Heterosexist propaganda is working on the value and belief systems of children from before the time they are born. Parents select color schemes for rooms, bedding and clothes. Family and friends “need to know” the gender of the baby so that they can buy the appropriate gift. While we may reflect upon American culture and consider that such thinking was most prevalent during the Traditionalist and Boomer generations, we might miss out on some important historical information.
It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan deregulated media during his presidency that children became the target of a full blown onslaught of marketing by manufacturers of toys, food, clothing, and more. Even what many parents might consider to be the innocuous Disney Empire present young children with notions of universally heterosexual relationships and stereotypical (dominant culture-based) notions of beauty. Even such assertive female protagonists as Ariel (Little Mermaid) that have the nerve to disobey powerful characters, ultimately prize the traditional, heterosexual, role of wife. On the other hand, male protagonists are royal, muscular – traditionally male. These same children that were raised on Disney princesses, became tweens and teens flocking to watch the Twilight movies, which feature violent, hyper-masculine love interests for the female lead character.
Jackson Katz, in the film, Tough Guise, describes the evolution of children’s (primarily marketed towards young boys) action figures over the years. Katz describes how the biceps of the GI Joe action figure (when corrected to actual adult proportions) have grown from 12.2″ in the 1960’s to 16.4″ by 1994 to 26.8″ in 1998. In contrast, the beauty norm for women has changed as well, growing slimmer. In the film, Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood, 2008, the utilization of space in toys stores is described, demonstrating how the marketing of toys to children is extremely gendered. Both these films depict the powerful social and media influences at work that promote the ideals of beauty, gender, and gender role.
Even in our early childhood education centers, the worrisome nature of the gendered ECE workforce means that the early education field has essentially gendered the curriculum, learning environments, and relational expectations that children experience. Absent adult male role models, boys are left particularly vulnerable to the media forces that will shape their roles.
Related to the gendered ECE field is the reality that derogatory remarks directed against boys that question their masculinity are much more “loaded” than terms such as tomboy directed against girls. As women begin to approach pay equity (they have already surpassed boys/men in educational attainment), words that associate girls/women to masculine endeavors will continue to become less stigmatizing. Perhaps there is some hope for boys as the term “metrosexual” when applied to men seems to be less stinging, although I have yet to hear it used by a child as a slur.
But there is hope. Wonderful books exist, such as Best Best Colors by Eric Hoffman, Antonio’s Card by Rigoberto Gonzalez, And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, Enemy Pie by Derek Munson, Tough Boris by Mem Fox, and the Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch (although the Paper Bag Princess is guilty of a different -ism in its use of the word “bum” which may be deemed to be very offensive to those experiencing housing challenges). I would say that these books are important – not simply because they address issues of gender – but because they inspire thoughtful conversations and critical thinking – making them valuable in a simple developmentally appropriate manner. In addition, books such as these, hopefully, will begin to immunize children from the media forces that inspire neither thoughtful conversations nor critical thinking skills in children.
I think it is odd when limiting the discussion of biases that parents might have against homosexual or transgendered individuals when, as a heterosexual male, I also experience biases from parents regularly. I have had my classroom assignment switched (when I was substituting for a woman teacher and found myself co-teaching with another man) because a parent was concerned that two men were working in her daughter’s class (when was the last time a parent complained because two women teachers were working in their son’s classroom?). I have been asked where the teacher was when I was the only adult left at the center at closing time. I have even had a parent withdraw her infant from the program when she saw me changing his diaper. So let’s not limit our discussion to biases against homosexual and transgender individuals.
Films such as Tough Guise, Consuming Kids and Raising Cain (2006) need to be required viewing for early education professionals and teachers.
Until our society can become more enlightened, I continue to encourage early educators to use words such as “big”, “strong” and “brave” when complimenting a boy on exercising prosocial behavior. “That was big of you to give him a turn with the tricycle” often goes a lot further than saying, “That was nice of you to share your tricycle.”
Earp, Jeremy and Barbaro, Adriana (writers). 2008. Consuming kids: the commercialization of childhood. Media Education Foundation.
Katz, Jackson. 2002. Tough guise. Media Education Foundation.
Thompson, Michael (host). 2006. Raising cain. PBS.