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.

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.

Why science and engineering toys aren’t for girls

Just a quick link, as readers of this blog might appreciate this article from the Guardian: “Why are so many retailers – and customers – stubbornly clinging to the notion that that young boys and girls should stick to their own, heavily stereotyped toys?” asks Andrew Holding in a guest post for the Lay Scientist.

The pig issue

As well as buying proper shoes for my daughter, I’ve also been looking for wellies. She loves Peppa Pig at the moment, so when I saw that Mothercare had Peppa Pig wellies I was quite excited:

Photo of blue "Peppa Pig" wellies, featuring George Pig and the text "George loves mud!"

This little piggy had puddles…

“Splash! George loves mud!” George is jumping in a muddy puddle! How perfect for a toddler who likes Peppa Pig and wants to jump in muddy puddles! But wait, it’s Peppa Pig who’s the star of the show, not her little brother George. Why can’t I get wellies with Peppa on? Answer: because these are boys’ wellies, and George is a boy pig, so the boys’ wellies have to have George on them. You couldn’t put a girl pig on a boot for boys, could you?

Now, I reckon you’ve already correctly guessed what colour the girls’ equivalent of these wellies might be. But it’s not just the colour:

Photo of blue "Peppa Pig" wellies, featuring Peppa Pig and lots of little hearts.

… this little piggy had none.

Despite all the little hearts all over these wellies, we don’t get to find out what Peppa loves. No puddle-jumping, no text: she’s denied action, denied a voice. This despite the fact that all the books and DVDs agree that Peppa loves jumping in muddy puddles:

Picture from a Peppa Pig book, showing Peppa's favourite thing: jumping in a muddy puddle

Muddying the waters

A bit of googling suggests that you can get not-entirely-pink Peppa Pig wellies with text on, which look like a closer analogy to the “George loves mud” wellies (though I didn’t see them at Mothercare):

Sky-blue wellies with pink hearts featuring Peppa Pig in a tutu and the text "Peppa loves to dance!"

These boots were made for … dancing?

Yes, the Peppa in the books and cartoons also loves ballet … but she doesn’t wear wellies to do it. Though to be honest, ballet-dancing in wellies would probably be easier than buying clothes aimed at girls that encourage and celebrate messy outdoor activity rather than posing prettily in pink.

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.

Knights in white satin

I’ll say one thing in favour of the recent tide of tacky royalism and rain-soaked bunting: at least the Union Jack isn’t pink. So if I wanted to join in with the flag-waving fun and get my little girl a Union Jack tshirt, say, at least it wouldn’t be… oh, wait:

Screenshot of top three results in Google Images search for "girls' Union Jack tshirt", showing pinkified Union Jacks

Union Jill

Ho hum. OK, so I’ve seen one or two refreshing changes, such as an uncharacteristically non-sexist advert from Pampers:

Pampers advert for Union Jack nappies

21-bum salute

That child’s wearing pink… but in an active pose!

Pampers advert for Union Jack nappies - "made for active little princes and princesses"

Activate the Queen

Active princes and princesses? You mean princesses can be active too? Fantastic! Well, it’s a start, anyway.

Sadly this was a bit of an outlier, as most of the Jubilee tat aimed at kids seemed to be just another excuse to sell the ‘pink princess’ dream (or should that be nightmare?) to little girls. Here’s a classic from Vertbaudet:

Screenshot of Vertbaudet email advert showing Jubilee fancy dress outfits: 'knight' and 'princess'

Fancy that


“Choice of very playful fancy dress outfits”! Unfortunately the choice was made for you before you were even born: male or female. “They are great for capturing your childs’ [sic] imagination,” apparently: great for reinforcing gender roles, more like. The knight is in classic Crusader colours; the Princess, of course, is in pink. Because that’s what Princesses wear. Princesses like Kate Middleton:

Kate Middleton & Prince William - Kate wearing her iconic blue dress

Princess #1!

No, wait. Princesses like… Princess Beatrice:

Princess Beatrice, wearing a turquoise skirt suit and flying-saucer hat

Princess #2!

Ah. Princess Eugenie?

Princess Eugenie wearing a royal blue jacket and matching fascinator

Princess #3!

Hmm. Let’s go back a bit… ah yes, the people’s fairytale princess, Princess Di:

Princess Diana wearing a sky-blue full-length off-the-shoulder satin dress

Princess #4!

Well, this is embarrassing. Perhaps we need a more mature princess… Princess Margaret?

Princess Margaret wearing a dark blue ballgown

Princess #5!

Or maybe we need to travel a bit further afield… Princess Maxima of the Netherlands?

Princess Maxima of the Netherlands wearing black trousers and a royal blue satin shirt

Princess #6!

She’s not a crown princess, though. Perhaps Swedish Crown Princess Victoria can save the day for Pink Princesses:

Swedish Crown Princess Victoria, wearing a pale blue dress and matching scarf and sash

Princess #7!

OK… I give up. Happy Diamond Jubilee, everybody!

The Queen wearing a sky-blue suit and matching hat

THE QUEEN!