Gender Neutrality = Mind-Control? (No)

When I posted a few days ago about the gender-neutral experiment at a Swedish pre-school, one of my friends commented that the whole thing seemed a bit cultish. It seems she is not the only one:

“Many pre-schools have hired “gender pedagogues” to help staff identify language and behaviour that risk reinforcing stereotypes. Some parents, however, worry that things have gone too far. An obsession with obliterating gender roles, they say, could make the children confused and ill-prepared to face the world outside kindergarten.

“Different gender roles aren’t problematic as long as they are equally valued,” says Tanja Bergkvist, a 37-year-old blogger and a leading voice against what she calls “gender madness” in Sweden. Those bent on shattering gender roles “say there’s a hierarchy where everything that boys do is given higher value, but I wonder who decides that it has higher value,” she says. “Why is there higher value in playing with cars?”

At Egalia – it means “equality” – boys and girls play together with a toy kitchen, waving plastic utensils and pretending to cook. One boy hides inside the toy stove, his head popping out through a hole. Lego bricks are placed next to the kitchen, to make sure the children draw no mental barriers between cooking and building.

The school’s director, Lotta Rajalin, says Egalia fosters an environment tolerant of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. From a bookcase she pulls out a story about two male giraffes who are sad to be childless until they come across an abandoned crocodile egg. Nearly all the children’s books deal with homosexual couples, single parents or adopted children.

Egalia’s methods are controversial; some say they amount to mind control. Ms Rajalin says the staff have received threats from people apparently upset about the pre-school’s use of black dolls. But she says that there is a long waiting list for admission and only one couple has taken their child out of the school.

Sweden has promoted women’s rights for decades, and more recently was a pioneer in Europe in allowing gay and lesbian couples to legalise their partnerships and adopt children. Gender studies permeate academic life in Sweden. Ms Bergkvist noted on her blog that the state-funded Swedish Science Council had granted £50,000 for a post-doctoral fellowship aimed at analysing “the trumpet as a symbol of gender”.

Jay Belsky, a child psychologist at the University of California, said he is unaware of any other school like Egalia and questioned whether it was the right way to go. “The kind of things that boys like to do – run around and turn sticks into swords – will soon be disapproved of,” he said. “So gender neutrality at its worst is emasculating maleness.””

I think this issue has really touched a nerve, which is reflective of the state of implicit misogyny in Western culture. First, note that there is no evidence of harm done to the children. Nevertheless, let the prophets of doom assemble (a blogger, the always-convincing “some say” and a psychologist *snort*).

Let me state this: it’s only called mind-control when it is not part of the patriarchal norm, just like non-dominant religions are called cults, when they are not fundamentally different from established and institutionalized religions.

How is what is going on in this pre-school more “mind control” than the sexist and gender-polarized socialization that goes on in so many societies? What is the difference? It is teaching children gender relations. All societies do that. Except this one teaches gender equality rather than misogyny and sexism.

So, to the blogger, yes, dominant culture in most societies teaches gender polarization alongside masculine valorization and its feminine opposite (a quick look at what has been happening with the DSK affair is certainly evidence of that). There is an extensive body of research on the internalization by boys and girls of the cultural message that masculine traits are better than feminine traits.

Masculine domination is the cultural norm, implemented through face-to-face and online interaction, a variety of social institutions (from the commanding heights of the business world, to the political sphere, all the way through religious, educational and familial organizations). It’s patriarchy all the way down. And we know the effects of this polarization on men and women in terms of inequalities, mass / structural / symbolic violence. How is this not mind control?

And apparently, the reporter looked for the stupidest psychologist they could find. Of course, not a word on the damage done on generations of girls raised in sexist cultural environments. These things only become a concern if they potentially (since none of the supposed negative effects on boys have been proven) affect boys. Not a single questioning of where activities “that boys like to do” come from (here’s a a hint: socialization that lets boys do that, give them the clothing and tools to do these things and the time / freedom to engage in these activities).

Instead, as usual, there is a ‘naturalization’ of gendered activities: if boys do it, it is because they are “naturally” drawn to these activities whereas girls are “naturally” drawn to playing with dolls. Goodness, this is so profoundly stupid I can’t believe I have to write that. And oh, geez, where do boys get the idea of “turning sticks into swords”… couldn’t possibly be from our common fairy tales and mass media.

And so, “maleness” is taken for granted, rather than the phenomenon to explain, and then assumed to be under threat by de-gendering practices. Never mind that there is a heavy individual and social price to pay for “maleness” (actually, it’s called “masculinity”) in terms of violence, incarceration, mental illness, lower life expectancy. Studies have also shown that more egalitarian people have better sex, better marriages, and egalitarian men have better relationships with their children.

The invocation of a supposed fixed (and yet so fragile so that it must NEVER be challenged or threatened) “maleness” (as in “male nature”) is a way of boxing in boys into a stereotypical idea of masculinity that is in many ways detrimental to them. At the same time, there is never any mention of the fact that girls and women might suffer from the effects of pervasive sexism and misogyny because it is supposed to be their nature as well. The only thing that is seen as detrimental to women is to resist their “natural” (i.e. inferior) femininity by listening to the awful feminists.

If it were about race, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. Or rather, can you imagine the same argument made about race? With some psychologist explaining that we should keep racial polarization? Of course not. Would anyone argue that teacher racial equality to children would confuse them about their own race? No.

So let me say one thing to the bloggers, the “some say” (an ever-convenient construct reporters use when they want to make an unsupported / indefensible point) and psychologists:


2 thoughts on “Gender Neutrality = Mind-Control? (No)

  1. and of course the most important thing to teach is that gender matters (sarcasm, in case it’s not obvious)

    I am struck by how difficult it is for people (even feminists) to imagine that in an ideal world gender doesn’t matter. As Christine Delphy & Diana Leonard have said (and I’m sure many others as well), the reason we make this distinction is to subordinate one group. If we aren’t going to subordinate anyone, why would we need this particular distinction.

    • Yup, and if there is one thing that psychologists usually don’t get, it’s power (neither do economists, IMO).

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