Can young people be freed from social stereotypes?

Is it possible to work with children and young people and allow them to fill their potential in Christ rather than fall into the strong gender stereotypes into which they are pressed by social norms? That is the pressing question addressed in the latest Grove booklet in the Youth series by Natalie Collins. It begins by highlighting the often unseen (and sub-Christian) stereotypes that are all around.

The beautiful Cinderella is rescued from poverty and abuse by a handsome prince. Belle’s selfess love and beauty turns a monster back into a prince. Snow White is protected by the woodcutter and rescued by the prince. Sleeping Beauty is saved by the kiss of her one true love. Each fairy tale is filled with female archetypes; good and beautiful young women with no agency are cruelly hurt by ugly and unkind older women, while there is only one archetype present for men; strong and handsome, pursuing, protecting, providing and rescuing.

In recent years, children have been introduced to the likes of Shrek, Fiona and Merida in entisney’s Brave. Although such films have introduced children to healthier perspectives on gender and relationships, nevertheless cultural objectification, rigid gender stereotyping and sexualization of women have risen at a seemingly commensurate rate.

The lessons we learn from fairy tales are that baddies are usually old women, goodies are physically beautiful and the hero is a man. As Christians we may see the world differently, yet a cursory glance at the Bible suggests that the baddies are often lascivious women while the goodies and heroes are usually men (even if those men do transgress the cultural norms of what a hero should look like). This book has been written for those who work with young people, to help them improve their own awareness and to work in gender-aware ways. It is purposefully provocative to stimulate thinking about issues of gender in work with young people.

The booklet goes on to offer an unapologetically theological perspective, aware that not all readers will agree with the exact position, but that there is a challenge here whatever one’s conviction about gender roles.

It is often said that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. Perhaps an even greater deception has been the devil convincing the world that a pre-Fall world never existed, that the present world is the way it was always intended to be. Before Genesis 3, hierarchy was not part of ‘the plan.’ Instead we see interconnection and interdependence. God giving birth to humanity: man from dust, woman from man, humanity thenceforth birthed from woman. Neither men nor women can claim to be gods. Man and woman are called in mutuality, with a single purpose: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; ll the earth and subdue it’ (Gen 1.28).

Yet humanity falls. These humans called forth out of dust through interdependence are tempted and seek to become gods. Immediately things change: their nakedness becomes shameful, they become aware of their vulnerability and difference and seek to hide, from each other and from God. When confronted, the man blames the woman and God (Gen 3.12: ‘The woman you put here with me, she gave me some and I ate’) and the woman blames the snake (Gen 3.13: ‘The serpent deceived me and I ate’). Then God lays out the consequences of sin. Not his best plan, not his command, but rather the consequences of sin.

Women will have pain in childbirth and be dominated by men. Men will have the responsibility of providing and working hard for little reward. Death will be the end for humanity. Humanity is banished from the garden. Although it is the one which the church has focused on, death was only one of the consequences of the Fall; for thousands of years our lives have been structured as it is laid out in Genesis 3. Women are dominated by men. Men feel huge pressure to provide and be responsible, yet still blame women and God for their choices.

In Jesus, this no longer has to be our reality. As Christians we have confidence that Jesus is ‘the resurrection and the life’ (John 11.25). We are told by the apostle Paul that ‘As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive’ (1 Cor 15.22) and that ‘The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom 6.23). Jesus’ life, death and resurrection overturn the consequences of sin and death. We are invited to live in a redeemed reality, confident that when our earthly bodies die, we will be raised with Christ. In Jesus, the consequences listed in Genesis 3 are no longer our truth.

The booklet then explores the importance of youth workers and those who influence young people in engaging with this issue, not least in the context of Western, internet, visual culture.

By the time we begin relating with young people, they are not a blank slate. Their parents, peers, teachers and wider community will have influenced much of how they see the world. Layered upon this are the wider messages in media and society that all of us are saturated in. Research in the US found that people are exposed to around 5,000 images per day (30 years ago the average was around 2,000). Many of these messages sexualize and objectify women; others portray men as violent and aggressive. Children’s toys, clothes, shoes, toiletries, films, TV programmes and much more all reinforce clear delineation between boys and girls and insist that girls are fragile and pretty, while boys are rambunctious and robust. Into this toxic mix of neurosexism, stereotypes, highly gendered messages and parental and community expectations, nothing we do as youth workers is neutral. We are either reinforcing or challenging unhealthy and restrictive ideas of gender with our words, actions and lives.

This implicitly raises the question of the role of youth workers and others in relation to the influence of parents—but also the key question of how we engage with the way that images and stereotypes from wider society. The booklet then explores the things that make a difference, including our language, assumptions, understanding, and response to issues of abuse. But it ends on a note of hope and possibility.

It is after the Fall that we learn men and women will no longer stand face to face as equals. They become conscious of their physical differences and aware of their vulnerability. They create clothes to hide from one another and God. God explains to them that the consequences of sin include men’s domination of women and men struggling to work and provide (Gen 3.16–17). No longer do man and woman work together to ‘Fill the earth and subdue it’ (Gen 1.28). No longer is everything ‘very good’ (Gen 1.31). Our God seeks the Yet, even as God lays out the consequences of sin, the beginnings of his redemption plan are hinted at: the woman’s offspring will crush the snake’s head. As Christians we know the Fall is not the end. Our God seeks the consent of a teenage girl and ‘made himself nothing by taking the nature of a servant, being made in human likeness’ (Phil 2.7). He rejects the age-old lie of redemptive violence. As Aslan explains to Susan and Lucy in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, ‘…there is a deeper magic still which [the Witch] did not know…[by which] death itself would start working backward.’

Jesus tells the crowds he has come for the sick and not the healthy (Mark 2.17). His entire ministry focuses on the oppressed, the outcasts and the have-nots, while the apostle Paul explains that we should ‘delight in [our] weaknesses’ (2 Cor 12.10). In Jesus the consequences of the Fall do not have the last word on our lives and relationships. The gendered imbalance of power and the breakdown between men and women can be made new in Jesus. We are living in what N T Wright describes as the ‘fifth act’ of the biblical narrative.In the fourth act, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection brought us a new framework for life and we now live it out in the ‘now and not yet’ of salvation. We still have pain in childbirth and death continues to ravage all of us. Yet we live a redeemed reality in obedience to God; his kingdom reigns in our hearts.

The booklet makes a good case in raising this issue, in an area which is often fraught with difficulty. You can order it (post free in the UK or as a PDF) for the bargain price of £3.95 from the Grove website.

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2 thoughts on “Can young people be freed from social stereotypes?”

  1. This is a crucial issue, and it was good to see Genesis 1:28 being referred to as our common purpose, so often forgotten these days.

    I wasn’t clear from the excerpt, though, what aspects of the traditional picture the author thinks we should retain in our redeemed state?

    The NT says there is in Christ no male and female, yet also sets out complementary (rather than identical) rules for Christian households and appropriate conduct. This seems to encourage a continuing sense of differentiated gender identity, within a context of honouring the woman as the ‘weaker sex’ (1Peter 3:7).

    Is the author saying there is nothing right in the traditional pictures? Or, if there is something right, what is it? I feel like it’s easy to be negative in discussions on gender in the current climate, but what young people (and all people) need is a positive vision of biblical manhood and womanhood, not one that just tells them that almost all the pictures they see in their culture, and even most of the ones they see in the Bible, are wrong. Are all differentiated visions stereotyped?

    Perhaps the booklet itself addresses these points, but if so it wasn’t clear from the excerpt. And surely it should be front and centre?

  2. Natalie Collins appears to have bought into the current pejorative use of the word ‘stereotyping’. But we all do it all the time as a normal intelligent human way of making sense of what we observe in other people; is it necessarily a bad thing? Do young people really have to be ‘freed’ from social stereotypes? Are we suggesting that they are now social victims who are not capable of doing their own thing irrespective of how others may choose to classify them? Do we really think it serves young people well to treat them as if they are delicate flowers for whom every sentence or every impression we give them must be carefully weighed in case it might crush their delicate sensibilities? Ever seen ‘Mock the Week’ or ‘Family Guy’?

    The first creation story in Genesis tells us that the purpose and design of creation are God’s. Sexual difference between male and female were embedded in the original plan before the fall and, by it, humanity would reproduce and ‘fill the earth’. The second story then sets the scene and describes how temptation led to the fall. The ‘consequences’ which followed were indeed painful for both the man and the woman (neither escaped), but a relationship between the two was laid down which ensured that they would still stay and work together – he would rule her, her desire for him (we can assume his desire for her was never in question!) ensured that the pain associated with the ability to bear children was not enough to break the relationship and thus end the human line. It’s interesting to observe that this arrangement has faced its greatest challenge from the availability of contraception (including incredibly late term abortion) and elements of the welfare state – the desire seems to remain but the necessity to stay together has gone: are women, men or children truly happier as a result?

    Natalie Collins substitutes ‘domination’ for ‘rule’. Could the man’s rule not be more in the way of loving protection rather than abusive exercise of power? St Paul certainly doesn’t see post resurrection male/female relationships as being changed for this life (Ephesians 5:22-33); he echoes what we read in Genesis and sees mutual benefit rather than a power struggle. But of course if we choose to see things through the eyes of feminism we will find Paul an annoying throwback to unenlightened times, not someone to take seriously on stereotyping.

    There’s certainly a lot to think about here before we jump to conclusions.


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