My mother loves to tell the story of the commercial that set her father off. It was for laundry soap, and featured a man being chastised by a group of friends for having ring around the collar. After taking his torment, he shoots a look of disdain and anger at his mortified wife.
The clear goal of the ad was to sell soap that helped wives better remove stains from their husbands’ clothing. My grandfather had a different take on it, one he would yell at the screen whenever the ad aired. “Wash your damn neck!” No one could accuse my grandfather of being enlightened, generally speaking; but even he wasn’t fooled by this sexist ad.
I’d like to think that we’ve come a long way since the ring around the collar epidemic of the 70s, but each time I turn on my television I’m hit with the reality than we haven’t. One ad currently in rotation features four pint-sized gangs of children on bikes, facing off against each other in an intense stare-down. The narrator, caught in the crossroads of the tiny tyrants, describes the packs by the themes of their bikes: Spider-Man, Star Wars, Frozen, and Disney Princesses. The Spider-Men and the Star Warriors are all boys, while the Disney Princess crews are all girls.
These subtle messages add up. It’s the micro-messages that we need to watch for. Ads showing that boys like this type of thing and girls like that type of thing reinforce the pigeon-holing that starts from birth.
As the mother of two young boys, I find myself being hyper-vigilant of these messages that run just under the surface. I’ve been accused of being over-sensitive or too politically correct, but I know that the only way to counter these subliminal effects is to call them out. I’m painfully aware that I am not the only force of influence on my children, but at least I hope to teach them to notice these little things, and guard against allowing them to snowball into bigger implications.
My ten-year-old has become somewhat of a gender warrior. He catches the sexist ads and is visibly irritated by them. He was about six when the Kinder Surprise Eggs for Girls came out, and he actively protested them. In kindergarten, a female classmate tried to block his use of a purple pencil crayon, stating purple was for girls. He vehemently defended the rights of all people to colour with whatever writing utensils they wish.
My five-year-old is getting there. He is not ashamed to wear, do, or say things that are stereotypically for girls. Last Halloween, he dressed as The Paper Bag Princess. That said, this is his first year at school, and indeed his first year away from me at all. He is being exposed to messages that are outside my control.
One day, he said to his older brother, “You’re a girl.” My first instinct was to jump on him for using girl as an insult, but I resisted. I wanted to see how his brother handled it. In my childhood years, being called a girl would set off a ten year old boy more feverously than being called just about anything else.
My ten-year-old had no reaction at all. He wasn’t offended or threatened by the accusation. He knew he wasn’t a girl and didn’t particularly care if someone called him one, whether they believed it to be true or not.
Unsatisfied with the failure of his first attempt at getting a rise out of his brother, my five year old clarified, “Girls are bad!”
That did the trick. “No they’re not!” defended my older son. He went on to lecture his little brother about gender equality and the inappropriateness of what he had said. I stepped back and let him handle it. Being called a girl had not phased him, but insulting girls as a group had enraged him. Maybe he was getting the right messages after all.
A few weeks later, my youngest came home from school feeling uneasy about an interaction he had at school that day. It was unclear whether a teacher had said it or a student, but someone had told him “Girls rule, boys drool.” It bothered him, but instead of the typical knee-jerk reaction to switch it around and place his own gender at the top of the pyramid, he was uncomfortable with the genders being pitted against one another at all.
“Mommy, I think girls rule, boys rule, and everyone rules.” I agreed, and we talked about how not everyone identifies as a girl or a boy. We came to the mutual conclusion that the value of a person was not determined by their gender. Maybe he was getting the right messages, too.
While we can’t control everything that influences our children, we can push for better representation from companies and advertisers. Be it cleaning ads aimed at women, bike ads that segregate kids by gender, commercials that portray men as bumbling idiots, or ones that are guilty of promoting other forms of sexism, racism, or homophobia, it is our duty as parents and citizens to call them out.
I want my boys to be outraged when confronted with these micro-messages. It’s not enough for girls and women to stand up for their own rights; to make a dent, we need everyone on board. I am thrilled to see so many parents raising strong, independent girls. It’s my job as a mother of boys to raise them to not be threatened by strong, independent women. I need them to recognize their privilege and fight to level the playing field.
I’m raising boys who will see dirt in the necks of their shirts, and make a note to wash their necks; Or better still, will throw those shirts right into the machine and wash them themselves.