I recently came across a study on gender bias that found when you ask 5-year-olds if they think boys or girls are smarter, they usually answer their own gender. But somewhere between ages 5 and 6, something changes for girls, because when you ask a group of 6- and 7-year-olds the same question, boys were still more likely to say boys, but girls were significantly less likely to say girls. They started picking boys, too.
Researchers and parents alike were puzzled. What was causing this “switch?” And why was it found at this specific age?
They reasoned the usual suspects were at play. Teachers were treating their male and female students differently. Parents were raising their girls differently than their boys. The way boys and girls were portrayed on TV or in movies were perpetuating age-old stereotypes. And school age was when they really started paying more attention to all of this, so hence the “switch” between 5 and 7.
As a mother of an 8-year-old boy and a 5-and-a-half-year-old girl, this study particularly interested me and made me do quite a bit of soul searching. Are we raising our two children differently? And are we doing this to our daughter somehow? I’m sure we do bear some responsibility. I know my husband and I are guilty as charged for telling Ellen how pretty she looks far too often. We have made a conscious effort to also tell her how smart she is or how proud we are of her imagination when she is playing with her dolls, or what a good job she did on the very rare occasion she puts her toys back up.
But still, I am sure we are screwing her up somehow. The teachers as well. It’s always the parents and the teachers, right?
But I like to blame Disney, too.
Long before this study, I had been complaining to my husband about one of Ellen’s favorite cartoons, “Sofia the First.” I can’t stand Sofia or really her entire royal family. They are all horrible role models, for boys and girls (and sorcerers) alike.
The two young female role models are, of course, the titular character, Sofia, and her stepsister, Amber. Sofia is oh-so-sweet and never does anything wrong, always thinking of others’ feelings first. You would think this little lady “who became a princess overnight” would be an excellent role model for any little girl. But Sofia is so sweet, she often ends up being a doormat and as such, she plays the victim, who inevitably takes on my most hated personality trait of all, the martyr.
Amber, on the other hand, is a selfish, vain, entitled princess who only cares about advancing her own interests, which she does with great skill. Though she was clearly created as an example of who not to be, if I wanted my daughter to be the next CEO of Apple, I’d have to be on Team Amber over the perfect, yet insufferable martyr that is Sofia.
And, really, neither option is all that great. CEO Amber would be excoriated by the media for being a bitch or sleeping her way to the top (Because that’s how women make it there, right? The stereotype says so!), while poor, selfless Sofia would be down in the mailroom complaining to anyone who would listen about how she could have been CEO but she just wasn’t willing to do all the nasty things it required to get her there. But she’s not bitter. She’s happy for Amber. (Uh-huh. Enjoy your time up on the cross, Sofia.)
Don’t think the men in this series are treated any better, though. Little brother James, the bumbling sorcerer Cedric and King Roland aren’t exactly portrayed as geniuses.
Really, the only character who comes off looking good is Queen Miranda. And her greatest accomplishment was marrying an idiot king and moving herself and her daughter from the lowly village to the castle. Well played, Miranda.
I don’t want my daughter to be like any of these Disney chicks. Can’t someone write a female character who isn’t a doormat or just marries well? One who is strong, smart, confident and assertive but not a little monster?
Though I don’t care much for Sofia, I really don’t know how much influence this type of thing has on girls anyway.
I watched “The Smurfs” constantly when I was little, where the only female character was Smurfette. Smurfette was not even considered a real Smurf because real Smurfs can’t be female. She was created by the evil Gargamel so she would cause trouble within the all-male Smurf village. But apparently the original Smurfette wasn’t attractive enough to cause the disruption Gargamel had hoped for.
It wasn’t until Papa Smurf cast a spell on her to make her a real Smurf that the boys in Smurf Village got interested. Apparently becoming a real Smurf entails getting long blonde hair, a frilly dress, high heels and a higher voice. She was always portrayed as the damsel in distress, who was often kidnapped and prone to histrionics. But no matter, they all still loved her. And she loved them back equally, except for the nerdy Smurf, Brainy, who she said talked too much.
Talk about stereotypes, gender and nerd bias!
But I’m pretty sure watching this show didn’t skew my ideas on men and women in our society. I have never lived in a village full of little blue men, nor have I been kidnapped. Yet. No comment on the histrionics.
Who knows what it is that makes men and women think the way we do. Maybe some of it is innate. Maybe some of it is learned. Probably a little bit of both. Researchers in the study had no concrete answers.
But whatever the case, this problem has not escaped large companies, which have a harder time recruiting women into male-dominated fields such as engineering and scientific research. GE recently launched an ad campaign about Millie Dresselhaus, the first female to win the National Medal of Science. In the campaign Millie is treated like a celebrity and even gets a Barbie-like doll of her own that all of the little girls want.
Ellen happened to be watching TV with me one day when this ad came on. I pointed out how smart Millie was and how cool it was that she was a scientist. Finally, what a great teaching moment for little girls, I thought! When it came to the doll part, I asked her if she would want a Millie doll.
She crinkled up her face and looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Ewwww, no, it’s so old and ugly.”
I give up. Let’s just watch Sofia.