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.


  1. So the girls help in the kitchen because they are girls, as opposed to because their parents raised them to. Deep insightful stuff - there are puddles with more depth.

    Could have been more challenging and interesting if, for example, out of the 4 boys one had not conformed to the "manly man" stereotype that annoys me so much.

    From what you have said it seems like the parents raised the kids to conform to the gender expectations that they have, and are living proof of, as opposed to allowing the nature of the children to steer them in their own direction - surely a better name would have been "The Stepford Family Swap"?

  2. This was yet another documentary that was a huge disappointment. Why are there so few documentary makers wanting to challenge social norms? Why are there so few documentary makers willing to actually challenge the beliefs and opinions of the people they interview?

    I get so frustrated at the way so many people see gender roles purely as a result of biology these days. I studied Sociology in the 1990s. The view back then definitely seemed to be more a mix of nature and nurture and parents seemed more aware of the issue. So many of my friends with kids really do encourage their kids to act in gendered ways and yet they absolutely insist they treat their sons and daughters exactly the same. What fascinates me is that they almost refuse to recognise any behaviour that challenges their views. I have heard so many parents I know claim their children are typical girls and boys. Yet I can see that their kids do act in non-typical ways, but they just don't see it. My friend's 12 year old son is constantly asking me if I will teach him to sew as he loves the things I make. His parents keep finding reasons why he can't come for lessons and then claim he doesn't really want to learn and is basically a typical boy!

  3. I was reading this, and all I can think of is the fact that my mother, although feminine, loves to cook, etc, was a carpenter and cabinet-maker for many years. Anything your dad can do, my mum can do better - literally. I'm not kidding. My mother isn't a jill-of-all-trades, she's a Jack. So's my dad, too.

    I have to wonder how it affected me. I have four elder siblings, two of each gender, and both are rather "traditional" in their gender roles - admittedly, my eldest brother is very emotional, cries over puppies, etc, but is VERY much a boy (trust me. i lived with him for months.) and my other brother is a manly-ish man, but very shy. My sisters are both very feminine and delicate, but we're our dad's favourites, and we're all far tougher than our brothers. My sister has two sons and says she'd never want girls, girls are boring (and her youngest son, three and a half, loves wearing high-heels, nailpolish, hairclips and all other girly things, but trust me, he's otherwise all man). My eldest sister is pregnant, and we were betting she wants a girl - no, not at all, she said. She says she remembers how awful teenage girls are.

    My dad didn't really teach anyone to be a man. His daughters kind of did it on their own. We've all gotten shit for being feminine women who are tougher than a rugby player, but it's worth it. Our mother let us "be us" when we were small - my sisters did dancing because they wanted to. I did karate and cub scouts. My siblings and I all surf, and my eldest brother runs a cabaret in Byron Bay.

    I've never understood gender roles, but if it's apparently my boy's job to raise our children to be "proper men", society's going to be disappointed.


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