Notes on the BBC documentary ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’ Episode 1

Since this documentary is only available for a few more days, I want to record some brief notes on what happens in it.

The children taking part in the experiment are seven (Year 3), and already have very stereotyped ideas about what men and women are like, with boys being ‘better’ and ‘stronger’ and ‘more important’, and girls being ‘pretty’.

The school, on the Isle of Wight, has two Year 3 classes, both classes are measured, but only one experiences interventions, while the other is used as a control group.

As a side note, the school seems a really lovely place; I have very few good memories of primary school, bullying was rife, the level of physical violence from the boys was epidemic, and the teachers mostly did nothing. In one assembly, there is a girl wearing an ‘anti-bullying ambassador’ tabard.

One of the first thing the presenter, Dr Javid Abdelmoneim, notices in Mr Andre’s class, is that he calls all the girls ‘love’, or ‘sweat pea’, and all the boys ‘mate’ or ‘fella’ – already marking them out as different.

Abdelmoneim goes to visit Dr Gina Rippon, professor of cognitive neuroimaging, who tells us that structurally, there are very very few differences between the brains of girls and boys, that the brain is very very plastic, and that brain development is entangled with society and a person’s experiences.

Abdelmoneim quotes research from Stanford University, saying that seven is a key stage in a child’s development, because it is at this age their ideas about the roles of men and women become fixed.

The children take a psychometric test to measure what they think about men and women, their own levels of self-esteem, their perceived intelligence (how clever they think they are), and things like empathy, assertiveness, and impulse control.

The results show that the girls have low self-esteem, significantly underestimate their own intelligence, and only describe themselves with words relating to their appearance (‘pretty’, ‘ugly’, ‘lipstick’), while the boys over-estimate their abilities, and the only emotion they can express is anger. 50% of the boys describe themselves as ‘the best’, but only 10% of the girls.

Abdelmoneim changes the classroom, adding signs saying that ‘boys are strong’ and ‘girls are strong’, the same with ‘sensitive’, ‘clever’, and ‘caring’. He also adds a lottery to make sure that children are picked randomly to answer questions (Mr Andre had been observed calling on boys more often than girls to answer questions).

Abdelmoneim then tackles Mr Andre’s use of gendered endearments. He asks a number of the boys how they would feel if Mr Andre called them ‘sweet pea’ and they react with horror and outrage (the documentary does not make this point here – it is very much, and rightly so, about challenging gendered norms in order to benefit both boys and girls – but it is clear that the boys already know that being ‘treated like a girl’ is the worst thing ever, the girls don’t mind occasionally being called ‘mate’). As Abdelmoneim points out “this kind of language has power,” and “constant reminders of difference sink in.”

The classroom is given a ‘score board’ for the children to add sad-face stickers to every time Mr Andre uses an endearment. Also, the two coat cupboards, which were segregated by sex, are desegregated and the children paint them orange together (they are both originally pink, and some TV reviews said that they were pink and blue, which I find amusing; we are so used to such splits that our brains fill them in automatically).

The children all have very gendered ideas of what jobs men and women can do, so they are introduced to a male dancer and make-up artist, and a female magician and car mechanic. All the children have a great time, the girls find a car engine really interesting, the boys enjoy learning dance moves and having fake black-eyes painted on (the make-up artist had worked on Star Wars and Avengers, which would obviously be impressive to the boys, but it is still showing that there is more to make-up than ‘lipstick’). Abdelmoneim points out how easy it would be for every school to do something like this.

Abdelmoneim visits professor Rippon again, who shows that girls who played Tetris intensively for three months had improves spatial skills (related to mathematical ability), and showed structural changes to the brain. Tangram puzzles are introduced to the class, the boys do better, but the boys have been playing with Lego for a long time, so have had more practice.

Next, there is a recreation of the ‘Baby X’ experiment that was conducted in the 70’s, there is a clip of this available here, and very little has changed in over 40 years, adults treat a baby very differently, depending on whether they believe this baby is male or female, in ways that reinforce sex stereotypes.

Abdelmoneim points out how sex stereotypes affect men and women differently, and both negatively, with men more likely to behave violently while women turn their distress inwards.

Mr Andre removes any books with sex stereotypes, all the books with superheroes (competition and aggression) aimed at boys, and passive princesses aimed at girls. One of the girls being interviewed says that girls are better than boys at ‘being pretty’ and ‘wearing dresses’. The class read books with princesses being brave and confident; one of the girls in the class says she does not like reading, but she liked the book with the active princess.

All the children think boys are stronger than girls, but Abdelmoneim points out that, before puberty, boys and girls have no difference in muscle mass. ‘Strong’ has an emotional component; at seven years old, the boys already know that they are not allowed to cry, they express their anger by breaking things instead.

A fairground with a ‘test your strength’ machine is set up in the playground, the boys all say they are the strongest, and all the girls under-estimate their abilities; one girl who scores 10 after predicting she would only get 5 is so overwhelmed she starts crying. One very confident boy who predicted he would get a 10, scores zero because he does not have the co-ordination to hit the button with the mallet; he reacts by throwing himself on the ground, screaming and crying, then starts kicking things – an illustration of boys’ inability to cope with negative emotions.

Interviews with the children throughout the documentary show that they do change their opinions and ideas about boys and girls for the better.

Episode 2 coming soon!

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3 responses

  1. It is important I think to note that it was not so much that boys could only express anger, it was that they could only describe anger with other words. The girls could describe a whole range of emotions by 7. The film also showed some parents helping by clearing their children’s toy cupboards of gender stereotypical toys – their son’s cupboards were crammed with construction toys and their daughter’s with pink princess dresses etc. The documentary also showed the girls getting very frustrated trying to do a simple two-dimensional spatial reasoning puzzle and in a small group complaining to each other they could not see where the pieces went. And this as said to be liked to the difficulties for girls with spatial reasoning. Parents also were shown a progression in messages on gendered T-shirt damaging to girls and to boys.

    What did you think of the fact he also put the toilets together – no more girls and boys separately but just one bathroom to share?

  2. Hello, that’s all in part 2, which I do plan to write about as well (it was broadcast a week later, so still has a week to go on iPlayer), I just needed to get part 1 done quickly while it was still available!

    The children didn’t like the toilet change (and according to one article, that got changed back), not so surprising, we are a culture where sex segregation is the norm, public toilets are still mostly sex segregated or single stalled.

    We don’t need to pretend that there are no biological differences between boys and girls to aim for a gender-free education, and with older children, privacy and safety becomes a real issue. Maybe if children were raised gender free from the start this wouldn’t be an issue, I don’t think it’s something that should be forced.

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