If you asked me to name a shoe shop, Clarks would be the first that came to mind. As a kid most of my school shoes came from Clarks; as an adult, I keep going back there for smart but sensible, colourful but comfortable shoes. So now I’m thinking about shoes for my baby daughter, of course I thought of Clarks… which made this display all the more disappointing:
“Because girls love comfort and style, we design both into our shoes.” Comfort and style don’t sound too bad (though if I’m trying to buy shoes for my toddler, comfort is far more important than style)… but check out the colours of the girls’ shoes (you don’t need me to tell you that they’re the ones on the left of the cabinet): you’ve got a choice of pink, purple or white. That is: the ubiquitous pink; something that’s really fairly similar to pink; and something completely impractical for actually walking around outside.
You can guess what’s coming next, can’t you?
“Because boys test their shoes to destruction, so do we.” The colours back this up: they’re blue, brown, and black. Practical colours, colours that don’t immediately show every scuff or muddy mark.
As a woman I’m immediately furious at the implication that girls aren’t expected to do anything except look pretty in their shoes (but hey, we’re allowed to be comfortable too! That’s progress!) — but the implication that boys don’t (or shouldn’t) don’t care about comfort or style is stupidly limiting too. Toughen them up, it says: big boys don’t cry if their shoes hurt them; and presumably a boy who cared about style would just be beyond the pale (pastel colours).
The maddening thing is that if you look at the “first shoes” more closely, many of them are clearly exactly the same except for the colour. Take a look at “Lucy Girl” and “Little Jono” below on this screenshot from the Clarks website:
Otherwise, the main difference seems to be that boys get two velcro straps (more stability) while girls get one (more style, I guess?). I will also note that even in the names of the shoes, girls get “Chic” while boys get “Saurus”, and girls get “Raspberry” while boys get “Blue” — see previous post for more about colour naming.
But are the boys’ shoes really stronger, more “test[ed] to destruction” than the girls’? If I seriously believed the marketing, I’d be worried about this; I was tempted to email them, all innocence, and ask. Fortunately, my husband couldn’t resist the temptation:
I’m the father of a 9 month old girl and I’m beginning to think about
her first shoes. I went into my local Clarks shop to see what was
available and I saw the following messages on the wall of the kids’
“Because girls love comfort and style, we design both into our shoes.”
“Because boys test their shoes to destruction, so do we.”
Now I’m worried: I’d like my daughter to play outdoors without her
comfortable and stylish shoes falling apart!
Please can you reassure me that Clarks’ girls’ shoes will stand up to
ordinary childhood play? Or should I ask my daughter to sit down and
stay inside with her fashion dolls?
Amazingly, Clarks actually replied (the garbled first sentence is their mistake, not mine):
“Thank you for taking the time to contact us, I was sorry to learn you
disappointed with the
In view of your concerns I have contacted our Children’s department,
they have advised me that all of our children’s shoes, irrespective of
whether they are boy’s or girl’s, are rigorously tested and they will
be equally durable for both boys and girls.
The messages you saw in store are just about artistic licence and
picking an attribute of a product to market.
We’re always looking for ways to improve the service we give to our
customers. Your feedback has given us the chance to do this, so thank
you once again for contacting us and I’m sorry we have not met your
expectations on this occasion.”
Of course, they’ve kind of missed the point; but equally, from their point of view, it’s “just” about marketing. This is what many people say when they hear me banging on about these issues: what’s the big deal? It’s just an advert. The products are the same: it’s just how they display them. You can make your own mind up. And indeed, one company doing this isn’t a big deal; but when it’s part of the constant corrosive drip, drip, drip of messages telling girls that their role in life is to be pretty and passive while boys get to be active (or indeed, from the other point of view, telling boys that they have to be bold and brave and boisterous but they mustn’t care about their looks or comfort) … then it’s part of the problem.
The other thing people tend to say is “Well, what would you say about boys’ shoes and girls’ shoes that would pass your ridiculous criteria for not being sexist?” Here’s a radical idea: don’t divide them into boys’ shoes and girls’ shoes at all. Boys’ and girls’ feet aren’t that different (and even if they were, you could sell the same design of shoes in “boy” and “girl” shapes, just as you sell them in different sizes).
Imagine that display filled with shoes of all colours: from sober and sensible neutrals, to delicate pastels, to vibrant primary colours. The slogans on either side say:
“Because your kids test their shoes to destruction, so do we.”
“Because your kids care about comfort and style, so do we.”
Would changing the Clarks display make a difference? No. But if the people responsible for thinking about the marketing were encouraged (or even forced by law) to work along those lines, and if the parents weren’t content just to sit back and consume as if marketing was an elemental force of nature that couldn’t be guided, tamed or curtailed…. then perhaps, slowly, things would change. Otherwise, if you want a picture of the future, imagine a blue destruction-tested bootie stamping on a little girl’s face — forever.