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Five Questions with honours sociology student Kate Paterson
2013-01-28 10:53:57

Fourth-year honours sociology student Kate Paterson is from Calgary. Her honours thesis looks at children’s understanding of gender in traditional fairytales.

1.Tell me about your honours research and why you decided to look at this particular area.

I had no intention of doing a thesis, in fact I was against the idea, but my thesis advisor and professor, Dr. Antonelli, encouraged me to consider it. We looked at what my interests were and two things I loved stood out — gender socialization and heteronormativity in early childhood. Gender socialization is when kids learn from a very young age what is acceptable for their sex. For example, what toys they are supposed to play with and what colours they are supposed to wear, their actions, behaviours, and so on. Heteronormativity is the idea that heterosexuality is the dominant sexuality in our society and anything outside of that is considered to be abnormal.

I decided to research children’s understandings of gender in fairytales, which have heteronormativity and gender roles ingrained in all of them. You would never have a same-sex couple in a traditional fairytale and gender roles are strongly portrayed in all the tales. I first learned about these concepts in Dr. Steuter’s Gender Relations class.

I have volunteered at an elementary school for the past five years so I was able to go into a grade 1/2 classroom and do my research, after having gone through an ethics review process by both Mount Allison and the school board. I analyzed 20 fairytales within the school library and classroom, came up with questions for the kids, and then spent two full months researching in the classroom.

Each day I would read the kids a fairytale or show them a picture from the book. For example, I used a picture from Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in which the bears were described as “little, small wee bear, middle-sized bear, and great, huge bear” throughout the story. Since there were no gender pronouns used, the kids were forced to rely on their preconceived ideas of what gender means. I asked them questions like, “are these boy bears” or “is this a family?” and their responses were very gendered. It was a little surprising. Then we would have a discussion and I would observe their actions and behaviours in the classroom. My research did show that kids can have a negotiated understanding of gender and they have the agency to work through these messages. It’s not simply a cut–and–dried process.

Gender stereotypes are everywhere so it is very hard to stray from them and of course, these fairytales are hundreds of years old, yet we still use them today. There was one example where a woman was wearing a corset and the kids had a strong understanding that she needed to wear it in order to look pretty for the prince. Some of the responses were progressive. There were kids that thought it was ok for two gay bear dads to raise a baby bear together, which was pretty cool. Still, the books we use and our practices in the classroom are extremely gendered, and I think we need to move away from that.

2. What do you enjoy most about your volunteer work in the elementary school?

I have been volunteering in elementary schools since high school. Originally I did it because I wanted to be a teacher, but now that has shifted. Now that I have taken sociology, I see education as a site of socialization. It is fascinating to see children interact with the products we give them, and how they interact with each other. It is also just fun. Kids are amazing and they see the world with different eyes.

3.You are originally from Calgary, why did you choose to come to Mount Allison?

I toured universities from coast-to-coast, 15 in total, and Mount Allison was the last one. At first I hated it — it was smaller than my high school, the day was dreary, I was exhausted from my trip — but I took a tour and I immediately fell in love. It suddenly felt like the right fit; small campus, caring professors, and a tightknit community.

4.What is important to you?

Number one is my family. We are very close, and without their support I would not be where I am today. Number two is sociology; it has become so important to me, and a huge part of my life. The sociology professors here are amazing. I hope a lot of other students can say the same for what they study.

5. What do you plan to do when you graduate?

It is a toss-up between being an elementary school teacher and a professor. I have wanted to be an elementary teacher since I was seven years old, but in the last year I have really fallen in love with sociology. As a teacher, being able to change kids’ lives individually would be great, but through research, perhaps I could have the opportunity to change things from the top.

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