Permit me one of those exasperated sighs from the intersection between parenting, feminism and teaching.
As I am writing this, my daughter is in her room, trying to finish a crafting project for school. She’s been postponing this for a while. The others in her class have all finished, but I am getting notes that she still hasn’t handed in hers. So what’s the matter? It’s not that it’s a terribly complicated project or that she’s having trouble with scissors and glue. On the contrary, she designed her own multi part paper eagles at the age of four and made like a hundred of them for everybody and their dog. Literally.
Part of the problem is that this isn’t “figure out which body parts you need, draw them yourself and create what you like.” It’s “copy exactly these parts and follow exactly these instructions.” Which is fine for most kids that age, and being able to follow instructions in creating something is an important skill without which you’ll never manage to mount an Ikea shelf. But it’s not terribly creative and therefore not appealing to a very creative kid even though it is masked as “crafting”.
Still, this is just one part of the problem. The other part struck me when my daughter exclaimed “I don’t want to craft a silly alien, I want to make a princess!” And indeed, over the last years we had to finish multiple crafting projects at home because she didn’t finish them in school. A dragon (green, blue, purple), a monster (blue, red, yellow), a pirate (orange, brown, white, black) and now an alien (blue, green, yellow). You may notice a pattern. Conspiciously absent are princesses, unicorns, fairies, butterflies, flowers.
Now, I’m the last person who wants to stereotype children. Personally I prefer most dragons to most princesses and I definitely prefer blue to pink. But I cannot ignore that we’re living in a heavily gendered world. Sure, there’s nothing inherently masculine about aliens, monsters and dragons, but they’re nevertheless “boy stuff”. At the same time they’re also getting treated as neutral. Because heavens forbid we made “fairy princess” the crafting topic and handed the boys some pink cardboard and glitter. Making the girls do pirates on the other hand is totally OK because pirates are cool. This uncritical acceptance of masculine superiority is unfortunately very common in feminist circles as well. In our attempts to get girls out of the pink ghetto we cheer them on for doing anything male coded, as if there was something wrong with liking “girl things”. Instead of giving them options, we perpetuate the idea that male = default. As Audra Williams notices in her critique of the new GAP “gender neutral” clothing line, why does “gender neutral” always mean girls in boy clothes?
This is not gender neutral, and I suppose many people realise that it isn’t. It follows the good old rule that girl things are for girls and boy things are for everybody, with a side serving of “it’s important to interest the boys in these things, to train their fine motor skills and girls are more disciplined anyway” of benevolent sexism. This favours of course the needs of boys over the needs of girls. Their need to have their gender validated in a school project isn’t even recognised as existent. What message does this send to little girls (and boys!) who like princesses and butterflies and unicorns? It tells them that the things they love are silly. Not worth being displayed in school. Not worth featuring in the classroom. Not worth time and energy.
Gender neutral would be to present the kids with a range of options and allowing them to choose whichever the fuck they like, regardless of what gender they were assigned at birth. At least offer some pink cardboard and the possibility to make a “girl alien”.
As I finish writing this post, the kid is still procrastinating. “Stupid alien” she mutters and draws unicorns on her block…