I’m driving along a country road in Northeast Tasmania in the yellow afternoon light. My son is in the back and we pass a tractor driven by a farmer ploughing her field.
“Why is she driving a tractor?” my son asks.
“She’s a farmer.” I say.
“Girls can’t be farmers,” He says.
“Yes, they can. Girls can be farmers and drive tractors,” I say. “Women are good drivers.”
“Mhmmm.” He seems unconvinced. He stares into the distance.
It happens now and again. Kids are sponges and they’re sensitive. They pick up on the norms and values of the world around them and they reflect them right back at you. And sometimes it’s heartbreaking.
I thought we had made more progress in the space of gender norms in 2019 but all it takes is a moment like this to realise that we haven’t come as far as I hoped, and looking at the world kids experience makes is a little wonder.
I have two children – a boy and a girl – and I’ve come to really enjoy reading to them. With kid’s books in hand, they are transfixed in my arms and will always want one more story before turning out the lights. They’re hungry for narrative and thirsty for parental attention and contact.
As well as building a strong relationship and fostering literacy and vocabulary, reading kid’s books to your children builds a world view. Through stories, children learn about society and their place in it, and it’s here that things very quickly become problematic. When I became a parent I would often pick up a book and halfway through I’d be quietly fuming. Once the kids were asleep I’d find myself tearing the books into pieces and feeding them into my wood fire.
There are a couple of major themes in children’s books. Women and girls are often missing from the stories, and there is an overabundance of little boys, male animals and dinosaurs. It’s subtle, perhaps because we’re used to it, but where are all the women in these worlds?
Take Winnie the Pooh, the sweet and nostalgic story of a simple but profound Pooh-bear and his friends. Pooh, Tigger, Owl, Piglet, Roo, Christopher Robin, Rabbit and Eeyore are all male. The only exception is Kanga, a female kangaroo that plays the role of a mother figure with a pouch into which Roo can crawl when in need of protection.
The other major theme is women and girls in caring roles. Mothers are depicted cooking, cleaning and looking after children, or as princesses and fairies with beautiful dresses, high heels and large eyes. Spot The Dog is littered with subtle sexist tropes like Spot and his father lying to mum about breaking a window outside while exchanging a knowing glance.
“What have you two been up to outside?” She asks, standing over the sink on her hind legs whilst doing the dishes.
Each transgression is small, and it can be hard to take umbrage with the characters we grew up with, but together they build a world where men are the centre of the their story. They’re brave, smart, strong and capable of anything, while women are either absent or represented in some 1950’s version of the world. So, as we spend those precious minutes reading to our children each night, we replicate that 1950’s world in their minds. A world where women are not farmers or firefighters, not capable and headstrong, not heroes or even villains, and fundamentally not equal to men.
Then when we hear the news on the radio of yet another woman who didn’t make it home after getting off a tram or leaving a bar or walking through a park at night, it’s hard to say whether these stories are more damaging for our sons or our daughters.
You can’t be what you can’t see.
Tim Carroll is in the band Holy Holy. The band’s new album My Own Pool of Light will be released this Friday 2 August.