We need everyday activism, not just 16 days

By Rebecca Helman

So what happens when the 16 days of activism are over? We need to stay ahead in the battle to transform our society and challenge the everyday messages we receive about gender. Many of these messages are directed at children and undeniably shape how they view themselves. The media represents a particularly powerful message-provider and it’s almost impossible to shield children from the harmful messages they see on social media, TV and print media.

Two recent Barbie adverts, which some have called a step closer towards gender equality, are examples of how gender is communicated to children. The first advert with the tagline “Imagine the possibilities” depicts girls fulfilling their dream jobs including a college professor, vet, football coach and businesswomen. The ad suggests that girls are no longer restricted from fulfilling these positions. The second ad depicts a boy playing with Barbie. This has received a large amount of media coverage and been praised for challenging restrictive notions of gender.

But are these ads really sending a “gender equal” message that helps break down harmful notions of masculinity and femininity? I am not convinced. Neither advert does anything to reconfigure Barbie’s appearance. She remains unnaturally proportioned and make-up clad (although the appearance of a “black” Barbie in the ad at least goes someway to disrupt Barbie’s Eurocentricity) she continues to send a very clear message to little girls: you can be successful but you also need to be thin and pretty.

The boy in the ad represents a very particular masculinity. He is not a “wild”, “messy”, “rough-and-tumble” little boy. He is dressed in a fashionable zebra print shirt, has a Mohawk haircut and uses a dramatic tone and hand gestures. Rather than suggesting that all boys can play with Barbie the advert seems to suggest that only certain kind of boys can play with Barbie. The advert seems to further marginalise “untraditional” masculinity and depicts boys who enact this kind of masculinity as “girly”.

So if the Barbie adverts, and other similar portrayals, are contributing rather than helping solve the problem, what else needs to be done? The answer is many things. Harmful ideas about gender need to be challenged in all spaces, all the time. This is undoubtedly a mammoth task but there are two important ways that we can start this process.

Firstly, we need to look at ourselves, at others and the messages we receive on a daily basis more critically. We need to interrogate what kinds of messages we’re receiving, how we respond to them and what kinds of messages we’re sending to others.

Once we stop regarding differences between men and women as “fixed” and “natural” we can begin to move them. For this to happen we need to talk differently. We cannot only talk about violence once it’s already happened. We need to talk about how our daily actions create a context in which violence, and particularly violence against women and children, is allowed to happen.

We also need to talk to children and show them how to look at the world differently so that they too can challenge notions and practices of violence and inequality.

Rebecca Helman is a masters research intern at the University of South Africa’s Institute for Social and Health Sciences & the South African Medical Research Council’s Violence Injury and Peace Research Unit with a primary interest in gender within the context of families.

Image – M&G