Little people, big shame

Sorry about the long break — I just wish I could tell you that it was because I’d been completely unable to find any awful examples of the pink/blue ‘colour bar’ in kids’ stuff. Sadly the truth is quite the reverse: there seems to be more of this crap every day, it gets demoralising, and I run out of new things to say about it. But I still think the thing I’m saying — over and over again — is worth saying; so here we go, diving into the two-tone torrent once more.

Not sure if this is a new development or if I’d just missed it before, but on a recent trip to the toy shop Playmobil are (now?) segregating their minifigs by gender:

Display of bags of Playmobil minifigs

Not my bag

These pictures show more clearly what figures are actually in each set:

All the minifigs in Playmobil Series 5 (5460).

In the blue corner…

Blue set (names as listed on miniaturetrading.com): Samurai, Ninja, Miner, Mechanic, Spaceman, Police, Viking, Space Hero, Blue Knight, Bandit, Yellow Alien, Snowboarder.

All the minifigs in Playmobil Series 5 (5461).

… and in the pink corner.

Pink set (names as listed on miniaturetrading.com): Green Bride, Indian, Asian Woman, She Elf, Women’s Tennis, Violinist, Skating, Medieval Lady, Runner, Siren, Hairdresser, Yellow Fairy.

It’s pretty much what you’d expect (at least if you’ve been looking at this stuff for as long as I have): all of the male roles except ‘Yellow Alien’ are active, related to what they do; 7 out of 12 of the female roles are just about being female (with an added layer of racial/cultural stereotype on top of that for some of them).

For me, though, the really depressing thing about this (apart from the fact that Playmobil, like Lego, used to do cheerful smiling minifigs with no obvious gender cues) is that while on the surface the pink/blue colour-coding just denotes the gender of the figure in the bag (in case that’s the main thing you care about for your play figures — remember you can’t choose a specific character), it’s quite clear if you look around the rest of the toyshop that the colour-coding always denotes who the toy is for. So in this case the message is clear: girls play with figures of girls, boys play with figures of boys, and never the twain shall meet.

This makes me particularly angry at the moment because my daughter (age 3) has recently started saying things like “we didn’t want to play with [name] because he’s a boy”, and “I don’t like George [Pig] because he’s a boy” (I think she’s partly just parroting a good friend of hers who comes out with stuff like this all the time). Most of her friends are girls, and that’s partly just accident (the friends of mine who had kids around the same time all have girls; girls vastly outnumber boys in her class at nursery) but when she says things like this I cry a little inside. Sometimes I ask her if she can tell me why she doesn’t want to play with boys, and sometimes I gently remind her that Daddy’s a boy, and her friend [name] at nursery is a boy, and they’re fun to play with aren’t they? I don’t know how much difference it makes: I’m swimming against the tide. But given that she’s apparently already got people telling her that girls don’t play with boys, I could really do without a multi-million-pound industry pushing her to believe that she’s not even meant to act out make-believe stories with boy characters in them.

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.

*

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).

*

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?”

*

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.