Sweden Has a New Gender-Free Preschool. Is This the Way to Fight Bias?

One preschool in Sweden has banned the use of "him" and "her." Will this experiment bring us gender equality?

In keeping with Sweden's rep as the most evolved country ever, a preschool there is attempting to eliminate gender bias in the classroom by not using the words "him" or "her." At the taxpayer-funded Egalia preschool, teachers use the word "friend" and the recently invented Swedish gender-neutral pronoun "hen" instead. Lego bricks and building blocks are placed next to the toy kitchen, where all the kids play in harmony.

"Society expects girls to be girlie, nice and pretty and boys to be manly, rough and outgoing," the teacher told the AP. "Egalia gives them a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be."

This news comes after the international freak-out over one Toronto couple who are raising their baby, Storm, without telling anyone the sex (naturally, the Swedes tried that first), not to mention the ludicrous hub-bub over Brad and Angie's genderbending daughter, Shiloh. So far, the world has not taken kindly to attempts to raise kids in a world free of gender expectations.

When I heard about the Toronto couple's gender-free child, I had mixed feelings about it. On one hand, the parents will theoretically give their baby a chance to choose its own gender based on how it feels, not on what's between its legs. On the other hand, raising a single genderless child amid a sea of pink and blue seems like a short-sighted way to fight gender bias. I could easily see the freedom to discover one's own gender identity being overshadowed by the kid being socially isolated or relentlessly teased. Also, the effort that goes into concealing a kid's gender from the rest of the world might, ironically, lead to an obsessive focus on gender in the kid's life.

This preschool, on the other hand, is making moves toward dissolving mandated gender roles in a community-based way, where the gender pressure is off en masse. It would make a child's process of gender identification seem normal and just another part of growing up. Given the hell that trans kids go through, that would be a huge improvement over our boys-against-girls mentality.

Still, I feel really torn about banning books like Cinderella and Snow White simply because they have deep gender stereotypes. My first impulse would be to read them alongside books with more progressive storylines, and then explain how the gender dynamics in Disney tales are fucked up. That way, the kids would be prepared to fight gender bias in the wider world after they leave the 33-kid utopia of Egalia preschool. Just like disingenuous "post-racial" rhetoric and wishful-thinking girl power, it's tough to fight against inequality when you pretend it doesn't exist.

Given the insane transphobia and enduring faith in gender roles in this country, it's doubtful that this experiment is coming our way any time soon. But if it's successful, maybe it'll turn the tide toward a less restrictive society, where we accept a spectrum of gender identities and the "battle of the sexes" isn't quite so ingrained in our daily lives.

photo (cc) by Flickr user kristin_a

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