Let's talk gender stereotypes

(This post by Monica Lim first appeared on her blog on 10 October 2014. It is reproduced with permission. Note: Lesley-Anne is her daughter.)

So by now, most of you would have read about the saga where 17-year-old student Agatha Tan's open letter to her Principal which lambasted Focus on the Family (FotF) for their relationship programme. To me, this is an open-and-shut case and MOE has rightly shut down the programme.

In a truly strange coincidence, Lesley-Anne attended the very same session as Agatha. (I know, right? What are the odds??) So I thought for those who might be curious as to whether there was more behind the scenes from someone who was actually there, I'd blog about it.

Lesley-Anne missed the first half of the session because she was out conducting a Danger Dan school talk at that time and joined in only in the second half. By then, she said the lecture theatre was already all abuzz and her friends told her there had been a heated debate. It sounded like the facilitators were unused to being challenged because Lesley-Anne said they were defensive and tried to deny responsibility of the materials. For example, when the facilitator presented a rather controversial analogy, he threw his hands in the air and qualified himself by saying, "This is not my research. If you want to complain, complain to the author!" Okaaaaay.

When Lesley-Anne came home that day, even before the saga of Agatha's letter, she told me that the session was a waste of time. Possibly, the programme was intended to be light-hearted but the way it was delivered, issues were inappropriately trivialised. She felt that as an educational session, it should have been more substantial. Instead, the materials were shallow and similar to jokes and satirical pieces easily found on the Internet.

For instance, the facilitator asked a boy something along the lines of: "Would you rather: a) Be unloved and alone or b) Disrespected." The boy answered a) and clarified that he took "unloved" to mean only romantically. But the facilitator immediately jumped to the conclusion that this was evidence of guys' immense need for respect and hence, in a relationship, girls have to give guys respect. Wow, sweeping conjectures much? Incidentally, Lesley-Anne said she would have made the same choice. Does that make her a guy?

Guys were also portrayed as deprived, sex-driven creatures. For example, the students were shown a picture of a guy's compartmentalised brain where SEX was predominant. This idea that guys cared only about sex was repeatedly highlighted. (The male facilitator even waved his arms in the air and declared, "If you give us sex, we're very happy!") Not sure what his point was. Girls have to offer sex to make a relationship work?

Furthermore, most of the research and statistics used to substantiate the material were from the US. Lesley-Anne felt that the facilitators failed to contextualise the info and show how they were relevant to Singapore. For example, they stated that in the US, couples who cohabitate before marriage are 50% more likely to get a divorce and leapt to the conclusion: If you want your marriage to work, don't cohabitate! Even if you discount the flawed logic, please lah. In Singapore, how many dating couples live together? Housing is expensive here!

FotF has claimed this is not a sex education course but a relationship workshop. This is factually correct because what many people don't realise is that FotF is appointed by MSF, not MOE (even though I understand that it's an MOE-approved course. Not sure how that works). But I don't understand how the fact that it's a relationship workshop, not a sex education course, makes the content any less objectionable.

HCI has said that parents could have opted their children out of the programme if they wanted to. Come on! You know these consent forms - "there will be a session, blah blah, sign if you consent to let your child attend it". At most, they give the name of the organiser and a short paragraph of the objective of the programme (which probably said it was to help students de-mystify relationships).

The thing is, I don't know for sure because I don't remember the form at all! Not to shirk my responsibility as a parent but are we saying that any activity or excursion my child goes to, I have to scrutinise the organiser, look up the background, and try to guess whether they have values that go against mine or will present any objectionable material? This was supposed to be a simple post-exam activity in school for JC students and I didn't give it a second thought. I think it's reasonable to expect that any activity endorsed by the school will not promote information that is harmful or false.

Some people are angry that a Christian-based group was allowed to administer this programme. I'm less bothered by this because from what Lesley-Anne tells me, religion was never mentioned. I feel that all those who are opposing or supporting Agatha's view based on this are missing the point. It's not about religion and so-called "conservative" views are not limited to any religious group.

To me, why the programme is harmful is because it promotes gender stereotyping which conveniently pigeon-holes people into neat compartments. To those who say things like "but it's true most women are fickle!" "Or are ditzy!" etc etc, I say, that's precisely how stereotyping works - take anecdotes or instances where things happen a certain way and generalise it across large groups of people indiscriminately.

Stereotyping is harmful because it makes judgement on people based on their gender, race, age etc even before one knows them. It also puts pressure on conformity and anyone who doesn't fall within those neat boxes can feel like an outcast. By the way, I can take a joke as well as the next person. The point is this was an official programme, not a woman's magazine or frivolous website.

Stereotyping is a lazy way of seeing the world because it's simple. In other words, it's UNcomplicated. Unfortunately, people as a whole are complicated because we're so diverse. Relationships are complicated. And attempting to tell JC students it's not so by dumbing down materials and reducing people to caricatures is downright insulting and indefensible. I understand that the facilitators repeatedly said these were "generalisations". Incidentally, claiming that stereotypes are mere generalisations can be even more damaging because when someone doesn't fall neatly within a category, you can simply dismiss him or her as an "exception", thus justifying your beliefs.

There are already far too many confused teenagers out there. The last thing we need is for an official programme to perpetuate gender stereotypes and confuse them further.

I've since heard accounts of people attending FotF sessions in different JCs way back from 2007 both as students and teachers, and most agree that it was bad. It's appalling that this has been going on for years and NOBODY spoke up all this time. It made me even more proud of Agatha.

To all those who would diss her letter because they disagreed with something she said or because of her youth, I would like to remind them that here is a 17-year-old who is not just intelligent and clear-minded but who has the conviction and courage to speak up for what she believes in, in a more articulate manner than many twice her age. Good on her.



Writing is my profession and my passion. I run a professional writing outfit, where I do all my corporate writing. Blogging takes care of the miscellaneous excess thoughts. I'm a mother of two completely polar opposite children. Maybe God figures the challenge would do me good. Or perhaps He just likes to have a good laugh. Whatever it is, I'm enjoying the roller coaster ride.