2/2 Critical Media Literacy in Preschool Years – Gender Bias

Continuing from my previous post on critical media literacy in preschool years.

I think compared to Turkey, where the gender bias is kind of “in your face” in many aspects of life, in the UK the biases in popular media tend to be more hidden. For example, in Peppa Pig, Mummy Pig does work, but from home (we don’t know what she does) – not like Daddy pig who works in an office with colleagues as an architect. Yes, Daddy Pig can’t fix a computer but we all know he is being a bit silly. Miss Rabbit is very good at handling multiple jobs, but at the same time she is this eccentric character who is a workaholic with no family of herself. Or take Paw Patrol for example, which is all about team work and problem solving. In the program, six of eight puppies are boys and so is their leader. These characters are important for my daughter–everything she plays with is important for her. When we are reading a book or when she is watching something on TV, she pays great attention to gestures, clothing, manners, how people react to situations and what they do.

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Peppa Pig. A typical work day for Mummy Pig.

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Paw Patrol. Can you spot the two girl puppies?

So it’s no surprise that we often hear from our daughter things like, Football is for boys, That’s a boy’s game, I won’t do such and such because everyone will think I’m a boy…

Such comments always make me a bit unsettled because although they are often very sweet and naive comments, it shows how she already has constructed a binary world of boys and girls. I believe, and I hope I’ll be proven wrong, this construction is only going to get stronger if there is no purposeful intervention; I mean small ones like ours (having a chat about something, asking questions) or formally as a program in school. This really bothers me because I want her to know that the distinction we see in media between girls and boys is really nothing but a social construction, and even sometimes, a political project. That construction is simply wrong and things should change because it is destructive in many ways. So when I see gender bias in children’s programs, this genuinely makes me sad. It makes me sad to see how little thought and care is given to little girls’ agency in the production process.

Programs like Do you Know are good at having kids explore the science and technology of everyday things but how about teaching kids the sociology of everyday things? It’s a mistake to think that closing the gender bias in STEM is simply an issue of resources and a love of tech, math and science, and that the precondition for success in these areas is simply engagement with those subjects and the determination to succeed. If we want more girls–a lot more girls–going into STEM careers, what we need is critical media literacy to help both girls and boys understand how and why things are produced in the way they are, in a social world, and that things can change, because the inquiry into “why we live as we do,” can be life changing and open many previously closed doors.



1/2 Critical Media Literacy in Preschool Years

In Critical Media Literacy and Children In Turkey: Policies, Initiatives
and Suggestions, Mine Gencel Bek* argues that “it is not sufficient
to ‘teach’ media literacy” in schools; instead, there is a need to teach “critical media literacy” using methods aligning with critical pedagogy. Bek notes:

“the approach argued here is important for developing the active participatory citizenry since it aims to develop the self-reflexive consciousness and ethics of citizens as active agents in social, cultural, political and economic spheres. It should lead us to question why we live as we do. In sum, such an approach will not serve to reinforce the already powerful hegemonic values (i.e. sexism, nationalism), but instead inform young people about power relations and encourage them to embrace values such as respecting and being sensitive to others. For this process, an understanding and practice of critical media literacy is vital since it helps to develop the consciousness of young citizens so that they can read media texts critically and be active in the production process.”

Bek also argues that  a critical media literacy program should take into account “the production dimension with an analysis of media industries [why and how is this produced?]; locate the media texts in the daily life of students [what does it mean for you?]; and also look at consumption practices [how do you respond?]”.

Some might think it is not realistic to teach preschool kids about power and the many complex dimensions of media production and consumption. As Henward mentions in Child Development and the Use of Technology: Perspectives, Applications and Experiencescritical media approaches are typically implemented in the upper elementary, middle and high school grades, rarely in lower elementary and virtually never in preschool” (in the US). In my experience in the UK, the preschool curricula is centered on teaching kids, or making them familiar with, basic skills in reading, writing and math (school readiness) but there is no discussion on critical media literacies at all.

But in reality,  children (1) are genuinely interested in understanding how things work, physical and social, and  (2) it’s very important for them to be treated fairly and have agency, which sets a good foundation for the use of critical pedagogy in preschool years. It’s not that difficult to raise awareness on basic concepts such as unequal distribution of wealth and power, consumerism, and also how “gender and cultural identities” (taking this from Bek) are represented and misrepresented in the media. I give some examples below:

  • After three years of watching CBeebies only, we finally had access to cable channels and my daughter could watch some popular programs like Paw Patrol and Shimmer and Shine on for-profit channels like Channel 5 and ITV. We quickly realized, however, that CBeebies was a lot safer as it didn’t have any commercial adds, whereas these private channels bombarded kids with adds every 15 minutes or so. When my daughter began asking for things in the adds, I simply pointed to the fact that adds are designed to make you feel like buying something even if you don’t need it. Now she still watches some adds and still wants to get some of the things she sees but I then I say something like “Did that add make you feel like buying something! Naughty add!” and she laughs and says she doesn’t want it. She sees it as a game, and has no intention of losing.
  • The song, “colores, colores,” was one of my daughter’s favorite songs when she was three and she would try singing it along with the video. The song teaches colors along with jobs, all of which are illustrated with male figures. She asked one day where the mums were in the song. Why were the pictures just showing dads? I explained that the people who wrote this song (so she understands the video is produced by someone) didn’t think about adding any women to the song but they should have, so why don’t we change the song? That took some time because I don’t know any Spanish but we finally did change the song a bit to include some mums and it was fun in the end and we both learned a few words in Spanish.
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Spanish song teaching colours. Lyrics for red: “I like red; do you know why? It’s because my dad is a fireman.”

  • Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom is one my daughter’s favourite programs. This is a fun cartoon with magic fairies (all fairies are girls except King Thistle) and Elfs (mixed gender, but the main Elf character is a boy) living in a kingdom in a forest.  I enjoy watching this with my daughter, but there is one episode that makes me cringe every time I watch it. In this episode Elfs (very much working class) build a castle to save the day and although Princess Holly wants to help, Elves don’t let her do any work at all (“oh no no [princess], please relax and enjoy watching Elves doing what Elves do best”). I once commented this wasn’t fair because Princess Holly wanted to work too, and that they should have let Princess Holly help. My daughter’s response: Mummy, no! She is a princess! I made the point that princesses could work too, although this is not an entirely true statement because we all know they actually don’t.
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Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom. Elves are building a sandcastle.

  • From an early age (think two) my daughter learned that there are different interpretations of nursery rhymes and popular songs online. We often listen to Turkish pop music on YouTube and we got to the point where she asks for the “real” video, meaning the original one. She knows there can be many versions of one thing and that some are created to upset/provoke viewers and we stay away from those by turning off the auto-play.
  • We have started changing the story lines of books we don’t like, and sometimes just for fun. That means in some readings the bad witch is actually good, Cinderella’s sisters are generous and the princes don’t get to hand pick their wives.

There really is a lot of work that must be done to undo the hidden messages in popular programs like Peppa Pig or Paw Patrol (both are gender biased) and in many children’s books. We bring consciousness to media when we can at home, though without taking the fun out of these programs and books. I also really like the point made by Henward that “we need to take the time to listen to what children’s interpretation of media is before we give them our interpretation” (p. 104).

As I was writing this post, I found myself thinking a lot about gender bias (or gender inequalities) and started questioning the efforts that go into bridging the gender gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education, which I talk about in my next post.

*A node to my colleague Prof. Mine Gencel Bek, whose work I now know and admire and who recently has resigned from her teaching position from Ankara University, Turkey, due to political tensions.