Sexism and Children: Why it’s Not “Just a Joke”.

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.

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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?”

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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!

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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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Founder and main author of Bras and Body Image. Anna is a lingerie lover, feminist and maths student based in the UK, who hopes to someday cuddle every cat in the world.

31 thoughts on “Sexism and Children: Why it’s Not “Just a Joke”.

  1. Great post! I HATE this kind of ridiculous gender enforcement and I think you would have been perfectly within your rights to tell those men to shove it. I hate these kinds of ‘jokes’– misogyny is not funny.

    • Exactly! I was so furious. That’s why it took me a couple of weeks to post this, actually, I could barely get my thoughts straight on the matter! I wish I had said something but I’ve never been the best at confrontation – I tend to go very red, get tongue-tied and make a fool of myself. I figured it would be better to ignore them rather than get muddled up and give them something else to ridicule me with.

  2. I may be lucky in that if I heard these comments as a child, they didn’t register. I feel like in the last four years I hear them CONSTANTLY. It’s not funny: it’s cruel and humiliating and dehumanizing. I’m so sorry you and your niece had this experience.

    • That’s really interesting, I didn’t know that either! I love the flowchart too, but I can’t find the original poster to credit it, agh!

  3. Wow… That left me speechless… In a bad way. I don’t even know what to say. Do they even realize what they’re f*cking saying in front of a four year old?! Sorry for the cussing, but sometimes I just can’t help myself! A four year old is so innocent, nobody should ever put someone down, but especially not a four year old! “Leave it to the men” … What a piece of shit comment!

  4. Tell your niece the truth. Some men are way to insecure and are afraid girls will do better than them. That’s why they try to discourage them from trying new things.

  5. I’m a father of 2 little girls. My wife is pregnant with our first boy. Everyone is all “now you’ll have a buddy to take to the woods/hunting/fishing etc. I don’t see it this way…now I’ll have *another* buddy to take with the whole gang. I fully intend to teach my girls everything I’ll teach my boy in regards to stereotypical “man skills”…as a matter of fact, they’ll learn it first because they are older and will take a hand in instructing him as he grows. My wife works 3 days a week while I stay home and take care of the kids/cook/clean etc. When she’s home I work as a custom leather crafter (which my wife also participates in). In no way can anyone on this blog or anywhere correctly accuse me of being sexist.

    That being said, you did nothing to diminish the stereo type of girls knowing nothing of “man things” in this example. Now before you go all “oh so its my fault they’re asshats” no, that’s not at all what I’m saying. Asshats are asshats, and sexism isn’t the fault of the woman. But lets take a moment to analyze this from the male perspective shall we? You get this girl a cheap, plastic, unusable “bow” for her birthday, and then try to show her how to use it…its easy right? Everyone knows how to use a bow…no. I know this is a toy…lets keep in mind I’m privy to this knowledge.

    In this example, you show that you know nothing about this “man” activity by buying something worthless in its intended use, and then try to show her how to use it…and then get upset when asshats act like asshats. Hows about next time you know what you’re about first, get a proper instrument second, and shut the asshats up by demonstrating you have the proper skill set to instruct a child in the use of such an instrument. Otherwise, don’t go all fem-nazi when asshats call you out for “looking like a girl” doing “man things”.

    You could have gotten this girl a real, usable youth bow for the same price you paid for the made in China garbage and fake dress…and if you knew anything about it, you could have then taught her something real she could benefit from instead of how to play Disney princess dress up make believe. Oh, she’s too young? Nope. Maybe shes “just a girl”…like you seem to be. Hows about instead of complaining about idiots being idiots (a fact of life you will never raise enough “awareness” to change), you empower yourself first by becoming competent in what you’re trying to teach a child, and then empowering the child by actually teaching her something. Just a thought, but what do I know…I’m “just a man”.

    • …Your main problem with this is that instead of getting her a proper bow and arrow when I didn’t even know if she’d actually be interested in it, I got her a toy? Okay. In case it isn’t obvious…I went with the Princess Merida theme because she seems to get bored of anything non-princess very quickly. The idea was to get her interested in something less typically princessy through the princess route, and if she enjoys it, then hell yes I will get her something sturdier.

      It’s kind of hilarious how you wrote a huge paragraph justifying yourself as not sexist, then as soon as I do something you disagree with, you say it’s because I’m “just a girl”, and that if I get pissed off about stuff like this I’m a “feminazi”. Seriously, do you not see the problem there? Or was that supposed to be motivational? Because it came across as you being an asshole. Also, I have no idea what you meant by me “looking like a girl” while instructing her. Is it the fact that I look (and am) female? Because I don’t plan on changing that anytime soon, and I don’t see why that would be a problem anyway. If you actually meant “looking incompetent”, once again…seriously?

      And, for the record, my explaining was fine – they were mocking me from the moment I said I would teach her. It wouldn’t have mattered what I did or how perfectly it went. They had decided it would be hilarious to mock me for being a woman. They were completely out of line. Even if I explained terribly, attributing my failures to my gender, and mocking me on that basis, is still hugely sexist. If they’d made fun of me just for going wrong, I would be okay with that. I could probably laugh with them. But that isn’t why they were mocking me. I don’t understand why some people feel the need to rationalise their behaviour.

  6. What a wonderful post! I am sorry to hear you and your niece experienced such blatant sexism for enjoying an activity together. I consider myself very fortunate that my parents were always very open about allowing my brother and I to play with whatever toys we wanted or to participate in any sport we liked. The constant bombardment of gender appropriateness does take root and grow into self-doubt. For years, I slacked off on studying math because girls were not naturally adept at learning it. Only when I reached college and realized how enjoyable I found math did I start to change my perception and myself. No little girl should grow up feeling like she can’t or shouldn’t do something simply because she is female.

  7. If they had said that in front of my 15 year old daughter who won a national archery championship at age 11 they might have gotten an archery demonstration that they absolutely didn’t expect or like.

  8. Nice flowchart. I have fought those stereotypes raising our daughter for years. I was shocked at age 4 she didn’t want certain toys because they were “boy toys”. Societal norms are tough to fight. I would like to think I would have verbally handed the men in your article there asses to them. Sexist men often respond differently to a man calling them out. Their comments were not in my mind “jokes” and are completely unacceptable, the thoughts behind them worse. Thanks for the post and all you do to bring sexism into the light.

  9. I totally agree with everything you are saying but really?! Did you not stand up for her then and there? I think not doing so can be just as damaging. Holding these views but doing nothing about it in the moment? It’s one thing to blog about it but another to actually do something about it in the situation. :-/

    • I’ve had a few comments like this, so…To be honest, I was just trying to have fun with my niece. It was totally unexpected and I wasn’t ready to deal with something like that. I’m sure it might be hard to imagine for any more-outgoing people, but I am really not a confrontational person. My adrenaline response has always been to freeze, which is absolutely terrible in just about any high-pressure situation. Combined with the fact that these were members of my niece’s step-dad’s family, and this was the first time I had met any of them…well, it became much harder than you would expect. It sucks, I agree, and I wish I had said something, but at the time no words came.

      • I can absolutely relate! I have one of two responses in high-adrenaline situations: 1) Metaphoric flames come shooting out of my mouth and I spit out something scathing; or (much more likely) 2) The part of my brain that sends thoughts to my mouth shuts down completely and comes back to life about six hours later, leaving me thinking, “I should have said (insert clever remark here)! Damn! That *totally* would have shut them up!”

      • It’s always easier to think of the perfect response after the fact, isn’t it? And sexist ambushes are the worst! Here’s what I like to imagine that my “perfect” response would have been: I would have looked at the men, then looked at my niece and said to her in a laughing voice, “Do you hear what those men are saying? Aren’t they crazy? Let’s learn how to use this thing so that you can shoot it at them and show them that they don’t know what they’re talking about!” How stressful for you to know that you niece’s stepfather’s family is so unsupportive. Your niece looks both adorable and strong in these pictures.

  10. Dammit, this pisses me off beyond belief. Even if someone DID think such stupid thoughts, why would he open his mouth and show that stupidity to the world?

    When I took Charlotte at age 9 to an archery studio, they taught her (a girl taught her, by the way, or a young woman, probably in her late teens) and by the end of an hour, Charlotte, not a very strong person yet, only 9, still managed to pull back a professional bow string and launch an arrow into a target. Not close to the center, not at age 9, her first time, but after a bunch of tries, getting nowhere close, she actually hit the target.

    Does this asshat know that some of the world’s best archers are (and always have been) women? Does he know Geena Davis was an accomplished archer? And that she’s hardly alone?

    God, what a dickwad!

  11. Despite what society perceives is right for women, or not right I should say, we need to ignore rude comments like those and continue to push forward. Little girls can grow up to be anything they want to be, as is the same for little boys. This horsesh** sexist talk does nobody any good. My daughter was a dress loving, princess dress up lover, who loved make believe. She has grown up to be a dress wearing, princess loving, physics loving woman in a world that is dominated by men. My point? She goes toe to toe, and is smarter than most men in the world of physics, a “manly” field. Take THAT you sexist men!

  12. This makes me as angry as when I was in my 20’s. I had graduated from hair school. I got a job and was making great money. I bought a new car. When I showed my parents my Dad said ” not bad for a women who doesn’t have a real job, wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just play with hair all day” I was furious. I didn’t speak to him for a year because of his sexist remark. When my husband and I had a daughter we both cried in the delivery room when I asked him to empower his daughter and she can be and do anything she wants. I was never so proud of him when my Dad asked him if he was sad he didn’t have a boy. My hubby explained how his daughter can do and be anything she wants and he couldn’t be happier!

  13. My 27 year old daughter grew up playing with legos, dressing in camouflage and mountain biking with her brother. The phrase that irks me these days is to hear a little baby boy referred to as “little man” while women my age (58) are still girls. I have always been flummoxed that it is “funny” for a man to dress as a woman. I remember my son’s karate teacher telling them not to be “girls” and this continues to occur because I have heard it in other kid’s sports settings. Your niece needs a lovely recurve bow. I loved archery, elegant sport. It hurts my feelings when women learn to be their own worst critic – insecure – they don’t speak up when men or other women try to cut other women down. I certainly hope in my lifetime something changes. So many talented people who happen to be gender female subvert their talents out of gender pressure. Shame on anyone who encourages that in anyway. Shame.

  14. Is there any chance that they made those comments specifically with you in mind? From my (admittedly inexpert) opinion, it sounds as if they are aware of your views on gender equality and knew they’d make you mad. Regardless of why they did it, what a mean message to send to a small child.

    • Not a chance. They were family members of my niece’s step-dad (or more specificially, my sister’s current boyfriend), and I’ve barely even spoken to him. It was the first time I’d met any of his family, and I don’t think they even got my name, so I doubt they had heard anything about me either.

  15. I think that anyone who puts another person down (for any reason) is so insecure about themselves, that ridiculing others is the only way they know to make themselves FEEL smart. So to anyone on the receiving end of that ridicule, I say “Show them how dumb they are by being something more than what they expect you to be.”

    • …Aside from the anecdote about my niece, none of my comments were directed at a specific gender. At no point did I say all men are sexist, nor did I say that only men make sexist comments.

  16. Interesting.
    I also think its a matter of country though. I live in Denmark, and I’ve never encountered any incidents like this one. I think we do have a more relaxed attitude towards toys, or what clothes kids wear.
    My dad taught me how to shot a bow and arrow when I was 7. When I was 10 he taught me how to shoot with a training rifle and a few years later a real rifle.
    But I don’t support him hunting. I’ve never killed or shot an animal and I never will. I find it a stupid old patriarchal “sport”. – but still, my dad taught me even though I was a girl, and no one ever thought that was weird. I think especially Scandinavian countries have a super relaxed way about them in regards to kids’ gender expressions. My mom works in a kindergarten and plenty of boys dress like princesses for Halloween and so on. I dressed up as Robin Hood when I was a kid, and my younger brother was a cheerleader.
    I hope the rest of the world will let kids be kids and let them express themselves however they want to :)

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