As most people that I’ve spoken to recently will know, I can’t stop watching The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds. If you haven’t seen the Channel 4 Series, the crux of it is this: take a group of cute 4, 5 or 6 year olds, rig them up with cameras a mics and pop them into a school/playgroup-like setting with a couple of teachers who stay pretty quiet, aside from setting them a few tasks. Every now and then we get a little more information about their family background, etc. The children also have their moves watched and narrated by a group of psychologists.
Watching it is a guilty pleasure – partly as I’m putting aside ethical concerns around gaining ‘informed consent’ from 4 year olds in appearing on such a public platform – but also as I find myself simultaneously cross and fascinated about the way that the programme is set up. Although I can’t deny that I find the antics of the kids cute and funny, my particular interest in this two part blog is how the children’s moves are narrated and analysed. The first blog post discusses the how the show reinforces hetero and cisnormativity, and the second discusses dis/ableism in the programme.
Although I’ve composed these as two blog posts (basically because they were getting a bit long!), hetero/cisnormativity and ableism shouldn’t be thought about as distinct concepts, but, as Robert McRuer reminds us, are wrapped-up and implicated in one-another. I discuss this a bit more in the second blog post (also see my use of McRuer’s work in this paper).
I’ve tried to link only to open access research in the blog. If you have trouble accessing anything that I’ve linked to get in touch and I’ll do my best to help out.
The Wedding Bug: Hetero and cisnormativity in the Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds
Has anyone else noticed that in pretty much every episode of The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds, there is some kind of proposal/wedding happening?
For the psychologists that narrate the show, the regular ‘weddings’ are often put down to the children mirroring/playing at adult relationships. That it may well be. However, the heteronormativity of the weddings (I’ve yet to have seen one that wasn’t between a boy and a girl) also tells us a lot about what kinds of adult relationships the children have been exposed to. I also want to propose that the compositions of the show itself is inherently hetero and cisnormative.
By heteronormativity, I mean that assumption, normalisation and prioritisation of heterosexuality. By cisnormativity, I mean the assumption, normalisation and prioritisation of cisgender identities (those that identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth) and the gender binary.
Where are the queer families?
It’s long been noted that schools are microcosm of society. Until 2003 in the UK (2000 in Scotland) a piece of policy called Section 28 stated that that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. This meant that queer relationships and ways of being couldn’t be discussed within educational settings.
Since this time, however, we supposedly have a more diverse/inclusive way of being when it comes to LGBT relationships in educational settings. Yet, there is much work out there that suggests otherwise. El Formby’s work discussing sex education with LGBT young people, for example, highlights that there’s a long way to go to make PSHE inclusive of all genders and sexualities. She also suggests that in order to prevent LGBT bullying the discourse needs to be widened to not only think of bad individual bullies and passive (LGBT) victims, but to address wider hetero and cisnormative practice in education and wider society (an argument mirrored by The Queering Education Institute working in a US context).
But what’s this got to do with The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds? For me, much of what is shown in the show, and the way that the children’s actions are analysed and read-into by the psychologists, perpetuates hetero and cisnormativity.
It doesn’t take much communication/friendship between a girl and a boy in the show for a wave of excitement and insinuations that the children are in some kind of romantic relationship. For example at the beginning of the 5 Year Olds (2016) Episode 1, Jude is the first to enter the playgroup and take a seat. Shortly after, Ellie arrives, and chooses to sit next to Jude. The show then cuts to the psychologists who, pointing out that the children have sat next to one-another, say “we’ve got our first love in”, before the camera moves poignantly to a shot of the children’s feet next to one-another. I don’t here want to deny the children’s right to understand their relationships with other children in whatever way they choose. Indeed, it should be acknowledged that Jude and Ellie, like many other children featuring in the series, do indeed go on to refer to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend and discuss (when asked directly) being in love, before Ellie ends their relationship as girlfriend and boyfriend as the programme comes to an end. Furthermore it could be argued that the comments from the psychologists about such romance between the children happen in a fairly tongue in cheek way. Despite this, never do we see adult claims of romance based on a friendship or relationship between two boys, two girls or other groups of children. Thus, a norm of heterosexuality is maintained and the children’s possibility of understanding themselves outside of a heteronormative framework is restricted.
School’s OUT, an organisation working, campaigning and researching within schools to support LGBT students, offer an approach a two stage approach to making school settings more LGBT inclusive. They call the first stage ‘usualising’. On their website, The Classroom (which is full of useful lesson plans and resources for teachers) they describe usualising as consistently making learners aware of the presence of LGBT people, and argue that this should start in Early Years classrooms. Stage two, actualising, means discussing LGBT lives in some fuller aspect. Whereas usualising should happen across the curriculum, actualising takes place in specific lessons where the objectives are to have greater understandings of LGBT lives. Although perhaps the ‘actualising’ wouldn’t be appropriate in The Secret Lives of 4, 5 and 5 Year Olds (as the children are generally left to play) ‘usualising’ could happen through the toys, books and activities that are used in the setting (see this suggested resource list in the right-hand side ‘downloads’ column from Liz Chapman). Although I don’t know for sure that books such as The Great Big Book of Families aren’t sitting around somewhere in the Secret Lives of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds school, the lack of queerness elsewhere in the show makes me doubtful. The programme has yet to include, for example, a discussion of queer parents. Perhaps even more tellingly, in the same episode discussed above, a task involved the children having to act as parents for simulation (dolls that cry, need feeding, changing etc). To complete this task, the children were matched up to parent in boy-girl pairs, thus mirroring the nuclear family (there was some dodgy disability politics in this too, which I’ll come back to in blog post number two).
Examples such as the above perhaps most explicitly demonstrate heteronormativity. Yet there is cisnormativity hidden within them. Throughout the programme, the differences between boys and girls are consistently reiterated: not explicitly, as in restricting which toys the children can play with, but implicitly by setting up, for example, ‘girls vs boys’ challenges, thus perpetuating the myth that girls and boys are binary opposites, and nobody can bridge or live outside of those two categories. One task in the latest episode required the girls to dress-up as their dads, and the boys to dress-up as their mums. Perhaps this was meant to liberate the children from their gender roles and norms, but without any pedagogy/discussion behind it, it in fact reiterated the gendered categories, as the children policed each others’ responses to the task. Julia Serano’s work on the devaluing of femininity came to mind, as whereas for the girls it was a task taken lightly, the boys reactions were much stronger, with some crying and refusing to take part. It was sad to see one boy, Nat, go from enjoying the task, and liking the dress that he had chosen, to saying that he looked silly and hated having to wear the outfit.
Perhaps one of the things that I feel The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds is missing is a pedagogy which opens up space for discussion with the children. Rather than just leave the laughter and upset about ‘boys dressing as girls’ hanging, wouldn’t it have been nice to talk about why it should be such a big deal for a boy to wear a dress? Perhaps this conversation did happen, but didn’t make the final cut. Maybe it is inevitable in a TV documentary, probably more interested in funny sound bites than a space to talk and reflect. Or maybe it is the influence of approaches to research coming from psychology – claiming objectivity and a lack of influence on what goes on (as I think the discussion above suggests, I would argue that any such claim is always false). Whichever, if any, of these are true, I do wonder what it’d look like to have sociologists, rather than psychologists, narrating the show.