Monday, December 21, 2015

One of these things is not like the other

While playing around with the article on contranyms (which is a word with two opposite or contradictory meanings), I found a lot of interesting images. Many, like the Word Hippo, were obviously meant to teach grammar and vocabulary to young children. But I noticed an interesting thing here. Many of the images don't reflect up-to-date attitudes - but do the educators even realize that, or notice it?

These pictures each have two images on them, and they are meant to portray or at least illustrate words which have opposite meanings. I'm the first to say that gender is gender, except that it's not any more (does the name Kaitlyn Jenner mean anything to you?). So how can "girl" and "boy" be opposites, which they are supposed to be in this illustration? This is hairsplitting, but maybe not: the boy is looking at, maybe staring at the girl, who looks glassy-eyed and stares straight ahead.

"Brave" seems to mean "nasty" in this picture. "Cowardly" is either "afraid" or "startled", which would be pretty natural if a nasty old bird was waving his nasty old wings at you with a mean, angry expression on his face. Neither one of these illustrations is representative of the actual word. Like the rest of us, kids pick up about 80% of their knowledge from visual images. This may be picky, or maybe not: the bird is pink and looks like a female. Cowardly?

This one is pretty loaded with cultural significance, too. "Beautiful" is depicted by an obviously female, pink primping bird, wearing June Cleaver pearls and a bow on her head. This is the most stereotypical view of beauty I have ever seen, since the word can mean so many things. "Ugly" can also mean many things, but an angry-looking bird with ruffled feathers and scars may have just won a cage match with a predator. I'd put him in the "brave" category, myself. But don't we always try to teach children that beauty comes from the inside? My vote goes to the guy on the right. (Again,note the very obvious gender split.)

And THIS is loaded in so many ways, I don't know where to start. "Strong" means "on steroids", apparently, as pumped-up as Schwarzenegger in the 1970s. The musclebound guy is on top, of course - where else would he be? - and looks fierce and smug at the same time, with those angry black eyebrows, the same ones that show up on those "brave" and "ugly" male birds. And his eyes look like two black holes.

I feel sorry for "Weak". His head is flat, for one thing, but he looks scared and almost apologetic. He's ashamed of his body because it makes him "weak", at least relative to the strong guy. But it's what's inside that counts, isn't it?

But this one REALLY bugs me. "Young" is not only looking in the opposite direction of "Old" - she's pointing that way. "Old" is sort of looking that way too, but her arms are as crooked as Grandpa McCoy's, her whole body looking bent and rickety. Her hair is in a grey '80s perm and she wears black-rimmed, unfashionable glasses and a dull-maroon, biblike thing, perhaps to shield her from dribbling. I HATE portrayals of people my age - yes, my age - that look like this, just as I loathe the phrase "little old lady", which no one else seems to object to.

You might say I'm nitpicking. I can hear the "oh, come ON"s from here, the "can't we say anything these days?" -  but added all together, there's something happening here. A subtle or not-so-subtle prejudice is coming through. These "things"/people are NOT "opposites" and don't portray opposites, but that's what kids are being taught. Visual images shoot right to the back of the brain and stick there. Cowardly, ugly, weak, old - not very desirable states, not according to these images anyway. The only totally positive one is the opposite of  "girl", which is, of course, "boy". The unspoken assumption here is that we should all want to be one of those.

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