Culture and research

CIS-HERONORMATIVITY - We learn it as small children, including through illustrations in picture books. Notes for reflection

18 Mar 2021

E. Fierli, S. Marini

“Yes, like gherkins.

The female gherkins in one jar, the male gherkins in another,

and the male-females? You don't know where to put them.

I believe we can be female and male,

both at the same time if you like.

To hell with labels. We have the right!”

These are the words we love to quote with which Giulia claims her right to be what she wants and what she feels. An effective metaphor for what we believe an illustrated book should offer: the complexity of reality, the infinite possibilities that we face, the freedom to decide and to live one's choices and experiences. Through educational and training projects developed by our association and academic research, for over 10 years we have been investigating how the narratives of illustrated books play a fundamental role in building people's imagery and in the socialisation of gender. The images, models and situations we see will become our references for reading the world, they will come back to us and will also indirectly condition many of our behaviours. And if our collection of representations is rich, vast and varied, we will certainly have a greater number of interpretative codes to decipher what is happening around us and to choose freely and in a critical manner. Here we would like to take the opportunity to use a limited and dialogic space to share a series of points that seem fundamental to us from an educational point of view, starting from a feminist and queer reading of illustrated books. Without claiming to provide answers but, on the contrary, with the intention of opening ourselves up to questions and discussions, we want to focus on the representations that Italian children's publishing offers us, in a non-binary key and moving beyond cis-heteronormativity (Rinaldi, 2016).

When we talk about sexual and emotional orientations with age groups ranging from 0 to 11 years, we tend to focus on family types. The experience of family that each person brings into a community, especially when it comes to educational communities and very small people, is extremely varied and difficult to classify within pre-established models. Representations, on the other hand, are very often reductive and poor compared to the many living situations, family compositions and the management of roles and relationships within the family itself. For this reason, the work that every educational agency must do is to open horizons as much as possible, showcasing and enhancing the richness in which we are immersed. Therefore, themed books, family catalogues, stories that make same-sex parents or, more generally, non-heteronormal families more visible, become fundamental. If we limit ourselves, however, to these types of representations and narrative proposals, the risk (which is inherent in this type of literature) is that our reading of complexity will flatten out uncritically because these representations, focusing on overcoming one stereotype or a specific social norm, tend to leave all other categories intact, without favouring a deconstructive approach that promotes the ability to question and rethink the world system (Borghi, 2020).

Instead, in our opinion, it is necessary to shift the perspective and the discussion to another level. If we talk about sexual and emotional orientations to an audience between 0 and 11, it is necessary to start proposing narratives that do not take for granted that the sex assigned at birth to girls and boys coincides with their gender identity, nor that the basis from which to start with is heteronormativity, which suggests / imposes a binary division of genders and the complementarity of roles, representations and performances. It is a question of practicing a type of education that attacks and questions precisely what is considered obvious and taken "for granted", which oppresses the growth and development of different subjectivities, starting with the recognition of the role they play in the conditioning of individuals and social life (Borghi, 2020; Ghigi, 2019).

In Italy there are few books that come to our aid and, even if we are taking an increasingly clear position in contrast to the stereotyped representations of the male and female, binarism and cis-heteronormativity are not yet questioned. The result is a persistent resistance to dealing with bodies, sexualities and gender identities. The aforementioned Story of Giulia (Storia di Giulia che aveva un’ombra da bambino) shows the search for a space in the world in which we can be what we are and develops the entire narrative around the discomfort of not conforming to precise social norms and the desperate attempt to physically escape the pressures that these represent, finding oneself alone, at the end, and sharing these experiences with a new friend, who transforms an experience of exclusion into an opportunity to claim one's own subjectivity. In Julián's experience, on the other hand, contrasts do not dominate the journey, between reality and imagination, in the experimentation of expressions and gender identity. Here the fascination with the "mermaids" who are walking towards a fashion show, the intense desire to be like them and with them, finds satisfaction in disguises, but also, and above all, in the support of the grandmother who helps her grandson, showing that she does not have any prejudices towards the wishes of little Julián. Mare, the protagonist of Cristina Portolano's book, experiences, in the pelagic depths, the pressures to comply exerted by some marine animals that do not recognise her as either male or female, but also the incitement to transformation and experimentation by clown fish. Koala receives from Uccellino, who urges him to question the rules that hold him back, the support to pursue his desires, to indulge the pleasure he feels in wearing the dress he loves so much. These are narratives and representations that remind us how the discovery and affirmation of oneself are processes of relational construction and how much of the responsibility lies in the choice of stimuli, responses, proposals we offer and the postures we assume as educating figures.

“We must be able to reflect precisely on the defining processes of the sexual categories and roles that are ascribed and acquired, recognised and implemented. Therefore, we become sexual because we are recognised as having a role that emerges in specific historical, legal and moral conditions, with respect to which we acquire expectations that we must manage, negotiate, or even against which we must resist or defend ourselves but which nevertheless endow us with scripts that inform our behaviour. This analysis can also be used to understand how we acquire a heterosexual role, how we become heterosexual." (Rinaldi, 2016, p. 189).


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