Children’s experiences in their homes, classrooms, and digital worlds shape their ways of being in the world, with long-lasting impact. Will the experiences of children lead to a more gender-equitable future? With Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment set as a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal and on the Post 2015 agenda, positive change now needs to take place in the lives of children.
Gender cropped up frequently as a topic of conversation when I ran an after-school computer club to research children’s imaginative interaction with digital worlds for my Master’s degree. Three years later, when I spent a year talking to International School children about their lives for my PhD dissertation, their conversations were also often about gender. The topics I was looking out for concerned the intersection of digital literacies and international lives, but gender kept coming into the mix.
So, as my aim is to represent children’s voices, it seems ethical to write about gender as an aspect of children’s lives.
from Mattel’s Code of Conduct – I think I need to write an essay on this image to work out my complex reaction to it…
In this post, I will briefly introduce my understandings of gender. And illustrate why we should think about a gender-equitable future starting from children’s worlds.
The examples below happen to concern the gendered experience of ‘girls’, but I am interested in gender outside of limited binary options. I understand gendered practices to be in continual processes of becoming for all of us, not just young people. Butler (1990, 1993) theorises that ‘what we take to be an internal essence of gender is manufactured through a sustained set of acts, posited through the gendered stylisation of the body’ (1990 p.xv). This produces a series of effects that consolidate an impression of gender (2011).
While gender might be thought of as an individual’s expression of self, we are influenced by the limited gendered ‘options’ observed in our day-to-day social interactions. It often seems that these options are especially limited in the worlds presented to children. Messerschmidt (2009), researching in home and school spaces, suggests that in her observations the ‘gendered self is the outcome of reading and then “doing” certain situationally available gender practices’ (p.87), noting that it is a socially interactive process, as ‘gender is something they (children) do in interaction with others’ (p.86, also McLeod, 2006).
Some recommendations of games from http://www.girlsgogames.com. With no titles, does the choice come down to which kind of girl seems interesting?
Choose Your Own Adventure (?)
On one afternoon in a computer club I was running, Caitlyn & Lauren, who were both 8 at the time, were playing a game they found on a popular children’s game portal aimed at girls. The portal was sorted into a range of game classifications. The game they were playing was under the classification Adventure games. This classification was further divided into three sub-categories, one of which was Kissing Games.
Me―Why is she going off with the boss now?
Caitlyn―She probably didn’t mean to, she just has to, because he’s her boss and she doesn’t want to get fired. They (the young female avatar and a similarly aged male character) were kissing, so he (the younger male) got fired, because he (the boss – a much older character) caught them. So she went out with him (the boss).
Me―Do you think it’s a good thing to make a game about, a good topic?
Caitlyn―Yes, because it is fun. I hate it that he always puts the phone down like that. Why does he always switch hands?
Lauren―I switch hands sometimes.
Caitlyn―I know but he sort of puts it down.
Lauren―The old man was in love with the girl, the co-worker. If your boss likes you, never kiss in front of him (giggles) with your colleague.
Me―Do you think it is normal for people to kiss at work?
Lauren―Probably… Or maybe not.
Caitlyn―They probably don’t kiss behind people’s backs while they are on the phone.
Lauren―If you like someone, you shouldn’t kiss while you are working if it’s a really important job. You should just kiss when you are out of work, not when you are in the work.
Even before my questions, the girls were extremely attentive to each other’s interactions and opinions while playing this game. Much of their conversation involved a critical reading of what was being represented on the screen, which they were filtering through their existing knowledges about what might be suitable behaviour for a young (female) employee to build a shared picture. In addition to the deeply worrisome messages about power, this game was teaching these two bright young people that gender is inevitably entwined with sexuality, and, typically in children’s games, sexuality=heterosexuality.
In another incident, I observed Lauren tuning into the conversation of a group of boys as they became increasingly rowdy while having fun playing a racing game. After watching them play for a while, she typed the address of the site they were on into her browser window, but then stopped, saying to herself ‘this isn’t for girls’. When I questioned Lauren about this, she told me that her mother had taught her that the boys could do what they want, but that she must choose appropriate, ‘elegant’ actions.
I don’t wish this anecdote to be interpreted as me being critical of Lauren’s mother. I have spoken to her on a few occasions and have a good deal of respect for her. I don’t recall speaking with her about this incident, and I didn’t interview parents for that particular piece of research. Perhaps Lauren interpreted something her mother had said with reference to one small situation, as a universal statement. People young and old do this. This example suggests that working to change children’s experiences of gendered worlds isn’t something to be brushed off as easy. But it is important.
And action needs to be taken now.