‘It’s all change for Thomas’

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 –

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/thomas-tank-engine-gender-balanced-female-trains-characters-steam-team-revamp-multicultural-a8517981.html

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.

 Rebel Girls – The book all young girls should read

I stumbled across the book ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls’ when a good friend of mine sent me a link on Facebook. We had met for a coffee earlier that day and had discussed my blog and potential topics I could write about.  That evening I clicked on the link which took me to an engaging YouTube video: ‘If Cinderella were a guy’ (https://youtu.be/p4OyCNctKXg), which was promoting the book.  The video led me to research the book  further and, finally, write this post.

The concept of the book is genius: 100 true stories about extraordinary and inspiring women, both past and present, who have changed the world. The women range from Elizabeth I to  Venus and Serena Williams and from Malala Yousafzai to Amelia Earhart. The ‘If Cinderella were a guy’ promotional video changes Cinderella to Cinderfella, ending the story with the caption ‘You wouldn’t read this to our boys, so why read it to our girls?’. As I watched the video I found myself nodding with agreement and thought back to the fairytales I was read as a child; princesses being saved from towers or being controlled by wicked stepmothers: women were all too often submissive. I can think of very few examples of strong, independent, successful women who could be seen as true role models.

At first I questioned the title of the book; ‘Rebel Girls’ didn’t seem right. What was rebellious about becoming a tennis player or being an American rock singer? If the concept of the book was to promote these achievements as attainable and the norm for women then surely labelling them as rebellious defeated the object? And then I got it. They were rebellious as they defied their gender stereotype. These women stood out in patriachal societies and did things that no one expected them to be able to do. They proved, beyond doubt, that women should not be confined to the private sphere of the home and should be in the public sphere taking on roles, responsibilities and challenges once dominated by men. 

‘Goodnight stories for Rebel Girls’ promotes female independence, ingenuity and integrity. It shows young girls that their gender is not a barrier to success and, no matter their race, religion or sexual orientation, they are able to be whoever they want to be.  The authors of the book, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, say that this is the book they wish they read when they were younger: I couldn’t agree more. There have been numerous news stories recently about young girls having less confidence than boys. Boys are surrounded by stories of superheroes whilst girls are often read books about princesses. ‘Rebel Girls’ is a step in the right direction in its quest to boost confidence and self esteem whilst highlighting to young girls the outstanding achievements of strong women. 

If I am lucky enough the have a little girl she will definitely be reading this book at bedtime.