Gender roles can be a "bitch." Usually, you can put a girl in a suit and tie, and no one cares. In most of the U.S, however, people tend to freak out when they see a man in a skirt and a killer pair of stilettos. My parents refused to let me paint my bedroom purple out of fear of what kind of young man I'd grow to be. I just liked the color purple, and, due to someone else's hangups, I got stuck with a sky blue room. My little sister's room they painted-- you might guess-- pink. Boys are supposed to be this way, girls are supposed to be that way... it all gets very confusing. Mainly, most people neglect to realize that a child's concepts of gender association are almost entirely affected by his/her relationship with parents and siblings. What children need are strong male and female role models that are confident with themselves and secure around all varieties of others. There's a huge blame-game being played constantly against media, entertainment, religion, and toys... and some characters are getting a bad rap. It seems most parents want to believe that it's all someone else's fault.
Recently, I read a news article from London about a University of Derby graduate student named Susan Darker-Smith who made this lofty claim: Young girls who enjoy classic romantic faery tales like "Cinderella" and "Beauty and the Beast" are at greater risk of becoming victims of violent relationships in later life. While working on a masters degree in cognitive behavioral psychotherapy, she concluded that girls who are exposed to faery tales as children are likely to be more submissive as adults. After a study of both women and parents of children who have been involved in domestic abuse, entitled "The Tales We Tell Our Children: Overconditioning of Girls to Expect Partners to Change," she said that many abuse victims identified with characters in famous children's literature and claimed the stories provide "templates" of dominated women.
"They believe if their love is strong enough they can change their partner's behavior," Darker-Smith said. "Girls who have listened to such stories as children tend to become more submissive in their future relationships." She also said she believed newer generations more influenced by television and other entertainment may react differently and less meekly than those with a more exclusive background in classical literature.
While I may be unable to argue with whatever statistics Darker-Smith was able to provide at the end of her research, I question the validity of this claim in practice. I do agree that classical European literature and faery stories portray the feminine role as the submissive, waiting damsel in distress who expects her prince to come and save her from evil. Also, these stories seem to include a lot of girls taking a beating. What I don't see is a direct link between being female and actually being submissive. Cinderella's problems were almost entirely caused by her domineering, sadistic stepmother and stepsisters, and yet the hero of the story, not Prince Charming, is her faery godmother (also female). Snow White was harrassed and nearly killed by her stepmother. If I'm not mistaken, the Little Mermaid had much more trouble with the Sea Hag than her own father or her prince, and seemed to be lacking in the mother/female role model department. The oldest version of Rapunzel I could find involved an evil enchantress who kept poor Rapunzel locked in the tower after her mother and father stole the bad lady's vegetables. Why didn't Rapunzel save herself? Maybe logic had led her to conclude that climbing down her own hair would be a deathtrap if her hair were a little too short, or if she had no cutting tools and insufficient strength to climb back up (It must be difficult to develop a lot of upper-body strength after years locked in a small room in the top of a tower without your tread-climber and rowing machine). Beauty and the Beast are in one of the few faery tales I remember to actually fit Darker-Smith's assertions. What about Maid Marian or Guinevere? Historically, a lady in the position of any of these characters found herself ill-prepared and fairly unable to change her predicament. Outnumbered or overpowered, untrained in swordsmanship or archery, and pressured by the Church's ravings about the fires of hell, women in Medieval times had far fewer options. Men, have been oppressive bastards throughout different periods of history... but that's just it-- the art of a time/place always reflects certain realities of that culture. Obviously, a modern girl should no more expect to wait for her hero to come (or for the Beast to act like a "good" man) than a modern boy should expect to become a magician's apprentice or the proprietor of Excalibur. Also, a large distinction should be drawn between the watered-down, hope-rewarding Disney versions of these stories and their much older Grimm incarnations. In the more antique tellings of these stories, the characters are much more brutal, and many of the endings aren't happy at all. It seems that perhaps these stories originally may have been rather intended as lessons of what not to do, for example, like not eating treats given by strange or suspicious people (Snow White). The story of Rapunzel illustrates the imperfection and sometimes criminal behavior of parents, for which you cannot blame the poor girl. Either way, a perceptive mind, young or old, should see these for what they are: escapist, fantastic, far-fetched works of FICTION.
And if there is no actual natural quality in females that causes them to be generally more submissive, why haven't more women been the equally powerful or dominant sex all throughout history, since the cave-dwelling days?
I fail to see where a clear line of separation between classical lore and the entertainment of today is. One can see these patterns repeated in modern cinema as well. Diminutive characters, whether male or female, are badgered or beaten to death on screen all the time (just like life). The difference is that women are, in keeping with more current times, beginning to take remarkably less subordinate roles to men and are more dominant or in control of their own destinies. The situations in newer lore are just as unlikely and unreal (ahem, likely not accepted as reality by intelligent people), but they are reflective of this era.
All this made me think, "What about Barbie?"
For 40+ years now, Barbie has been taking all kinds of flack for being so... well, for being so damned "perfect," at least by one toy manufacturer's standards. She's got all the stuff a girl would want, right? Modeled to "scale", according to a magazine called Marie Claire, she would be over seven feet tall with a 40 inch bust, a 22 inch waist, and 36 inch hips. Her neck is also about twice the length of a human woman's neck. She has glorious blond hair, glistening in the sun, but is strangely devoid of nipples or genitalia. She is incapable of wearing flat shoes, yet seems to be quite the equestrian, nurse, and just about every other occupation imaginable. She's got mansions, expensive cars and boats, makeup collections, a yacht, and a wardrobe that could dress an entire impoverished nation. She's also unable to commit or have children, spending a life of careers and leisure, having the occasional rendezvous of convenience with Ken or G.I. Joe. Barbie just does whatever she wants. This actually gives Barbie the kind of independence, wealth, and multicultural group of friends, sisters, and hangers-on that many women would ENVY. Hey-- envy!-- that's the operative word, isn't it? Maybe that's why Barbie is always smiling.
The crux of the matter is that any child with a remotely healthy relationship with his/her parents and an I.Q. over 65 should be able to tell the difference between this fantasy and reality. Kids are often better at sniffing out bullshit than the adults are. Perhaps more than a few ladies would be happier if they emulated Barbie a little bit more, concentrating on careers, achievement, and self-fulfillment rather than dependence on a relationship or babies to give them the filler for the voids in their souls.
Also, it seems that no one is making a big stink about Superman. It should be apparent that He-Man and G.I. Joe set a far worse example, living violent male fantasies of war and weaponry. They present a muscle-bound physical image that is every bit as unattainable as Barbie's. They live in battle-ready headquarters, drive tanks and missile-laden aircraft, and come equipped with Kung Fu Grip or swivel-hip punching action to aid them in their "us-against-them" skirmishes. I'm sure that they could be blamed for reinforcing attitudes of violence and intolerance-- but I believe much more of that fault resides with a father-figure who is violent or uses words like "fag" or "nigger." And what about the father who isn't there at all?
The reality is that these toys are just as representative of the actual culture we live in as the literature or cinema of the day. The average female department store mannequin is six feet tall, and wears a size 6. She has a 34" bust, a 23" waist and 34" hips, and wouldn't have enough body fat to menstruate. The "typical" fashion model weighs 20% less than the average American woman, who is size 12... is 5'4"... and has a 37" bust, a 29" waist and 40" hips (and the average is steadily becoming heavier). Television personalities present improbable body styles and uncommonly clear looking complexions, maintained by constant monitoring by nutrition specialists, trainers, dermatologists, etc. The absence of natural body hair is becoming almost as common in men on television as on women. Most of the characters you see in the media live uncommonly wealth-comfortable lives and enjoy relative freedom from the social, fiscal, and legal constraints the rest of us suffer. They embody the fantasy that the collective American psyche might like to live in, and perhaps should be accepted for what they are rather than begrudged for being what we've paid for them to be. We are paying to see what we want to see.
Maybe being denied my purple bedroom as a child is part of what motivated me to flaunt purple hair as a young adult. It's possible that I wore eye makeup, earrings, and occasionally clothing from the ladies' rack in reaction to my father's unrealistic fears of such things being some sign of homosexuality. Drag queens are gay, transvestites are not. At one time, I was a weekend-warrior cross-dresser who wore "girl stuff" once in a while because it gave my wife and me a laugh. It was fun for me to watch the people around me overreact to my appearance. I was comfortable with it; why weren't they? And if I had been homosexual, would my father feel at fault? Would he waste time blaming himself? Or me? God? Darwin? It also seems to irk him that I'd rather read a novel or play my guitar than go fishing. Does Dad resent my freedom from so many time-honored standards of manhood, or do I resent his adherence to what I feel are outdated and chauvinistic gender role values?
My mother's inability to communicate effectively could have taken root in her impressionable children, one way or the other, because we still aren't very comfortable in sharing and relating with her. My mother was the submissive in her first marriage, as was I in my first marriage. I can't say for sure whether any of it's really any fault of mine or hers, but I'm confident it doesn't have anything to do with movies, faery stories, toys, music, or anything outside of the relationships I witnessed as an imprintable young child. On the other hand, I also credit what I perceive as my openness and appreciation of diversity to the art, literacy, and politics I witnessed as my parents' interests. Thanks, Mom, for listening to Queen and Zeppelin and giving me a copy of Dune. Thank you, Dad, for helping to expose me to more of the truth behind history and politics, and for helping me to break through the naive notion that the government and my "superiors" are honest and interested in helping me. Most of a child's personality develops in either relation or reaction to his/her parents. They showed me what I want to be, and, without knowing it, they also showed me what I don't want to be.
At times, I also have been guilty of waiting on a lover, a parent, or a friend to change.
I submit here that perhaps our unhealthy self images are more directly a result of what we've witnessed in our parents and mentors, not Jessica Rabbit or Pamela Anderson. In their insecurity, perhaps our parents have taught us their weaknesses. In their arrogance or expectations, perhaps they've made us feel inadequate or behave with overcompensation. In their detachment, perhaps we've been deprived of the insight and guidance to be happy with ourselves all along. Their co-dependence has taught us to be either the same as they or fiercely the opposite. Children learn to walk, talk, and everything else initially from parents. It seems very likely that not enough honest discussion, good example, and tolerance of individuality occur between parents/mentors and children/proteges. Does Barbie affect your perception of yourself, or does your perception of your mother affect your perception of yourself... and of Barbie? The problem is not Britney Spears or Marilyn Manson. The problem is not the hamburger commercial with Paris Hilton in swimwear with a garden hose. Ultimately, it's the influence of Mom and Dad, and their moms and dads, and so on, ad infinitum...
Sheltering is weakening, censorship breeds ignorance, and living examples are the most powerful teachers.
copyright 2005, Jonathan DownardSend us your comments on this article