I’m gonna check your ears, check your eyes, find out how much you’ve grown…
Time for a checkup!
Then I listen to your heart beat, fix you up, ready to go…
Time for a checkup!
My three-year-old granddaughter is enamored with Doc McStuffins, an animated television show featuring a six-year-old African-American girl, Dottie, who wants to be a doctor like her mother. When “Doc” puts on her stethoscope the toys around her come to life, and she gives them check-ups and treats their illnesses (broken springs, missing stuffing, etc.) One thing that has impressed me about the show (aside from the catchy music that our whole family has been humming) is its potential to influence children’s ideas about doctors.
Traditional Engendered Paradigms
Doctors have traditionally been thought of as unemotional, objective, authoritative, and paternalistic (the doctor knows best!). While these characteristics have often been more commonly associated with men in our society, the conditioning of medical school with its emphasis on the disease-centered “medical model” pretty much ensured that those who survived the experience would come out with this style of practice, regardless of gender.
By contrast, nurses have traditionally been thought of as caring, subjective, subordinate in role, and maternalistic (let me fix your pillow!). These are characteristics that have been more commonly associated with women in our society, and the conditioning of American nursing school with its focus on the patient-centered “caring model” encouraged this style of practice, regardless of gender.
Having been a hospital nurse for 17 years I could tell you a few stories about sexism and stereotypes for doctors and nurses – like the time in the 1980s when I “politely suggested” that a doctor might have ordered the wrong (and dangerous) dose of medication; a suggestion met with a rant that started “you think that just because you wear a bra…” and ended with a bra-snapping when I turned my back to leave the nurses’ station. In some ways women really HAVE come a long way!
But I’ll resist the urge and get to my point…which is that these engendered paradigms of what it means to be a doctor or a nurse are no longer operating today (no pun intended!).
What’s Changing in Practice
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but traditional views of doctors and nurses are changing.
The field of medicine now acknowledges the personhood of the patient as central to the success of any treatment plan, and doctors are being trained to be more patient-focused in their daily practice. At the same time, nursing care has become more technical and nurses are being trained in research methods to carry out evidence-based practice.
Yet something of our engendered stereotypes lingers, especially with those of us who are older. When we hear the word “doctor” many of us still picture a man, and when we hear the word “nurse” many of us still picture a woman.
Enter Doc McStuffins. Children who grow up watching the Doc and her mother will have a different paradigm for what a doctor is than those of previous generations, one not burdened with so many gender and cultural expectations¹. Others have written on this site here, here, and here about gender stereotypes and how they change over time, so I won’t belabor the point.
I think this ingenious show has a few things to teach those of us looking to change traditional paradigms in the evangelical church. As we continue to move towards the full inclusion of women in leadership, here are three things I think we can learn from Doc McStuffins about how to get there.
1. Revisit our assumptions about leadership and gender
Many old-school leadership models are similar to the old-school medical practice model. For example, at one time women were thought to be too emotional, too subjective, or just not smart enough to conquer the rigors of medical school², but those are no longer commonly held assumptions. Today my husband and I both see women doctors who far exceed our expectations of a competent practitioner.
Similarly, effective leadership has traditionally been perceived as authoritative, directive, and objective, and so was assumed to be the natural domain of men. But as I noted in a previous post, research now shows that the more collegial and collaborative style of leadership that women leaders often employ (whether they come by it naturally or learn it through social conditioning) is helpful, even necessary, in moving organizations forward today.
2. Reconsider how and what we’re teaching children about gender
In terms of “how”, exposure to same-sex role models is an important factor in encouraging women to develop their leadership gifts, just as it is for men. A recent study found that something as simple as seeing images of female role models at the back of the room while giving a speech improved the quality of a woman’s presentation and increased her confidence. Making sure women have a noticeable presence in churches and parachurch ministries is important if we want to develop a pipeline of gifted women to serve in leadership positions.
In terms of “what” we’re teaching, there is an old saying that behavior is “caught and not taught”, but that’s not completely true. Yes, children need to see us model just and balanced gender relationships. But they also need to be taught kingdom values with regard to gender. I think the church can be more intentional about communicating a biblical egalitarian vision in programs like Sunday School and VBS. As a starting point, leaders and parents need to be aware of what is being taught and the messages children are hearing. It might be necessary to supplement standard curriculum with outside materials, or to bring resources into your home that feature women in the Bible in positive ways.
3. Recognize our need for a deeper theology of women
I believe that one reason the church has been slow to give up faulty paradigms about God’s purposes for men and women is that our theology of women and gender relationships is underdeveloped. Those of us who hold to an egalitarian position need to strengthen our “apologetic” for the full inclusion of women and for shared authority in the church, and to articulate that on a regular basis within our communities of faith. If we don’t, you can be sure that people will fill in the gaps with messages from other sources that may communicate a more hierarchical set of values.
Moving towards a deeper theology of women to supplement what we already know about men will give us a more complete vision of spiritual health in the same way that the medical model and the caring model together give us a more complete vision for physical and emotional health.
Like Doc McStuffins, Jesus was a paradigm shifter.
Jesus understood the limitations of categorizing people by their gender, class, and race and took every opportunity to turn unjust paradigms upside down. He included women in his band of disciples and often encouraged them to step outside the boundaries of traditional gender roles for the sake of the gospel.
Are we willing to do the same today?
¹While our focus at The Junia Project is on gender, it needs to be said that the implications of Doc being African-American are just as significant as her being a girl.
²Friends who’ve been through medical school have told us the men have a big advantage when it comes to school success, but it has nothing to do with intellectual capacity or emotional makeup. It has to do with being married! Most of the men students are married, and their wives take care of laundry, meal preparation, childcare, housekeeping chores, finances, etc. The women students are more likely to be single or to not have a spouse who supports them in these ways.
Click here to learn more about the history and vision of the woman who created Doc McStuffins.
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