Daily Archives: September 23rd, 2017

Notes on the BBC documentary ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’ Episode 2

[EDIT 27Sep17: Episode 1 is available for another two weeks on the iPlayer here, and Episode 2 is available for another three weeks here (both with audio description).]

Episode 1 notes here.

In episode 2 of the documentary we see that the children are doing the Tangram puzzles every day, some of the girls are still struggling.

Abdelmoneim talks to Professor Gina Rippon again, who emphasises the plasticity of the human brain, and the different ways boys and girls are treated. Abdelmoneim then looks at toys and clothes aimed at girls and boys, and finds “an overwhelming avalanche” of pink for girls and blue for boys; it’s not just the colour, the pink domestic appliances are obviously ‘meant’ for girls, while the blue construction kits are ‘meant’ for boys.

Abdelmoneim goes to the house of one of the girls in the experimental glass, where an eight-year-old girl’s birthday party is taking place, in a big pink marque tent in the back garden, “an avalanche of pink, sparkles, and feather boas.” The mother of the girl says she loves being ‘pampered’, which means having her nails done – the focus is on looks and appearance.

Abdelmoneim then visits the home of one of the boys, whose toys are all Lego and guns; he also says boys are better than girls because they get better Nerf guns than girls.

Abdelmoneim talks to the boy’s mother, who says she used to believe in nurture over nature until she had a son; she says that she had “a bit of an anti-gun rule, until he stated school, but then he made them out of Lego and sticks and everything and one day he said ‘look mum, I’ve got a handgun [holding her hand up shaped like a gun], you can’t take this one off me’ and I knew about that point I’d probably lost the weaponry argument.”

It’s not clear, from what the mother is saying, if the gun obsession was there before or after the boy started school. Few parents get to raise their children in total isolation from the dominant culture, and children pick up gendered rules from a very young age; also small children have a very black-and-white understanding of the world, and want to fit in.

Abdelmoneim says that children are constantly receiving messages about what it means to be a boy or a girl, so it’s not surprising that they believe it is ‘natural’.

Abdelmoneim then looks at children’s clothing, and is disturbed by the slogans, like ‘forever beautiful’ for girls, and ‘here comes trouble’ for boys, and he wonders about how much the parents think about these slogans. Abdelmoneim then designs t-shirts of his own, and asks some parents to look at them (it takes a while to find some parents who have time to stop after school).

For the girls’ t-shirts, he starts with the bought t-shirt saying ‘forever beautiful’ then moves on to his own slogans: ‘looks are everything’, then ‘boys are better’, then ‘made to be underpaid’.

For the boys’ t-shirts, he starts with ‘here comes trouble’, then ‘boys don’t cry’, then ‘tough guys don’t talk’, then ‘bottled up and ready to burst’.

The parents don’t have a problem with the commercially available t-shirts, but they can then see the progression. It’s interesting to note that one of the boys watching with his father sticks his thumb up at ‘boys don’t cry’, while his father describes it as ‘wrong’ – like I already said, no parent gets to raise their children in isolation. One of the other fathers talks about being raised to be ‘tough’.

There is a clip of one of the girls saying you never see girls doing ‘big’ things like being an astronaut, we then see that a picture has been put up on the wall of the classroom, of a female astronaut, alongside one of a man bottle feeding a baby.

Abdelmoneim says he has to be a bit more direct and get the parents involved, so he creates ‘homework’ for the parents, looking at gendered words and household chore, and plastic sacks to use to remove gendered items from their homes. Abdelmoneim asks the parents to link up what’s positive in the classroom experiments with what they do at home.

One of the parents says children don’t pay any attention at that age, it goes in one ear and out the other, but in reality, the opposite is true, children are learning from what goes on around them all the time.

Abdelmoneim then sets up a unisex toilet experiment (I would challenge his claim here that workplace toilets are increasingly unisex; unisex single-stall facilities may be increasingly common, but multi-stall unisex facilities are not, and the toilets at the school are multi-stall.)

All the children react with horror at first, but then the boys seem more enthusiastic; it is originally a girls’ toilet, so there is a ‘taboo busting’ element for the boys. One boy says he thinks it is a good thing because then the boys will “know what the girls look like”. Since he is only seven I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt, he may believe that girls use an equivalent of urinals, and it is normal for children to be curious. One of the boys and two of the girls say they don’t like it and call it ‘weird’ (we are a society were privacy is the norm).

Abdelmoneim visits one of the parents to see how they are getting on with the homework, she reports that her daughter put all the words (including the word ‘war’) into the ‘both’ column in the word association test (and had a rationale for what she was doing). They bag up all the ‘girls’ toys, including a whole wardrobe of princess dresses – but she does have an R2D2 toy as well.

Abdelmoneim says that even though children choose many of their own toys, it’s not much of a choice if only gendered toys are on offer.

The next experiment involves handing out toys to the children in anonymous brown paper bags (ie no packaging to tell them whether it’s a ‘girls toy’ or a ‘boys toy’); the toys are a marble run, a teddy bear sewing kit, an arts and crafts set, and a robot bug to construct. All the children seem to like their toys, even the ones not normally ‘meant’ for them. (The boy who threw the tantrum over the strength test in episode 1 liked his sewing kit bear).

We return to the unisex toilets experiment, with the girls saying the boys are annoying and dirty, and one girl saying she tries to hold it in all day, and a boy saying he wanted it to go back to normal. Abdelmoneim says he has managed to make the children ‘equally unhappy’ with this experiment (according to this Daily Mail article “the head put the toilets back to normal when the film cameras left”.) I would put this down to the fact that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are two different things, despite the fact that the two terms are used interchangeably (sometimes simply because everyday language usage is vague and people think ‘sex’ is a rude word, other times to deliberately obfuscate that this difference exists), and Abdelmoneim moved from gender differences to sex differences with this particular experiment – it’s telling that the children were enthusiastic about everything else (in spite of their highly gendered upbringing), but not this.

Abdelmoneim then goes back to the parents’ ‘homework’, and finds that in spite of the fact that some of the dads are doing a share of the housework, their children still have a gendered view of household chores (in other words they are picking up ideas from more than just their parents).

The class is then taken on a day trip to the beach. There are two tasks for the children, build a fire pit and make a picnic; the children split themselves fairly evenly between the two tasks, and girls ‘take charge’ of both tasks. But the boys get bored of the picnic preparation quickly, one of them yelling “I’m not a girl!”

Next, they set up a football game. The boys dominate in the playground at school, with some girls wanting to play but feeling that they can’t because it gets too rough. They have to practice in mixed sex teams. When Abdelmoneim asks if they want to play a match in their practice teams, or play boys verses girls, one of the boys (the same one who threw the tantrum in episode 1), suggests mixed teams would be fairer, because the boys have had more practice; Abdelmoneim sees this as improved empathy, working out that it would result in a better match for both girls and boys.

On the last day of term, the children (including the control class) retake the tests they took at the start of the experiment six weeks ago. The results show that in the experimental class the 8% self-esteem difference between girls and boys has dropped to 0.2% (girls being interviewed say they believe they can do anything now), and no girls describe themselves as ‘ugly’ anymore. Boys’ pro-social behaviour is up 10%, and their ability to identify emotions has improved; girls’ self-motivation is up 12%, and they are 40% more accurate when asked to predict their scored before a test (before, they had been seriously underestimating their own abilities); boys observed bad behaviour is down 57%. After two weeks of Tangram puzzles, the top ten pupils are five boys and five girls.

Mr Andre says all the children are more confident now, and challenge the things adults tell them; he jokes that they have been turned into ‘monsters’ and the girls were never like this before (this is done good-naturedly).

In the end of term assembly, the class puts on a performance for the rest of the school and the parents, to show what they have learnt about equality between boys and girls. One of the mothers was moved to tears by how confident her daughter is now.

The head teacher says she is really impressed by the changes, and Mr Andre will be teaching what he has learned to the other teachers. Abdelmoneim says that all of his changes were small, and not ‘rocket science’ and that it would be really easy to roll them out in all schools.

We learn at the end of the documentary that 6 weeks later, Mr Andre has presented these new teaching methods to the Institute of Education.