Today’s post is going to be a bit different from the usual. A couple of weeks ago, my niece turned 4. I’ll be honest, I find it quite hard to pick presents for my princess-loving nibling! I like giving her something a bit different from the mountains of pink, so I usually try to find her something princess-with-a-twist, and this time, it seems I picked a pretty good one: a Princess Merida dress with a bow and arrow set.
When she opened it, she was so excited to find a princess dress, but she had no idea what the bow and arrow was. After I explained what it did, and I showed her a picture of Princess Merida wielding it, she couldn’t wait to try it out. So I started showing her how to use it. Obviously it’s just a toy, and it isn’t all that sturdy, which means you have to hold it a very specific way to shoot it, and the arrows only go a few feet.
While I was trying to show her how to use it, I started hearing comments from a couple of men standing behind me.
“What’s this, a girl teaching a girl?! Hahahaha! Well that’s never going to work!”
“What does she think she’s doing?! Having a bit of trouble there, love? Want me to take over?”
I ignored them. When she got the elastic lined up and tried shooting it for the first time, the arrow slipped sideways.
“Ahahahah! Well, what did we expect from a girl? Leave it to the men next time, eh?”
Forgive the language, but what the fuck? Really? I am teaching a 4 year old girl how to use a bow and arrow. She has never done anything like this before, and it is hard to get right. And these two absolute asshats think it’s appropriate to stand there ridiculing both of us on the basis of us being female?
Let’s get one thing straight. Comments like this are not a joke. Society constantly bombards us with messages of what we’re supposed to be, how we’re supposed to act, what we should enjoy. If you say things like this, a child will not think you are joking. You are telling her that she is, at core, incompetent, because she is a girl. You are giving her the impression that it is absurd for women to be smart, or to be able to teach or explain. They knew nothing about me, and they assumed that I was stupid because I am a woman. You are telling her that she is expected to fail at anything she attempts that isn’t regarded as a female pursuit. You are telling her that anything she does, a man will be able to do it better.
I told her to ignore them, but I could see the seed of doubt forming. The look of confusion, then unease, the wondering if she should really be doing this. And it doesn’t stop with the use of a bow and arrow, something that (let’s be honest) doesn’t have many real-world applications. I’ve heard similar comments whenever she tries to play with her brother’s toys: lego is for boys, girls don’t play football. Even just looking around at the shops, the message is clear: Construction toys, science toys, sports and superheroes fill the boys’ section; Kitchens, dolls, cosmetics and princesses fill the girls’, something that infuriates me no end!
They’re all little things. A kitchen joke here, a casual “leave it to the men” there, an amused look of surprise when a girl is interested in a stereotypically male-pursuit. Adults may be able to separate these jokes from reality, but kids haven’t yet developed the perspective to do so. Individually, these jokes might be nothing. But they add up, and together they create an environment where our children learn the realities of sexism from the moment they begin to talk. It perpetuates a culture in which the things that we can and should do are dictated by gender. And it normalises the idea that women are lesser simply because they are women.
I don’t pretend to think that this post will eliminate sexist jokes and thereby conquer sexism, but please, consider the things you say around children, and realise that sexist comments can have a much greater effect than you would think – even if they’re “just a joke”.
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