The power of words –1: Why are all bears boys?

The power of words – Introduction

True or false?  

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’

Hint: Just because it rhymes, doesn’t make it true!

I don’t actually think anyone says this to their kids anymore, do they? At least, I hope they don’t because we all know it’s nonsense. Right? Please say we all know that!

Of course words can hurt us, and whilst I appreciate that the sentiment behind this little saying is to help children build resilience against verbal bullying, it doesn’t do anyone any good to just pretend that words and language do not affect us. Whether we are conscious of it or not, the feelings that certain words provoke can stick with us forever and play a huge role in making us who we are.

Photo by Marina Shatskih on Unsplash

Words are our most powerful weapon. They have the power to make us laugh and they can move us to tears; they have the power to build self-confidence, kindness, and awareness, and they have the power to tear a person’s self-worth to shreds. Words can unite and spread hope and love, but they can also spread hate so intense that it fuels wars. Words educate, forge, enlighten … and they also lie.

Words, sub-text, insinuation, propaganda … It is pretty easy to get lost in the huge, complex warren of this subject. And I have! Quite a few times. I have started to write this – supposedly brief – blog post so many times, only to wind up twenty scribbled pages later at a place I really didn’t mean to be. BUT (she writes in capital letters to drag herself back on track) … BUT, I want to keep this simple.

My intention is to draw attention to how the language we use every day impacts our beliefs and attitudes in a way we might not be aware of. I plan to write or video (or both) a series of these ‘The Power of Words’ musings to cover a few different topics.

Up first is … drum roll: sexism in the English Language!

‘Oo, fun!’ I hear you say as you rub your hands in glee and wait to see where this is going.

So, let’s dive in.

Why are all bears boys?

We did a little experiment at home with our picture books. You can see the results below:

The books in the left-hand picture all have male main characters. Those in the smaller pile in the right-hand picture have female main characters. Bearing in mind I make an effort to buy books that have empowering female characters, the ‘boy’ pile was still so big it kept falling over.

Next, we looked at the ‘girl’ pile again and took out all the books that, despite having a female protagonist, had far more male characters than female characters. The ‘girl’ pile became considerably smaller again.

Now, I am not saying this was the most scientifically accurate experiment (and yes, we did leave a few books upstairs because I got bored of carrying them down) but it was certainly eye-opening and it was a great lesson for my daughter. I would certainly recommend doing your own surveys at home. You could look at books for older children, magazine articles, children’s TV programmes. If you do have a go at this (with or without your children) I would love to hear your findings.

One thing my daughter pointed out, rather irritably, was that most of the really good books – the funny, clever, original ones – were on the pile with male main characters, whilst a huge majority of the girl character books were pink princess fairy books (or Peppa pig!!) that we had been given as presents, and which are marketed specifically at girls. Now, my daughters love fairies, ballet, pigs and yes, stories about princesses, as much as the next person but, just like all girls, they also love space, science, sports and … well, everything else! Girls, just like boys, have wide and varying interests and it would be nice to see this universal truth represented in books and TV programmes more often.

In case you hadn’t already worked out where I’m going with this, what our little home experiment basically highlights is that the English language is inherently sexist. It works on the assumption that males are the norm and females are ‘other’ than that:

Human

Mankind

Woman

Female

This may or may not seem like a huge problem to you, but for girls growing up, this constant reinforcement that they are somehow other than or less than their male counterparts can have a profound effect on their self-confidence and on their personal goals and ambitions. In fact, recent research suggests that girls’ confidence plummets after the age of 8, and whilst language might not be the only cause, it certainly plays an important role. (To read more about these findings, read this brillaint blog post on the A Mighty Girl website.)

If we look at language in relation to career paths, there are some obvious examples in our day to day language: ‘policeman’, ‘fireman’, ‘fisherman’. Okay, so people are perhaps more aware of this these days and do at least attempt to use gender-neutral titles when it occurs to them, such as ‘police officer’ or ‘firefighter’, but that doesn’t mean that the gender-specific titles for these jobs aren’t still used or that those jobs aren’t still portrayed to our children as predominantly ‘male’ jobs.

So what about words that do not have the word ‘man’ in them? Well, more often than not, it is still assumed that these words refer to men unless otherwise specified. For example, a scientist might be assumed to be a man unless somebody points out that they are talking about ‘a female scientist’. This is not always the case, but start listening out for it and you will be surprised by how often ‘female’ is used before a word to qualify it. When your child brings a bug in from the garden, do you automatically refer to it as a ‘he’? When you talk about The World Cup, do you automatically assume you are talking about male football unless it is preceded by ‘Women’s’?

And just before we go any further, in case you think I am trying to preach to you from a place of imagined perfection, even being aware of this issue, I still find myself falling into these language traps all the time. Just the other day, I referred to an astronaut as a ‘female astronaut’, as if somehow an astronaut is by default male unless otherwise stated. To say I felt sheepish is an understatement, but I pointed my mistake out to my children and my 8-year-old is now on a mission to let everyone know when she notices these ‘slip-ups’.

The problem doesn’t just exist in day to day conversations, of course. I have lost count of the number of fantasy or sci-fi novels I have edited in which an alien lifeform (for the sake of this post, let’s refer to them as, ‘the blobs’) will be referred to as ‘blobs’ if they are men but ‘female blobs’ if they are women: ‘A female blob entered the room.’ Agh!!! Cue internal screams!

As we have already seen earlier in this post, it is even worse in children’s books, especially picture books. Have you ever noticed that almost all the bears in books are boys?! As are most of the animals, monsters, aliens, and other non-human creatures. And don’t even get me started (again) on how many picture books have a male protagonist!

Once you start looking out for these biases in language and literature, you are going to see them everywhere, and when you do, it is important to take action. Be careful of your own language and don’t be afraid to point out little slip-ups to other people too (in a non-aggressive way). If your child brings a bug in from the garden and an adult immediately refers to it as a ‘he’, remind them in front of your children that it could be a ‘she’! It sounds a bit pedantic, but the more we notice these things and talk about them with each other and with our children, the better. As a mum of two daughters, I often think about this from an empowerment and confidence-boosting point of view, but of course, it is just as important for parents and carers of boys to talk about this as well. We are all people, we are all equal, and we should all treat everyone with the same level of respect and compassion.

As I have pointed out already, this is a fairly simplistic and pared-back post about a hugely complex issue, but my aim here has been to raise awareness of the gender assumptions in language and to encourage adults (especially adults who are around children all the time) to start looking out for these little nuances and to be aware of how they might be affecting our children. Clearly, the problem goes far deeper than I have touched on here so if you are interested in finding out more, do some research, get discussing, and start fighting the system!

Please do comment or get in touch with your own thoughts and ideas about this and if you haven’t done so already, please head over to www.can-do-kids.co.uk and join the Can-do Kids club for more content and updates. There is a free children’s wellbeing pack just waiting to wing its way to your Inbox.

Oh, and if this is a subject that interests you, I would recommend chekcing out A Mighty Girl, as well as heading over to Not Just a Princess to see the amazing work Jen and her family are doing to raise awareness of this issue.

If you’ve enjoyed this article and have ideas or stories about how to help get this message out there, I’d love to hear from you. Email me at can-do-kids@outlook.com and don’t forget to browse the Can-do Kids website and follow us on Instagram. Plus, don’t forget to sign up to the Can-do Kids Club for extra updates and exclusive material.

Published by Sarah Mahfoudh

Author, book worm and lover of all things creative. Dancer, fitness fanatic and ethical living obsessive.

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