If you’re scared of a boy in a tutu, ask yourself whose side you’re on

The Church of England's attempt to stop bullying has sparked a backlash. 

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Tutus and tiaras for boys, superhero capes and pirate hats for girls. The Church of England has issued new advice to its schools, asking them to avoid labels that might stigmatise children’s behaviour and self-expression, simply because it does not conform to gender stereotypes.

Inevitably, some sections of the right-wing press are up in arms that an institution which has never shied away from dresses, golden spangles and jewelled hats for men is now encouraging us to challenge gender stereotypes. The Daily Mail appeared worried that “boys as young as five would be wearing tiaras” and the Sun, in a headline reminiscent of the Section 28 era, ran with “the skirt on the drag queen goes swish swish swish”.

The panic greeting requests for teachers to tackle homophobic, transphobic and sexist bullying, while encouraging children to creatively express themselves is, quite frankly, mind-boggling. All the evidence shows that rigid gender stereotypes cause real pain and difficulty to children (and adults). 

Over the last couple of decades, we have seen an entrenching of gendered clothing and toys for boys and girls, along with stricter policing of children’s toy and clothing preferences. Advertising that showed girls in dungarees playing with Lego have been replaced with specific Lego toys for girls and boys. Try shopping for baby clothes, and you are met with a sea of severely segregated outfits – girls tops declaring babies to be “little princesses” while boys get to be loud and active “little dinosaurs”, superheroes or footballers.

Wherever children turn, they are assaulted by gender stereotypes that position girls as quiet and meek, and boys as loud and active. The impact of these gender stereotypes are deeply worrying. Research published in the USA earlier this year found that by the age of six, girls believe that “brilliance is a male trait and that boys are more likely to be academically successful at school. Other research exploring attitudes towards gender in 450 children across 15 countries found that rigid gender stereotypes led to children feeling more depressed. Encouraging ideas about innate gender characteristics was also shown to normalise or even encourage gender-based violence

Despite all the evidence showing the damage rigid gender stereotypes cause, the backlash is real. Some accuse the Church of England and others who oppose gender stereotypes of being “multicultural cultists”, or of “social engineering”, ignoring how brand marketing departments have engineered a society that says pink dollies are for girls and blue trucks are for boys, not nature or evolution.

This backlash should make us ask the question: what kind of society do we want for our children? Do we want to continue on a road of gender inequality where girls grow up with low self-esteem, believe that boys are more likely to be “brilliant” and feel discouraged from speaking up in the classroom? One where boys are taught that the only emotion they have a right to feel is anger, and are denied the chance to explore and celebrate so-called “feminine” pursuits? Or do we want a society where no child is bullied for playing with whatever toy and wearing whatever outfit they choose?

The Church of England's announcement should be welcomed as a challenge to sexist, transphobic and homophobic bullying. Let’s see little girls wearing superhero capes and learning to be the heroes in their own lives. Let’s see little boys wearing tutus and tiaras, and discovering the joy in dancing, creativity and imaginative play. Let’s see an end to boys being teased for enjoying fancy dress, and girls being prevented from noisily zooming around.

Because when we see an end to this policing of children’s choices and behaviours, we’ll start to see the emergence of a more equal society.

And if you’re scared of a boy in a tutu or a girl in a cape, then perhaps it’s time to ask yourself whose side you’re on. Are you with the bullies? Or are you with the children who just want the chance to be kids?

Sian Norris is a writer and journalist. She is the Founder and Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She is currently the Ben Pimlott writer-in-residence at Birkbeck University's politics department.