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.

Vox Pop Year 3

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Image: Raphael Jeanneret. CC0 Public Domain.

The Survey

To find out more about the world of popular culture texts in which my Year 3 students are engaged I asked them to complete this quick and dirty survey.  No time to employ the scientific method, and allowing for possible peer-peer influence, I hoped some of the information gathered would help me better understand what my Year 3 students get into away from the classroom.

The Results

The graphs below present some helpful information about my students’ preferences for books, TV shows, movies and other popular culture. Where useful, and for ease of interpretation, I have colour-coded exclusively male and female responses with blue and pink shades respectively. (Yes, goes against the grain but everyone knows this system!)

Q. List 5 things that are really popular right now.

The results from this question, shown in the graph below,  are enlightening for me. The singers, books and mobile devices were predictable, but some of physical toys and TV shows were unfamiliar to me.

A high number of responses indicated the popularity of physical (real-life) toys.  The graph above shows a break-down of the Physical Toys category to highlight specific answers. Responses from boys and girls are coded with blue and pink shades respectively. As shown by the graph, many of the girls are into Shopkins.

Image: lu-lu. from https://www.flickr.com/photos/_lulu/. CC BY-NC 2.0
Image: lu-lu. Shopkins army, assembled. CC BY-NC 2.0.

I’ve seen my Year 3 girls playing with these little figurines, but I’ve been completely unaware that these Australian created and manufactured collectibles are such a big craze. Cindy Train (Daily Mail Australia) claims the toy has attracted 13 million fans to webisodes and 400+ million views on fan videos. They’ve taken out the 2015 Girl Toy of the Year Award and even have their own Ekka (Queensland Royal Show) showbag. I feel a post on gendered toys could be in order!

Movies

The second highest number of responses to what was most popular things question was movies. The graph below shows a variety of movie titles, but Minions the clear winner. When the most popular movies from the above graph (scoring votes of 2 or more) were broken down to specific titles and collated according to gender, differences in preferences became obvious. Overall, the girls indicated a higher interest in movies than the boys. The takeaway from this data could be that my selection of popular culture movies to enhance student engagement in the curriculum might require more careful consideration than initially anticipated. How to find a movie or movies that inspires all students?

Image: stevepb. minions. Creative Commons CC0. from https://pixabay.com/en/dancing-dave-minion-minion-tim-510835/
Image: stevepb. minions. CC0 Public Domain.

Q. What books are popular right now?

I was also really keen to find out what books ranked with my students. Books nominated by both girls and boys are shaded green. It is clear that The Treehouse series books by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton are the books most favoured by my students, and I know they are excited about the latest title, The 65-Storey Treehouse. The breakdown of responses for The Treehouse series was 5 girls and 6 boys, showing a gender-neutral spread among these readers. These books were selling like hotcakes at our recent Book Fair.  I think there is wonderful scope for using this series to inspire learning and I am keen to explore this idea in a future post.

Overall, I think this survey has been a valuable exercise for me as I feel I know my students a little more. It has also provided me with impetus to continue to follow my students’ popular culture interests.