Female) – noted how gender stereotypes effectively limited people’s freedom and expression, perpetuating wrong assumptions such as: boys should be brave and strong while girls should be reticent and delicate; boys are active and strive for dominance while girls are passive and submissive. The list goes on and on, with qualities and characteristics rigidly assigned to one gender or the other so that a man/boy should express masculinities traits (to the exclusion of feminine ones), while a woman/girl should express feminine qualities (to the exclusion of masculine ones).

This is commonly referred to in the literature as gender polarisation. Gender stereotypes are constantly perpetuated within movies, TV programs, advertising, songs’ lyrics: so much that we all become convinced this attribution of qualities are natural and incorrigible, when in fact is far from it! Research shows that masculine and feminine attributes generally co-exist in each woman/girl and man/boy. Regardless of gender, there is an infinite variation and mixing of these attributes in each individual, with most men/boys displaying more masculine qualities and most women/girls displaying more of the feminine ones. But in most cases it’s still difficult to assess which of these attributes are defined/created by NATURE (biological) and which ones by NURTURE (socialisation): a mix of the two is probably the correct answer.

In my research, the main factors which seemed to greatly influence girls’ choices regarding ways to express femininity were within the family; for example, the relationship with their siblings (with girls having a close bond with an older brother being less stereotypical in their gender expression) and how gender roles would be enacted within the family (in other words, whether their parents would endorse gender stereotypes or not, and how rigidly these stereotypes would be endorsed). Girls living in families with a more flexible gender roles orientation would not only express a less stereotypical femininity, but would interpret and respond to sexualized or stereotypical representations of girlhood in adverts and media differently. This means that the values and practices within the family can really act as a protective shield against the constant media pressure surrounding our girls and boys.

So, how can parents help both girls and boys break through gender stereotypes? Here are some suggestions (and I warmly invite my readers to showcase their own ideas):

1. Research proved that children learn behaviour from their parents so a parent’s example will always play a key role in how they will envisage and enact gender. Ideally, try to make sure there is a balance maintained in the distribution of the house chores: fathers should engage on a daily basis with childcare and household duties (and I mean kitchen, laundry and ironing duties, not DIY!). This can often be a challenge in itself, due to many men having been raised by old-generation’s mothers who would cook, wash, iron and make their bed without them lifting a finger: in these unfortunate cases they have learned by habituation not to pay attentions to household chores or children and they would often think is the right thing to do. Nowadays, most men who care about their family, will be prepared to listen to logical arguments about gender equality and equal opportunities, but more importantly they may be interested in their children being modern and finding a loving partner, so – provided they are not complete misogynist – they should be able to adapt and accept their fair share of house/kitchen duties. Decision-making should also be a shared activity, with an equal amount of “power” and dialogue between the couple, especially with regard to managing children education/discipline and household’s expenses. When children see that both parents are equally involved with decision-making and household chores, they will naturally learn that both girls and boys can and should do things.

2. Make your children play with toys that help expand gender boundaries. Although is true that children tend to gravitate to gender-specific toys (i.e. boys playing with cars and action figures, while girls with dolls and decorations) we still don’t know how much this behaviour is genuinely guided by their interest or learned through socialisation (example: “I am a boy so I will play with boys stuff”). For this reason, I’d recommend having at least some gender-neutral or “gender-stretcher” toys in the house, to give the chance to a child to experiment with other type of play should he/she wish to. In my research most girls benefiting from sharing play time with an older brother were less stereotypical in their gender expression. Parents who buy a different range of toys and let the children follow their curiosity will encourage their children to think outside the ‘gender box’.  My son for instance love to make cards and practices weekly gymnastic: 2 traditionally girls-oriented activities which he truly enjoys, along his other more male-oriented sports, like football or tennis. The trick is to understand what children genuinely like to try or do and to make them aware that there are not specific tasks which should be assigned to a gender or another. If parents make children aware that their gender expression is not limited by strict rules, then they will feel able to go beyond the mechanic/natural repeating of behaviour that they see around them, including in the media (i.e. “no mummy, that is for boys!”). More importantly, they will not feel that there is something naturally wrong with them if they feel enthused by particular gender-specific activities or toys usually not associated with their sex.

3. Expose children to books and movies that stretch gender stereotypes and discuss with them the prevalence of stereotypes in the media to help them become critical consumers of media products. It is ridiculous that many books out there, even modern books, still refer to almost all characters – animals/monsters/ghost/ or whatever weird creatures of fantasy – by the pronoun “he”. Writers or book editors seem to forget that animals or any other characters should come in two genders: you should talk about this with your son or daughter so that they can start to see the bias too! Try to balance and counteract their exposure to gender sterotypes by offering different perspectives through the material you watched or read with them. For example, look for books with boys in gentle, caring or peaceful roles and with girls in leading and active roles. Let boys have a look at decorating or cook books to see if they are interested. Buy books about science, tricks or sports for girls too. Have a look at a wonderful resource database to find counter-stereotypical material of all kind (books, movies, clothes and more) which I’ve suggested in one of my earlier posts: amightygirl.com

4. Let boys develop a sense of style and beauty by letting them wear nice and colourful things. Boys’ clothes tend to be very monotonous in colour and themes from quite a young age compared to girls clothes. I noticed that in the boys’ aisle all clothes are usually blue/grey/brown and of course black! I might find the odd t-shirt with some red, orange or yellow only with a bit of luck. I think it’s nice to try to add some colour and sparkle into boys’ wardrobes. Otherwise boys tend to grow up with the impression that “beautiful things are for girls”, which is an incredibly stupid and depressing thing! The reality is that children are masters at getting clues from their environment so they will often notice from the world around them (mainly school and media) that girls are into beautiful stuff while boys should not care about it. For the most artistic children, this idea could deter them from what they really like. As a mother I try to find a way to make my boy understand that there is nothing inherently “girly” in decorations or beautiful things, but the media around him seem to suggest him different things.

5. Try to make boys understand that they are much more similar to girls than not. And make girls understand what they share with boys. Despite what the media want to make us believe, boys and girls are not two different planets. We are all human, gender is only one attribute. Most media products and marketing play on the polarisation of gender: “Women from Venus and Men from Mars”, but emphasising the similarities between boys and girls instead of the contrasts is one of best way to make children grow free of gender stereotypes. Allow gender-bender or gender-swap role play and dressing-up: children absolutely love trying different costumes – they don’t have to be typical costumes for boys and “girly” costumes for girls. If children want, let them impersonating the other gender. Keep some gender-varied costumes in a box for both boys and girls  to play dressing-up, as it’s one of the most rewarding and educational activity a child can do.

6. As the emphasis for girls is so much on their look and appearance, try to counter-act media and society’s pressure in that direction by complimenting their personality, brain, abilities instead of focusing on beauty. The pressure to look beautiful on them is so ubiquitous that you, as a parent, don’t need to reinforce it! This does not mean you don’t tell them every day how gorgeous they are (I never skip a day!!) But beyond you reaffirming their gorgeousness, it is important that they do understand and value themselves in other terms too from a very young age, or they will start internalising those messages and seeing themselves only or mostly as eye-candies for the boys: a difficult process to reverse and one which will create anxiety and absorb much energy when they reach adolescence! Encourage girls to pursue sports, be bold if they wish to and never ever confine them only to typically ‘girly’ activities: instead, let them experiment with some boys-oriented activities and games if they wish to!

7. Most importantly, perhaps: treat children as individuals – not as boys or girls – allowing them to express their own opinions and emotions, helping them challenging the assumptions behind gender polarisation. In this way they will feel encouraged to pursue their own genuine interests, instead of denying who they are and being restricted to society and media clichés. ;-)

The Plague of Gender Stereotypes

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It’s been more than a couple of years now but I have seared into my memory how Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt –media icons for all humanitarian causes – got heavily bashed because they decide to allow their daughter Shiloh to dress however she wanted. And she wanted to dress in puffy jackets, tough boots and hip-hop knit hats.

The media portrayed this simple and personal decision as an almost deliberate effort of Brangelina to reshape Shiloh’s gender, asking absurd questions like “Do Brad & Angelina want to turn Shiloh into a Boy?”

So what if a girl doesn’t want to wear dresses? And what if the parents allow her to go beyond what the media has dictated to be gender-appropriate for girls? Who gave media the power to dictate over us? Sadly, WE did.

Comments that portray images of what is acceptable and how things should be are far more pervasive than we realise in a first glance. Cartoons of brave princes and beautiful princesses, TV shows with girls in sparkly pink costumes and boys in stiffly blue outfits, adverts constantly portraying girls indoor, playing with clothes, make-up and dolls with the contrasting images of boys playing outdoor, sport and rough: they all perpetrate gender stereotypes and force-feed these notions to us and to our children.

Many people confound gender stereotypes with gender roles, which are another notion altogether. While there are behaviours inherent to women and to men (gender roles), gender stereotypes are the generalization of attitudes that are a consequence of those behaviours, disregarding individual situations or preferences. For example, women can be mothers, which is a role we can fulfil, but men cannot. Mothers are then generalized into an image of tenderness and protection. Men, on the other hand, due to their original –and by original, I mean prehistoric – role, have the stereotype of the strong provider. What happens when individuals fail to meet the stereotypes that have originated from biological /historical /cultural gender roles?

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An increasing number of studies from the field of psychology (see for instance Sharon Begley, 2000) provide evidence that stereotypes especially harm the people who fall into the stereotyped groups. In the case of Shiloh, girls should wear dresses and pink, “girly” clothes, not “boyish” clothes. Now think of how this can affect a little girl who feels comfortable wearing trousers and boots instead of dresses. Shiloh might be defended by her parents from all of the absurd attacks sensationalised by the media, but what do we do about the message that is being hammered into other girls’ minds? Girls who dress like boys are ridiculed, that’s what they will fear. In my research all girls had long hair without exception but most of them would complaint about the annoyance of long knotty hair: “so why don’t you cut them short then?” I finally dared to ask during a group session. Their answer was emblematic of what 99.9% of young modern girls would argue: “No way, then everybody would tease you to death, “YOU ARE BOY!”

That’s how their young lives have been co-opted to follow rules that make no sense.

But the issue would be a lot less damaging if it was only a question of style and fashion! Sadly it is not. It goes well beyond that. It affects what girls think they can do, say, think, act, fear, dream, love and hate! It affects their choice of extra-curricular activities and the professions they may pursue in life. And it goes without saying that the myth of masculinity perpetuates a similar set of absurd limitations on our boys.

The commercialised culture we live in provides a relentless reinforcement of gender stereotypes through an ever-widening array of media, until certain assumptions surrounding gender become utterly ingrained in children and adults’ mind. We’re hardly allowed to forget how society expects us to be: the pressure is constantly on.

The Council of Europe’s CDEG (the Steering Committee for Equality between Women and Men) has recently spoken very clearly about the negative consequences of G.S. and the need to end it:

“Gender Stereotyping is preconceived ideas whereby males and females are arbitrarily assigned characteristics and roles determined and limited by their sex. Sex stereotyping can limit the development of the natural talents and abilities of boys and girls, women and men, as well as their educational experiences and life opportunities” (CDEG, 2011)

Fortunately, gender stereotyping and self-concept issues have attracted considerable attention from scholars and researchers who are outlining the role that formal education and parenting should play in addressing the roots and consequences of the problem.