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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. 

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. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She was previously writer-in-residence at Spike Island.

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Commons Confidential: Tories turn on “Lord Snooty”

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

With the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary rapidly approaching, Jeremy Corbyn’s office is scrambling to devise a celebration that doesn’t include Tony Blair. Peace in Northern Ireland is a sparkling jewel in the former prime minister’s crown, perhaps the most precious legacy of the Blair era. But peace in Labour is more elusive. Comrade Corbyn’s plot to airbrush the previous party leader out of the picture is personal. Refusing to share a Brexit referendum platform with Blair and wishing to put him in the dock over Iraq were political. Northern Ireland is more intimate: Corbyn was pilloried for IRA talks and Blair threatened to withdraw the whip after the Islington North MP met Gerry Adams before the 1997 election. The Labour plan, by the way, is to keep the celebrations real – focusing on humble folk, not grandees such as Blair.

Beleaguered Tory Europeans call Brextremist backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg – the hard-line European Research Group’s even harder line no-dealer – “Lord Snooty” behind his back. The Edwardian poshie, who orchestrates Theresa May’s taxpayer-funded Militant Tendency (members of the Brexit party within a party are able to claim “research” fees on expenses), is beginning to grate. My irritated snout moaned that the Beano was more fun and twice as informative as the Tories’ own Lord Snooty.

Labour’s Brexit fissures are getting bigger but Remainers are also far from united. I’m told that Andy Slaughter MP is yet to forgive Chuka Umunna for an “ill-timed” pro-EU amendment to last June’s Queen’s Speech, which led to Slaughter’s sacking from the front bench for voting to stay in the single market. The word is that a looming customs union showdown could trigger more Labexits unless Jezza embraces tariff-free trade.

Cold war warriors encouraging a dodgy Czech spy to smear Comrade Corbyn couldn’t be further from the truth about his foreign adventures. In Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Corbyn recalled spending a night in Burundi pumping up footballs. The club offered to donate shirts for an aid trip but he asked for the balls to be shared by entire African villages. He was War on Want, not Kim Philby.

Screaming patriot Andrew Rosindell, the chairman of an obscure flags and heraldry committee, is to host a lecture in parliament on the Union Jack. I once witnessed the Romford Tory MP dress Buster, his bull terrier, in a flag waistcoat to greet Maggie Thatcher. She walked past without noticing.

A Tory MP mused that Iain Duncan Smith was nearly nicknamed “Smithy”, not “IDS”, for his 2001 leadership campaign. Smithy would still have proved a lousy commander.
 

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia