This post is by Tari Sikoki.
Individualism. That’s the name of the game, and even though we are color coded right from birth and geared in specific directions, we all still strive to be regarded as individuals. It’s hard to do otherwise.
Children are individuals, and yet we mold them into the genders we assign them based on their genitalia at birth. From an early age, children are assigned gender roles and molded to fit into the expected norm that comes from a society where individualism is a luxury.
I was fortunate enough to read a story during my undergrad. X: A Fabulous Child’s Story by Lois Gould is a story of a baby born to parents who refused to gender the baby. As an “Xperiment”, they referred to the baby as X and dressed X in white and gender neutral colors. They encouraged X to cook and to fix automobiles; they basically encouraged X to be an individual. Even as a child, X was not hindered in its choice of what colors to wear, what books and toys to engage with, and eventually what subject matter to focus on.
This is not the case with society at the moment, and Lois Gould makes a very clear example of this in the story. Instead of letting children just be, we expect them to fit into pre-assigned roles, behavior, and characteristics determined by their genitalia at birth. Failure to do so results in constant prodding, nagging, sometimes even reprimand and teasing, until the child fits the expected norm.
One such “expected” characteristic is in choice of subjects studied at school. It’s an on going “joke” that women/girls are not good at math. To affirm the existence of this stereotype, images, jokes and items of clothing (graphic t-shirts especially) pop up often to remind us of this “fact”.
When I saw the image, I was offended. I’m not sure who I was more offended by: the person who created it, or my female friend who decided to use it as her profile photo on a social networking site. Either way, it didn’t sit well with me and I saved the image for critical use at a later date.
As a woman who initially studied math and the sciences, I was constantly met with surprise when I revealed my degree and career choice. People, professors included, where often surprised that I chose to study these subjects. Someone once went so far as to advise me to study something more “feminine”, as my career choice was “masculine”, therefore unsuitable for me. “It will be hard for you to find a husband” and “No man wants to marry a woman who spends all her time in the lab” are real comments made by a real person with a B.A. As a young adult, I found these comments silly and immature. Perhaps I felt this way because my parents were open to the radical idea that as an individual, I had the power to choose what I studied; they were even aware that my lack of a penis did not hinder my ability to solve for Y! Sadly, not all families/parents think this way. And this is the issue that must be addressed. If parents are limiting a child’s ability because they have subconsciously accepted societal stereotypes, we have a problem.
The message I draw from the image above is the underlying gender specific stereotype that exists in most cultures: if it’s too hard, give up, if it takes too much brain power, just use your body. This, I discovered, is what is most offensive about the image. These limitations and expectations have become so commonplace that we laugh at them now. We disregard the implications of these so-called jokes because we have blinded ourselves to the fact that these ideas affect the children. These stereotypes rub off on girls and boys. The outcome is that sooner or later, they believe these lies and live up to the stereotype. Girls begin to underachieve at math and “male” subjects, and accept it as natural. Boys are discouraged from knitting and studying Home Economics because those are “girly interests”. The result is a group of gendered children who grow to gender children.
When we try to mold children into predefined roles, we strip them of their right to be and neglect the individual that exists within them. We forget to cater to some needs because frankly, certain needs “shouldn’t occur with girls or boys”. As a global society, we are failing. We have forgotten to look after our children merely as children. We -i.e. society at large- have neglected their basic needs for encouragement and affection, and instead sought to mold them into the perfect “model” as determined by their gender. We have forgotten that they must first be children- i.e. individuals- before they are boys and girls.
Tari Sikoki is a writer and a feminist. She is also a documentary and conceptual filmmaker. Her passion for baking led her to establish a Cupcakery in her resident town in Nigeria. Tari is currently a contributing writer to the online magazine, EVIA Woman.