Gabrielle Richard of Université Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne (UPEC) and was first published by The Conversation."/> Gabrielle Richard of Université Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne (UPEC) and was first published by The Conversation." />
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GENDER

The problem with Snow White, and what Sweden can teach us about gender

This opinion piece was written by Gabrielle Richard of Université Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne (UPEC) and was first published by The Conversation.

The problem with Snow White, and what Sweden can teach us about gender
Children at a gender equal preschool in Stockholm. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

In Stockholm’s Nicolaigården pre-school, the teachers do not read Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the students. Rather, its library holds children’s books that show different types of heroes and a diversity of family models (including those with single parents, adopted children, and same-sex parents).

Titles include One More Giraffe, about two giraffes caring for an abandoned crocodile egg, and Kivi and Monsterdog, whose protagonist, Kivi, is a child of unspecified gender. The idea is to present a more diverse and realistic image of the world kids live in and to avoid representations that reproduce gender stereotypes.


Kivi’s gender is not specified. Photo: S.B. Rights Agency

They present a stark contrast to classics of children’s literature, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which has recently come under scrutiny for the way it portrays women and, to a lesser extent, men. The heroine is naïve (she is tricked by her stepmother twice) and lacking personality (she has to be told what to do and what not to do by the dwarfs), while the evil stepmother is obsessed with beauty.

Prince Charming, sweeping in at the last minute to save his future wife, is only attracted to her physical appearance. This is clear because she is thought to be dead when he first sees her.

At Nicolaigården, teachers don’t just avoid tales such as that of Snow White. The pre-school is one of five rethinking their entire pedagogical approach to ensure equality between genders. Egalia, perhaps the best known of the group, has had numerous documentaries made about it in recent years.


Egalia has been the focus of numerous documentaries recently.

Gender-neutral pedagogy is the latest trend in trying to remove gender bias in education, along with other initiatives such as single-sex schooling. And the efforts of Scandinavian countries have lessons for everyone when it comes to gender equality in education.

The Scandinavian Model

Sweden consistently ranks as one of the world’s most gender-egalitarian countries in the world, as do its Scandinavian neighbours. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden have had the most success at closing the gender gap. That’s the “gap” prohibiting full equality between men and women in education, health, the economy and politics.


Egalia preschool. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Although some have questioned their inclusivity, the success of Scandinavian countries in working towards gender equality has been attributed to the efficiency of policies tackling the issue.

In Sweden, for example, the 1998 amendments to the Education Act called for schools to adopt “gender-aware education” guidelines. These suggested that it was the schools’ responsibility to provide children with equal opportunities regardless of gender, to work against sex-based discrimination and to “counteract traditional gender patterns”.

To implement the guidelines, Nicolaigården teachers filmed their interactions with their six-year-old pupils, and realized that they acted differently with boys and with girls.

A boy and his doll. Photo: Ms.Melissa, CC BY-SA

Come recess, they let the boys run into the playground, while asking girls to wait patiently for help zipping their coats. They spent more time comforting girls who had hurt themselves, while quickly exhorting boys to “go back and play”. The results were a wake-up call for teachers, who considered themselves proponents of gender equality.

Under director Lotta Rajalin, Nicolaigården staff developed gender-neutral pedagogy with the goal of ensuring no child is limited by gender expectations.

All children are given equal access to a variety of games, toys and costumes, in the same play space. Library books present strong male and female protagonists in similar proportions. Hiring practices encouraging male applicants have led Nicolaigården to have up to 30 percent male caretakers, the highest rate for a preschool in the country.

Schools also aim to use gender-neutral language, to avoid gendering whenever it is not necessary. The pronoun hen – a genderless alternative to “hon” (she) and “han” (he) – is one of many ways to refer to children, along with the word for friends, or calling them by their first names. Other preschools in Stockholm have also adopted these inclusive guidelines.

The Scandinavian model of gender equality in schools is not limited to gender-neutrality initiatives such as the ones developed at Nicolaigården or Egalia, nor to young children.

Gender constructs

The Macho Factory programme (Machofabriken) provides schools and associations with training aimed at 13- to 25-year-olds. Its objective is to help them question prevailing gender norms and to break the association between masculinity and violence.

The program is based on 17 short films providing participants and educators with a basis for discussing the downsides of hegemonic masculinity.


På golvet, a short film breaking gender stereotypes.

The short film På golvet (On the floor) is presented first in the training session. The boxes in the film represent society’s expectations of how men should behave.

Like the adolescent in the short film, teenagers tend to adopt gender standards without questioning them, boxing themselves in with conceptions of masculinity or femininity they haven’t necessarily chosen. By highlighting the social construction of masculinity, Machofabriken gives teenagers the tools to question how limiting dominant gender norms can be.

Teachers' gendered expectations

The models put forth by schools like Nicolaigården and Egalia, or in programs like the Macho Factory, underscore the very real problems documented by studies on the different school experiences of girls and boys.

Decades of research based on classroom observations indicate that teachers interact differently with boys and girls, though they’re convinced they give them equal treatment. They call on boys more often, involving them with new learning materials and giving them extensive feedback. They turn to girls when it comes to social topics or support learning, having them repeat what has previously been discussed. Even nonverbal teacher behaviours, such as smiles, have been shown to favour boys over girls.

Teachers are not explicitly trained on gender socialization, and it shows. Such gender biases penalize all pupils. According to a 2013 study, teachers’ gendered assessment of their students worked both in favour and against boys.

Researchers found that boys who held a negative attitude toward learning were downgraded compared to girls who had performed similarly. Boys who performed well and showed a positive attitude toward schooling, however, received better grades than girls in the same boat did.

Teachers’ gender biases also do girls a disservice. If teachers consistently expect girls to be good, they may not pay attention to those with behavioural problems, or act more harshly toward them.

“Our kids are not neutral”

Still, initiatives to create more gender-neutral environments for kids often receive ferocious criticism. In 2015, for instance, the US-based chain Target decided to remove gender divisions from their toy sections, opting instead for classification by type of toy (such as construction or costume). Evangelical Christian Reverend Franklin Graham responded by saying, “Our kids are not neutral, they are boys and girls as God has created them.” He asked his followers to boycott the stores.

In France, Système U stores launched a Christmas publicity campaign called Noël sans préjugés (Gender Free Christmas) in 2015. It presents children explaining on camera how they know if a toy is intended for boys or for boys.


Gender Free Christmas.

This ad, televised nationally, put the chain at the centre of a Twitter storm in December 2015, with hashtags #NoëlSansSystèmeU (Christmas without Système U) and #BoycottSuperU proliferating.

Detractors of gender-neutral initiatives tend to say things like a child is either a boy or a girl, and this difference should necessarily come with distinct preferences.

Between the lines, one can discern a certain apprehension that these initiatives might encourage homosexuality, especially in young boys. “A little boy who plays doll and wears makeup isn’t shocking to you? Well it is to me! Wake up, for Pete’s sake” read one Tweet after the 2015 Système U campaign.

Other comments suggest such initiatives cause damaging gender confusion. This is clear from these tweets about Egalia’s work: “Pathetic, but mostly sad. So a child is no longer a he or a she, but a this?” and “We are talking about experimenting on an entire generation of kids. I can’t help but think we will raise a lot of confused individuals”.

Such comments fail to acknowledge that these initiatives do not impose a model any more than regular store signage indicating that one set of toys is appropriate for girls and another for boys. They are no more confusing than someone who’s expected to act a certain way that just doesn’t feel right.

Part of the success of the so-called Scandinavian approach to gender equality might lie in its willingness to question and uncover everyone’s role in imposing gender expectations on others.

Gabrielle Richard, Chercheur, Université Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne (UPEC)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
 
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
 
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
 
 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
 
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
 
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
 
Glad Påsk!
 
Midsommar drowning  
 
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
 
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
 
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
 
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.
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