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Should we let little boys wear dresses?

Tabitha Barda wonders why some opportunities seem to be more equal than others

Tabitha Barda
9 Dec 2015 | 12:00 am
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This year has been an important one for feminism. From the likes of Jennifer Lawrence and Beyoncé speaking out against gender inequality, to the release of the films Suffragette and He Named Me Malala, girls’ and women’s rights have been at the forefront of current affairs throughout 2015.

They’ve filtered down into our everyday, with brands like Lego releasing a new line of mini figurines designed to encourage girls to see themselves in roles not traditionally held by women (think lady scientists and astronauts), while Mattel has attempted to combat its sexist image by releasing a feminist advert for Barbie that tells girls they can be anything they want to be. US fashion brand Target vowed to stop the gender-based labelling of its toy aisles, and Disney followed suit, removing the ‘for girls’ and ‘for boys’ signifiers on its dress-up costumes.

But parenting blogger Jen Simon says that her five-year-old son wasn’t bothered about labels or marketing when she bought him an Elsa dress last year. In her online article ‘Why I post pictures of my son wearing a dress on Facebook’, she explains how her five-year-old boy loves Frozen so much that he desperately wanted to dress up as his favourite character (Elsa), tiara and princess dress included. Although she and her husband hesitated at first, they eventually dismissed their worries, concluding that it was the harmless desire of a “non-sexual, imaginative, creative little person who wanted to express his love for a character by dressing like her… After all, if we had a girl, we’d encourage her to follow her dreams, not matter how ‘un-girl-like,’ why wouldn’t we do the same for a boy?”

Seems fair enough… except, the comments beneath her article make it abundantly clear how vehemently the general online public disagree with her. Shocked by how controversial her article seemed to be, I asked my husband (a normally liberal, open-minded sort of person) what he thinks about us allowing our one-year-old boy to wear a princess dress if he wants when he is a bit older. “Absolutely not,” was his reply. Right then...

While very few people would claim that it’s perverse to allow little girls to dress up as a knight or as Olaf the Snowman, somehow letting little boys play as princesses is questionable parenting. We’ve become super-aware of not limiting little girls by gender expectations or stereotypes, but there’s a double standard when it comes to boys – so much so that not actually actively enforcing such limitations on boys is seen by many as encouraging potentially ‘dangerous’ behaviour.

It’s not just little boys being constrained by stereotypes – grown men in traditionally female occupations such as male nurses, stay-at-home dads and primary school teachers still have to deal with ridicule or even suspicion for their career choice. Recent data from the UK’s Teaching Agency found that a quarter of primary schools in Britain have no male teachers whatsoever. Just as women are underrepresented in the boardroom, men are underrepresented in the classroom.

But why is this? Is it because the tables have turned and we now want to keep boys in cages where we want to make girls free? Or is it to do with our perception of feminine roles themselves – are they still so unworthy of respect that for a man to take one on is to lower himself, thus making him a ripe target for criticism? Arguably we need nurses and primary school teachers more than we need some conventionally male roles like fund managers or consultants. And yet men in the former roles raise eyebrows, while those in the latter have a lot more prestige.

All of which should silence those who claim ‘the feminist war is over’. Gender inequality still exists, and it limits both men and women. Until we learn to let go of gender bias we will never have true equality.

Tabitha Barda

By Tabitha Barda

Deputy Editor