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.

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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.

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?

Over the rainbow

A Guardian article a few weeks ago about a teenager transitioning from female to male prompted me to try to dig a bit deeper than my usual off-the-cuff mockery of tiresome pink-box-blue-box marketing. (Today seems an appropriate day to post it, as it’s a topic that often causes fireworks…) Here’s the first paragraph of the article:

Should we have known? With hindsight there were plenty of clues. Katie had always been something of a tomboy – never a “girly” girl and most definitely not a Barbie girl – and we had begun to suspect that there was a possibility that, as adolescence progressed, she might turn out to be attracted to women rather than men. After all, my side of the family had previous form in this respect, so it crossed our minds and we did joke about it.

There’s so much confusion of sex/gender/sexuality here that I hardly know where to start, but I’ll try to pick it apart a bit.

First, have a think about the women you know. Do they all dress in sparkly pink fairy costumes and enjoy making cupcakes? Sure, some of them may do (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but all of them? I’d be surprised. Now, why should all female children be expected to behave like that? Not all girls are “girly”. Not all women are hyper-feminine “Barbie girls” (and of course no real woman has Barbie’s figure). This shouldn’t come as a shock to anybody who has actually met other human beings.

Second, how sad that a girl gets labelled as a “tomboy” if she doesn’t conform to some peculiar 1950s/Disney stereotype of extreme femininity. We already have a word for active, boisterous girls: it’s “girl”. The word “tomboy” is a bit problematic, really; a lot of people actually see it as quite a positive thing (hey, she’s active, confident, not bound by gender stereotype) without realising that the word is reinforcing the idea that these behaviours are “boy” behaviours — that if a girl is confident and active, she’s acting like a boy rather than acting like a confident, active girl. I’m certainly not saying that everybody who uses the word “tomboy” thinks this, or is deliberately reinforcing the stereotype; it’s just worth considering the connotations. (Someone else makes this point much better.)

Third, even if we accepted for the purposes of argument that there are totally different, non-overlapping modes of dress/behaviour for girls and boys, clothes do not make you gay. I’m not going to say “dress/behaviour has nothing to do with sexuality” because obviously it’s a lot more complicated than that: different clothes and behaviours do act as signals of gender and hence of default sexuality; people’s sexual/social choices can be affected by their personal perception of their gender, and conversely people can and do choose to project aspects of their sexuality by their choice of dress/behaviour, and there are all sorts of other complicated interplays of physical/social/cultural/sexual identity and desire that I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of here. We don’t exist in a socio-cultural vacuum, these things are all signifiers, and it would be naive to claim that a dress is absolutely and always “just a dress”. But honestly, wearing trousers and climbing trees will not turn your daughter into a lesbian. (Taking this nonsense to its logical conclusion, if a pair of trousers had the magical powers to make a girl into a boy, why shouldn’t they make her into a gay boy? Gay boys wear trousers too!) It’s as if people find it more comprehensible that gay people are the opposite sex at some mysterious level than that they are attracted to the same sex. Don’t even ask me where bisexuals are supposed to come into this worldview.

By even going down the route of explaining that clothes don’t make you gay, though, I feel that I’m tacitly endorsing homophobia. If wearing trousers did turn girls into lesbians, or wearing pink made boys gay… so what? Would it be so terrible if your child was gay? One common response to this is “Oh I wouldn’t mind for myself but they’d get so much discrimination and I want to spare them that.” When I hear that response from parents I’m happy to assume good faith, to assume that it’s genuinely coming from a place of love, but… you want to protect your child from other people’s homophobia by perpetuating the idea that gayness is something terrible to be avoided at all costs? Just think that through for a moment.

And then, of course, “we did joke about it”. I bet that helped a lot, if the teenager in question was also wrestling with their sexuality, and the jokes were all revolving around the sorts of prejudices already unpacked above. (Yes, I know, joking and joshing within families can be loving and affectionate, can strengthen family ties, and so on — my immediate family have a long and happy history of mercilessly mocking each other — but teasing teenagers about sensitive subjects like sexuality is a risky business. Mind you, at the other end of the scale, my parents barely mentioned sexuality — in retrospect, I realise, because they genuinely weren’t fussed about whether I turned out to love boys or girls or dancing bears — and I interpreted that silence as fear or disapproval, and consequently felt I couldn’t discuss it with them. I guess the take-home message here is that parents of teenagers probably can’t win…)

I should make it clear that I am absolutely not claiming that the teenager in the article wouldn’t have wanted to transition if they hadn’t felt the strong arm of the gender police; I don’t know the details of their specific case (beyond what’s in the article), and I don’t know what causes gender dysphoria any more than I know what causes people to develop one sexuality or another (the jury is still out — or should that be still closeted?). But it makes it desperately hard to think clearly about the questions and choices involved (on a personal or general level) if you’re stranded in the middle of a sea of unexamined stereotypes; if everybody is expected to be pink or blue, what do you do when you find that you are (or your child is) orange or purple or green?

Edited to add: I have tried not to mis-gender the teenager in the article; one person has already pointed out some errors, which I believe I’ve fixed. Please note that by using the article as a jumping-off point for talking about society’s reaction to people they believe to be girls, I don’t mean to imply that Ben is female. However I realise now that to say “Katie/Ben” was incorrect and impolite, so I’ve changed it to something which is hopefully more acceptable. If there are other errors then please forgive me (and feel free to point them out); they’re a result of ignorance (which I hope can be corrected) rather than dismissiveness or dislike.

Food for thought

These kids’ lunch bags (spotted in Poundland a few weeks ago) nearly made me lose my lunch:

Photo of pink and blue lunchbags for kids, with blue showing 'cheeky monkey' and pink showing 'greedy piggy'

Blue legs good, pink legs bad

Yes, the blue one says “cheeky monkey” and the pink one says “greedy piggy”. Assuming that girls will tend to go for the pink one and boys will tend to go for the blue one (because they know that’s the socially “correct” choice), girls have no option but to be told every time they eat lunch that they are “greedy”. And we wonder why girls as young as 3 are already developing issues around eating.

In order to brainwash girls with these negative messages about food and body-image as soon as they’re old enough to understand them, though, we’ve got to make sure that they’re conditioned to go for the pink stuff long before that, so that the message doesn’t accidentally indoctrinate too many boys. Fortunately there’s plenty of baby-feeding paraphernalia to help here:

Photo of pink/purple and blue/green baby feeding spoons, bottles, dummies, etc.

Taste the rainbow

This range from Hey Baby! (available in lots of Poundlands, 99p stores, etc) which includes plates, bottles, bowls, dummies, sippy cups and more, includes what seem to be used fairly widely as sort of secondary gendered colours (purple for girls, green for boys) bundled with the primary pink-and-blue as appropriate so that you don’t get confused and accidentally buy a purple bowl for a boy. In the same display, we’re reminded which company has been responsible for a lot of the ‘pinkification’ of the kids’ stuff market:

Photo of Disney Mickey/Minnie Mouse bibs in pink and blue

Taking the Mickey

Remember, you’re not a real girl unless you’ve got a bow in your hair and eyelashes so long that they’d probably get covered in food if you ate the way most babies do. Everything about the iconography of Mickey and Minnie there annoys me: the clothes, the typeface, and the fact that Mickey seems to be thinking (this impression is reinforced by the clouds behind him looking like thought bubbles), whereas Minnie is clearly looking coquettish (and she gets hearts instead of thoughts). Mickey Mouse never used to be that blue, of course: he originally appeared in red shorts and yellow shoes. It’s a literally cartoonish example, but it’s worth remembering that in the pink-and-blue dichotomy it’s not just the girls whose options are limited.