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Published Date: April 16, 2014

Published Date: April 16, 2014

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Modeling Gender Equality in Children’s Stories

I recently watched a TED Talk by Colin Stokes called “How movies teach manhood.” The ideas expressed in this talk struck a chord in me and got me thinking about the role models—and the villains—we present to children. Far too often the villains are women—wicked witches, evil sorceresses, evil queens, and evil step mothers. And far too often, the heroes are princes or knights or at least male.

Before you read further, watch this TED Talk. It’s only 12:53 minutes long. There are Star Wars, Wizard of Oz, and other classic favorites mentioned throughout. Click here to watch the video.

Children’s movies do a great job of, “teaching girls how to defend against the patriarchy but aren’t showing boys how to defend against the patriarchy. There are no models,” Stokes says in his talk.

The movies our children watch play a major role in forming their identities and worldviews. They open up their imaginations and introduce them to the wonders of love, friendship, courage, hardship, and evil forces. Most children’s movies take on the classic battle of good vs. evil, but fairy tales are often rooted in patriarchy and this is the message, however implicit, that affects children in their most formative years.

Recently my husband and I went to see the movie Frozen, due in part to the rave reviews it was getting from feminists and children alike. At first I was disappointed to see the same old love-at-first-sight tired tale, but the movie surprised me with its own critique of these messages and presented a new form of sacrificial love. The 2012 movie Brave also broke ground by featuring a female protagonist and her courageous quest to save, and ultimately reconcile with, her mother.

So there’s hope for breaking out of the love-at-first-sight, damsels-in-distress clichés for children’s movies, but what about role models for boys? Who is teaching our boys to respect women, to treat them like equal partners in the battle for good over evil, and to see them as more than sex objects?

And why is this important? In his talk, Stokes refers to a U.S. government survey that revealed 1 in 5 women say they been sexually assaulted.

“When I heard that statistic, one of the things I think of, is that is a lot of sexual assailants. Who are these guys? What are they learning? What are they failing to learn? Are they absorbing the story that a male hero’s job is to defeat the villain with violence then collect their reward, which is a  woman who has no friends and doesn’t speak? Are we soaking up that story?” Stokes asks.

As Christians who believe in male-female equality and mutuality in marriage and ministry we have a unique challenge in raising our children. Not only do we need to combat the patriarchy present in the culture around us, in the movies and other messages that bombard kids on a daily basis, but we must also be wary of the messages kids receive from other Christians as well.

In the TED Talk, Stokes mentions The Bechdel Test: three simple questions asked about stories by feminist critics:

Are there at least two women?
Do they talk to each other?
About something other than a man?

As a parent, children’s education director, pastor, teacher, or otherwise guardian of the next generation, it’s time to ask questions of our own about the stories our children are internalizing. And I think we can go a bit deeper than The Bechdel Test. Here are a few questions to get you started in evaluating the stories presented to kids:

  • Does their Sunday school curriculum promote gender equality in its messages, images, and treatment of boys and girls?
  • Do their Bible storybooks include women in the pictures and feature stories of biblical women like Deborah, Esther, Mary & Martha, and the woman at the well?
  • Are your kids reading books and watching movies with female heroes who overcome the odds with skills other than their good looks or feminine charms?
  • Likewise, are the stories they see and hear featuring men who respect women?
  • Are you helping them choose school projects that highlight women in history or men who uplift, rather than degrade, women?
  • Are you modeling for your children healthy relationships with the opposite sex, whether platonic or romantic?

As Stokes says, “we have to show our sons a new definition of manhood . . . We need to model that a real man is someone who trust his sisters and respects them and wants to be on their team, and stands up against the real bad guys–who are the men who want to abuse the women.”

That starts with us, the adults who raise, educate, and minister to the youngest members of the body of Christ. We need to work together to combat unhealthy messages of masculinity and femininity and promote a more holistic personhood instead. It takes a village to raise a child, as the saying goes, and those of us in the kingdom of God must take responsibility for the collective raising of our children.

What do you think? How can we better model gender equality to our children in the stories we tell?