Princess Culture and Early Childhood Education: Application

Posted on April 11, 2017. Filed under: Anti Oppressive Ed, eci814, First Nations, Grade 1 & 2, Kindergarten, Masters, Privilege, Race, teaching and learning |

In my last post, I ended with some questions about what we, as teachers or early childhood educators, could do to combat the racialized and gendered messages that our

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“Disney princesses” Photo credit: Ricky Brigante via Flickr

students are being bombarded with in their Disney princess/superhero culture. We need to remember that racial understanding makes its way into our classrooms without effort. “Race is a structuring principle that must be interpreted in classroom interactions, not as a naturally occurring phenomenon but part of the assumptions that ultimately inform how people construct their world” (Leonardo, 2009, p. 233).

Our students have racial constructs already formed by the time they get to school, and many of those constructs have been influenced through their parent’s opinions, and the movies and shows the children have been exposed to. Unfortunately,

moana

Photo credit: Disney UK

we can’t wait for Disney to change their ways and disrupt the dominant discourse, because even though they are starting to try, by releasing movies like Moana, there are still many issues with movies like these portraying Indigenous people. It is going to require educators to take a critical look at the hidden and lived curriculum students are stepping into school with, and learning how to deconstruct these narratives with their students.

In my grade one class last year, we had talked a lot about male and female ‘gender roles.’  I didn’t have to give many examples before the students started chiming in with what the “world” tells boys and girls they can or can’t do. During our talking circle, students were giving examples such as, “People say boys can’t have long hair,” or “Girls like pink.”  I don’t think there was one student that day who didn’t participate in the talking circle; every child had experienced some type of gendered scenario where they knew how boys and girls were supposed to act.  It was neat watching them agree and sympathize with each other as each child gave examples of what they knew about gender and how it didn’t sit right, even in their little six year old bodies.

I decided to take this lesson a step further with my students because “to children, the boundaries between reality and fantasy life are often unclear (van Wormer & Juby, 2015, p. 591).  Kids don’t always understand that the behaviours on TV shows or in movies shouldn’t be imitated in their own lives. I wanted to try and help my students look critically at the gendered and racialized scenarios they see in movies, and deconstruct the message while relating it to their own lives.

The first clip we watched was Gaston’s song from Beauty and the Beast. Take a look if you need a little refresher.

When I chose this clip, I knew it would have a lot of the gendered physical characteristics  of males, and I was hoping the children would notice.  After we watched the clip, I asked the kids what Disney was telling them about men/boys. Sure enough, the kids picked up on so many of the physical qualities.

“Boys have to be strong.”

“Boys have to have big muscles.”

“They are hairy.”

“Boys eat a lot of food.”

“They drink beer.” (Oops, I may have forgot about that part of the movie!)

Then one student pointed out something that I hadn’t really thought about, but was so prevalent.

“Boys like to fight.”

Wow. How had I missed that obvious behaviour from the clip? Clearly Gaston was fighting with the men in the parlour, but I was more focused on the kids finding physical characteristics of what men “should be like.” This led us into a great conversation about violence and how boys are pushed into more of a violent social construct than girls.

We then looked at a couple other princess clips; one of Snow White, and another of snow whiteCinderella. The students were even quicker to find gendered stereotypes of women which included body image, a woman’s “roles,” and standard of beauty.  Unfortunately we don’t have to look far to see the media pushing women in one gendered cinderelladirection, and it mostly has to do with the beautification and sexualization of girls/women.  Our class had a really good conversation around this topic, and it even led into how they can be safe/protected online.  Many children recognized that inappropriate images of women are scattered everywhere on the web, and many children openly admitted to seeing these while they were using the internet in their own home. We discussed how “the world” sometimes treats women’s bodies as objects, and that is not fair or right. I reminded them of what they could do if they ran into inappropriate images/videos while online (close it immediately, tell an adult etc.) I try my best to incorporate digital citizenship lessons throughout the year as we use quite a bit of technology in my class, and I know students run into these situations at home as well.

The last part of the student’s assignment was to re-iterate a stereotypical message they knew about boys and girls, and then offer an alternative. For example, “boys CAN have long hair,” or “girls can wear blue and boys can wear pink” etc. The students left empowered, and I had a student come back the week after and tell me how his sister was telling him something about a “girl colour,” and he told her there was no such thing as girl or boy colours! What a precious example of social/gender de-construction.

Unfortunately, I did not dive into an extension of this lesson that included race… but I wish I would have.  I think deep down, challenging gender constructs was more comfortable for me than challenging racial constructs, and so I left it at that.  Now that I have more anti-oppressive grad classes under my belt, and feel a little better versed in my understanding of Whiteness, identity, and erasure, I am willing and hopeful to tackle more lessons of this sort when I head back into the classroom after mat leave.

However, Leonardo (2009) does warn us that “whites must learn to be racially sensitive about contexts when race seems a legitimate theme to invoke and ask why it was relevant to them then and not other times… Whites can participate in building an antiracist pedagogy against white mystifications, and displacing white racial knowledge from its privileged position of classroom discourse” (p. 239). This makes me wonder what it looks like to challenge the “princess/superhero” culture in specific lessons, but support it on something like a school dress up day.

Last year we had a dress-up day called “Disney Day,” where, you guessed it, students were encouraged to dress up as their favourite movie character.

Not surprisingly, all students either dressed up as a character, or wore a shirt that had a superhero logo or character on it.  Looking back, I’m again reminded at how prevalent and engrained the Disney culture is in these children’s lives. I would never consider boycotting the Disney day, as I know these types of days are extremely fun for students.  But if I could do it again, I would choose to have some critical discussion around gender/race as a reminder before the day. The children can learn to spot Whiteness, erasure, and cultural appropriation. This type of day would be the perfect time for them to practice their awareness in this area.

Furthermore, an asset-based, positive way teachers can disrupt the princess/superhero IMG_2265culture in their classroom is by offering other cultural/linguistic alternatives. Mary Caroline Rowan in her article, ‘Resituating Practice through Teachers’ Storying of Children’s Interests’ explained how she used Aotearoa/New Zealand learning stories to impart traditional Inuktitut words to preschoolers. It “could serve as a means of first recognizing and, second, deepening Inuit cultural and linguistic approaches to early childhood education” (2013, p. 180). Incorporating First Nations, Inuit, and Metis languages through storytelling is a valuable pedagogical tool teachers can use to help combat ‘White ways of knowing.’ Rowan emphasizes that using Indigenous methodologies

“facilitated the development of a practice of making learning stories that I hoped would make Inuit knowledge(s), patterns, and meanings accessible and, in so doing, make spaces in ECE practice for Inuit ways of knowing and being” (2013, p. 180).

In what other ways can we make spaces in ECE practice for Indigenous ways of knowing and being? How can we disrupt the dominant discourse of princess/superhero culture and acknowledge the ways in which it directly influences student’s understanding of themselves and each other? I am only entering the beginning of this journey, and am hopeful to walk beside other early childhood educators who believe in this work as well.

References

Joseph, A. (2016, Dec. 2). With Disney’s “Moana,” Hollywood almost gets it right: Indigenous people weigh in. Salon. Retrieved from: http://www.salon.com/2016/12/03/with-disneys-moana-hollywood-almost-gets-it-right-indigenous-people-weigh-in/

Leonardo, Z. (2009). Reading whiteness: anti-racist pedagogy against white racial knowledge. In B. Ayers, T. Quinn, & D. Stovall, (Eds.), Handbook of social justice in education. (pp. 231-248). New York: Rutledge.

Rowan, C. (2013). Resituating Practice through Teachers’ Storying of Children’s Interests in V. Pacini-Ketchabaw & L. Prochner, Resituating Canadian Early Childhood Education (172-188). New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

van Wormer, K. & Juby, C. (2015). Cultural representations in Walt Disney films: Implications for social work education. Journal of Social Work. 16(5), 578-594

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