Gender, Culture and the Extracurriculars

So my friend Kathy Scherer asked me to write a post for her parenting blog.  I have to admit, I haven't written anything in a while, and I am having trouble getting into the flow.  I could talk about that, or work or the politics of after school activities or a number of other things.

I'll try this: 

A few years ago when my daughter was in dance, we had to dress and "doll" her up for her recital.  She had a costume, and the parents were strongly encouraged to attend a make-up application training.  Apparently, we would have to pile on the make-up so she could be seen from the back of the room.  Also, short hair was frowned upon.  We were instructed to go to the local drug store and buy a fake bun.  After getting her ready and spraying on what seemed like a whole bottle of hairspray, my husband and I found ourselves feeling very uncomfortable.  I understood the premise of needing to conform to the dance ideal and making sure your daughter's face shines all the way to the back row (which it didn't), but wow.  The importance of creating a certain look, evidenced by an hour of training, made me think about what kinds of activities I wanted to introduce into my children's lives.  She was directly experiencing, and we were supporting, a cultural identity we wouldn't otherwise endorse:  the culture of hyperfeminity. Who she was as a person didn't matter, she needed to fit in and look like everyone in this very stereotypical, somewhat sexualized way. This image of her had nothing to do with who she is as a dancer or who she is as a person. Needless to say, we moved on from dance.  Now I know most dance studios don't follow this practice, and for many places it's truly about the practice and discipline. but this experience started me thinking about the gender politics in something that should be benign: after school activities.

Long ago, I made a decision that my daughters would never be cheer leaders.  I didn't want them dressing up in short skirts, looking pretty, and jumping around in support of the "real" athletes.  I didn't want them to be seen as "support staff," but to be the "real" athletes. When I was a kid, the male athletes were elevated to god-like status at school.  The girls were also elevated based on their status as cheerleaders. At my school, being a cheerleader wasn't about trying out.  The student body would vote on who they liked the best, and who fit the ideal.  Surprisingly, no one ever paid attention to girl athletes.  We still do that as a culture today.  How many people watch the Superbowl? Attention paid to women athletes does not compare.  Having said all that, my view of cheer has broadened in the last few years.  The parents I've encountered seem to be emphasizing the athleticism and camaraderie of the sport.  It seems to be more about working together to put together difficult and precise movements and routines.  It's fun and challenging, and it builds a sense of confidence and camaraderie among the girls. 

I have similar concerns about boy's physical activities, especially those that result in a high injury rate and support a culture of hypermasculinity.  How many stories of violence against others and head injuries do we have to hear before we seriously start to examine the environments we support and allow our kids to participate in.  I'm not saying we should eliminate male athletics, but we may want to think more critically as we make choices.

Our activities over the years have evolved.  Most of the activities seem much more respectful of the whole child and teach them how to work with others. They're much more of a meritocracy.  Success isn't defined by gender stereotypes.  Of these, the activities they have found most interesting are music and Tae Kwon Do.  In both, the training is not divided by gender, but by ability.  In Tae Kwon Do, for example, everyone takes the same classes.  And as you advance, you're expected to teach classes.  Progress is based on practice and accomplishing various tasks.  Power is assigned to those who have put in the effort to move through the ranks, regardless of age or gender. The emphasis is on self-respect and respecting others, especially those who are ahead of you in their work. Though it makes me somewhat uncomfortable, there is a lot of "yes sir" and "yes ma'am."  The goals, in part, seem to be, self-discipline, physical strength, hard work, and strength of character.  They're not as interested in people's outsides, they're helping to develop the whole person.  

I know, you're probably saying, "Karen, take it down a notch.  It's just supposed to be fun."  Yes and no.  I believe the activities we put our children in represent our values AND help children see themselves in action as they develop their self-worth and identities.