SMASHING GENDER STEREOTYPES
How do you deal with it? The icky parent who overturns their son’s request for a unicorn or rejects their daughter’s desire to be a superhero because it just doesn’t fit with their ideas of gender identity.
In their first years all children love colour – both male and female toddlers love rainbows, flowers and glitter and will freely and without embarrassment ask for them. Parents are usually happy to go along with this until they seem to reach late pre-school, early Primary school when ideas of what it means to be a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ become entrenched. What does this mean? Well from experience it means girls are supposed to like pink, fairies and butterflies (“She’d like something pretty and girly”) and boys only want something nasty, scary or action-themed and, for whatever reason; social conditioning, peer pressure or genuine desire, these are the patterns which occur. Ok so what’s wrong with all this? Surely it’s normal for boys and girls to want different things?
Firstly, we have to be clear what ‘normal’ means, I think we can all agree that we are right to encourage people to be who they want to be and if that means stepping outside society’s defined ideas of gender then good! Girls generally have an easier time of asking for a superhero than a pre-teen male wanting a fairy but I still hear the cry “because she’s a tomboy” from peers and parents and it’s a rare parent who allows their son to be Elsa or a butterfly without some reference to it from mum or a shuffling of feet and shrug of shoulders from the dad. As artists working with children we need to re-define boundaries so that boys and girls are not only comfortable and confident asking for the design they want but parents are taught that it’s ok.
So how do you deal with it? Listen to the parent or the child? My preferred method is the ‘I can’t hear adults’ one – lean closer to the child and ask them quietly what they’d like. It’s pretty effective but can take guts when you first start out for fear of not pleasing the people who are ‘in charge’. Or go loud and confident, ask boys what they’d like and include rainbow and unicorn. Ditto girls with monsters and vampires. For many children, and adults, face painting is an escape and we as face painters have the poser quite literally in our hands to help make a person’s wishes come true. It’s a real privilege and responsibility and we all need to remember to use that power wisely.