A common claim of transgender and LGBT organisations is that they challenge heteronormativity in order to eradicate homophobia, lesbophobia and transphobia. Providing resources for the classroom, including storybooks for very young children, is one way these organisations work to help children to accept difference and diversity, which is a laudable aim.
What is notable from the range of children’s books available from LGBT organisations is that lesbian and gay characters tend to be represented in books about ‘two mummies’ or ‘two daddies’ whereas the transgender characters are always children themselves (even if they are sometimes in the form of baby penguins).
We had a look at the video accompanying one of these books for primary-age children, ‘Jamie – A Transgender Cinderella Story’, written and published by Oliver Pike, to see what message is being sent to the children who are the target audience. This particular book is offered by Educate and Celebrate, an LGBT organisation which is supported by the Department for Education and receives funding from BBC Children in Need. Educate and Celebrate advocates a gender-neutral model in all aspects of school life, from language to toilets, which they claim will eradicate ‘stereotypes associated with gender.’ They call this “smashing heteronormativity.”
In this picture book, the Cinderella character is played by ‘Jamie’ and the Ugly Sisters are replaced by two nasty big brothers with sneery voices. Jamie has long blond hair in a ponytail and wears patched t-shirt and jeans. She is, we hear, good at fixing things, her two brothers even get her to fix their car and motorbike. The Fairy Godmother in this version works for the brothers, not for Jamie. She is not a kindly elderly godmother but a young woman who is as nasty to Jamie as her brothers are (a ‘handmaiden’ perhaps?)
Jamie has a wish which sets the scene right from the word go: her one wish is not to escape her life of drudgery or get her own back on her brothers, but that she could ‘feel right.’
She didn’t feel right at all – not in her body, that is – you see, how Jamie felt inside didn’t match up with what she saw in the mirror and oh! how she wished it could.
Jamie had asked her brothers if maybe she could wear their old clothes and if they could help her cut her hair the way she wanted but of course they said no.
When the brothers receive the invitation to the ball and set off for the palace leaving Jamie behind, she quickly makes a car out of a pumpkin and finds a length of black material out of which she makes herself a suit. Her friends the mice (the ‘good guys’ in the story) help to cut her hair short and she looks at her reflection in the mirror.
Finally, looking back, was the person Jamie was inside. And it wasn’t the hair or the suit, or the pumpkin car, but it was Jamie, Jamie finally understanding who he was: “I’m a boy! I always have been!”
The mice completely understood.
Meanwhile, at the ball, the Princess is not enjoying herself because “nobody seemed to just be themselves.” The princess is a model of feminine conformity with conventional long hair and long dress, but the diversity box is ticked by the fact that she has brown skin. The Princess is “intrigued” by Jamie (“a very well-dressed young man”) and “captivated” by “his story and by his honesty.” The happy couple dance and talk into the night, at the end of which, arms around each other, the Princess plants a kiss on Jamie’s cheek.
Jamie tells the princess that there is no need to reveal who he is to his brothers because “I’m not wearing a disguise.” The message that Jamie is being “his true authentic self” is hammered home.
Every fairy story contains a lesson and a moral for children to learn, such as the importance of not giving up or the triumph of good over evil, and the hero or heroine gets either their come-uppance or their reward depending on whether they learn the lesson/embody the principle or not. In this case, the theme and the lesson presents “being yourself” as the highest moral aim. The guests at the ball who are unable to achieve this state of authenticity are shunned by the princess and it is only Jamie who meets her exacting standards of Truth to Self.
There is a lot to unpack here. For young children it makes sense that a girl can be a boy; magical and concrete thinking combine to transform fantasy into physical reality in children’s heads. What child does not believe that they are in reality whatever character they are playing? Some children will understand the story on this level, a story of make-believe the same as any other. For other children it will cause anxiety; there is such an insistence throughout the story that Jamie’s belief that she is really a boy is correct that it doesn’t quite sound like a normal story of make-believe. Of course we know that this is what the author believes and that this is the message he wants children to believe too.
The lesson that reality is unstable and liable to be influenced and transformed through thought alone is a scary one (Jamie even insists there’s ‘no magic’). Children are susceptible to a belief in their own omnipotence, that their own thoughts can make things change in the real world, and this particular change strikes directly at their own reality and sense of self as boys or as girls. Will they change from one to the other if they think about it too hard? For girls especially it is common to wish they were boys when very young, because boys have more fun and get away with more. Will they try and stop themselves now? Will they even try to like ‘girl things’ to put themselves out of danger? Or will they start to believe that they must really be boys?
What happens now when a little girl is told by a classmate that she is ‘like a boy’ whenever she shows an interest in something which lies outside the princess box? Or told “that’s for boys?” On this level, a story like ‘Jamie’ can only reinforce that message and could result in some children embracing sex-role stereotypes for their own safety. In the story of Jamie a ‘boy’ is an empty gender stereotype, which children are encouraged to believe is what a boy is in reality. Schools have an obligation not to reinforce restrictive gender stereotypes, but this book says that those stereotypes are not only true, but the actual definition of ‘boy.’
For any child who believes they are the opposite sex, this story can only cement that belief as the truth, which will not change:
Tonight Jamie had felt right for the first time and he knew this would be how things would stay.
As the overwhelming majority of children will naturally come to terms with their natal sex as they grow up, why would we try to actively prevent this maturation by teaching them that their belief represents immutable reality which will not change? Storybooks are designed to influence children: this one influences them to believe that biological sex is irrelevant, they can choose whether they are boys or girls and that these feelings will last forever.
As with all transgender books for children, this one teaches children the myth of the authentic self disassociated from the body as a model of understanding themselves, and it promotes gender stereotypes which are particularly harmful for girls. The book reinforces the sexist assumption that a female who rejects femininity is not a real woman, or at least she must have a ‘male brain’ – a charge commonly leveled at any woman who displays intelligence or courage. This sexist idea of “a male brain in a female body” has now been made literal: Jamie really is a boy. This is not a healthy model of understanding for girls who don’t conform. With today’s increasing pressure on girls to be stereotyped princesses and rates of body-hatred and dissatisfaction increasing, the message that young girls really need from adults is that they are fine as they are as girls.
The story of Jamie, however, goes further than that. Jamie likes girls. Jamie is overwhelmingly likely to grow up to be a lesbian if left alone, but this book teaches little girls like Jamie a new way to interpret their feelings: that if you like having short hair and wearing trousers and you like girls, you must be a boy. It takes diversity and difference (gender non-conforming, same-sex attracted) and turns it into conformity (gender conforming, heterosexual). This is erasure of lesbians disguised as celebrating difference. This lesson is taught to girls before puberty, when they can have little idea of what sexual orientation really means and before they have had a chance to grow up and discover their own sexuality.
Teaching children to interpret their feelings in terms of their supposed ‘gender identity’ before the age at which they are taught about sex can only influence pre-gay children into a false model of understanding before they have grown up enough to discover their sexuality and develop true self-knowledge. How is this not just a new form of gay conversion therapy through the influencing of children’s minds at the youngest age? And how does it not encourage other children into the belief that non-conforming lesbian women are not ‘normal’?
The book teaches children the false idea that being a boy or a girl is not a matter of material, biological reality but simply a feeling. It also teaches the opposite of what it claims; through the form of a symbolic fairy story it reinforces the very messages of sexism, lesbophobia and heteronormativity which Educate and Celebrate claim to challenge. No school should be using any resources which teach this harmful message to children as fact.