Last night, as I was watching random television, I invented a term for this phenomenon that bugs the heck out of me: gender funneling.
Gender funneling — verb. Actions that serve to constrict the choices available to children because of their sex. Actions ascribe certain identities, proclivities, and interests to children because of their sex. (I know I’m not Webster material here).
Here’s what I saw: A family with a boy and a girl created a new bedroom for the boy, who was three months old. It was full, top to bottom, with sports images and paraphernalia. And then the parents commented, “Well, we hope he likes sports when he gets bigger.” To me, that is a prime example of gender funneling. You take all of the possibilities that life presents to this little boy. And then the parents, because of their notions of what boys like/will like, narrow down those possibilities, funneling them down to only those they deem acceptable (i.e. sports for boys). I see this kind of pattern happen, unwittingly, all over the place. It happens on television, in books, in personal communications, in the toys offered for boys and for girls, in the clothes available.
The bottom line is that gender funneling simply promotes gendered stereotypes and sends messages to kids who don’t fit into those stereotyped roles that somehow they and their interests are somehow outside the norm.
Which brings me to the beautiful assembly at Q’s school this morning. It was a school-wide celebration of GLBT Pride. In and of itself, the fact that his school has such an event warms my heart and makes me teary. It’s hard to find such an open and embracing community. I was particularly touched, though, by a presentation by 1st and 2nd graders on gender stereotypes. They spoke about what these stereotypes are and how they are promoted in the media. More powerful, however, was how each of them shared how they, as individuals, break stereotypes. They then offered ideas for how the other children in the school could break stereotypes or push back on stereotypical statements such as “That’s only for girls.” Hearing these young people feel empowered as individuals making a difference in the world was powerful and affirmed for me that this is the right place for Q and our family for now.
More powerful, though, was this evening. We were out for a family walk, and I was asking Q about the end of the Pride assembly since I had to leave. He told me a few things. Then he paused for a moment. “I was smiling during the part on stereotypes,” he said (he remembered the word stereotypes?!?!?) I innocently asked him why. “Because of what they said about boys and girls being able to wear whatever they want. You know, they were right. That made me smile.” My boy saw himself in that presentation. On some level, he knew they were talking about him and to him. And the message made it in.
That experience will remain with him and empower him for a long time to come, I am sure. So in the face of a society that over-engages in gender funneling, the seemingly small acts of resistance like today’s presentation make a huge difference. Especially to one small boy.