The topics of sexism, identity discovery and gender theory are increasingly openly discussed in homes and schools. For teenage children, quite explicit discussions are appropriate but for younger children it is difficult to pitch the conversations at the correct level. Comments are open to misinterpretation and it is easy to give unintentional offence.
In a recent news article, French teenage boys protested about the differing treatment of boys and girls at school by wearing skirts for a day. Showing their annoyance at their protest being hijacked by the media, who wanted to turn it into a protest on gender identity, one boy commented, ‘You can protest against sexism without any intention of promoting gender theory. That has nothing to do with the original issue and aim of this demonstration.’
One way of opening up a discussion would be to introduce children to fictionalised accounts of identity crisis and see where the discussion leads. There have been a number of books where boys have, for one reason or another, ended up wearing girls’s clothing for a short period of time, and in this article, I’ll look at just one book although over the next few weeks, I’d like to look briefly at another two.
Considering firstly Bill’s New Frock (1989) by Anne Fine, (Boy2Girl (2004) by Terence Blacker and The Boy in the Dress (2008) by David Walliams will be talked about later) there is very little sexual connotation placed on the dressing up. The boys have found themselves in female apparel for different reasons and enjoy the experience to varying degrees, but it leaves them changed, and influences how they are perceived by their families and their peers. It’s interesting to compare the boys’ experiences.
‘When Bill Simpson woke up on Monday morning, he found he was a girl’.
Bill is amazed and shocked but his parents act as though he has always been a girl, albeit rather a tomboy. On his way to school, wearing ‘a pretty pink frock with fiddly shell buttons’ that his mother insisted he wear, he is whistled at by the leader of the gang of boys who, at their last encounter, tripped him up and scabbed his ankles. The realisation that he is being treated differently because he is perceived as a girl slowly dawns on him. Some people seem to act more politely to him. An old lady helps him to cross the road, and compliments him on his pretty dress. The head teacher tells him merely to hurry along, while the other boys are castigated for lateness, but the class teacher criticises the untidiness of his writing while boys who are far less neat than Bill are praised for their efforts.
One thing that is completely new to Bill is the community spirit and behavioural codes of the girls in his class. At the sports day the girls plan to give Paul (who never wins anything) a chance for glory, and Bill is expected to deliberately lose the race. But his competitive streak cannot be subdued and he goes on to win, much to the disgust of the girls. Of course, this portrays boys as competitive and girls as collaborative, stereotypes which are emphasised here in order that they can be discussed and perhaps challenged.
When the class are asked to read the story of Rapunzel, Bill seems to be thinking from a feminist perspective.
‘I don’t see why Rapunzel just has to sit and wait for the Prince to come along and rescue her. Why didn’t she cut off all her lovely long hair herself, and braid it into a rope, and knot the rope to something, and then slide down it?’
I wonder whether this point of view would would have occurred to him a few days before. Sadly, his question elicits no answers, merely the teacher asking if he is feeling himself today.
Bill’s final act as a girl, is to respond heatedly at the boys who are still whistling at him:
‘I am not a dog! I am -‘.
He hesitated a moment, not knowing quite how to finish, and then yelled triumphantly: ‘I am a person!’
He can’t bring himself to say ‘I’m a girl!’ as he still knows in his heart he’s a boy but his heartfelt cry for recognition makes his point brilliantly.
Fine makes no comments about Bill’s time that he spent as a girl; we never find out why this happened or whether it had a lasting effect on him. I think this ensures that the book can be read on two different levels. Firstly as a simple story to appeal to younger readers where Bill’s predicament can be laughed and enjoyed at face value, or as a thought provoking read where the underlying issues can be examined. The book was published in 1989 and Fine’s book was used in studies a few years later where the book was read to children and discussed with them. The children reflected on stereotypical constructions of gender, and were prepared to challenge these stereotypes. Perhaps if similar discussions were held today, the cross-dressing theme would now invite discussion of gender identity, diversity and difference. The book is written in such a way that discussions could go as far as the teacher or parent thinks is appropriate, from a humorous tale of a boy who has to wear a dress for a day, to to the raising of more complex LGBT issues.
Ardagh, P. (2008) On the Literary Debut of a Little Britain Star, The Guardian, 15 November 2008, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/nov/15/boy-in-the-dress-david-walliams, accessed 17 May 2014
Ardagh, P. (2004) Gender Blender, Amused by a Fake Girl’s Antics in Boy2Girl, The Guardian, 8 May 2004, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/may/08/booksforchildrenandteenagers, accessed 17 May 2014
Blacker, T. (2005, first published 2004) Boy2Girl, MacMillan, London
Fine, A. (2007, first published 1989) Bill’s New Frock, Egmont Press, London
Samuel, H. (2014), French Boys Told They Can Wear Skirts to School, The Telegraph, 15 May 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/10834551/French-schoolboys-told-they-can-wear-skirts-to-school.html, accessed 17 May 2014
Tempel, M. B. (2014) It’s OK to be neither: Teaching that Supports Gender Variant Children, Huffington Post, 21 December 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/melissa-bollow-tempel/teaching-gender-variant-children_b_1163459.html, accessed 17 May 2014
Walliams, D. (2013, first published 2008) The Boy in the Dress, HarperCollins, London
Wing, A. (1997) quoted in Francis B, Skelton C, Archer L (2002) A systematic review of classroom strategies for reducing stereotypical gender constructions among girls and boys in mixed–sex UK primary schools (EPPI-Centre Review, version 1.1*). In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education.
Taken from a longer article by Hilary Clarke