Thursday, September 4, 2014

Grappling with Gender Grief in Toddlesworth Television Traditions

Bold Text by Lord Covington, Regular Text by Lady Covington

A quick note on where we stand, philosophically.  Lady Covington and I both identify as feminists: speficially "Third Wave" feminists.  As such, even though Toddlesworth displays mostly hetero-normative / cis gendered tendencies, it is important to Lady Covington and I that he understands that he has many options, that no one of them is more "correct," and we will love him regardless of his choice of gender expression.  My only two real "have tos" are strength and honor.  As we are working with the philosophy of Attachment Parenting, and because we try always to manage the narrative he receives, we believe we are more vigilant that most about what our child watches and comes into contact with on a daily basis. However, it seems some things have slipped in under our radar.

Toddles has always said "Mom, she is like you!" about the main female character in the shows he watches. (Rapunzel, Ariel, Elsa, Sally). It is expected to be identified with the feminine, and actually very flattering to be compared to a princess. However, it didn't stop at feminine identification and went on to be stereotypical gender expectations.
For a while now, Toddles has been telling me "You like pink! I like blue!"  When I would tell him I did not like pink, or that I in fact like blue and green, the best I could get him to agree to was a compromise of purple. Not only is it always infuriating when your toddler orders you to have opinions, but it is doubly so when those are seriously gender stereotypical.  More recently, he has decided that I MUST be a witch for Halloween. I will not be being a witch, and I insist I will not each time he brings it up, but we'll have to see how the actual night goes down when he realizes I will not choose my costume on his expectations.
The most shocking thing I have witnessed happened quite recently, when we gathered him to take him home for the day. We asked "What do you want to do today?" He turned to his father and said "You fight bad guys!" (video games) then immediately turned to me and said "You wash dishes!"

Just today, Toddles chased a little girl (about a year older than him) around a play area, trying to put a flower in her hair so she could be 'A lady.' She clearly didn't want the flower , and he backed her into a corner and tried to force it on to her head.  

Again.... really?

This is yet another a signal that we have a duty to address this as parents.  It is important for us to teach him that other people have agency, and that their desires matter, even if they are refusing something he thinks of as a gift.

All of these things have led us to be even more critical of the shows we have been allowing Toddles to watch, as well as making us reexamine our own relationship dynamics.

      We feel we are very close to 50/50 on cleaning, though Lord C does play about 85% of the video games.
When we talk about clothing, William will insist he doesn't wear pink, he wears blue. He will continue to insist this, even while he is wearing a pink shirt! (We have tried to include a variety of colors in his wardrobe, even though we have distinct color preferences that don't run to very colorful.   Lord C will tell you about the dubious interactions he had when he picked out a purple diaper cover for William one day!)
          We realize that we are bumping up against the dominant hetero-normative paradigm every time we interact with anything at all.  I once went diaper cover shopping in Abilene (We used cloth versus disposable), and the sales person seemed visibly uncomfortable by my choice of purple for a male child.  She put on her best tolerant smile and said " Maybe you want him to be a little different... ok. "  If I had been alone, her confused-displeased-subtext would have been amusing in a way that made me feel smug.  Since I was with my son, I resented what I perceived her narrative push into my choices.   
           I will concede that I generally dress business casual; I wear dresses and skirts and almost never pants. However, my color scheme is dark, almost all black. I do want to try to include more color, but William has probably never seen me wear anything pink.
Lord C. Wears a similar color palette, Blacks, Greys, blues, and one red shirt. He does stand out from the stereotypically masculine in that he has long hair.  We have never cut Toddles hair, and he has never thought he needed it cut. I imagine his dad having long hair helps him see that as normal.

In our interpersonal interactions, we are both managers, so he does see us actively give direction to others almost every day. I felt the need to point out to Lord C that Toddles does see our employees do a lot of cleaning, and most of them are women. Lord C thinks that I am more likely to give orders within the household, but we both think that while we are both "Authoritative" parents, I lean slightly more towards permissiveness and he leans slightly more towards authoritarian.

In our activities, besides videogames, Lord C is slightly more likely to want to do outside activities with Toddles, including stick 'sword' fighting. I will do the same, but I am more likely to suggest a crafting or artistic activity before an outside activity. To be fair, I push outside activities as a way to not play...I dunno ..... 10000% of the video games, or have him become the indoor child I was once upon a time.

I don't feel we have left any gaping holes in our relationship dynamic to allow tons of gender stereotypes in, so the next step was analyzing the shows we let Toddles watch.

We listed several shows we have positive feelings about and started watching them at the first episode. We decided to see how quickly each of these shows pass the Bechdel test, and additionally make notes of how the female characters are portrayed in reference to appearance/(instances of stereotypically pink clothing) and agency.

We started with Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood.This is a continuation of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, taking place in the land of make believe. This animated show makes good use of music to teach lessons. "If you need to go potty, stop and go right away!"
Daniel's mom is featured wearing blue pants and a white shirt with pink Hawaiian flowers. It takes a few minutes to get Daniel to school and have mom interact with Teacher Harriet (wearing a teacher type smock and all in oranges) The show doesn't get a true Bechdel pass until almost the end of the second episode when Teacher Harriet tells a female student she's done a good job.  While we aren't currently focusing on this aspect of his learning, it is worth mentioning that DTN has a healthy representation of minorities in professional and positive roles, and interracial couples as a norm.

Next was Monster Math Squad. There are three monsters who are part of the Monster Math Squad, who all share screen time about equally. This show is great about teaching math concepts, with varied vocabulary. Slope, Speed, Capacity, etc.
One of the squad members is Lily, who is pinkish-purple and wearing  a yellow hair bow. One is a large furry yellow masculine monster, and one is a green glob which is treated as young and who seems pretty gender neutral.  This show has very short episodes, about 10 minutes each. It did not pass the Bechdel test in the first episode, but the second episode the monster they were helping was a female so it passed in the first minute or two.  The "female" monster in the show actively performs math with the other two, and in terms of math skill is interchangeable with either of the others.

The next show we watched was Super Why. We like this show for how it introduces letters and spelling concepts, but we had misgivings even before this 'test.'

In the first episode, the super readers are introduced. There are two females, Little Red and Princess Pea. I would find awesome, but their appearances leave something to be desired: Little Red is dressed in an extremely short skirt/shorts, and Princess Pea is in a purple princess dress.
When they transform into their 'super' versions, Little Red becomes Wonder Red, and manages to be wearing even less... more like a bathing suit and cape, and the princess becomes Princess Presto. Her dress becomes fuller and turns pink.  There is also Pig, who becomes Alpha Pig. He uses tools to make his super power happen. Wonder Red has a magic basket. Princess Presto uses a magical wand ("cue the sparkles! Cue the music!), and In the first episode, when she first tries to use her wand, she drops it.
Throughout the first episode, the girls don't manage to talk to each other, and Wonder Red never gets to use her power at all.

On a positive note, Whyatt actively tries to engage in childcare within the first three minutes of the episode, trying to care for his baby sister Joy (dressed in yellow and blue!) Whyatts mom stepped in when he failed to soothe her, but we weren't sure weather baby Joy should count as far as the Bechdel test or agency were concerned.

After running it through the Bechdel/ Gender Equality lens, I am deeply conflicted about this program.  Toddlesworth has spent much time watching the show, and as a result, at the age of two and 8 months he is on the verge of reading.  I know this show, as well as certainly our own efforts, have played a strong hand in his advanced skills.  I also can see that it has reinforced as a hard and fast rule a paradigm I'm not comfortable with, particularly how it has manifested in him.  I am not sure the payoff is worth it.  I will continue to struggle with the two notions.  

Team Umi Zoomi attracted Toddles on TV, and it seemed a good choice for teaching Toddles about patterns and shapes.
The team is a brother and sister, named Geo and Milli, and their robot (Bot) who help a 3D (as opposed to animated) child with a problem each episode.
Geo, has the power of Super Shapes. "I can build anything with my shapes!"
Though there is a female on the team, her powers involve changing the colors on her dress (from it's default pink) to show a pattern. "I can make any pattern with my dress!" She also has long pigtails...that measure things.  In the first episode, the person who needs help is a young girl, (also wearing pink and pigtails), so it does get a Bechdel pass in about three minutes.

I find the need to mention that at this point, even with only two examples, I find it a little troubling that in each of these shows, girls are given a magical power, while boys are given a power based on "building."  These children might very well go on to be engineers, but no matter how many magic wands they pick up, I don't see it finishing any spelling tests for them.  As a side note, how lame is pattern power? I'd much rather have shapes that can build anything than a dress that can change patterns, no matter how awesome my wardrobe would be!
Who doesn't want a vegetable dress?

Bubble Guppies isn't keyed to teaching one particular thing. Instead, the episodes tackle different things the children want to learn about, and they discuss them with their teacher, Mr. Grouper.
I haven't sat down and watched many episodes, because this is one show that Toddles watches straight from TV, on the days when he is helping us do housekeeping. It is unfortunately not available for streaming on Netflix.
As such, I'm not sure how educational it really is, but I know there is a remake of The Lord of The Rings, so it has that going for it.
Bubble guppies avoids having the token female, there are three boys and three girls in the class, which also manages to be quite racially diverse. The girls have a fairly varied color palette, even though one is in purple and one has pink hair.
There is a "Hello" type exchange less than two minutes in, otherwise it doesn't get a real pass until 7 minutes. However, there is a class discussion, where the characters talk to the viewer, and a cute musical number in between.

There were already shows in our house that were outright banned in our household: Calilou we had never watched, but I heard horrible things about online so we never tried. Peppa Pig was something Toddles stumbled across on YouTube and demanded more of. Even though I didn't find it educational, I let him continue watching until the episode where Peppa Pig asks her dad why the reflection on a funhouse mirror is the way it is. He launches into a speech about the reflection of light waves, only to have Peppa's friend interrupt him and say "So it's, MAGIC!"  "Yes, it's magic..." Peppa's father answers with a resigned sigh.  What a perfect opportunity for learning wasted! At that point we resisted his pleading and put a full stop on any more Peppa Pig.

Searching for better shows in the past has led us to Monster Math Squad and Peg + Cat; (Which we did not review but will be looking at more in the future. Even though it has a female main character, most of her time is spent talking to animals, so I believe it will take a while to pass the Bechdel test.) both have higher math skills than, say, Umi Zoomi might show, and Toddles has loved them. Doing the research for this post led us to some interesting things too:

Suggested shows for Preschoolers
The Bechdel test in Disney Films
10 Kids Movies that Pass the Bechdel Test

We'll definitely be trying out some of the suggested shows, and keeping the Bechdel and agency test in mind.
 Like our decision to be Vegan, we are taking the time to analyze gendered expectations because its so easy not to consider the ethical implications of ideas and behavior that are normal for our culture. 
Toddlesworth is determined, active, outspoken and aggressive.  He is a great big slice of Cis gendered cake, with a plehtora of qualities we prize in American Culture. We are proud of his qualities but we see where, if unchecked, these attributes can lead to negative repercussions.  Even as I made him leave the little girl alone, I could see she wasn't particularly in distress.  I could have laughed it off as a " babies being babies".  Part of me wanted to, because I'm sure he must think I have this eldritch and complicated set of rules.  However, watching him use that determination, however innocuously to force someone into his understanding of gender roles is not something I, as a person trying to be a good parent, can allow.
   I am resolved to correct this course.  I will be buying a pink shirt or two , for starters.  But that's an easy fix, so of course there's more.  We are taking the time to view shows to take them of the menu if necessary.  We are beginning to pre-screen shows as well, prevention being better than cure and all.
   Also, if he already has the notions of dominant male in his brain, then I am going to use that to my advantage.  Last night, Toddlesworth and I were taking a pre-bedtime walk.  The topic of conversation wandered to Halloween costumes, a consistent favorite of his.  He reiterated how we'd be vampires and mommy would be a witch.  I tried to take this opportunity to re-frame the conversation.  Mommy could be a vampire or a ghost or a super hero.  Likewise, we could be witches if we wanted to.  The important thing was that we could be anything we wanted.  We were not restricted by gender.  In contrast to the fit he had when Lady Covington tried to explain this to him, he seemed to find this more or less acceptable.  Hopefully he saw my approach as a chance to be and do more: to do anything he wanted to do.  Further, if we have allowed him to form presuppositions about the role of our gender and the agency it brings, then I am going to use that to make him rethink things.   
 For my part, I'm not sure how much is going to 'stick' with Toddles right now, but I think it is a really good idea for US to be thinking about it, and to get in the habit of talking to him about these issues. We can get the general concepts in now and have something to build on as his understanding of the world progresses. I'll keep reminding him that people get to make their own choices. In addition, every once in a while I'll have to tell Lord Covington to wash the dishes while I go play some video games!

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