With all due respect to Love Island and Big Brother, no British reality TV show gives better insight into human behaviour than Channel 4's The Secret Life of 5-Year-Olds. Turns out, the interior lives of baby-faced guinea pigs thrust into various social experiments make for oddly compelling telly. Sometimes their uncensored reactions are adorable; sometimes they're alarming. Either way, it's always fascinating.
Now there's one more reason to tune in. Today the series will be airing a special all-girls episode to mark 100 years of women's suffrage. The challenge: To see how 2018 kiddos view traditional gender constructs, interact in a no-boys-allowed environment, and assert themselves when faced with inequality. Will it be all girl power and sister solidarity, or tantrums and tears?
Honestly, it's a little bit of both. As viewers will see tonight, the episode's biggest conflicts stem less from personality clashes between the self-described "tomboys" and "girly girls"; they're more triggered by social scenarios that result in an overwhelming sense of injustice, betrayal, and unfairness. (Ladies, we feel your pain. Just wait 'til you learn about the BBC pay scandal.)
Much of the show is devoted to confronting gender stereotypes. When the girls are invited to play in a toy beauty salon, most of them make a beeline for the plastic hair straighteners. Two girls object, however: proud tomboy Jet, and independent-minded Adunni. They break from the salon crowd and turn their attention to a Stretch Armstrong doll. As resident clinical psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Kilbey notes, they're alienated because of their lack of interest in stereotypically "girly" activities. Jet admits that she struggles to make friends with girls, and she and Adunni bellow in unison: “We like boys more than girls!"
But the first major meltdown doesn't occur until the voting experiment. To give them a taste of the pre-suffrage restrictions women were subjected to, the show's teachers let only half the group cast a vote for which game they'll play next. A girl who's been left out is stricken, and begins sobbing. Not surprisingly, it doesn't feel nice to be excluded. (By contrast, Eva, a fan favourite from past shows for her feminist views, gives a shockingly sound lecture on the last general election, then starts to cry because she doesn't want to vote. Election fatigue happens to the best of us.)
Tears also flow when a marble game is introduced; the girls are each given a jar of coloured marbles and are invited to share them, all the while being reminded that only the girl with the most marbles will win the game. Almost instantly, two girls who had just declared themselves brand-new best friends are now at each other's throats because one won't share. It feels like a scene out of Mean Girls, but also raises a lot of interesting points about how women are conditioned to play nice and not rock the boat; when we don't, or express ambition or a competitive streak, we're called out.
The situation also illustrates just how emotionally taxing inequality can be, whether it's equal marbles or equal pay. It's striking how aware these young girls — not long out of learning their ABCs — are of power imbalances. Saoirse remarks that men have had the vote since "before Christ", while Eva dreams of being a superhero who could "change the fact that men are paid more than women".
There is hope. By episode's end, the girls — who have been dazzled by a female space scientist — are sporting superhero costumes and talking about one day becoming vets, inventors and paramedics. They've also found common ground. Tomboy Jet, outfitted in a police officer's uniform, is enlisted to "have a date" with Miylah, a curly-haired moppet with a romantic streak. Darcy, who attributes girlhood to "wearing unicorns and fairy clothes" is happily running around a pirate ship playscape.
Ultimately, the special is evidence that little girls wrestle with many of the same societal pressures that big girls do: how to subvert gendered stereotypes, how to be defined by your individuality rather than your sex, how to toe the lines between people-pleaser and pushover and power player and pariah, and how to keep pushing for progress.
To quote little Darcy, "it's difficult being a girl". It certainly is — but maybe dialogues like this will help make it easier?
The Secret Life of 5-Year-Olds: All Girls airs this Tuesday on Channel 4 at 8pm.