The Effects of Gender Bias on Elementary School Children
“It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” is typically the first thing parents hear after the birth of a child. This simple statement of fact sets the groundwork for every interaction they will have with their daughter or son, and for every experience that child will have throughout her or his life. Gender identity—the private experience of being female or male—forms a core part of one’s sense of self (Welker). The nature of this private experience is enormously influenced by what we are taught it means to be a girl or a boy, and these lessons are typically fraught with instances of gender bias—what Beverly Stitt, author of Building Gender ...view middle of the document...
In our society, males are the preferred sex. Mothers show a 2:1 preference for male children, and fathers even more so (The Pinks and the Blues). Parents stereotype their child from birth: they think that boys are more alert, more coordinated, stronger, bigger, and less attentive, while girls are softer, weaker, and more attentive (Stockman). Research by Bloch at U. C. Berkeley revealed that parents encourage differences in their children; with sons, parents emphasize achievement and value independence and self-reliance, while with daughters, parents emphasize proprieties and supervise their daughters’ activities more than their sons’ (The Pinks and the Blues). I observed a videotape, titled The Pinks and the Blues, of a family interview in which first the son and then the daughter were asked to solve a puzzle with their parents present. With the son, Dad emphasized the cognitive aspects of the task and checked for understanding, while Mom looked on. With the daughter, Dad emphasized the affective relationship (the father-daughter interaction) and stressed that the important thing was to have fun, while Mom provided help to the point of interfering with the daughter’s performance.
In addition to parents, the other primary agent influencing children at this age is the media, via television. Little girls can watch Spiderman swing high above the ground to rescue a damsel in distress, interspersed with commercials advertising the “My Little Pony” bride, in full costume down to the gold ring that slips over her dainty hoof. Even “quality” (and commercial-free) children’s programming such as Sesame Street may not be free from insidious gender stereotyping. Jane Bergman, feminist and parent, claims that “For a little girl...watching Sesame Street is like taking lessons in invisibility” (Anderson 50). Bergman asserts that female puppets were few, flaky, and fragile (50), that “the cartoon world is overwhelmingly male” (51), and that “the [films] about human beings invariably show [males] as active, competent people who do things, [females] as placid domestic workers, spectators, or passive objects” (51). She is also offended by a skit in which Grover demonstrates love-at-first-sight upon meeting Maria: “his mouth falls open, he sighs wildly, he becomes entirely hysterical trying to anticipate and fill all her requests... ’OHHH,’ he sighs, ‘she is so pret-ty’” (52).
Since I have been a Sesame Street viewer for over 21 years without concluding that the show is gender-biased to the degree this mother claims, I sat down with my notebook and watched a randomly selected episode. In fifty minutes I saw:
a woman on the phone droning endlessly on about bridge and recipes while her cat pantomimes death by starvation if it is not immediately fed;
a cartoon sequence about the number 10 in which ten female turtles with blond curls and lipstick chat on the phone and order various vegetables;
a Chaplin-impersonator swooning upon seeing...