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Tag: Gender stereotyping

Finally, Girl Power being used for the right reason

In the early 1990s, prominent feminists argued there was a media-driven backlash against the women’s movement, and it risked losing some of the momentum gained in the 1970s.

Then along came the Spice Girls to make “Girl Power” fun, and palatable, again.

“If you want my future, forget my past,” sang Posh, Baby, Scary, Ginger and Sporty.

It turns out it wasn’t just their predominantly teen-girl fan base who thought the way forward was through exclaiming “You go girl!”, it was marketers looking for a fresh take on how to sell the same old stuff, with a new pro-female spin.

So addicted have advertisers become to using the rhetoric of empowerment that it is now used to sell everything from cleaning products (“Get the power — the power to clean anything”) super-elastic, stomach-sucking knickers (“Spanx — Power Panties”, insert pictures of svelte women posing with arms on hips), cosmetics (Bobbie Brown’s “Pretty Powerful” range) and even workshops for teen girls that claim to want to empower teens via fashion makeovers.

Because nothing says equality quite like learning what colours best suit your skin-tone, or how to dress to maximise those socially acceptable curves, and to minimise the male gaze’s exposure to others.

Yet when marketers tackle sexism convincingly, their campaigns become viral sensations.

The Dove “Real Beauty” campaign has been running for more than a decade and is considered the industry leader in this genre; their 2013 “Real Beauty Sketches” commercial remains the most watched video ad of all time.

Feminine hygiene company Always’ “Like a Girl” campaign exposed the destructive impact messages we give to tweens about what being a young woman means can have on self-esteem; it has had more than 63 million views on YouTube.

Although many find it hard to believe Dove’s parent company Unilever is genuine in their commitment to fostering positive body image (they also sell slimming products, skin whitening creams, and run the notoriously sexist Lynx advertisement campaigns for boys), and some question how Always pushing panty liners is compatible with moving beyond limiting stereotypes about girls, for many of us it seems it is at least easy to get behind messages that build women up, rather than tearing them down.

The new “I’d like to see that” advertisement for the AFL women’s competition harks back to the popular 1994 AFL men’s campaign of the same name, but the female creatives behind this version have ensured it kicks a goal not just for one of the fastest growing sports (the recent television broadcast of an women’s AFL exhibition match reached more than one million viewers), but for team feminism.

The ad features female AFL players in action alongside prominent Australian sporting figures such as Turia Pitt and Cathy Freeman. They tell us they would like to see “girls who never give up” and “more women making Australian sporting history”.

It is incredibly inspiring (only the most hardened misogynist could fail to be moved by the shot of Melbourne captain Nathan Jones holding his giggling little girl in his arms and declaring: “Our daughters wearing our numbers one day? I’d like to see that”).

But what makes it unique is that it isn’t selling pop music, lotions or sanitary pads. It’s selling female participation in sport and their right to be taken seriously.

In the week since the ad was launched it has racked up more than 300,000 views online. Last weekend the millions who participated globally in the women’s marches proved the push towards equality has well and truly regained momentum.

Feminism is alive, hitting the streets and demanding more. What more would I like to see the women’s movement do? For a kick off, I’d like to see us move beyond messages of faux empowerment.

This post was first published in The Daily Telegraph newspaper 27/1/17 and online at RendezView.

Do real men cry? How redefining masculinity can save lives

I’ve been busy writing features for News Corp’s new Sunday magazine, Stellar. This piece was first published 16/10/16.

Frequent readers may know I recently founded a company that works with teen boys in schools to bust the myths that we think most harm young men; Goodfellas. Ben Barber, interviewed here, is one of  our presenters. I am really proud of the work we are doing in this space, and I was pleased to be able to elicit more dialogue around gender stereotyping through the platform this new publication provides. 

BOYS don’t cry. That’s what TV presenter Andrew O’Keefe learnt while growing up. As a little boy, he only cried when he injured himself, and he never saw his father weep.

Yet he’s among the new generation of men who are trying to buck those harmful stereotypes – as a father himself, he tries to be open about his tears with his own kids.

“We should show our kids that it’s possible to be vulnerable or blue, and still be a sane and capable person,” he tells Stellar.

“And I think we bestow a great gift of trust and respect on the people we love when we share our grief and heartache, when we let them be the ones to console us sometimes.”

The statistics on men’s mental health show O’Keefe has got it right. An alarming 18 per cent of Australian males over the age of 16 experience mood and anxiety disorders, and struggle with substance abuse.

Men commit suicide at more than three times the rate of women.

Dr Michael Flood, an associate professor in sociology who has a special interest in gender and men’s studies, says blokes pay an obvious price for repressing the full range of human emotions.

Apart from health issues, they have “more shallow relationships or superficial friendships”.

I made such a horrible noise that they came running to see what was going on.”

He adds: “Many men only feel able to share their more vulnerable emotions with a female partner [if they are heterosexual], and if they are left by that partner? Then they are really stuck.”

Actor Ben Barber experienced that emotional repression twice over.

“Growing up in a country town in Victoria, no one spoke about tears,” he says.

“I judged others who expressed emotion in a vulnerable way, and I judged myself for that, too. I thought that, as a man, that’s just not something you do. It was weak if you did.”

Barber later joined the army, where he feels he was trained to “breathe in toughness and squash down anything that could make you vulnerable.”

Gus Worland says crying can be a show of strength for men.

At the time, he says, this may have served him, but later when he left the army and was accepted into NIDA to study acting, Barber saw that his inability to cry was going to hold him back not just personally, but professionally.

“I realised I would be limited in the roles I could play if I didn’t learn how to cry,” he says.

“I thought there’s no way I can do it at a particular point in a script in front of an audience if I don’t have access to that in my everyday life. From then on, I made a decision that if I needed to cry, I just would.”

Barber was shocked at the impact this decision had on his life.

“I was watching a documentary on the playwright Eugene O’Neill and it really moved me. I felt my emotions build up and I stomped on them.

“This was very normal for me. Then I remembered my decision and when I felt emotion again as I continued watching, I let it go. This big sob came up from the depths of my being and the tears just overflowed.

“That is what every man in Australia has got to be able to do when they need to.”

“And that was it. I could not stop crying for about 45 minutes. I hadn’t expected how good that would feel – that’s what surprised me. It was the most amazing, cathartic experience; a release of 15 years of bottled-up emotion.

“It completely changed my life. When I finally finished crying, I felt like I just wasn’t the same person anymore.”

That’s the message Gus Worland, captain of Triple M radio’s The Grill Team (“the manliest show on radio”), is also keen to promote. He’s on a mission to question stereotypes around what it means to be an Aussie bloke, and filmed an ABC documentary series, Man Up, currently airing, on that very topic.

Asked when he last cried, his answer is unexpectedly moving.

Ben Barber was shocked at the impact of a 45-minute cry.

“It was last night, actually. I was having a cuppa when my dad’s partner called. My father went into the doctor’s for a routine check-up and they found five litres of fluid on his lungs. When they went in to repair the lung wall, they discovered asbestos.

“He was told he has between 30 and 50 days to live. Normally when I shout to get my kids to the dinner table, it takes about 10 yells for them to hear me. But when I heard this news, I made such a horrible noise that they came running to see what was going on.”

Like O’Keefe, Worland believes it’s important for his children to see him cry.

“That is what every man in Australia has got to be able to do when they need to,” he says. “The stoic, keep-stuff-to-yourself approach? It’s just not working for us.”

Worland also finds his tears are a useful tool for showing others he may need support: “Last night I felt better after I cried. I later cried with my brother, who rarely shows emotions, so that felt helpful.

“The most common thing I witness when I talk to teen boys about crying is relief.”

“Then it was like, ‘OK, well, that’s done – now how can we move forward?’ There’s a real release of pressure. It gives you some breathing space.

“I had another cry at the radio station [the next morning] with the boys I work with. We all had a hug, and they gave me sympathy and support. The problem gets shared a little bit.”

While sharing is invaluable, so too is the act of expression. Flood is eager to explain that crying is not about biological differences: “When you look at women’s and men’s responses to distressing situations, what is happening in their bodies is the same. This tells us that what is going on when we repress tears in men is social.”

Andrew O’Keefe: “Ultimately, crying can only be good for us.” Picture: Darren England

If feelings are not expressed, then where else do they go? O’Keefe, who is a White Ribbon ambassador and campaigns against domestic violence, believes emotions come out in other ways: “As irritation, as despondency… all of which are far less attractive and useful than tears.”

Barber, who now works with teen boys in schools in busting myths around masculinity, says the next generation seems more open to letting go of the notion that men must only ever show emotional restraint.

“The most common thing I witness when I talk to teen boys about crying is relief,” he says.

“There’s scepticism, too – sure. I say to them, ‘If we really consider ourselves to live in a free country, then we have to have the freedom to feel and experience the full spectrum of human emotions. This doesn’t take away from our sense of selves as men, it adds more to it.’”

While gender roles may be slowly changing, the fact that many of us would still be more confronted by the sight of a man crying than by seeing him kick a wall in anger or frustration shows there is still an urgent need for more open conversations around what defines both strength and vulnerability, and what defines masculinity as well.

Tears don’t mean men are weak; it shows they have a heart.

O’Keefe agrees: “Ultimately, crying can only be good for us. We broaden our knowledge of life and our understanding of what it means to be human when we let ourselves experience the wounds of our own heart without shame.”

Sleazy pick up lines now available in a size 000


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“Hide your daughters.”

“I’m only here for the ladies.”

“Stud Muffin.”

You might expect to see these kind of slogans brandished across a T-shirt worn by Benny Hill or Hugh Hefner; by a bloke who hasn’t yet got the memo that being viewed as a player is no longer fashionable.

But thanks to Best & Less, these very slogans are being offered up for babies in its latest catalogue. Heteronormative stereotyping and sexism sold from a tiny size 000.

It would be tempting to dismiss these baby rompers as nothing more than a bit of harmless fun. But why must we impose limiting gender stereotypes on little boys and encourage others to view them as having one-track minds, or more bizarrely still, as the type we need to protect our daughters from?

Messages like these sow the seeds for stereotypes that harm both men and women.

And while much has rightly been made on how viewing girls and women as mere prey harms them, there has not been as much discussion on how these type of attitudes harm boys too.

Dr Andrew Smiler, author of Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male, argues that stereotypes that view boys and young men as being barely able to control their sex drive risk becoming a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy. These beliefs may lead to destructive hyper-sexuality, unwanted pregnancy, and less fulfilling relationships.

He argues too that despite the cultural assumption that boys only ever want one thing, the reality is that many young men yearn for far more than a mere conquest when they are dating. They want companionship, connection and emotional support.

In the course of my work with young men in schools through the Goodfellas program, I have found that when we first introduce the topic of male sexuality there is initially much chuckling and bravado in the room. But once my male presenters start to unpack the stereotypes, they see shoulders drop in relief and there is always a respectful, genuine interest in having a different conversation.

The boys we talk to report feeling cultural pressure to date and to be promiscuous. Those who don’t conform to the message that all boys just want one thing start to question whether in fact they are normal.

This from 15-year-old James: “I have lots of girls as friends but that doesn’t mean I only like them as I want to do something to them. To be honest, they (girls) are sometimes easier to talk to than my mates. It’s insulting to me, and to them, to imply otherwise.”

Indeed it is. And it’s vital we give all our young people the skills they need to critically assess culture in this way.

As an educator and mother to a daughter, I have given her the skills she needs to question and talk back to marketing messages and media portrayals of women that would limit her.

And I’ve given the same gift to my son too.

Because messages that would reduce baby boys to their penises? They’re for dummies.

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This post was originally published in the Daily Telegraph and posted online at RendezView 2/6/16

In praise of feminist fathers

The following guest post is by my friend and colleague Nina Funnell. It was first published by Mamamia. Nina is a Sydney based journalist, author and speaker. Her writing has been published in academic journals, newspapers, magazines and on online news sites. She has authored multiple book chapters and co-authored Loveability: An Empowered Girls Guide to Dating and Relationships (Harper Collins, 2014) with me.

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Nina Funnell

I was ten years old the first time I attempted a ‘death drop’. Hanging upside down by the knees on the school monkey bars, a crowd of kids gathered around to watch. No-one we knew had ever performed a ‘death drop’ before and I was going to be the first brave soul to try. “Be quiet! She needs to concentrate” ordered my best friend, Sophie. “Give her space.”

For a few minutes I hung perfectly still, focused on what I was about to do. The plan was to release my legs, spin through the air and land on my feet. With adrenaline pumping, my courage spiked and suddenly I let go.

A second later I crashed to the ground. I had performed a glorious belly-flop and now lay winded, gasping for air. Of course this was all well before the days of AstroTurf, and kids were made of sturdier stuff. There was no way that a bad start was going to discourage me.

In the coming weeks both Sophie and I would learn the trick to the death drop: to complete the move successfully, one must first swing through the air like a pendulum and only release the knees when one’s body is parallel with the ground.

After that there was no stopping us. Before school, at recess and at lunch we would dominate the bars. Then late one afternoon when my dad picked me up from Afterschool Care, I took him to the monkey bars, eager to show him my new skill. Seeing his daughter beaming with pride, he asked me whether I would like a set of my very own bars at home. I was ecstatic.

That weekend dad and I headed to the hardware store to gather supplies. At home he showed me how to use the measuring tape, drill and saw. He explained why we needed to dig deep holes for the wooden pylons and he let me mark out the spot where I thought the bars should go. This was our special project, just me and dad working together.

In time we moved house and the decision was made to leave the bars behind. But I still look back at that afternoon helping dad build them as one of the great memories of my childhood.

I was reminded of those events not long ago, while out to dinner with a friend who had recently become a father for the first time. As we talked about the birth and the baby, he suddenly lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You know,” he said, “I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty progressive guy. I mean, I’ve always believed in gender equality and thought that I’d treat a son or daughter exactly the same. Dinosaurs for the girls. Glitter for the boys. All that caper. So throughout the pregnancy we never asked about the sex of the baby. What should it matter, right? Treat the baby the same no matter what. But everyone kept predicting we were having a girl and I began to think so too… So when our beautiful baby girl burst forth sporting a nice healthy scrotum I was stunned.”

I laughed.

“But that’s not it. You see, I genuinely believed we were having a girl, and when I found out we had a son everything changed. In a split second my whole view of the pregnancy, my whole mindset shifted from thinking ‘I have to protect this little baby’ to ‘I have to enable this baby, I have to show him the world and teach him how things works.’ Isn’t that terrible? And here’s the kicker, I didn’t even realise that I had this completely different approach to parenting girls until that very moment.”

Now it was my turn to be stunned. It was such an honest, insightful admission and I couldn’t help but wonder what biases of my own I might be blind to.

Of course my friend is not alone. Research shows that right from birth many parents treat their sons and daughters differently, even if they don’t intend to. While boys are statistically more likely to die during infancy, and are generally more fragile as infants than girls, studies show that both mothers and fathers react quicker to a daughter’s cries than to a son’s. Studies also show that adults tend to cuddle girls longer than boys but are more likely to encourage boys to explore, try new things, and take risks.

Right from birth we fret about girls. We worry that when a girl comes crashing down to earth – bellyflop style- she won’t be able to get back up again. So we treat girls as precious objects in ever great need of protection. But there is a danger that when we wrap our girls in cotton wool, all we really teach them is to be afraid of the world around them.

And just like boys, girls want their dads to teach them things, to show them how the world works, to enable them in some way. I think back to my own childhood and my strongest memories of my dad involve him helping me to learn new things: how to ride a bike, how to read, and how to cook his legendary ‘daddy dinner’ (a cheese, tomato and carb extravaganza).

As an engineer dad was also constantly explaining how the world around me worked. Even when I was not particularly interested in a given object, his enthusiasm for the science behind things was contagious. His own curiosity about the world made me curious.

But perhaps his greatest parenting moments occurred when dad found ways to combine his interests and knowledge with my own hobbies and amusements. As a child, I remember that there were few things more validating than having my parents express a genuine interest in my world. But what was truly enriching was when they took the time to teach and involve me in their hobbies too.

And the lessons stuck. I recently purchased my first home, a true ‘renovators delight’, as they say. As dad and I headed off to Bunnings together for the first time in years, he was astonished to hear me parrot back at him some advice he had given me as a small child on the proper care of paint brushes.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have been all that surprised. For better or worse, kids absorb their parent’s words along with the wisdoms they impart.

So I am thankful for all the great dads who teach their children to be curious about the world, not afraid of it. I am thankful for dads who pick their children up, dust them off and tell them to keep trying, no matter how badly they may have bellyflopped. And most of all I am thankful for fathers who involve their sons and daughters, in equal measure, in learning about the world and how to embrace living in it.

Pink Princesses vs Action Heroes

Enlighten’s Catherine Manning, one of our Melbourne workshop presenters, was in the toy aisles at K-mart last week with her two daughters and two nieces, ranging in age from 8-12. In the girls toy section, Catherine was appalled to see a whole row of “My Cleaning Set.” Inside the glossy pink packaging was a mop and bucket, broom and—hold on, don’t get too excited—even a dustpan and some cleaning spray!

Holy Peanut Butter Cups, Batgal! Can you think of a more boring toy? Catherine says—and really, I have to agree—that the girl pictured on the box “looks to me like a little girl destined for a life of misery.”

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Just as Catherine was contemplating buying one so she could discuss it with teen girls in her Enlighten workshops, something awesome happened that has got all of us here at Enlighten smiling: Catherine noticed that her daughters and nieces were standing further down the aisle, holding toy irons, with indignant looks on their faces.

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Left to Right: Mietta, Eden, Sasha and Lucinda.

The girls were incensed by the stereotyping they found in the boys and girls toy aisles, so she encouraged them to each write a letter to K-Mart. Here is a sampling from their passionate and articulate letters:

When you look in the girls aisle it’s all just pink, princess stuff, and boring cooking and scrubbing products, but the boys get fun building stuff, and puzzles and cars.  I still don’t know why marbles, puzzles and mighty beans are in the boys aisles.

The girls toys make little girls think they are the maids and they’re in prison and they serve the boys their food, massage their smelly feet and look after them and serve them breakfast, lunch and dinner!

. . .

You might think that black, blue and all dark colours are for boys but to me they are girls colours too.  Just like pink and yellow and red aren’t just girls colours . . .  There are just things in this world called ‘colours’ and they don’t belong to anybody and they are all different just like no person or people are the same, they’re all different! —Lucinda, 9

It isn’t fair that boys get all the fun, and we get all the house jobs.  When I think about being an adult, I definitely would like to think that my future partner would think that they’re NOT just jobs for girls! I would love to see some girls toys that lets girls be creative and constructive.  This could be like building something like a dolls house, or a billy cart, or just other fun stuff.

It is unfair how girls have, like, toys that they’re ‘meant’ to play with as though it’s wrong to play with the boys stuff. —Eden, 11

The dolls are always dripping with makeup.  It makes me feel like I’m supposed to look like them, and it makes me feel a bit sick.

I think that girls are being taught that they should ‘prepare’ for when they are older, because ladies do cooking and cleaning for their families while the men go outside and actually do FUN stuff!  I think the boys are laughing at us because they think that’s how it’s gonna be too!

Lego is soooo fun!  I love building random, weird stuff! Me and my younger brother recently built this MASSIVE skyscraper thing!  If there are any toys that are girls or  women, they have hardly any clothes on.  My brothers dressed up as fairy princesses last week—have you stopped to think that they sometimes like to play ‘girl’ stuff too!

Why do you even need to have a ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ aisle?  Why don’t you mix them up so we all get to look at different toys and decide ourselves what we should play with?  — Mietta, 12

I think it’s very interesting that all the girls feel that girls and boys should be allowed to choose what they want to play with, not have it foisted upon them because of their gender. Indeed, the problem isn’t inherently that there’s anything wrong with playing with a mop or an iron, but that thanks to marketing, packaging and the way the store displays its merchandise, kids and adults alike get the message that girls should clean and boys should build stuff. Look closely in the background of that picture of the Amazons brandishing those plastic irons and you’ll see that Catherine’s son Jem in fact looks pretty interested in something in the “girls” aisle.

Catherine notes, “Maybe if there was more equality in the toy shop, there would be more equality in the workplace.” In 2011, women still earn only 84% of what their male counterparts do and make up only 20% of company board positions. Justine, on Enlighten’s Facebook page, makes a similar point:

I have known kids to enjoy playing with these toys but only because at a certain age they like to imitate adults . . . it wouldn’t have killed them to put a boy on the packaging as well, but the reality is probably that it is mum kids see doing the housework most often = THAT’S the problem!

Girls show us time and again that they are perfectly capable of using their brains to decide what is fair and what isn’t. And there are plenty of feminists around today who survived playing with Barbies and toys such as the astonishing “Perfect Wedding” that Irin Carmon writes about at Jezebel. But still, I think that our toy aisles aren’t merely reflecting our unequal gender reality, they are actively helping to create and reinforce it. If you were in any doubt about the messages marketers are sending boys and girls about who they’re meant to be, take a look at these “word clouds” that The Achilles Effect did, based on an analysis of the words used in toy advertising aimed at boys or girls. Sadly, I don’t think I even need to caption them for you to work out which is the boys’ and which the girls’:

Toy companies and stores would be smart to take notice of girls such as Lucinda, Eden, and Mietta, though—because we’ve all had enough of gender stereotyping. With that in mind, I have a fun activity challenge for you this school holidays: encourage your daughter to design a toy that will accurately prepare girls for life as a successful woman! I would love to post the results here on the blog. She can make a drawing and scan it, or even build a model then take a photograph of it. Then email me the scan or the photo, and I’ll publish it here! My email address is: danni@enlighteneducation.com. Entries close 20th May. The most creative entries we receive will win copies of our inspiring Enlighten posters so do make sure you also forward your contact details.

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