When I was a classroom teacher, I hung my students’ names vertically on the back cabinets and under their names, I strung their art projects, essays, pictures, conference goals—whatever we were using to learn. My room was a kaleidoscope of bright colors on black backgrounds. Their names were cut from neon-colored cardstock, which went in rainbow order according to their first name. This meant that *gasp* sometimes boys got pinks or purples.
It was always interesting to me that girls never got upset over having their name on blue or orange paper, but that most boys would immediately blush and try to get me to change their color to red or something more “manly .” I would reply purple was traditionally the color of kings and royalty, or some such pacifying phrase and we would move on. Now looking back on it, how could I, as a teacher, have helped to alleviate the stereotypical gendering in my classroom more effectively? Not to mention, how did it impact my students who may not have been sure of their gender identity yet? My comeback phrases stopped the argument, but did nothing to address the underlying gender norms that had been pressed upon students.
L. Monique Ward, Ph.D. suggests in the 2020 Annual Review of Developmental Psychology that media portrayal (i.e. books, television, social media, toys, and movies) impacts not only how children view their gender, but also their self-image regarding their appearance, academic ability, and future career and relationship opportunities.1 To quote Dr. Ward, “Internalization of traditional femininity ideologies, which prioritize passivity, nurturance, and beauty, are associated with greater symptoms of depression and anxiety, lower self-esteem, greater likelihood of developing eating disorders [and] predicted lower academic self-efficacy over time. [While] stronger endorsement of traditional masculinity is linked with negative mental health, depression, psychological distress, and substance use.”2 It is important to note that this isn’t a new trend; research conducted since the 1970s has found negative interactions between the media’s gender portrayal and subsequent self-belief.
To combat these unfavorable outcomes, Dr. Ward goes on to say that different gendered characters need to be portrayed with depth and as equals. Additionally, giving students the opportunity to explore “counter” stereotypical characters will broaden their self-image.3 Since children and adolescents are exposed to gendered depictions for up to 8 hours a day, both when they are at school and at home, it is important to reflect upon practices and make pedagogical choices carefully.
I am not necessarily suggesting that educators have discussions regarding gender stereotypes and tackle ideas of feminism or toxic masculinity in classrooms. Educators can fill their libraries with inclusive books showing women doing traditionally masculine work and vice versa. Social-emotional learning (SEL) lessons can incorporate books on handling emotions, regardless of gender. Gradually, students will embrace the many facets of being human with fewer biases (yes, boys clean and cry, while girls fix cars and act tough and vice versa).
When I was getting my master’s degree in education, many professors would talk about the importance of providing “windows” in literature for students to see others different than themselves in order to explore other communities. We also must create “mirrors,” or ways for children to see themselves reflected in literature. As author and the 2020 National Librarian of the Year Cicely Lewis states, “I think many times we feel alone, and we are the only person who is going through what we are going through. But books provide that connection.”
Inclusivity can start with excellent literature! To illustrate this, I have included a curated Mackin.com list which provides some great titles that provide multi-faceted gender windows in elementary to middle school libraries.
1, 2, 3 Ward, L. Monique, and Petal Grower. “Media and the Development of Gender Role Stereotypes.” Annual Review of Developmental Psychology 2, no. 1 (2020): 177–99. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-devpsych-051120-010630.