It’s different for Girls?: My thoughts on BBC 2’s No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?

I’ve spent the last couple of days in the company of my two nieces who are five and seven.
They are such funny, engaging and intelligent girls. Every time I am around them I am aware of how impressionable children are and the part we can play as role models young people’s lives.
Whilst hanging out with these two young girls, I couldn’t help but think about the recent BBC two-parter, No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? I wanted to watch the programme because of my interest in gender but also because as the documentary itself mentions, research undertaken at Stamford University suggests that seven is a key developmental age, because apparently this is when children develop fixed ideas on what constitutes men and women and that even this early in their life, children have already been conditioned to ‘think that boys and girls are fundamentally different.’ As I mentioned previously, my nieces are five and seven.
The programme’s central premise is that knowingly or not, we teach boys and girls ‘different skills and mental attitudes,’ that this shapes these young children’s perceptions along binary lines and in a way that may well impact on the rest of their lives and that this could be one of the key reasons why we have not achieved equality between men and women. However, as the series narrator, Dr Javid Abelmoneim, states, children’s brains are very ‘plastic and mouldable’ and so the aim is to do some ‘brain training,’ supposedly turning a class of seven-year olds at the Lanesend School on the Isle of Wight, ‘gender neutral’ by staging a series of classroom interventions.
So whilst the programme claims that academic self-confidence and spatial tasks seem to be an issue for young females, and boys apparently struggle with expressing and processing emotion, by implementing a number of changes over a six-week period, it is hoped that these youngsters will experience improvements that apparently make them ‘gender neutral.’
Here I must say that the programme’s title is misleading, gender neutrality is actually not the programme’s aim here, but gender awareness and ultimately equality. And there were some issues with the programme’s methodology. For example, in the first episode, why did the male makeup artist brought in to challenge the boys’ perception of a make-up artist being a ‘woman’s job’ give the boys bruises and cuts in his demo and talk about his work on the Avengers and Star Wars films? Is this really challenging these boys?
That said, the documentary was still-thought provoking and I’m looking forward to the second and final episode.
In one instance, an experiment was conducted whereby the gender of a small handful of babies was swapped with female toddlers who were passed off as boys, and vice versa, through a change in clothing and name. The children were placed on a rug with toy robots and cars, dollies and soft toys, and adult volunteers with no relationship with these children were asked to interact with the child. What became immediately apparent from the footage shown was the perceived gender of these children consistently shaped the volunteers’ behaviour towards the child, with ‘girls’ consistently being offered soft toys that they could nurture and ‘boys’ being offered toys that help with spatial awareness.
The programme also emphasised how many children’s books work to reinforce gender stereotypes, claiming that ‘girls’ books tend to suffer from a lack of active female protagonists and ‘boys’ books tend to celebrate traits such as ‘excessive competitiveness’ both potentially hugely damaging and stifling characteristics, in very different ways.
In another sequence, the class teacher is shown repeatedly refering to his female students as ‘love’, and his male students as ‘mate’ as a means of endearing himself to students. This behaviour was highlighted as potentially perpetuating a distinct gender divide in his class.
This teacher’s interactions made me very aware of my pedagogy and the ways in which I address learners. I am aware of my deeply problematic use of ‘ladies’ and ‘gents’ in seminar scenarios. These heteronormative terms are deeply problematic in terms of asserting gender difference and have previously proven awkward when working with trans students. I previously used these terms when working with children and young teens as a means of acknowledging learners as young adults, mature individuals and equals, but I may actually be inadvertently patronising learners.
Considering the complexities of identity politics and the aforementioned gender inequities, it is tempting to throw our hands in the air and despair at a culture that reinforces these heteronormative ideas which can damage all of us. But we must remember that we are a part of that system.
If we are not careful our privilege or limited experience can blind us to our constraints and despite our best intentions, we can be part of the problem. We need to take a leaf out of our niece’s (and nephew’s) books and keep our minds open.
Yet on August 5th the Daily Mail asked was No More Boys and Girls intent ‘PC lunacy?’[1] or a ‘lesson for us all?’ and a Daily Express feature on Wednesday August 16th entitled ‘Gender Neutral Classrooms: Lorraine viewers FUME at new BBC show No More Boys and Girls’[2] claimed that ‘Viewers tuning in to watch today’s edition of ITV’s Lorraine were left furious following a segment on gender neutral classrooms.’
One tweet quoted in the article read:
“Those fools of parents who thinks [sic] classes should be gender-neutral really want to have a look in the mirror. Disgrace. Attention-seeking!”
This Twitter response encapsulates the problem with the programme’s misleading title (not helped by alarmist or sensationalising coverage of the programme in the broader media). It can prompt a knee-jerk reaction which subsequently closes off any openness to the actual ideas that are advanced in the programme. I find it hard to believe that any loving parent wouldn’t want equal opportunities and more positive gender standards for their children.
The onus is therefore on us to take care in our everyday interactions with our nieces and nephews. In my case to not simply buy them the book with the passive female character, to encourage their love of pirates, to discourage their assertions that ‘boys can’t wear dresses,’ to celebrate their assertive moments and to not chastise them for ‘bossiness’ when they state clearly what they feel their requirements are. It’s a time-consuming, continuous and at times difficult job, but it’s one we must take seriously and constantly mindful of if we are all to move forward.

[1]http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4764198/The-school-went-gender-neutral.html [accessed 22/08/2017]
[2]http://www.express.co.uk/showbiz/tv-radio/841806/No-More-Boys-and-Girls-BBC-Gender-neutral-classrooms-Lorraine-Twitter [accessed 22/08/2017]

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