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I remember the first time I heard about Judith Butler’s theory on gender performativity. My slightly eccentric English teacher was raving about her in class. I was only partly listening – whoever this theorist was, she wasn’t going to make an appearance in my A-Level exams, so I wasn’t really interested in what she had to say.
If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to listen. I know that some people may find this topic controversial, so for the sceptics out there, I’m going to ask you to hear me out.
Judith Butler argues that we’re not born with an innate sense of gender, but rather that our gender is constructed by social influence. People wear their gender as a costume, performing to the stereotypes that they were given at birth.
At first, I definitely raised an eyebrow (or two) over this concept. From the beginning of time, people have always argued that women and men’s biological differences separates them into two ostensibly different categories.
But it’s important to make a distinction between gender and sex. Butler is talking about gender. We don’t get a say over our sex – we can’t choose what reproductive organs we’re born with, or whether we have an XX or XY chromosome.
So what is gender then? I think Butler’s right. Gender places people into opposing binaries that work to establish two sets of characteristics, male and female. These differences are reinforced everywhere in society: in film, music, literature, art, the workplace, retail stores. The list goes on and on and on.
Growing up, girls play with dolls, kitchen-sets, princess costumes and barbies, encouraging them to value appearance over intelligence, and teaching them to be maternal, nurturing and patient. Conversely, aggressiveness is encouraged in boys, who play with action figures, race cars and toy guns. A recent NAEYC study has shown that “moderately masculine” toys such as Lego, Meccano and Duplo allow children to develop their spatial skills and cognitive abilities. Therefore, by restricting these toys to one gender, we’re depriving girls of the ability to develop and cultivate these essential skills.
But that’s not all. Girls are inspired by Disney princesses like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Ariel, who teach them lessons that are detrimental to their development. Snow White taught us how it important it was to be the “fairest of them all”, Sleeping Beauty encouraged us to believe that if we just wait long enough, a man will come to slay the dragon and end our misery, and Ariel demonstrated that to get a man’s attention, trading your voice for a pair of legs is probably the safest bet.
Girls go on to read chick-lit books like Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging and Princess Diaries, that present them with characters who need to go through makeovers to receive the male attention that warrants their happy endings. After all, just like our favourite heroine’s best-friend Jas tells us, “boys don’t like girls for funniness.” It’s all about that sexy, mediatised appearance.
And this has damaging effects on girls. A recent BBC documentary, No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?, asked girls to describe themselves in one word. The girls only used words pertaining to appearance, like pretty and lipstick. One girl even used the word “ugly” to describe herself.
An ICD study showed that when placed in a room with both “masculine” and “feminine” toys, children from as young as nine months would play with toys that corresponded to their gender. Many of the comments from readers made the conclusion that boys and girls are simply interested in different things.
Yet I believe that this study reveals a far darker truth. I conclude that from as young as nine months, both boys and girls are slowly moulded to fit their gender stereotype, when rewarded by their parents for playing with toys that conform to social expectations.
This pressure to conform forces girls and boys alike to restrict themselves to certain activities, and hesitate when faced with traditionally “masculine” or “feminine” tasks. A 2014 experiment highlighted how the enforcement of male and female stereotypes affected girls’ performance. Girls who were asked to recreate a geometric shape carried out the task more effectively when told that it was testing their “artistic skill” rather than their “geometric ability”. This presents a key concern for us: stereotypes are subconsciously inhibiting girls from broadening their skillset and realising their full potential.
People are beginning to take action. Big chains like Toys R’ Us and Target are finally getting rid of their pink and blue aisles. New bedtime stories are being created for girls, who create inspiring figures that they can actually beneficially learn from. And many parents have adopted new ways of raising their children without imposing negative gender stereotypes on them.
I don’t think of gender-neutral education as the eradication of gender, because I don’t think that gender is the problem. But I think that the stereotypes that people have attached to gender are extremely harmful to our society, and to our perceptions of what a man and woman should be like.
I’m not pretending to believe that we’ll rapidly see a change as soon as we take these stereotypes away. It’s going to be a slow progress, and I may not be here to see it happen. But I think that we need to start raising awareness on the harmful psychological impact that gender expectations are having on children and their future. If gender-neutral education won’t happen in this generation, it will happen in the next. And I’m sure the results will be astonishing.