Pink, pink, pink! Everything for girls in this catalog is pink,” exclaimed Kate, one of my fourth graders, as she walked into the classroom one morning, angrily waving the latest “Pottery Barn Kids” catalog in the air.
“I HATE the color pink. This catalog is reinforcing too many stereotypes, Ms. Cooley, and we need to do something about it!”
I knew she was right. And I was glad to see that our classroom work on stereotypes resulted in my students taking action: As we finished up the school year, my students initiated a letter-writing campaign to Pottery Barn, one of the country’s most popular home furnishings catalogs.
Newton Public Schools is actively working to create an anti-bias/anti-racist school environment. In fact, beginning in fourth grade, we teach all students about the cycle of oppression that creates and reinforces stereotypes. I wove discussion of the cycle of oppression throughout my curriculum to help my students understand how stereotypes are created and reinforced, and more important, how we can unlearn them.
I began the year’s anti-bias work in my multiracial classroom by looking at gender stereotypes. As a dialogue trigger, I read aloud the picture book William’s Doll, by Charlotte Zolotow. This is a wonderful story about a little boy who is teased and misunderstood by his friends and family because he wants a doll. When I finished the book, I asked the students the following discussion questions: “Why was William teased? What did William’s father expect him to be good at because he was a boy?” I explained that the fact that William was expected to like sports and play with trains were examples of stereotypes, oversimplified pictures or opinions of a person or group that are not true.
Next, I asked the class, “Why did William’s family and friends tease him because he wanted a doll? Why should only girls play with dolls? Where did this idea come from?” The students immediately said, “Family!” Through discussion, the students began to understand that they are surrounded by messages that reinforce these stereotypes. We brainstormed some ideas of where these messages come from, such as television shows, advertisements, and books.
Next, I asked the class, “Why didn’t William’s father listen to his son when he said he wanted a doll?” One student exclaimed, “Because William’s father believed only girls played with dolls!” I explained that the father believed this stereotype was true.
One boy in my class complained, “I don’t get it. I like dolls and stuffed animals. Why did William’s dad care? Why didn’t he buy his son what he wanted? That doesn’t seem fair. Someday, I’m going to buy my kid whatever he wants!”
Finally, I asked the class, “In this story, who was William’s ally? Who did not believe the stereotype and helped William get what he wanted?” The students knew that William’s grandmother was the one who stood up for him. She was an example of an ally. William’s grandmother bought William the doll, and she taught the father that it is okay for boys to want to hold dolls, the same way he held and cared for William when he was a baby.
Each week during the fall semester, I read a picture book that defied gender stereotypes, and we had discussions like the one on William’s Doll . Tomi dePaola’s Oliver Button Is a Sissy is another excellent book about a boy who wants to be accepted for who he is. Oliver really wanted to be a dancer, and all the kids at school teased him about this. Despite great adversity and risk, Oliver had the courage to do what he wanted to do, not what others expected him to do or be. After reading the book, students in my class were able to share personal stories of what their parents expected them to do, or when they were teased for doing something “different.”
A few more titles that helped to break gender stereotypes were Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman and Horace and Morris, but Mostly Dolores, by James Howe. In Amazing Grace , Grace loves to act in plays and has been taught that you can be anything you want if you put your mind to it. When she wants to audition for the part of Peter Pan, her classmates say she can’t. But she pursues her dream and gets the part.
Horace and Morris, but Mostly Dolores is about three mice that are best friends. One day, the two boy mice decide to join the Mega-Mice Club, but no girls are allowed. Dolores joins the Cheese Puffs Club for girls. She is unhappy and bored because all the girls want to do is make crafts and discuss ways to “get a fella using mozzarella.” One day, the three friends decide to quit their clubs and build a clubhouse of their own where everyone is allowed, and you can do whatever you want, whether you’re a boy or a girl.
Looking at Families
Next we explored stereotypes about families. The students were aware of the messages they’ve absorbed from our culture about what a family is supposed to look like. Ben, who is adopted, said he was upset when people asked him who his “real” mom was. “I hate that I have to explain that I have a birth mother who I don’t know, and my mom lives with me at home!” he said. We discussed some different family structures and talked about how some families might have two moms or two dads, a single parent, or a guardian. Heather Has Two Mommies, by Leslie Newman is a great picture book that illustrates this point.
After two months of eye-opening discussions, the last anti-bias picture book I read to my class was King and King, by Linda De Haan. This picture book does not have the typical Disney ending. In this story, the queen is tired and wants to marry off her son so he can become king and she can retire. One by one, princesses come, hoping the prince will fall in love with them. Each time, the prince tells his queen mother that he doesn’t feel any connection. It’s not until the last princess arrives with her brother that the prince feels something-but it’s not for the princess. He falls in love with her brother. The queen approves, and they get married and become “king and king.” My students loved this story because the ending is NOT what they expected at all! They also appreciated hearing a picture book that has gay characters because they know gay people exist. They wondered why there aren’t more gays and lesbians in picture books.
Since my students were so excited about their anti-bias work, I decided we should do a project with our first-grade buddies and teach them about breaking stereotypes. We created a big book called “What Everyone Needs to Know.” This became a coffee-table book that we left on the table at the school’s entrance waiting area. The first and fourth graders brainstormed all the stereotypes that we knew about boys, girls, and families. Then each pair picked a stereotype to illustrate on two different pages. [See page 53 for an example.] On one page, the heading was, “Some people think that … ” with a drawing portraying the stereotype. On the next page, the heading would say, “but everyone needs to know that … ” with a drawing breaking the stereotype. For example, one pair came up with, “Some people think that all families have a mom and a dad, but everyone needs to know that all families are different. Some families have two moms or two dads. Some families have one grandparent. All families are different.”
Another pair came up with, “Some people think that only girls wear jewelry but everyone needs to know that both boys and girls wear jewelry.”
I knew our work on stereotypes was sinking in because my students would continually share with the class examples of how they tried to speak up when they saw people acting on stereotypical beliefs. One day, a student told the class about how she spoke up to a nurse at the hospital where her baby brother was just born. “I couldn’t believe the nurses wrapped him in a blue blanket and the baby girls in pink!” she said. ” I asked the nurse why the hospital did that and she said it was their policy. I don’t think I can change the hospital’s policy, but maybe I at least made that nurse stop and think.”
Making a Difference
The day my class decided that they wanted to write individual letters to “Pottery Barn Kids” catalog was the day I knew my students felt they could make a difference in this world. They wrote letters that told the truth about how they felt and why they thought the catalog was so hurtful to them. I was so proud that my students were able to explain specific examples of gender stereotypes in the catalog and why they thought the images should change. The students analyzed the catalog, front to back, and picked out things I hadn’t noticed. One student wrote:
Dear Pottery Barn Kids,
I do not like the way you put together your catalogs because it reinforces too many stereotypes about boys and girls. For instance, in a picture of the boys’ room, there are only two books and the rest of the stuff are trophies. This shows boys and girls who look at your catalog that boys should be good at sports and girls should be very smart. I am a boy and I love to read.
The boys in my classroom felt comfortable enough to admit out loud and in writing that they wished they saw more images of boys playing with dolls and stuffed animals. Another boy wrote:
Dear Pottery Barn Kids,
I am writing this letter because I am mad that you have so many stereotypes in your magazine. You’re making me feel uncomfortable because I’m a boy and I like pink, reading, and stuffed animals. All I saw in the boys’ pages were dinosaurs and a lot of blue and sports.
Also, it’s not just that your stereotypes make me mad but you’re also sending messages to kids that this is what they should be. If it doesn’t stop soon, then there will be a boys world and a girls world. I’d really like it if (and I bet other kids would too) you had girls playing sports stuff and boys playing with stuffed animals and dolls.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I hope I made you stop and think.
-From a Newton student
The day we received a letter from the president of Pottery Barn, my students were ecstatic. The president, Laura Alber, thanked the students for “taking time to write and express your opinions on our catalog. We’ll try to incorporate your feedback into the propping and staging of our future catalogs and we hope that you continue to see improvement in our depiction of boys and girls.”
I knew the students would expect the fall 2003 Pottery Barn Kids catalog to be completely void of pink and blue and I reminded them that change is slow. The most important thing is that they made the president of a large corporation stop and think. I pointed to two of the quotes I have hanging in my classroom, and we read them out loud together:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
“Each of us influences someone else, often without realizing it. It is within our power to make a difference.”
The fall 2003 Pottery Barn Kids catalog arrived in my mailbox in late August, and the first thing I noticed was the cover: There’s a picture of a boy, sitting at a desk, doing his homework. Another picture shows a boy talking on the phone, not just a girl, which was something one of my students had suggested. The boy is also looking at a Power Puff magazine, something that is typically targeted for girls. When I asked one of my former students what she thought, she said, “Well, the catalog sort of improved the boys, but not really the girls. They still have a lot of changes to make.”
One thing I know for sure is that my students now look at advertisements with a critical eye, and I hope they have learned that they do have the power to make a difference in this world.
King and King
By Linda De Haan (Berkeley: Tricycle Press, 2002). 32 pp. $14.95.
Oliver Button Is a Sissy
By Tomie dePaola (New York: Voyager Books, 1990). 48 pp. $12.
By Mary Hoffman (New York: Scott Foresman, 1991). $11.89. 32 pp.
Horace and Morris, but Mostly Dolores
By James Howe (New York: Aladdin Library, 2003). 32 pp. $12.
Heather Has Two Mommies
By Leslie Newman (Los Angeles: Alyson Publications, 2000). 32 pp. $18.95.
By Charlotte Zolotow (New York: HarperTrophy, 1985). 32 pp. $11.50.