Last week, we attended our youngest son’s winter concert at school. It was everything you would expect at a performance starring kids in kindergarten to grade three – monotone singers, overly enthusiastic performers, kids singing in three keys at once and dancing to five different beats, unexpected moments (like the kid who yelled out “Wakanda Forever!”), and an over-abundance of adorable. These shows are unlikely to win any Tonys, but my goodness they’re cute.
One number, in particular, caught the attention of both my husband and myself. The song itself was one of the highlights of the show. It was called “Rock and Roll Snowman” and featured kids in cool shades and cardboard guitars rocking out.
But something didn’t sit right.
All of the boys were in the centre with their sunglasses and super awesome guitars, and all the girls were off to the sides, sort of shimmying, with snowflake bracelets as their accessories. During the song, a few of the boys got to come to the forefront and play a “guitar solo”, while the girls remained at the sides like a cheer section for these rockers.
It was subtle, but it bothered me.
All of the kids were clearly having fun, and maybe it’s possible they were given a choice and all the boys chose guitars and glasses and the girls chose bracelets – but I doubt that was the case. More likely, to make things easier and create an aesthetic, they were sorted this way. And this was sexist.
I know what many of you are thinking – can’t we even go to a kids’ concert without it being about social justice and -isms? I get it. It wasn’t my intention to go there and look for sexism. But the sad fact is that these subtle messages of gender discrepancy start early and are everywhere. Yes, as sexism goes, this one seems pretty minor; but these messages create a base, a foundation on which the more concrete forms of patriarchy are built. When we condition girls and boys to expect to be treated differently when they are young, they question it less when it happens, say, in the workplace.
I was guilty of doing this myself unwittingly when I taught kindergarten. As a surprise, I decided to make the kids handmade gifts. I made the girls little fabric purses, and the boys capes. Even as someone who has preached gender-neutrality when it comes to toys (and everything), I had acted on my own subconscious conditioning. Many of the girls were disappointed with the purses. They wanted to be superheroes like the boys. It was a huge wake-up call for me, and I absolutely understood their disappointment. I never made that mistake again.
It’s unlikely the teachers in this class were consciously thinking, “Let’s give the boys the cool roles with the shades and guitars, and let the girls provide backup dancing and look pretty in their snowflake bracelets.” They probably did as I had and thought, “The girls will like bracelets, and the boys will like guitars,” not considering that one was much more interesting and drew more focus than the other, and perhaps would send a message.
In a vacuum, this wouldn’t mean much more than maybe a few disappointed kids who didn’t get to rock a cardboard guitar. But it is so easy to slip these messages in so subtly and so often that they become normal and accepted. It’s because we received these messages growing up that despite being hyper-aware of gendering I committed that indiscretion and these teachers choreographed the performance they way they did. It’s self-perpetuating.
So while it may seem petty to call out something so minor, doing so is the only way we can become aware of, acknowledge, and change the flood of gendered messages we send our children and create a world for them where the gender discrepancy becomes a thing of the past.