Christmas time is upon us, and as Fenne van Loon explores, Sinterklaas as the Dutch call him can often bring a few gender issues along with presents in his sleigh.
The month December is upon us which means many children will spend hours creating their perfect wish-list for Sinterklaas (Saint Nicolas) or Christmas. Now what is on the wish-list of today’s youth? If we open any Dutch store catalogue it is obvious that boys want LEGO, pirate-outfits and cars, and girls want dolls, princess dresses and a pink mini-vacuum. For those girls that are a bit boy-like there are boy-toys in a girls version, meaning they are pink and made more ‘cute’ in some sort of way, such as the new LEGO for girls
The stereotype for girls is that they are caring, sweet and passive, whereas boys are tough, wild and daring. The heading of this page full of girls playing with vacuums, cleaning sets and irons states in bright pink font “As good as mommy, that is what you want!”. The page for boys states “for the young scientist” and shows boys playing with a microscope or dressing up as a pilot. The classic division between boys and girls and the projected future of girls staying home to clean and boys working on their careers makes it look like toy producers believe we are still living in the 50s.
The power of the media on our perception of reality should not be underestimated. As Jackson Katz, educator, author, filmmaker and cultural theorist, says: ““Media play a powerful role in establishing and perpetuating social norms.”
The Netherlands is often thought of as an example of a progressive and open-minded country, where equality in any form (gender, racial etc.) is high on the list. However, in the Dutch media gender inequality is still very present. Boys and girls stereotyping starts off at a young age. An example of this can be found in the Okki, an educational magazine children can subscribe to in primary school. A quiz divides boys and girls and each have to answer some questions to define “what they are”. For example, one of the questions for boys: “There’s a spider in your room, now what?” a) I pick him up, b) I talk to him, c) I leave him alone. For girls: “What is your dream?” a) A big house with many children, b) world peace, c) to travel around the world. The results show that boys can be smart, funny or tough (stoer) and girls can be sweet, sporty or cosy (gezellig). This is just one of many examples in which the limited stereotypical characteristics of boys and girls are reinforced.
Interesting is to consider the response people who talk about gender inequality receive. It seems there is a stigma connected to the term “gender” in the Netherlands. It is not something people want to discuss seriously.
Personally, when I told anyone I was following a gender studies course the standard response I received from most guys was “oh no.. you’re not gonna become this feminist are you?”. I felt I couldn’t really talk about gender issues because the discussions most often ended in a series of sexist jokes or the simple phrase “this is such a first-world problem, why don’t we talk about real problems” and seconds later the conversation topic would have turned to the latest episode of Jersey Shore or the football game of that night.
Also, the few guys in my gender studies class naturally “had to be gay” to care about things like equality, rape culture and violence against men and women, according to those not in my class. Even some people who speak up for gender equality seem to feel the need to start off their speech with “I am not a feminist” or “I am not gay” because being either one of them apparently leaves you with a disadvantage before you have even started your argument.
There is a Dutch online blog which is called the “sexism museum” on which sexist/stereotypical advertisements, newspaper articles and quotes from the Dutch media are posted. Asha ten Broeke, the initiator of this website, was asked to participate in Pauw & Witteman, a Dutch late night talk show. During the show, Ten Broeke was hardly taken seriously and the topic of gender stereotyping in media was ridiculed. Even when she addressed serious issues such as a high suicide rate of teenagers that do not fit their gender stereotype the presenter interrupts by saying: “For me if I had to play with a dollhouse the chance on suicide would have been much higher”. This raised laughter from the audience but I personally think that besides his comment being a cheap shot, it is interesting to see that he would obviously feel terrible playing with girl toys.
When Ten Broeke said her daughters preferred to play with cars and Spiderman the others believed she must have “forced it on them”. It seems they all feared she would force boys to play with dolls and girls to play with cars, whereas she only argued for a more diverse picture in the media since many girls do play with cars or climb trees and many boys do play with dolls or dress up like their mom. The neurobiologist at the table said “it is important that children can choose what they want to play with. So if that is dolls for girls and cars for boys we shouldn´t worry about that, we shouldn´t push them in any direction” basically arguing with Ten Broeke. However, they only imagine it being “pushed” when they choose outside of the stereotype. It seems a certain aspect of fear is underlying the discussion. Fear a diversified picture in the media will change the nature of their children? Fear that boys will become less “tough” and girls less “caring”?
Only when gender issues can be seriously and open-mindedly discussed something can be changed. Perhaps more Dutch people should look at a catalogue of Sweden’s biggest toy company and maybe they will realise gender neutral toys are not actually that scary.