Updated: Oct 26, 2020
By Alba Uriarte
Image via Marion Fayolle, New York Times
I‘ve spent this past summer working at a summer camp. First, I was the counselor of an all-boys group and then of an all-girls group. From the start, the boys made it clear to me that they didn't like hanging around the girls, and vice versa. When we had the boys and the girls compete against each other in games like dodgeball, both sides would insult the other gender. I rarely saw boys having friendly conversations with girls during the summer. On the surface, this all looks like a typical case of cooties, but these childhood rivalries don’t just disappear outside of the playground. The first time that I was the boys’ counselor, one of them came up to me and said, “You can’t be in charge here, you’re a girl!” Another boy told me that he usually doesn’t hang around girls, but that he could make an exception for me if I “acted like a boy.” Cooties seem like an innocent and childish concept, but at their roots, they’re gender bias. And bias grows into prejudice if left unchecked.
This phenomenon is known as the Cooties Effect, which starts with children exhibiting a strong preference for their own gender. Then, they begin to exaggerate the differences between genders and neglect the similarities, which “otherises” and antagonizes the opposite sex. Finally, children end up believing that their gender is superior. Although some kids outgrow this belief, others carry it with them to adulthood. A boy who thinks he’s better than girls might grow up to see women as inferior to him and believe that he can manipulate them. He might even refuse to accept women in positions of power.
The Cooties Effect not only fuels gender bias in children; it also perpetuates gender stereotypes. For example, we’ve all heard the chant, “boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider, girls go to Mars to become superstars.” Even if it’s intended as a joke, this song enforces the stereotype that intelligence and success in school are un-masculine: a mindset which causes boys to typically underperform girls in school and to praise their innate skills over hard work. But the Cooties Effect also reinforces stereotypes implicitly. By exacerbating the differences between boys and girls, the Cooties Effect turns gender into a category that children feel the need to fit into. According to a study by Rebeca S. Gibler from the University of Texas at Austin, the mere suggestion of gender as a category in childhood reinforces stereotypes. Before long, children that see a significant distinction in gender start associating sports and science with boys, and arts and crafts with girls. By enforcing these stereotypes, the Cooties Effect also enforces a binary gender system, excluding non-binary and genderqueer kids.
So what can we do to prevent the Cooties Effect? We can’t make gender disappear, but we can encourage kids to see past it by recognizing their similarities and celebrating their differences. If they understand that boys and girls have a lot in common, they’ll be less likely to antagonize each other and develop prejudice later in life. We must keep pushing gender boundaries and tearing down stereotypes. Children need to be taught that they can’t disrespect others because of their gender identity and that they need to accept people for who they are.
Written by Alba Uriarte