Curlz are for girlz in the era of Boyz Uz

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The Independent Culture
It is almost fitting, in a perverse kind of way, that a week which has seen all sorts of announcements regarding the politics of men, women, work and the family should end with the news that the Fox Family Channel (a joint venture between Rupert Murdoch's News International and Saban Entertainment) is proposing to establish separate TV stations for boys and girls. In a half-hearted bid to suggest that this is a step forward rather than a step back (or at least to emphasise that these are advertising categories rather than mere sex types), Fox has modishly respelt the genders: there will be a "Boyz Channel" and a "Girlz Channel". Fox probably only half-intended the announcement to chime with the release in this country of Antz, the new insect blockbuster; so they probably didn't mean to imply that kidz are bugz. But there is no hiding the fact that the bid to build niche markets out of children is, as Fox kidz of the future might say, bad newz.

This isn't simply a matter of being baffled by the idea of dividing an audience so neatly in two. The outcome of such a crude split is all too predictable. It is rather as if, in a grisly parody of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the sinuous fox were whispering into the ears of happy innocents about the temptations of forbidden fruit, and creating at a stroke a whole new gender divide.

Clearly, the boys' channel will be full of action-packed combat adventure; the girls' channel will be weepier, soapier, and more connected with "relationships". The commercial argument in favour of this queasy stereotyping is gripping. These, the salesmen will say, are the things boys and girls like anyway; we are simply making it more convenient for them. But before we know it, there'll be an online sales pitch called Boyz 'R' Uz; and it will be stacked with all the high-octane amusements that liberal parents strive in vain to keep out of sight.

It isn't easy to be politically correct when it comes to children. As Judith Rich Harris argues in her impressive new book about character-formation [see review, page 13], there is little that parents can do to channel, as it were, their children's curiosity in approved directions. The young ones leave home alert for signs that what they have learnt so far is not merely a cranky whim of their own parents. And naturally, any attempt to tutor boys or girls in the idea that they are more or less the same (or at any rate deserve to be treated alike) founders on the obvious fact (to four-year-old eyes) that the sexes are hugely and fundamentally not alike.

On the whole, the world supports them in this view. If they like dressing up, then they'll find that the available costumes for boys consist of soldiers and policemen, while girls get to be brides and nurses. If they want to practise shooting people, they'll find a zillion easy ways to painlessly try out homicide with toys or in computer games (in contrast, it is not that easy to buy a football in a toy shop these days). And as soon as they enter primary school they will run into an emphatic gender gap, underlined by the sharp division of school uniforms (boys get rakish caps and austere flannel shorts; girls are given pretty bonnets and drifty cotton dresses). Harris suggests that drawing attention to these differences serves only to exaggerate them; and even argues that the more parents insist on sex equality, the more likely children are to cling to existing boy- girl caricatures.

The science here is fuzzy. There aren't many answers, simply competing theories. Are naughty children treated cruelly because they are naughty; or naughty because they are treated cruelly? Nice and pretty children are treated nicely and prettily - but this doesn't mean that they will turn out either nice or pretty. The one thing we can be sure of is that it is a complicated business, and this is why the Fox initiative is so dismaying. It is too simple an answer to the vexed and urgent question of what children want or need.

All of us want things that are bad for us, whether it be drugs, cigarettes, or watching too much television. Children are no different. Whether we should encourage or even tolerate moves to indulge their lazier tastes is another matter. Yet while politics fiddles and to a large extent prattles, the really influential intitiatives are being taken in the private sector, and in popular culture. The creation of market niches encourages the creation of groups, and the creation of groups encourages animosity between those groups. The flipside of the sense of belonging is an acute disdain for those who do not belong. But while it might be true (and is bad enough) that boys will be boys, they don't, surely to God, have to be boyz.

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