Why challenging gender tropes and busting myths about Wales feel more and more closely linked every day…
It’s safe to say I’ve never really been a conformer. Nothing outlandish, just a low level kind of rebel. A serial non-fitter in-er. A consistent non-follower of fashion. Maybe I was a rebel without a cause, a happy-go-lucky indy-chick. But recently, this tendency to say ‘screw that, I’ve got other ideas’, has kind of found its groove…
And there’s a reason I called this blog ‘Indymam’.
I started writing (or began again, because now I am here, I have realised that it was always what I loved) at a formative time in my life, and in the life of my baby daughter.
I have written a piece named after her, that I will probably never publish. It is a tribute to my love, and also why I dream of an independent Wales on my daughter’s behalf and for my sons.
It speaks about the depth of my hopes and dreams, my aspirations and desire. It traces a map across Wales, drawn in the meandering eddying flows of the rivers and streams of these lands. It articulates the contradiction of parenthood. To give all of yourself to someone for whom your most basic desire is that they should grow independent and strong and no longer need you.
But it was written for her in her name, during our first intense year together, and so I won’t share it here.
Although I would like to tell you about how my experience of parenthood, and in particular of bringing a daughter into the world, has shaped my life this past year and more.
How it has changed the way I look at everything.
I have three children. They are all different. They all have big, brown eyes (Dad) and round cherubic faces (Mam). But they are all their own people. They are unique.
Two of them are boys.
And one is a girl.
They have all in their turn, fallen in love with Thomas the Tank Engine. And they have all pushed that pink toy pram around Penarth town centre. When my eldest son pushed the pram, his blonde curls bobbing, he was ‘such a beautiful girl’, and I nodded and agreed and used neutral pronouns so as not too offend or embarrass.
He was beautiful. He still is.
And now that my daughter has beetles on her shoes, and Thomas on her hat (she will wear no other hat, she insists, and she is 19 months old so you know who is making that decision) she is ‘that little boy’ or occasionally, with a hesitant but conscientious uncertainty ‘that baby’.
But I’m not bothered, and neither are the children it seems. I’m just doing what I have always done. Gently, quietly, just getting on with it and saying ‘screw that, I’ll make my own decisions’, and so are they.
And yet, it’s not enough sometimes to just quietly do something different. Not when you find yourself swimming so constantly against the tide.
I have been noticing the subtle messaging from the beginning, and calling it out. It didn’t start with having a daughter. It started with the boys. When one day in Meithrin, everyone had to go dressed as either a knight or a princess. I invited the Meithrin teacher to join me in calling it out. To join in challenging the convention. To not say anymore, that my children should cut their pictures from the ‘boys pages’ of the catalogue only when they made their list for Sion Corn. I called it out too when all of the firefighters were male, and the girls mostly danced.
Because I don’t like the subliminal messages any of this sends.
Be who you want to be, but if you want to fit in, follow these rules. Dream your own dream, but when you construct your plot at the beginning, don’t mind that not all the options are available to you. Be yourself, but also be what we say you should be. Be unique, but don’t be different.
If you are a boy, we will focus on what you do. If you are a girl, we will focus on how you look.
And I am finding that as the ‘rules’ get stricter, my urge to break them gets stronger.
On Friday, in Gwasanaeth, in which Beautiful Boy #2 strutted his stuff on stage with his fellow four and five year old friends, there were rappers, there were wild animals, and there were farm animals.
And there was also another character on stage, ever present, which I call Everyday Sexism.
Because to be a rapper, which is sassy and rebellious and full of attitude (as we saw), you should be a boy. Also you should be a boy if you are a wild animal (rrraaagggh!) who stalks or skulks and improvises and gets a laugh from the audience. If you are a girl you may be a farm animal. You will be useful, and produce an egg, or some wool or some milk. You will be cared for, or do the caring (Mrs Mari Morgan, is, of course female). You will you be cute, and you will dance.
It is like this every time, or at least enough to feel like a pattern that we should have moved beyond by 2017. And it may seem like a small thing, no? This is just a reception class assembly after all, how can it matter? But that’s how these things work. If all of these subtle messages start early enough, no one (or not many people) even challenge it.
Because on other occasions, for example in a Gwasanaeth about jobs and future aspirations (‘I dream that I will be a…’), it isn’t OK that all of the famous people featured as role models are white men. All five. No women. No people of colour.
Do you think it is any different from how we learn from an early age about Wales’ place in the world?
Because often, we perpetuate this ourselves. I know that I do, even though I try not to. It’s deeply ingrained by the messages we all heard when we were 4…
We have internalised it.
Which, I suspect you are now realising, is not very unlike the way in Wales we have internalised the oppressed state of being a dependent Nation, and so many people here actively perpetuate the myth that we aren’t good enough.
Because it is all linked. Because when you are usually here, reading this blog, I am talking a lot, often, about something very simple which is just seeing things differently. About just stepping out of what we are conventionally told (not big enough, not rich enough, not clever enough).
About saying ‘Screw that, I’ve got other ideas’.
And I am saying that this is all the same thing, that the relentless gender related outdated baggage, is coming from the same place, as all the things we hear about Wales. I think it all stems, in some intrinsic way, to a deep need to shake off, or tear ourselves out of the patriarchal status quo. To rebel a little more against the entrenched patriarchy that we are still so mired within, so buried under the weight of, that we can’t even see it.
And it isn’t even about being a feminist, or a nationalist, or any other sort of ‘ist’.
Its just about saying when you hear one of these myths about Wales being too poor or about girls being naturally more caring than boys, ‘Uh huh? That’s not really fair though, is it. And also, it just isn’t true.’
Because if we challenge assumptions, then reality will slowly change too. If we expect better for Wales, then people will stop settling for not good enough and demand something better. If we stop telling boys that their sisters are just so much better at communicating than them (one of the dads I know from school genuinely tells me this about his son, in front of him, every time I see him) then maybe our sons will talk to us about their feelings without worrying that it’s just not what boys do.
And the more I look at things from this new angle, with my head just slightly on one side so that I see things in slight relief, the more things look different.
The more I look at Wales this way, the bigger the possibilities look.
The longer I take a step back and I look at gender this way, now that I have really considered and committed to all of my children as people not as boy, boy, girl (‘is it different having a daughter?’ ‘Um, no, it’s different having a different baby’) it’s like everything just takes on a vibrant new colour.
Like one of those 3D pictures in the 90s that if you stared at for a long time until your eyes hurt, something kind of leaped out at you.
It’s like everything is like that.
So you are telling me that our country is not a real country, and that although every other country in the world (practically) is big enough, sensible and grown up enough to run its own affairs and make its own decisions, we aren’t?
Just run that one past me again?
And you are telling me that my children are going to make decisions about trains, stuffed pink pigs, baby dolls and creepy crawlies, and which of these things they prefer, based on the shape of their genitals?
My eldest has worked it out. He’s hit upon something. He asked me the other day why all of the girls in his class are afraid of spiders. I asked him if he thought they really were. Well, they all scream when they see one, he said. Why? Well, he has noticed that all of the girls in the books he reads are afraid of a lot of things, which is stupid, in his opinion. Does he think that girls are really scared of things more than boys? No. Does he think that his sister will be afraid of spiders?
Not if we tell her they are really really cool, he said. And you don’t scream when you see one, do you Mam?
Being in Wales is like that. It’s about whether we believe that liking creepy crawlies is an option, or whether we should just learn early, to be afraid of the unknown. Don’t lift that rock (‘scream!’) you don’t know what’s under there. Don’t run and shout and answer back, don’t climb that tree, you’ll scuff your shoes. Mind that dress, it will get dirty. You can’t do that, you aren’t strong enough, leave it to someone else. Don’t run in a race against the boys in Mabolgampau (you are only 4, what can it matter?!) just run against other girls. You are different.
I don’t doubt for a second that if I had bought my daughter a pair of ‘Peppa Pig’ slippers and sun hat instead of just handing down the Thomas the Tank ones, that she would probably now be as obsesessed with Peppa as she is with Thomas. That if I reinforced this by saying ‘Wyt ti’n hoffi Peppa?‘ a lot, in exactly the same way as I say ‘Wyt ti’n hoffi Tomos?‘, that she would indeed be sure that she liked Peppa more than anything in the world (except Tadcu).
Don’t let anyone tell you this isn’t about psychology. There’s nothing innate about living up to a stereotype, whether we are talking about little girls dressed in pink or a whole country of people convinced they can’t get by on their own.
It’s very, very easy to make people believe something, and once they believe it, they will help you out by bringing their children up to believe it too.
If the messages they hear say ‘You can’t’. ‘We can, but you are weak. We are all equal, but you are less equal’.
It’s about who delineates the parameters of what is deemed proper. Acceptable. Possible. And what we are raised to believe is within the realm of things we are allowed to dream about.
It’s about learned behaviour.
Learn to be strong, learn to be weak. Learn to be confident, learn to be polite. Learn to be brave, learn to be beautiful. Learn to be a leader, learn to be led.
Learn to be free, learn to be dependent.
You tell me. How is gender politics any different to the politics of independence, for Wales, for Scotland, for any oppressed nation or group? How is independence for one constrained human spirit, any different from that of an entire people or country?
Because it’s also about about power, and who has it, and who hasn’t.
I’m not from from Wales. I wasn’t born here. I am from England. It’s not about identity for me, it’s just about fairness and justice and pragmatism. I can recognise an imbalance of power when I see one.
So I won’t let anyone tell me that my daughter (or yours) can’t do something because she is a girl, or to imply it with lazy gender stereotyping. I won’t let anyone tell my son (or yours) that big boys don’t cry (everyone cries if they want to if they feel sad, and sometimes if they are happy too).
If you say those things then I will call you on it.
And I will do the same if you say that Wales can’t be independent.
This is the first of a two-part piece about gender. The second is about why women’s emancipation is closely linked to the progress of Nation states.
In the mean time, if you too are raising small humans, or if you sometimes interact with them (for instance in a classroom environment) and you are minded to resist pressure to keep them in the ‘boy box’ and the ‘girl box’ here’s some stuff you might like:
Man Up: Men and Breaking the Male Rules A great book about how and why gender stereotyping also harms men and boys, and how we can change it.
There are a lot of great blogs and articles out there on how to challenge every day stereotypes about gender, here’s one.
@LetToysBeToys This campaign continues to be bold and proacative, challenging the assumptions that there are ‘boys toys’ and ‘girls toys’. They have made ground breaking progress influencing stores to ‘ungender’ their toy aisles.
Spin off campaigns from the above @LetClothesBeClothes @LetBooksBeBooks @LetShoesBeShoes
If you have enjoyed this blog you might like to read my piece on Feminism and the Welsh Language.
There are oodles of resources out there about gender neutrality and applying it in the classroom.
@genderdiary and @genderclassroom are both worth a follow
If you too believe that giving everyone a voice and not limiting people’s potential based on their gender, sexuality, the colour of the skin, or where they happen to live, is important, then join YesCymru and lend your voice and your perspective to the conversation about a better future for Wales.