I have a very vivid memory of one of my first days in primary school. We were told to choose and colour in the picture that represented what we wanted to be when we grew up. These pictures were divided right down the middle into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’. Boys could choose to be Policemen, Doctors and Astronauts. Girls could choose to be Hairdressers, Nurses and Shopkeepers. I remember studying these pictures for ages, desperately wanting to choose astronaut (it looked exciting) but knowing I wasn’t allowed because it was in the ‘boys’ box. I know that in the end I chose a ‘girls’ role because I didn’t want to get told off, but I can’t remember what I chose, only that I couldn’t choose what I wanted.
To coincide with The Real Princesses of Yorkshire exhibition at Heart in Headingley, Leeds, I organised a songs and stories workshop for families. Continuing one of the themes of this project, to challenge gender binaries and stereotypes, I wanted to create a safe, playful space where parents and children could enjoy stories and songs that encourage them to have fun without the judgements we (often unwittingly) impose around gender and who is ‘allowed’ to do what. Although Princess themed, we made it clear that this was an activity that welcomed everyone, and alongside introducing families to some ‘alternative’ bad-ass, girl princesses, would also welcome and celebrate princess boys.
Hooray for the enormous talents and passion of Rachel McMahon, Pariss Elektra and Lizzie Wharton. Rachel has a fantastic resource of diverse books – a tool for reflecting real world, real people in stories and a non-threatening way to represent, discuss and ‘normalise’ people, subjects and themes that are often excluded from mainstream culture and education. We laughed and loved hearing stories of strong princess girls and boys who didn’t need rescuing, and the spoon who ran away with the spoon! Having Lizzie there to provide British Sign Language Support meant a young deaf boy who joined us was able to feel fully included. And Pariss brought joy and positivity through music, even gaining a little shadow in one young girl who stuck by her side and mimicked every movement.
Of the 13 children that came along, 6 of them were boys. This warms my heart – to see parents and children engaging with a theme that is commonly loaded with ‘girlyness’ and negative associations around weakness, but turning it on its head into something, strong, positive and truly playful. I would love to see more of this in formal and informal learning, but what an uphill battle (progress is never linear, right?).
Pariss set the tone when she asked the children at the start ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ By the end of the session the answer came down to one, simple but powerful word – HAPPY.
There is a wealth of resources out there for parents, carers and educators. Here are just a handful of examples:
My thanks to Leeds Inspired and ACE Grants for the Arts for funding this project.