So I saw this Verizon commercial going around on Facebook that had really good intentions. The purpose was to help encourage girls to go into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). And while I fully support that idea, the way they did it really ticked me off.
If you haven’t seen it, it starts with a young girl (maybe 1 year old or so) running towards the camera and a parent calling her a “pretty girl.” Then it moves onto the girl growing up and exploring and trying new, mostly science/engineering things, and the parents continually stopping her from trying these things and reprimanding her for getting dirty or whatever else. The commercial ends with the girl, now in high school, looking at a sign for the science fair, but then getting out lip gloss–choosing instead to focus on her looks.
The narrator then says, “Instead of calling them pretty, what if we called them pretty brilliant?”
See for yourself:
The implication here, of course, is that if we call girls pretty, they’re not going to be interested in STEM and we should start calling them smart instead. I have a couple of problems with this. First of all, there’s a whole separate belief that you shouldn’t tell kids they are smart. The basic idea (which I learned about in Carol Dweck’s book, “Mind Set”) is that if you tell kids they are smart, they will think that when they don’t understand something, they simply won’t know it, and won’t try to learn it. If you tell kids that they are working hard instead, they will try to work harder when they don’t understand something in order to figure it out. So, because of this idea, I don’t tell my kids that they’re smart. I mean… they are smart (biased dad talking here), but I’m not going to tell them that.
My second problem with this commercial is that it suggests we shouldn’t be telling our kids that they are pretty/beautiful/handsome. I want my daughter to feel good about herself, so I think I should be telling her that she’s beautiful (I want my son to feel good about himself too, but historically it’s not as much of an issue for boys as it is for girls). I know that she’s going to grow up and not believe a word her father has to say (I’ve taught in middle schools for nearly 10 years…), but until then, I want her to think that she’s beautiful. I mean… she IS beautiful (again, biased dad talking here), so there’s nothing wrong with my plan to tell her that.
The real issue with this commercial is that the parents are simply stifling their daughter. The tag line should instead be: “Watch what your daughter wants to do and let her explore!” Or even: “Don’t get in the way of your daughter’s interests!”
When my kids show interest in anything, whether it’s science, or writing, or art, or math, or anything else, I hope I’m aware of it enough to encourage them. The problem with the parents in the commercial is that they are encouraging stereotypical gender roles. When the girl is using the power tools, the parent calls in from the other room to let her brother do that part instead. WHAT?! If she’s doing something wrong, help her, but don’t get in the way!
Beauty doesn’t inhibit intellect. Science doesn’t stifle sports. Creativity and intelligence and fashion and aesthetics and athletics can all go hand-in-hand. Eventually, my son may decide to focus on one thing instead of his current plethora of interests which include science, writing, birds of prey, skunks, trucks, and wordplay. Eventually, my 1-year-old daughter may decide to spend most of her time on one particular topic as opposed to her current wide-ranging obsessions with music, balls, shoes, and butterflies.
But until they want to specialize, I’m not going to stop them. And I’m going to praise the efforts and beauty of both my son and daughter.