My 4-year-old son has recently started taking a ballet and tap dance class. Note: this is not advertised in any way as a girls’ dance class… in theory, it is open to all. Realistically, I knew Ben was likely to be the only boy. But even knowing that, it’s surprising to me just how girl-centric the class is.
On the first day, the teacher said “we have 10 girls enrolled in this class, so if you would like to move your daughter to a smaller class, you could do the 5:00 class”. Really, the class has 9 girls and one boy. The name Ben on the roster should have been a clue. And referring to our “daughters” when my son was sitting on my lap seemed odd.
Then she said “OK girls, come on over to dance.” And out run the girls in pink leotards and tiaras, and Ben in his blue shorts and Lego Star Wars t-shirt. (The class does not require any particular clothing. The other parents all chose leotards. I chose his favorite regular clothes.)
The teacher put on princess music (it’s all princess music… Little Mermaid, Frozen, etc.) and handed them all pink scarves, and they began to dance around the room. The walls of the room are decorated with paintings and photos of girls in tutus. Not a single male dancer in sight.
And it’s not just this dance class. My older children took dance for years, and I know it’s pretty systemic. I’ve seen lots of pink leotards and paintings of ballerinas over the year. You can’t even buy boy’s dance shoes in my son’s size – manufacturers don’t make them – so he’s wearing pink ballet shoes and the least girly tap shoes I could order. In all the dance classes my daughters ever took, there was never more than one boy in their class. In recitals, boys are rare, and you can tell the instructor struggled to figure out what a boy costume should look like.
And it’s not just dance. With my older kids, it was rare to see boys in any of their gymnastics classes. I’m told it’s the same in the equestrian world. And in all the theater activities my kids have done, the ratio is usually, at best, one-third boys and two-thirds girls. In pretty much any audition they’ve attended, my girls knew that every boy who auditioned would get a part. Some girls would get a girl part, some girls would get a boy part, and some girls would not get cast.
And, if boys do stick with dance as they get older, or do gymnastics or theater, what does our culture assume about their “manliness”, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation? If they’re straight, cisgender boys, then people talk about how “lovely” it is that they’ve stuck with their interest despite stereotypes. But all these attitudes show: They’re not generally viewed as “regular boys.”
The gender divide goes the other way in other extra-curricular activities. The STEM themed preschool-age class I teach was two-thirds boys and one-third girls in our first quarter. I know from experience that the wilderness survival courses, aikido classes, computer programming classes, video gaming sessions and role-playing games (Dungeons & Dragons) that my daughters participated in had way more boys than girls.
And those girls are labeled tomboys, or, as they get older, butch. Or “a girl who excels in science.” The adults around them may be proud of how they are overcoming gender stereotypes. But again, they’re not viewed as “regular girls.”
Why is the gender divide still so clear in what activities are considered “boy things” and what are considered “girl things”?
I think if you asked most of the parents I encounter at these classes about their views on gender issues, they would talk a lot about the importance of equal access to all activities for all genders. I think they would all vehemently defend a boy’s right to take dance classes or a girl’s right to program computers. Many would share dismay over the fact that toy stores and clothing stores are so gendered.
Yet, when these same parents choose classes and camps to enroll their kids into, they perpetuate the gender roles.
Now, I know that the average boy may have different skills and interests than the average girl. The research shows it, as does anecdotal evidence. However, the research shows that those differences are small, and that there is just as much difference between individual boys (the athlete, the brain, the criminal) as there is between an individual boy and an individual girl (the athlete and the princess).
Yes, boys are more likely to like toy trains and cars than girls are. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of girls who would like trains, and plenty of boys who don’t really care. In choosing toys, I like to offer a variety of options without assuming what the child will like based on their gender. And when choosing activities for young children, I try a wide variety of activities, regardless of whether they are viewed as “boy things” or “girl things.” As kids get older, they partially follow their inherent interests, but they will also be more likely to pursue activities where they feel like they “belong” and they “fit in.” Those male gymnasts, male ballet dancers, female programmers, and female wilderness guides all deserve some kudos for sticking with a passion even when the culture didn’t welcome them.
We can make it easier on the next generation. Parents can do their part by encouraging their children to try a wide variety of activities, and by not expressing surprise when a child of the “unexpected” gender is enrolled in those activities. Teachers and program administrators can also do a lot to make their classes gender inclusive.
We should all also remain aware that gender is not as clear-cut and binary as we were raised to believe. Any child in a class may not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. Some transgender people don’t recognize this until adulthood. But some very young children have already figured out that they don’t fit the typical definition of “boy” or “girl.” It’s even harder for them to go into environments where assumptions are made about who belongs there, and who can participate based on gender labels. By making our cultural assumptions about gender more fluid, we make it easier for these children to find their place in the world.
Just for the fun of it, I’ll conclude this post with a pointer to a playlist I’ve made on YouTube called Boys Can Dance, which features dances from Billy Elliot, West Side Story, Singing in the Rain, and lots more. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOuZuAGvMRg&list=PLsMLXfBPSxoEF6nPQj13QjvAX-I53Ob2R Or, if you’d like a little more modern / urban / less Broadway, check out the League of Extraordinary Dancers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVZyfsaKPS4&list=PLTXGCzZ9AAzPhEM_y-vudz1GbwsMhVL_0