Social engineering

GoldieBlox have been in the news (by which I mean the blogs) a lot lately because of their Princess Machine video. In case you missed the memo, GoldieBlox do engineering toys for girls, by which they mean a) they’re pink, and b) they’ve got stories, because girls need everything to have a story. Think I’m making this up? I’ll let the founder tell you in her own words on the project’s kickstarter page:

GoldieBlox goes beyond “making it pink” to appeal to girls. I spent a year doing in-depth research into gender differences and child development to create the concept. My big “aha”? Boys have strong spatial skills, which is why they love construction toys so much. Girls, on the other hand, have superior verbal skills. They love reading, stories, and characters.

GoldieBlox is the best of both worlds: reading + building. It appeals to girls because they aren’t just interested in “what” they’re building…they want to know “why.” Goldie’s stories relate to girls’ lives. The machines Goldie builds solve problems and help her friends. As girls read along, they want to be like Goldie and do what she does.

Goldie’s toolkit is inspired by common household objects and craft items — things girls are already familiar with. Plus, the set features soft textures, curved edges and attractive colors which are all innately appealing to girls. Last but not least, the story of Goldie is lighthearted and humorous. It takes the intimidation factor out of engineering and makes it fun and accessible. [my emphases]

So the starting point is still “making it pink” (i.e. reinforcing the message that girls can’t use the real engineering stuff, only the special pink girl versions), but hey, it goes way beyond that … into even more bad science and stereotype. Those differences in spatial abilities may well be cultural rather than biological, but why let that get in the way of a good generalisation? Boys love construction toys. Girls love stories (and “household objects and craft items”). That’s just the way people are! It’s nothing to do with the way society genders these behaviours from before children are even born; it’s just that boys have the meccano gene and girls have the fairytale gene! (If you don’t fit into either category — ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ — then maybe you’re allowed to make your own mind up about this stuff, but there’s no way Goldie’s going to think that far outside the Blox.)

Yes, in some cases there are neurological differences between boys and girls. But in many such cases the differences between boys and girls are far smaller than the differences within either boys or girls (there were lots of good examples of this in Pink Brain, Blue Brain, far better written and better researched than I’m going to manage in a blog post).

And don’t even get me started on the idea that “soft textures, curved edges and attractive colors [...] are all innately appealing to girls”. Since she’s just asserting this without any evidence, I’m going to assert (with just as little evidence to back me up) that all kids would probably like soft textures and attractive colours if given the chance to enjoy them, it’s just that approximately 50% of those kids are told from the minute they’re born that liking soft things and bright colours will make them effeminate and/or gay, and that this is about the worst thing that could happen to them.

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Anyway, I started writing this and then discovered that Shakesville already said all this and all the other things I was going to say, better. So I’m not going to rehash that article any further here; instead I’m just going to point out that girls are clearly already allowed to do engineering because look, pink Meccano:

Photo of Meccano sets available in blue or pink.

The pink car and the blue car knew their place

So boys get a primary-coloured kit for building cars, while girls get a pink-and-purple kit for building sexy cars with eyelashes (and despite the fact that the blue version is the ‘advanced’ one, the pink version is the more expensive). You can argue that girls would never touch the toys “for boys” anyway so giving them pink versions is “better than nothing”, but to my mind covering construction toys in pink, hearts, fluttering eyelashes and Princesses (yes, GoldieBlox does princesses too, despite pretending they’re all anti-princess) is just reinforcing the stereotypes: even if girls want to build cars, they have to do it in a girly way (and they can’t build proper cars anyway, just cartoonishly anthropomorphised cars); they can’t possibly use the same toys as boys, because otherwise people might try to use their Meccano and Lego and so on to build the apparatus required to climb out of the pink and blue boxes.

Dressing up

A few months ago now (OK, this post has sat in drafts for a while) when I came to pick my daughter up from nursery I found her wearing a pink ‘fairy skirt’ (something like a tutu). “Her trousers and her spare trousers both got wet and it was the only thing we could find!” they said cheerfully. Fair enough if true, but I couldn’t help wondering whether they’d’ve miraculously managed to find a clean pair of trousers if she’d been a boy…

“She loves wearing it, she’s been doing little twirls around for us,” they gushed. All well and good – dressing up is fun, twirly skirts are fun. But I wonder how much of it was her own doing and how much was pressure from the nursery staff? They seem generally keen on encouraging her to look in the mirror, play with her hair and so on. “Are you going to wear your pretty skirt at the weekend and show all your friends?” they cooed at her. “Yes!” she said. I sighed inwardly at the thought of the likely battles ahead of me when she insisted on wearing the skirt to bed, or in the bath, or somewhere similarly impractical.

Anyway, we got home with only one mention of the skirt (“[name] is wearing a skirt!” “That’s right, darling”) and she got out of the bike and stomped into the house, pink fairy skirt flouncing behind her. I was just wondering whether to try to interest her in make-believe such as playing at being a fairy or a dancer, since she was wearing the skirt anyway (cue a moment of anxiety as I realised I had no idea what fairies actually do) when she turned to me and announced “[name]‘s skirt is Not Nice. Take it off.” She hasn’t mentioned it since even though it’s been sitting around in plain sight (so that I don’t forget to return it to nursery next week).

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A few days after that she was wearing navy shorts, a blue/grey/orange striped tshirt with a little tiger icon on it, orange/grey striped socks, and her blue trainers. She had a couple of red hairclips in her past-shoulder-length hair, to try to keep it out of her eyes. To me she looked like a little girl wearing normal summer play clothes.

As we walked to the shop, she stopped to try to catch a baby woodlouse (as you do). While she was grubbing around on the pavement and I was absent-mindedly talking to her (“do you think it’s going to play with the other woodlice? Don’t eat the moss, darling, it’ll give you a tummy-ache”) a passer-by stopped to grin at her and say “Ooh, what are you doing down there?”

She was too engrossed in the woodlouse to answer, so I replied on her behalf: “Trying to play with a baby woodlouse,” I said, with a rueful grin. “Ooh, does he like woodlice?” she asked. I didn’t comment on the pronoun but replied “Yeah, she loves all the creepy-crawlies.” (It’s true – she asks to stroke snails, she thinks woodlice are hilarious, she has been known to say “Excuse me, ant” as she walks past an ant, she loves bumble-bees and ladybirds, she’s quite interested in spiders as long as they’re not too close to her.) “Oh, it’s a little girl! Oh, sorry, in shorts and tshirt I couldn’t tell,” said the woman. “No no, that’s fine, they all just look like toddlers at this age,” I smiled. “Oooh, yes, of course, she’s a pretty little girl, I can see now,” she went on. I gritted my teeth. What I wanted to say was some or all of the following:

“Well, yes, I think she’s pretty, but then she’s my daughter, so I’m kind of biased. On the other hand, she looks basically fit and healthy and (unusually) reasonably clean, and those things combined with her blonde hair and blue eyes probably mean that white people are moderately likely to describe her as ‘pretty’. I’d rather people valued her for reasons other than her appearance, but I’ll concede that random passers-by don’t know anything about her except her appearance, though that doesn’t really explain why they think they need to comment on it. She totally doesn’t care if you think she’s a boy — she barely knows what a boy or a girl is. I honestly don’t mind if you think she’s a boy when you see her passing in the street — it doesn’t bother me (though it does annoy me if you make assumptions about what she’ll do/think/be based on your guess/knowledge about her sex). If you ask me if she’s male or female, I’ll tell you; and (for the sake of not confusing her) I’d rather you used female pronouns to refer to her, because that’s what everyone else uses to/about her; but other than that her sex is pretty much irrelevant, and her gender is basically whatever her parents choose to present her as, because she doesn’t really have any concept of gender yet.

“She likes playing with woodlice because they curl up in a ball when you poke them with a blade of grass, and to a two-year-old that’s pretty damned hilarious. You really don’t have to call her ‘pretty’ to make up for thinking she was a boy. I don’t mind if she’s not feminine and I don’t mind if she’s not pretty. I don’t feel the need to balance her attractiveness against her liking creepy-crawlies, because I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, and both of them are orthogonal to her biological sex and her gender.

Basically what I’m saying her is: SHE’S ONLY TWO. Let her get on with her life.”

Of course, I didn’t say any of that, I just smiled vaguely and said to my daughter “Shall we say ‘bye-bye’ to the nice lady now? Are you going to come and help mummy with the shopping?”

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I don’t really have a worked-out conclusion or a neat moral to derive from this. It’s just interesting (and extremely frustrating) to see how much importance people seem to place on clothes. I mean, when my daughter fishes the tiger costume out of the dressing-up box at nursery, people don’t assume she’s going to start attacking gazelles; and really, when you think about it, it’s all just dressing-up.

Eyewash?

This is a bit of an odd one:

Photo of pink and blue screenwash outside Halfords. The more expensive 'advanced' version is pink.

Car wash, yeah!

Spotted outside Halfords: two types of screen wash. The blue one is the default (£3.49) and the pink one is the ‘advanced’ version (£4.49).

Now, I admit I’m already suspicious of Halfords because of their hideously gender-stereotyped kids’ bikes, so maybe I’m reading too much into this, but… when there are two versions of a product, one pink and one blue, everybody knows that the pink one is for girls and the blue one is for boys. Which would mean that the ‘advanced’ screen wash is being targeted at women. And I’d bet, ooh, at least £4.49 that the two screen washes are basically identical but Halfords are hoping to be able to push women towards the advanced one, because (they assume) women don’t know anything about cars and will be more easily persuaded that they need the ‘better’ stuff.

Am I thinking outside the glovebox here? Or just running on empty?

Royal Blues

The papers have been on fire (sadly not literally, despite the heatwave) with speculation about whether The Royal Baby would be a boy or a girl. I’m not going to write at length about the problems with gender binarism or the ridiculous superstitions used to justify the occasional success of guessing the outcome of something that’s more or less a coin toss. You can (and should) read about that stuff yourself. I’m just going to look at some of the colour-coded reactions to the joyful event.

A few days ago it was announced that the fountains of Trafalgar Square [would] be lit in pink or blue, depending on the gender of the newborn. And lo, this came to pass, as the Tower Of London turned blue, the fountain at Trafalgar Square turned blue, and the London Eye turned red, white and blue (this last just to taunt us with the reminder that it’s actually possible to celebrate the birth of a human using other colours). I confess that the idea of blue fountains somehow annoyed me less than pink fountains would have done; I think it’s just because blue is less marked.

The other official celebratory gesture was the announcement that babies born on the same day as the new prince are to receive a silver penny made by the Royal Mint. (The text of the news article doesn’t even have to explain why there are two different colours of pouch for the coins.) You can also buy these coins from the Royal Mint, where they explicitly say pink for girls and blue for boys. The difference in wording for the items is interesting to note, too (all emphases mine):

This special version of the coin comes in a beautiful pink pouch, with a matching pink gift card that can be made even more special with a personalised message. This charmingly presented gift set is an adorable baby gift for a new little girl, and one that she will treasure throughout her life.

The coin comes housed in a drawstring pouch that, in turn, is held in a pleasingly illustrated gift card. Both of these are in the charming pale blue associated with newborn baby boys, making it the perfect birth or christening gift for sons, grandsons, nephews, brothers or any special little boy you know.

The differences are interesting. The description for girls gushes about how it’s beautiful, colour-coordinated, personalised, and adorable, and the focus is on the little girl treasuring the pretty coin; the description for boys picks out the practicality of the bag, the pleasingly illustrated (not ‘beautiful’ or ‘matching’) gift card, and suggests that it’s a birth or christening gift, not an adorable baby gift (that is, more formal and objective language for the boys, more subjective and cutesy for the girls). There’s something odd going on with the way the pink and blue themselves are described/mentioned, too: pink gets mentioned twice and doesn’t have to be explained as being Girl Colour; blue gets mentioned only once, reduced to ‘pale blue’, and referred to with the distancing ‘associated with newborn baby boys’ (only newborn baby boys need a colour, and we’re not doing the associating, it’s just a tradition, you can ignore it if you want).

I’ve mostly tried to stay away from the unofficial royal baby merchandise, for the sake of my blood pressure (NB I will not be answerable for my actions if I see someone wearing a non-slogan along the lines of KEEP CALM AND PRINCE ON), but Matalan got this through my human firewall by the cunning expedient of sending me an email:

Screenshot of the marketing email from Matalan about their Royal Baby merchandise: a range of pink and blue baby clothes.

Well what did you expect

Of course it’s a morass of pastel pink and blue, but the surprising thing is how odd it looks to see baby clothes emblazoned with “little prince”. “Little princess” is ubiquitous on pink baby clothes, but clothes aimed at boys more usually seem to feature words like “hero”, “soldier”, “little man”, or else words glorifying things that would be naughtiness in girls: “little monkey”, “little monster”, etc. I also note that it’s “Mummy’s little prince”: at some point I’d like to do a fuller examination of my observation that in babywear, boys are nearly always “Mummy’s little X” and girls are nearly always “Daddy’s little X”. Is this some kind of weird Oedipus/Electra thing going on?

The really interesting one, though, is the “Born to Rule” babygro, only available in blue (marked ‘while stocks last’ in the marketing email, it already appears to have vanished from Matalan’s website). Perhaps in all the excitement over the new prince they’ve forgotten that for the last 61 years we’ve been ruled by a woman.

Be a bloody train driver

I don’t expect much from Boots, but they managed to disappoint me even further with their own-brand toddler reins:

Photo of toddler reins in Boots.

Rein check

Do I need to break this down? “Train driver”: active, useful, in control; also, you know, an actual thing you could aspire to be or do. “Little cupcake”: passive, pretty, designed to be eaten…? OK, maybe I’m being silly with the last one of those; but really, at best it’s just a nonsense term of endearment. Which is fine, but in that case why not make both say something sweet-but-meaningless like “little darling”? (You just know that if they’d chosen a more direct equivalent for their ‘boy’ version it’d be “little monkey” or “little monster”.)

I ranted about this to my husband when I got home. “She’s not a cupcake or a train driver! She’s just a toddler! She’s a human being!” The human being in question turned and looked quizzically at me. I turned to her and asked “Go on then, what would you rather be? A cupcake or a train driver?” She thought for a second and said “train driver!”

The title of this post, as you probably know, is taken from the excellent cartoons by Jacky Fleming:

Front cover of 'Be a bloody train driver' (cartoons by Jacky Fleming).

Jobs for the girls

I still reckon ‘train driver’ is a better career option than ‘cupcake’, though.

But I think the thing that annoys me most about these designs (as I’ve said before about similar things) is how lazy and irrelevant they are. It’s totally phoned-in. “Yeah, do one pink, one blue, of course, and, I dunno, boys like trains, and girls like cake. I’ll email you some clip-art and a cliché. Will this do?” I could come up with six better suggestions before breakfast. If I was designing reins for toddlers I’d want them to be cheerful, I’d want the designs to suggest movement and freedom (because naturally you don’t want to think that you’re curtailing your child’s movement by using reins, you want to think that you’re helping them learn to roam around safely); perhaps yellow reins with a bee design (“buzzing about”) or a yellow duckling (“quack!”), or red reins with a ladybird (“fly away home”) design, or blue reins with white clouds and the silhouette of a bird (“high flier”?)… That’s just off the top of my head. Pay me and I’ll come up with plenty more.

Of course, part of the problem here is the relentless insistence on making every item of toddler clothing into a declarative statement of (parental aspirational) identity; slogans like “Daddy’s Little Princess” are ghastly for all sorts of reasons, but really, “Mummy’s Little Astronaut” or “Future Prime Minister” would feel just as silly when imposed on someone who’s not yet 3. My general rule of thumb is to avoid using clothes (or anything else) to put words in my daughter’s mouth; but having said that, I am tempted to print tshirts saying “My own little person”. Would you buy one?

Hard to handle

“Introducing the new Brighton range of furniture from Asda. Within the range you’ll find cabinets, chests of drawers, dressing table and wardrobes – all with ‘his and hers’ handles.”

Picture of 'his and hers handles' (football and pink heart) for chests of drawers from Asda.

Pull the other one

The new 4 Drawer Beech effect Chest of Drawers can be customised to suit your child; if he’s a budding footballer you can change the standard handle to a football or if she’s a little sweetheart, you can change it to the adorable heart handle and as they grow older you can change the handle back to the generic grey pull.”

I never thought I’d see a situation where “the generic grey pull” would sound like the best of the available options.

Someday my pinks will come

The blame for the ‘pink princess’ thing can be laid fairly squarely at the door of Disney: back in 1999 they realised there was a way that they could sell more tat to little girls, and the seemingly bottomless Disney Princess franchise was born, peddling a wide range of pink plastic stuff with which to accessorise your clothes, your room, your life.

Not all the Disney Princesses actually wear pink:

The complete lineup of Disney Princesses

Princessant

From left to right: Snow White, Pocahontas, Belle, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Tiana, Aurora, Jasmine, Ariel, and Mulan (who seems to be wearing pink and blue).

Yep, you read that right: more are wearing blue than are wearing pink. Not that you’d know it to look at the Princess merchandise: a Google Images search for Disney Princess toys or Disney Princess accessories is as pink as Barbara Cartland’s bedroom (though one blue Princess bedroom design does sneak in from this page, on which we’re told “While your daughter has a toy, film, books and accessories … nothing will compete to design the ultimate Disney princess bedroom for her to be his upside down quite a bit in.” I think — I hope — it loses in translation.)

But back to the Princesses. Here’s Sleeping Beauty, blending into the background:

Sleeping Beauty and the Prince as they appear in the modern Disney Princess range.

Princess Monochrome

Your child can look like this for just £25 thanks to the Disney Store:

Sleeping Beauty dress from the Disney Store.

A handbag?

“Extend their fancy dress options with this gorgeous Sleeping Beauty gown. They can wear Aurora’s classic pink dress in velour and satin with organza details, costume gems and a hooped skirt.” I’m not sure how it’s extending their fancy dress options — I’d say it’s doing more or less the opposite, to be honest — and I’m fairly sure Sleeping Beauty didn’t have a handbag; but let’s just have a look at that “classic pink dress”. Here’s Sleeping Beauty in an official Disney postcard from 1970:

A 1970 postcard from Disney's Sleeping Beauty, showing Aurora and the witch.

Colour wheel

The colour she’s wearing will come as no surprise to those of you who read my earlier post full of princesses. Here’s a Sleeping Beauty poster, also from 1970:

A poster of Disney's Sleeping Beauty from 1970.

Fairytale pastels

Not only is she wearing blue, but the prince is wearing pink. You could still get away with this as late as 1981, on this Sleeping Beauty book cover:

A 1981 book of Disney's Sleeping Beauty.

Purple reign

But if you look back at the modern version, the colours have been reversed.

Disney do something similar with Mulan: she wears a variety of clothes in the film; the classic image of her shows her wearing green and blue:

Classic picture of Disney's Mulan, wearing blue and green

If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow…

She’s often seen on horseback:

Cover art for an adaptation of Disney's Mulan, showing Mulan on horseback wearing green and blue

Pony girl

She wears armour, for crying out loud:

Disney's Mulan in grey-green armour.

Battle dress

but the costume Disney sell is primarily hot pink (admittedly with some equally lurid electric blue):

Screenshot from Disney Store of girl wearing Mulan costume in hot pink & blue, carrying balloons.

China girl?

And why the balloons? A toy bow and arrows would surely be more appropriate.

Amidst all this pinkification of Disney’s princesses, though, I derive a crumb of hope from the fact that Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother is allowed to a) wear blue, and b) be old (even rarer than non-pink among Disney heroines) even in the more recent two straight-to-video sequels:

The Fairy Godmother from Cinderella, an old lady in a blue cloak with a pink bow and pink detail inside the sleeves.

Bibbidi-bobbidi-blue

Maybe there is still a chance for her to wave her magic wand and restore the colour balance so the rainbow will come smiling through.