Toys and Cheerleaders

I missed Darius Boyd’s intercept try at the Broncos V Roosters grand final qualifier match because it happened in the opening minute of the game while I was distracted by interaction between the Broncos cheerleaders and some of the crowd. I’ve long been concerned about the stereotyped portrayal of women in the media and cheerleaders at the footy ‘push my buttons’. Luckily I had the game recording at home and here it is again for Broncos supporters who need a little comforting after their deflating loss to the Cowboys.

Video: from 40/20 Rugby League. published 25.9.15

Pink is for Girls

In an earlier post, I wrote that some of the girls in my Year 3 class were fans of 2015 Girls Toy of the Year, Shopkins. As a mother, I avoided buying my children gender-specific toys in the hope that they would not be limited by cultural stereotypes. Of course, relatives and friends didn’t always appreciate my concerns. Over the years however I have come to acknowledge the roles that both nature and nurture play in shaping a child’s identity.

Melissa Hines explains that girls’ preference for pink emerges around the age of three years, the same time they begin to understand that they are girls. If the toys we decide to colour pink are only those toys we consider culturally suitable for girls, then are girls missing out on the learning opportunities provided by non-pink toys, i.e. traditionally ‘male’ toys? Similarly, do boys who learn that pink is only for girls miss out on the learning opportunities that playing with dolls and other ‘girls’ toys provide? Gayle Allen and Deborah Farmer Kris identity gendered toys as a possible barrier to boys learning social skills such as empathy, so necessary to leading a successful personal and professional life.

Image: Janet McKnight
Image: Janet McKnight.  Boys’/girls’ toys in Debenhams. CC BY-ND 2.0.

The absurdity of colour stereotypes is that before WW2, red was regarded as a strong masculine colour and pink was recommended for boys. Maria Popova explains that the switch to the colour codes we know today, was implemented in an attempt to reduce gender stereotyping. How ironic it is that the result has been a consolidation of reverse gender/colour codes.

It is pleasing to learn that some toy shops have responded to campaigns such as Let Toys Be Toys and Pinkstinks by reducing gendered signage to differentiate boys’ toys from girls’.

Critical Media Literacy

So how do girls’ toys and cheerleaders relate to my Year 3 students? Popular culture, including toys, is saturated with stereotypes that define male and female norms and can contribute to a limited version of women’s (and men’s) role in the community. It is perhaps an instinctual response, but directing children away from popular culture will not develop their ability to engage critically with it. The Canadian group, Girls Action Foundation assert that when girls are provided with the necessary tools, space and information, they are able to engage with popular culture in liberating ways.

Image: Brad Flickinger. student_ipad_school - 154. CC BY 2.0
Image: Brad Flickinger. student_ipad_school – 154. CC BY 2.0

Among several strategies suggested by the Girls Action Foundation are two which I find relevant. The first is a no-brainer, but so crucial for student engagement with pop culture. As an educator I need to ensure girls (and boys) are provided with opportunities to examine the messages contained within their popular culture. Questioning texts in terms of: who is included, who is left out, how is gender represented, are diverse cultures represented and do they accurately portray real life, can help students identify stereotypes and biases.

U.S. Mission Geneva / Eric Bridiers
Image: from U.S. Mission Geneva / Eric Bridiers. CC BY-ND 2.0.

The second is to provide an all-girl space in which girls can discuss popular culture messages about girls and women. My experience of teaching has been that girls’ behaviour is different in all-girl classes from their behaviour in mixed classes. Providing all-girl spaces may be hard to achieve in some schools, but it could foster deeper conversations about stereotypes of women presented in pop culture. It could also symbolise the importance educators place on the status of women in the community.

Image: MJGDSLibrary. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Image: from MJGDSLibrary. 1st Grade. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If this post has struck some chords with you, I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas about the representation of girls and women in pop culture. The Girls Resources page provides links to related topics including lists of books with strong female role models, lessons on gender stereotypes and suggestions for gender-neutral toys.