gender theory

BBC2: No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?

5 min read

This blog post will:

  • Introduce you to up-to-date gender theories and studies
  • Help you understand where differences between the genders arise from

Last year, Turner-Prize-winning artist, Grayson Perry, made a rather wonderful documentary for C4 about male masculinity called, All Man and wrote an accompanying book, The Descent of Man. His work in both visual and written format challenges long-held notions of what it means to be ‘masculine’. Perry’s observations of male behaviour have led him to form a convincing argument that the world would be a better place if men placed less emphasis on action and competition, and more emphasis on being adaptable and compassionate. Grayson Perry

Fast-forward a year, and BBC2 have produced a deliberately provocative two-part series that takes some of the ideas explored in Perry’s work and focuses on whether children can really be brought up ‘gender-free’.

It’s important to understand here that ‘sex’ refers to biological differences between males and females (determined at the moment of conception) and ‘gender’ relates to identity (something which isn’t determined at the moment of conception).

How much do biological differences explain differences in gender?

The documentary, fronted by Dr Javid Abdelmoneim, makes it quickly apparent that structurally there are very few differences in male and female brains that account for apparent differences between the genders. These differences, or rather stereotypes, include ideas like:

  • Boys are: stronger, fitter, play football, fight lots of people
  • Girls are: love hearts, pretty, drawing, art

A neurological specialist points out to Abdelmoneim that a child’s brain development is linked to their experiences and upbringing, which just like gender, isn’t determined at the moment of conception. The viewer is then guided through the argument that daily experiences have taught children the mental attitudes associated with fixed ideas of what it is to be a ‘man’ and ‘woman’.  This is an argument that would appeal to A level gender-theorist fave, Deborah Cameron and her sociolinguistic observations of where differences between the genders arise from.

How can a documentary prove that differences between the genders are learnt and not inherent?

A class of mixed-gender seven-year-olds from the Isle of Wight are the subjects of BBC2’s documentary. At the start of the week all the seven-year-olds undertake a baseline psychometric survey that tests their levels of assertiveness, resistance to acts of impulsiveness, self esteem, perceived intelligence and vocabulary used to describe their emotions.

The results showed that:

  1. Girls underestimate their intelligence and have low self esteem. They use words such as “ugly”, “lipstick” and “pretty”; language that forms a semantic field of beauty and attractiveness.
  2. Girls scored more highly on vocabulary (synonym use) to describe their emotions. Whereas when boys were asked to describe their emotions, the only word they scored more highly than the girls was for the word ‘angry’.
  3. Boys’ results depicted themselves as angry, with low-levels of empathy and a tendency to over estimate their achievement/ability.
  4. 50% of the boys described themselves as ‘the best’, indicating far higher levels of self-esteem than the girls, with only 10% identifying as being ‘the best’.

From a socio-linguistic perspective, the results linked to vocabulary use are reminiscent of Robin Lakoff’s 1975 book Language and Woman’s Place which argues that women’s language is weaker than that of men’s. However, the results lean more towards the Cameron side of the debate. Is it any wonder girls’ language is reflective of their low self-esteem and body image, given the representations of women that saturate the media and the world around them?

What can a documentary do to challenge differences between the genders?

Abdelmoneim and his team attempt to create new experiences for the children, with the hope of producing new attitudes and new behaviours relating to their perception of gender. This approach echoes Grayson Perry’s own thoughts about gender-fixed attitudes and behaviours. In his conclusion to The Descent of Man he writes :

I think adaptability is the key to our masculine future. Masculinity is mainly a construct of conditioned feelings around people with penises. It can feel writ in stone, but emotions and feelings can be changed. I think that men need to look inside themselves (open the bonnet), become more aware of their feelings (read the manual) and start adapting (upgrade).  (Penguin Books, London, 2016, p140)

Abdelmoneium sets about creating changes in students’ attitudes and behaviours via classroom interventions (activities) that deliberately highlight their gender similarities rather than their gender differences. Note how important the comparative clause ‘rather than’ is in that statement!

The gender differences were quickly established by interviewing the children themselves. When asked, who are more important? regardless of the speaker’s gender, opinions were unanimous:

  • “Boys because they protect people”
  • “Men are better than girls at being in charge.”
  • “Men are more cleverer than girls because they get to be President”

Jobs are also discussed by the children, with a clear focus on action/power jobs for the boys and caring/appearance jobs for the girls.

Where do children get these ideas from at such a young age?

The simple answer is, the toys they interact with. But also highly influential is how adults interact with the children (via the medium of toys) as they often subconsciously reinforce gender roles.

Abdelmoneim brilliantly illustrated this by duping unwitting adults into believing a girl baby was a boy baby and a boy baby was a girl baby, just by swapping their clothes. Adults were then filmed playing with the babies whilst Abdelmoneim and his team secretly recorded the results.

There were no real surprises – the girl baby was offered cuddly toys and dolls, the boy baby robots and transport. The real surprise though was for the adults themselves, with most of them describing themselves as being ‘liberal’ when it came to their own perceptions of gender, they acknowledged that there ‘must be something subconscious going on’ that drew them to gender-stereotyped play.

How ‘innocent’ are the differences between the genders?

I think the idea of ‘innocence’ that the documentary explores, is this ‘subconsicous’ use of gender-specific language/gender-specific play that the adults in the above experiment refer to. It’s only when we analyse gender interactions, that we realise how constructed they really are, and what their implications are.

The documentary brings this to the fore by deconstructing the teacher’s use of language. The teacher, who is male, uses terms of endearments in an idiosyncratic way. Idiosyncratic refers to the speech habits particular to an individual. In this teacher’s case, he innocently uses terms of endearments before he says students’ names, resulting in his use of “mate” for boys and “love” for girls.

Almost immediately, these two endearments are signalling differences between the genders. ‘Mate’ has connotations of friendship and comradeship, whereas ‘love’ is softer, feminine, more emotional.

Two boys are disgusted when Abdelmoneim suggests their teacher calls them ‘love’ whereas the girl is much more open to being called ‘mate’ by her teacher. It seems that the male term ‘mate’ has the ability to signal equal respect between the genders, whereas the female term, less so.

Despite this, the teacher uses endearments twice as much after girls’ names than he does boys. This form of gender marking is overt, it is also awkward, particularly when pointed out to the teacher as it’s patently obvious he doesn’t mean to mark out gender so obviously, he does it innocently or ‘subconsciously’.

However, his idiosyncracies have no place in a modern gender-neutral classroom! Abdelmoneim makes a wall of shame so that students can stick sad-faced stickers on ‘mate’ and ‘love’ every time their teacher utters them. By doing so, Abdelmoneim challenges the students’ attitude towards gender marked terms as they are more aware of them.

Where can I find out more information about differences between the genders?

Abdelmoneim’s documentary series is well-worth the watch via BBCiPlayer as a solid starting-point for understanding where differences between the genders come from. You could then follow it up with a binge-fest of Grayson Perry’s thoughts on gender.

If you’re an A Level English Language, Sociology or Psychology student, I can’t recommend enough that you take three hours of your life to watch Perry’s documentary series, AND devote a few easy evening reads to The Descent of Man. It will challenge your attitude towards gender and possibly even result in changed behaviour.

The Let Toys Be Toys website also has many examples of gender-stereotyped play that A level students can find useful.

The next episode of BBC2: No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? will air Wednesday 23rd August, 2017 9-10pm.