I’m not big on stereotypes specific for girls or boys. At Numala Kinder it is cool for boys or girls to take a baby/teddy/dinosaur/alien for a walk/drive/run in the pram/wheelbarrow/truck/baby carrier wearing a tutu/tool belt/helmet/crown at the same time. And they do.
Archetypes are more my thing – universal ideas of qualities we can all embrace. We talk a lot about story archetypes in our story times and during our seasonal celebrations but I’ve never really given them form. It’s our own interpretations that create the form, I think. I like it when children can make their own representations of characters and stories. I enjoy a picture book and an animated movie as much as the rest of us, but when you illustrate or animate stories, you begin to lose the quality of dreamy imagination and embodiment that comes when we listen to and play out our favourite characters.
Is this bad? No. But it does have an affect on play because children now have a picture of what something looks like before they’ve had a chance to know what it feels like.
Is that bad? No. We all have our favourite childhood movies and our feelings are firmly rooted with the experience of watching that movie. On the other hand, movie creators are happy to perpetuate their stereotypes through mass merchandise, which children want because they love to surround themselves with reminders of their heros. It’s something I curse each time I go to buy my children pyjamas, or toothbrushes.
My daughter made this gorgeous felt wallhanging when she was four. Guess which movie she had seen just before she chose her colours?
So in our family, and in my teaching, I lean towards traditional storytelling, so that children have many extra opportunities to form their own mental images and connect to their own feelings about the story. If we are going to be critical, however, even the traditional fairy tales themselves, before they were ever animated, tend to lean towards rather gender-specific roles that many parents object to. During my uni years my fellow student teachers and I looked for modern versions of traditional tales to tell our students so as not to perpetuate the idea of gender bias. “The Paperbag Princess” by Robert Munsch was a popular one at the time (and I still love it). We’d bend over backwards to be inclusive and empowering, and encourage children to bust gender stereotypes.
I’ve said all that so you know where I’m at with stereotypes, media and play, because once I became a parent, despite my best efforts not to go there (and even with all our gender-neutral, non-violent, natural and handmade toys), everything changed.
I don’t quite remember when the fairy and princess dresses arrived in our house. I have bought only one that I can think of, and yet since we’ve had both our girls there seems to be an endless supply of fluffy, frilly bunches of tulle and cheap satin in our playroom. I’ve culled the collection a few times but I’m pretty sure the princess and fairy dresses self-propagate from torn pieces of tulle at night time.
And I am happy to let them play princesses if they want to because THIS is what I notice when they play being beautiful princesses:
- they walk taller and straighter and with great elegance and dignity (they are NOT dainty, simpering or oozing sexuality)
- they speak clearly and pronounce their words beautifully (they are assertive!)
- they play with respectful manners and practice kindness with each other (they are NOT helpless)
- they set up beautiful spaces around them and play carefully with their toys (they are in control of their environment)
When children play princesses and faeries they don’t feel helpless – they FEEL beautiful, powerful and important and very special. I remember that feeling when playing as a child, and I remember letting it fill me up. I don’t have a problem with either girls or boys playing princesses (or any other character) if it helps them access these feelings! Often, my own girls will begin playing princesses and then one decides to be a knight instead. Off goes the dress and on goes the sword belt and cape, and a new persona emerges: confident, protective, bold, brave, decisive. She can do it all.
I don’t think that girls (or boys) are going to be limited in their career options because they play princesses. I’m pretty sure they are not going to grow up with antiquated ideas about what specific genders can and cannot (or should and should not) do if they are surrounded in enough positive energy at home and at school to feel good about themselves and their capabilities. Children who have enough positive role models in their community, and whose lives are filled with a great variety of stories and characters will know anything is possible.
It’s all in being open to possibility I think. If my children grow up feeling open to possibilities I will be very happy.
Note – this blog post first appeared on my blog lavendilly in January 2014. lavendilly is now closed and I am sharing some of my old posts here. This is an updated version.