Yesterday, on the way over to my brother and sister-in-law’s house for brunch, we picked up the ‘i weekend’ so that we could do the crossword (I realise how awfully middle class that sounds). After failing to complete said crossword I decided to read an article on page 10 that caught my eye; the front page spoiler was titled ‘New gender balanced Thomas the Tank Engine (with UN approval). Link to article –
The article discussed how this much-loved children’s franchise is getting a makeover with a gender balanced team of engines accompanying Thomas on his adventures. I read part of the piece to everyone and this facilitated a discussion about gender stereotypes in children’s books and television programmes. Our nephew, AJ, is nearly two and has started to watch programmes such as Postman Pat; this show has had a multicultural makeover but still has very clearly defined gender roles. My sister-in-law said that the wives of Pat and his colleagues stay at home wearing headscarves and baking whilst the men in the programme save the day. Fireman Sam has female colleagues, although they all have short hair. Now, there is nothing wrong with a woman who decides to stay at home nor a short haired female firefighter but, in most children’s television programmes, there is a lack of representation of choice and, more often that not, the creation of a hierarchy, often based on gender.
In the newspaper article Ann Widdecombe, an unsurprising critic of the more inclusive Thomas The Tank Engine, was quoted as saying ‘Children aren’t interested in these sort of issues’. Well, of course they aren’t! But, just to make sure, we asked my nephew what he thought of ethnic and gender representation in television programmes he watched… his response… ‘elephant’s ear’ – said whilst pointing at the puzzle he was looking at. Typically Widdecombe missed the point and made an utterly irrelevant comment. As a one off, having female carriages in subservient positions being pulled by male engines has no bearing on a child’s understanding of gender roles and balance. However, it is the accumulative that can have a long lasting impact. Of course children will not be ‘interested in these sort of issues’. They are being subconsciously shaped by the choices we make for them; we are moulding their developing perception of gender by the examples we expose them to. Forgive me for being a bit preachy, but this responsibility cannot be overstated, Ann.