11 August, 2010

Sons and Daughters

I've just finished watching a documentary on Channel 4 called "Cutting Edge: Four Sons versus Four Daughters". I'm not sure it was quite as cutting edge as it appeared, although it did give some food for thought.

The opening mark that struck me was the mother of four girls saying people often asked her, on seeing she had four girls, "Are you trying for a boy?"; the documentary started as if it were about to start exploring gender attitudes and nature vs nurture debates. However, the producers chose conventional families - the daughters liked pink, took dancing lessons, and arranged flowers with their mother; the sons were competitive, played football with their father, and had toy guns.

Both families were, again, “ideal”; the mother was a SAHM (although the mother of four boys briefly mentioned a part-time job, it was made obvious that she was the primary caretaker) while the father worked in a masculine industry. Both families appeared affluent; they kept the de-rigeur middle-class chickens; the eldest son had his own car. Both were white.

These aspects of the families situations was not the main focus of the documentary, but it is important to remember the other aspects of social inequalities when examining one - their middle-class affluence undoubtedly affected the girls' access to ballet lessons and pony-owning, and the boys' access to after-school sports. As a result, their "girliness" or "boyishness" is affected by more than just their biological sex - which in turn affects how their parents relate to them, and nurture their children to fit a certain ideology.

The documentary's use of gender stereotypes is consistent; the father in the all-girl family (John) is henpecked and feels outnumbered, while the boys' father would want to have “sporty girls”. The boys’ mother (Karen) is looking forward to a “girlier” house, and being with other women. Women want the company of women; Men want sons to relive their boyhood through.

Karen & Steve – have sons

John & Marianne – have daughters

Both sets of parents equally uncomfortable with their "new" families; idea that boys much more rough-and-tumble is enforced from the outset as the sons put John through an obstacle course involving a trampoline and water guns. The girls, in direct contrast, give makeovers to both Karen and Steve (they are shown earlier giving their father, John, a makeover, which he calmly endures while being asked leading questions about whether or not he'd prefer to have sons). The girls help with cooking the evening meal – the boys don’t (though they do barbecue). Both mothers do the main bulk of the cooking and caring. The stereotypes continue - girls like shopping; boys like go-karting. Fathers like boys, Mothers like girls. A father is only one who can teach “a boy to become a man”.

Karen, mother to the four boys, comments to her new daughters “I think mums do too much for boys… I think girls want to do it, that’s the difference”; she is pleased that the girls help out in the kitchen, but instead of putting it down to routine, she appears to attribute their assistance to their innate femininity.

The documentary did raise some points – are parents creating their children to be what they expect children of that gender to be like? Do they see children of their own gender as a conduit to relive their own experiences? Would the outcome have been different if the gender stereotypes had not been so clearly defined between families, with tomboys and boys playing with dolls? Or if the gender roles of the parents had been less clearly defined.

At the end of their three days of family-swapping, the parents were urged to reflect on gender differences – but not about whether the behaviour of the children is down to personality or their own expectations of sons or daughters. They do not question whether girls require a mother, or if a male-identified parent is able to parent a girly-girl. The personality of the adults and their rediscovery of their masculinity or femininity - in relation to their family standing, their children's personalities in particular - is considered, again raising further questions as to the effects of nature or nurture on children's development.

Had the programme not reinforced gender roles so determinedly, the documentary could have explored a great deal more in terms of gender and children's gender roles; instead it raised more questions than it answered, and served to repeat the ideal of SAHM, breadwinner father, daughters who do ballet and sons who play football.

07 August, 2010

Warning: contains no Daily Mail.

This irritates the hell out of me. I'm arranging a mail redelivery, so that if I have forgotten to tell anywhere that sends me bills, the bills go to the new house. It's handy.

But the Royal Mail website asks me to not only provide a title (thankfully it now includes "Ms" as a choice) as well as my full name - but it asks for my gender. Why on earth, especially considering that there is a first name and a title, does it require me to state whether I am male or female. Why is there no other choice? Does the Royal Mail really need to know the contents of my pants in order to redirect a letter?

04 August, 2010

Christina Hendricks is not my role model

It's nothing personal, it's just that "have big breasts" is not high up on my to do list. You'll have noticed last week the fuss over Lynne Featherstone, the equalities minister's comments on Hendricks and what a fantastic role model she is. The poor woman has been misquoted to a degree, with the Fail attributing to her "All women should aspire to be a size 14" (I can find no independent verification of her saying this and no other article uses this quote). Nonetheless, here's yet another minister/celebrity/journalist, no doubt well meaning, completely missing the point.

For a start, Christina Hendricks does not, as Featherstone claims, have any more of a realistic or attainable figure than Kate Moss/Victoria Beckham/latest popular target of skinny bashing. Yes she's a size 14. That's the average in this country. That's where any similarities with the average woman in this country ends. Hendricks might be a size 14, but there is not an ounce of fat on her. She's a size 14 because she's one of the few people out there who is genuinely "curvy" - she's got a generous chest and wide hips, coupled with a trim waist and long, lean limbs. In other words, she has an hourglass figure. Something around 8% of the female population is born with, and that cannot be achieved through any amount of diet, exercise or even surgery. Yeah, REAL attainable.

Secondly, as I've argued before, and hence will not give over too much attention to now, replacing one ideal of female physical perfection with another does not help. I couldn't be a size 14 if I ate nothing but lard for a month (and even if I could, I still wouldn't look like Christina Hendricks because I've got narrow hips and a small ribcage). All that achieves is shifting the pressure to conform from one group of women to another.

But thirdly, and more importantly, if we're going to start talking about role models, and what what women had ought to be "aspiring" to, could we leave the physical appearance out of it? Might we try aspiring towards academic and professional success? I know it's "out there" as an idea, but maybe Diane Abbott or even Featherstone herself are better role models than Hendricks, or that other cultural zeitgeist, Kelly Brook? Just a thought.