By Michele Yulo
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about language and how it has so much influence with respect to gender expectations and perceptions. Much of what I discuss and am concerned with has to do with allowing children the freedom to make their own choices. That can be difficult when the language they hear is restrictive. If I could, I would completely delete certain sayings/phrases from our lexicon. Specifically, I'd be happy to never hear or see again:
- Girls just like princess/pink.
- Boys are better at math and science.
- You can't play with that--that's a boy/girl toy.
- Boys don't wear, and shouldn't like, pink.
- Boys don't cry.
- Girls are more emotional than boys.
- Girls who play sports are tomboys.
- Boys who play with dolls are sissies.
- To a boy: "Be a man." or "Man up!"
- To a girl: "Let me do that for you."
- Girls are sweet. Boys are strong.
- Girls are pretty. Boys are smart.
- You can't do that because you're a girl/boy.
Not only are these phrases spoken, but they're blatantly implied everywhere you turn. Take a close look when you're in toy aisles, for instance, and you'll see these messages reinforced on product packaging, advertising, and signage. My colleague, Crystal Smith, of Achilles Effect created "word clouds" based on marketing language used for girl and boy products. Here's what she came up with--note the differences between words related to boys (above) and girls (below).
The differences are jaw-dropping. According to this, boys are active and girls are passive. From a marketing perspective, it's not difficult to see how Lego's research found that girls prefer "beauty" over "mastery" when we look at these collections of words. Children become what they see and hear. If this is what they are exposed to on a daily basis, it's not surprising that they quickly learn what boys and girls can and can't do, as well as what they like and don't like.
In a fantastic post on Role/Reboot, Ray Watterson discusses how language is practially synonomous with who we are and how we perceive the world around us: "...we learn to be ourselves from our relationships, first with our parents and family unit and then with the rest of the world, through language." In other words, we cannot separate language from who we are. We all know that language is directly related to social and psychological development. Language is powerful and has the capability to hurt, destroy, devastate, isolate, alienate, and separate. But it can also be a positive force enabling self-confidence and self-esteem. I don't need a linguist or psychologist to tell me that. I have a little girl who understands gender language and often wonders how it does and/or doesn't apply to her. I've seen her confusion when kids have asked her, "Why do you play with boy stuff?" or "Why do you dress like a boy?" I don't want that for her--or for any child.
So, what would happen if children grew up without such strict definitions of what it means to be a girl or boy? Do you think they would be more or less likely to reach their true potential? I'm sure we all tell our children that there are no limits to what they can achieve, but we send mixed messages by engaging in specific gender speak that tells them otherwise. With language comes responsibility--I mean, you wouldn't tell your child, "you're stupid" everyday, would you? Because you know that eventually they would believe it. This is not about taking away what it means to be a girl or boy. It is about realizing how words can make a difference. And that starts with us.