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.

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?

Start-wrong

Now that little Bobbin has finally got the hang of walking, we all toddled off to our local independent shoe shop to buy her some proper shoes: we wanted to support local businesses, we thought we’d have better choice in a non-chain shop, and we wanted to get the shoes properly fitted rather than trying to shop online. The staff were very helpful and friendly, and amazingly patient when Bobbin decided that the foot-measuring gauge was TERRIFYING and OH NOES WHY ARE YOU PUTTING MY FOOT IN A THING; the shop assistant even measured Teddy’s feet first so Bobbin could see that the gauge wasn’t going to cut her feet off or anything (we eventually managed to determine that she was a 3½G). So far, so good.

Unfortunately, the shop in question seems to stock only Start-Rite (at least for ‘first shoes’), who are very much in the pink-for-girls-and-blue-for-boys mould; the shoes we were offered for my daughter (dressed at the time in navy denim trousers and a green flowery top) gave us a choice of pink suedette moccassin-style shoes, purpley-pink mary-janes with pink flowers, or black mary-janes with little pink hearts. All very pretty, and two of the three pairs fit nicely, but… suede? Who gives a toddler suede shoes? And the mary-janes both had buckles which looked frankly flimsy: I didn’t rate their chances in the hands of a marauding monster who can shred the Guardian into ribbons in the time it takes me to drink half a cup of tepid coffee.

“They’re all a bit… pink?” I said, rather awkwardly, not wanting to be fussy after they’d been so helpful. “She doesn’t tend to wear much pink, to be honest.” The shop assistant looked a bit confused.

“Do you think perhaps we could see the boys’ shoes too?” asked my husband. “Oh! Er… yeah,” said the shop assistant, looking even more confused. She went away and came back with a pair of sturdy navy-blue shoes with a bit of red detail, and a pair of sturdy navy blue shoes with a bit of red and lighter-blue detail (ringing the changes there). It seems the boys have just as little choice, but in a different direction. Anyway, we tried them on; Bobbin seemed just as happy in navy-blue as she did in pink (to be fair, she almost certainly doesn’t care either way), clumping cheerfully up and down the shop floor; we established that there wasn’t a significant price difference, and eventually went for the plainer navy-blue pair:

Picture of my daughter's first shoes (bought from Start-Rite's range 'for boys'), sturdy navy-blue shoes with red detail.

Elmer shown for scale.

Do they look like “boys’ shoes”? Yes, but only because we now have such a ridiculously polarised idea of what “girls’ shoes” and “boys’ shoes” can look like. Here’s a selection of Start-Rite’s offerings, from their website. You don’t need me to tell you which set is allocated to which gender:

Screenshot of a grid of shoes 'for boys' from Start-Rite's website; all are brown or blue-and-red.

Shoes will be shoes

Screenshot of grid of shoes 'for girls' from Start-Rite's website. All are pink, red, or black with pink detail.

Shoes and spice and all things nice

Let’s see what they say about their shoes:

Once your little boy starts walking confidently, Start-rite has a wide range of first walking shoes in a choice of styles and colours. Start-rite shoes give protection and support and are available in whole and half sizes with different width fittings for your little boys first steps and beyond.

Our girls’ shoe collection comes in a beautiful choice of styles, colours, sizes and width fittings. All girls footwear is designed to look pretty and feel great, whatever the weather brings, for all kinds of activity. From girls pre-walker shoes to girls school shoes, out-of-school, trainers and wellies, there are Start-rite girls shoes and boots to suit every little princess.

So your boy will walk “confidently” and the shoes will give him “protection and support” (in all those rough-and-tumble things he does), while your girl (sorry, your “little princess”) will “look pretty and feel great”, and the shoes will “suit” her. (Admittedly the girls are allowed to do “all kinds of activity”, so long as they look attractive while they’re doing it.)

My daughter is not a princess. She’s a normal toddler — I would say “a normal little girl”, but her sex and/or gender really doesn’t enter into it. The things that are important in her life at the moment are: mummy; daddy; her grandparents; milk; biscuits; bananas; going on the swings and the slide; and obsessively watching and re-watching Bagpuss and Peppa Pig DVDs. Looking pretty isn’t even on her radar. To be honest, “feeling great” isn’t something she’s consciously pursuing. Owning and wearing clothes that make her look attractive (to whom?) isn’t going to make her feel “great”; as far as I can tell she’s more or less indifferent to clothes unless they’re uncomfortable (e.g. some of her bibs with velcro at the back seem to scratch her neck, and she takes them off as soon as she can) or they have something exciting like LIONS (grr!) or TIGERS (grr!) or DOGS (bow wow wow!) or CATS (meow!) printed on them.

Am I weird for being more concerned about her comfort and happiness than about her looks? If so … well, fortunately, I’m also more concerned about her comfort and happiness than I am about my weirdness. I can live with being weird.

A change of gear

Thanks to the Pink Stinks Twitter feed I was alerted to a great blog post about Raleigh bikes. I too have fond memories of Raleigh bikes and I was horrified to see how gender-stereotyped they’ve become.

For what it’s worth, my current (grown-up!) bike is a Raleigh Volatile: it’s what you might think of as a “girl’s bike” (that is, it has a step-through frame), but it’s not pink. It’s turquoise, with yellow and black writing. OK, it’s actually currently mud-coloured, with added mud, but that’s because I cycle in all weathers and I’m lazy about cleaning it. I prefer a step-through frame not so much because I wear skirts (my chainguard has long since fallen off so I tend to avoid skirts or flappy trousers when cycling anyway) but just because it makes it generally easier to get on and off the bike (particularly as I have a basket on the back, so the running-and-jumping-and-swinging-a-leg-over mount is more or less impossible).

But I digress. After reading the Raleigh post, I decided to have a look at some other sites for children’s bikes, to see how widespread the problem was. I started with Halfords; while I wouldn’t start with them for buying a bike, they’re big and fairly popular.

First thing I noticed is that on the website there’s no way to look at kids’ bikes without selecting “boys” or “girls”. The next thing I noticed was the names; admittedly they’re not Halfords’ fault (though they do decide which brands to stock and how to classify them), but good grief, they’re like some kind of crazy parody of masculinity and femininity. I’ve included every brand in the list rather than just selecting the ones that support my point (trust me, I don’t need to do that!):

Boys: Trax, Apollo Stinger, Apollo Firechief, Apollo Force, Apollo Urchin, Apollo Moonman, Thomas and Friends, Apollo Gradient, Apollo Stunt King, Raleigh Micro X, Ben 10 Alien Force, Marvel Heroes, Raleigh GI, Raleigh Striker, Hood V4, Disney Cars, Ben 10 Ultimate Alien, Apollo Switch, Apollo Ace, Spiderman, Apollo Spider, Apollo Spektor, Raleigh Mini X, Hood Alley, Carrera Blast, Apollo Stomp, Apollo Sandstorm, Diamondback, Apollo Crank, Apollo Ridge, Triumph Daytona, Triumph Dakota, Carrera Detonate, Max DJ20 Boys Dirt Jump Bike, Raleigh Zero, Diamondback Octane, MAX Hornet, Raleigh Chopper, Raleigh Velocity.

Girls: Trax, Apollo Honeybee, Apollo Sweetpea, High School Musical, Apollo Sparkle, Apollo Sweetie, Angelina Ballerina, Apollo Daisychain, Ben & Holly, Raleigh Molly, Apollo Popstar, Disney Princess, Hello Kitty, Moxie Girlz, Apollo Ivory, Raleigh Me to You, Raleigh Micro Miss, Apollo Star, Apollo Kinx, Apollo Charm Cruiser, Disney Minnie Mouse, Apollo Moonstone, Diamondback Senorita, Raleigh Mini Miss, Carrera Luna, Apollo Vivid, Apollo Oceana, Apollo Pure, Apollo Tropic, Apollo Krypt, Apollo Craze, Triumph Roma, Triumph Milano, Raleigh Diva, Raleigh AT10.

So far, so depressing. But it gets worse; spot the subtle differences in what looks like boilerplate text:


BOYS BIKES AT HALFORDS

The range of boys bikes available at Halfords.com is second to none. With such a great range of designs and sizes in our collection, there’s bound to be a bike to delight any young lad, whatever type of cycling they’re into.

If you’re buying a first bike for your child, we have some great small bikes featuring popular characters from your children’s favourite movies, cartoons and TV shows.

But if your kid enjoys exploring or doing tricks, then take a look at our top-of-the-range boys mountain bikes and BMX bikes from brands like Vibe, Apollo, Raleigh and Trax.

Boys bicycles, like all kids bikes, can be reserved and collected in-store. Here they can be built by a bike technician free of charge (excludes Trax bikes) – so you can have peace of mind that your boys bike is safe and comfy to ride.


GIRLS BIKES AT HALFORDS

We have a fabulous range of girls bikes available at Halfords.com, with a huge variety of designs and sizes to choose from. Our kids bikes feature loads of funky colours and popular characters, so you’re sure to find one that your little girl will love.
From balance bikes for beginners, up to girls mountain bikes for the more adventurous, our range includes everything a young girl could need to get into cycling.

We’ve even got a great collection of kids bike accessories that match our girls bikes – ideal for budding fashionistas. We’ll fit these free of charge if you buy them at the same time as your bike.

If you’re unsure which type of bike to choose, you can use our kids bikes buyer’s guide, or pop in and chat to our store staff. Girls bicycles can be reserved and collected in-store or delivered to your home if you want to hide it away as a present.


Boys are expected to be “exploring or doing tricks”. For girls, on the other hand, they emphasise “balance bikes for beginners”, and only the “more adventurous” girls get to try a mountain bike (tricks or stunts are totally off the agenda).

Boys are expected to be already “into” cycling (“whatever type of cycling they’re into”), whereas girls will need more persuasion (“our range includes everything a young girl could need to get into cycling” [my emphasis]).

Boys get “top-of-the-range” bikes which can be “built by a bike technician”. Girls get “accessories” which are “ideal for budding fashionistas”.

And finally, only the text about girls’ bikes includes this last paragraph: “If you’re unsure which type of bike to choose, you can use our kids bikes buyer’s guide, or pop in and chat to our store staff. Girls bicycles can be reserved and collected in-store or delivered to your home if you want to hide it away as a present.” Are girls expected to be more unsure? Is it assumed that it’ll be the girls’ mothers (who are doubtless assumed to be less technical) who will be buying girls’ bikes, whereas boys’ bikes will be bought by their dads? Is it just coincidence that the text for girls’ bikes emphasises shopping (“buyer’s guide”), chatting (“chat to our store staff”), secrets and gifts (“if you want to hide it away as a present”) rather than the sort of physical activity that you might expect to associate with kids’ bikes?

Of course, it’s not just Halfords. A quick look around suggests that the problem is fairly widespread. Here’s another example, this time from Cycle Centre — check out the brand names again, and note the tassels and doll-carriers on most of the pink bikes:

Screenshot from cyclecentreuk.co.uk showing kids' bikes with girls' all pink.

Different spokes for different folks

I looked round a few more sites but I was soon weary of seeing the same thing over and over again. Fortunately, before I began to despair, I stumbled across Islabikes. As I said in the previous post, it’s important to acknowledge that some people are getting it right; Islabikes is definitely one of those! Their bikes are designed for children, and their mission statement doesn’t mention “boys” or “girls” (or even “mums” or “dads”) once. Instead it just talks about kids, “cycling families”, and bikes, including sensible statements like this:

All bikes have child specific frame geometry and a full set of proportional components, including brakes that can be operated safely with small hands. Gear ratios are carefully selected to suit the age of the child. Each bike can be customised at the point of purchase with tyres that exactly suit the intended use – you can also have a set of full mudguards and a carrier. This way each bike can be used for mountain biking and cyclo cross, as a track racing machine at your local track league, for going to school, touring holidays or days out exploring with the family.

This focuses on the fun activities for which you — whatever your gender — might want to use your bike, rather than the image you might want to project while you’re doing it. The pictures show happy, active, mop-haired children who could easily be girls or boys. The bikes (just “bikes”, not “boys’ bikes” and “girls’ bikes”!) are mostly available in red, blue and purple. Some of the helmets are available in pink (which is fine — pink is just a colour), but they have the same brand name (“Rascal”, “Flume”) whatever colour they come in. The site sensibly acknowledges that the look of the helmet does matter to kids (“kids will not wear something they consider uncool. The childish designs on many kid’s helmets go out of favour at around 5 years old and children then prefer something more adult looking”) but they don’t try to tell you what sort of helmet your child will or should prefer; instead they focus on the safety aspects of the helmets, the design and fit.

Amid the sea of gender-stereotyped nonsense it’s refreshing to see something so cheerfully sensible, unstereotyped, unpatronizing, and focused on quality. When my daughter starts asking for her own bike, I may well be (to quote Halfords) “unsure of which bike to choose”, but I know where I’m more likely to go for advice.

Two foot nothing

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:

Photo of 'girls' display in Clarks children's shoes section

Shoe-gar and spice

“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?

Photo of 'boys' display in Clarks children's shoes section

Slugs and hobnails

“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:

Screenshot of 'First shoes' landing page from clarks.co.uk, showing boys' and girls' shoes

These booties were made for walking

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:

“Hello,

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’
section:

“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?

Thank you!”

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.