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?

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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.

Taste the difference

I don’t always go looking for this stuff, you know. I was just looking for some swanky gift chocolates on the Hotel Chocolat website (because swanky gift chocolates are what they do best), and idly went to look at the “for kids” section while I was there, wondering whether their children’s range was as classy as the rest. Guess what I found?

Images of kids' chocolates from Hotel Chocolat, available in pink/fairy or blue/robot

I should cocoa

In pink: “A Flight of Twinkle Toes”, “The Prima Ballerina Twinkle Toes”, “The Twinkle Toes Yummy Bag”, and “The Flutterby Easter Egg”, all featuring ballerinas with fairy wings. In blue: “The Mega Nibblatron”, “The Nibblatrons”, and (not shown in screenshot) “The Nibblatron Yummy Bag” and “The Rocket Easter Egg”, all featuring chocolate robots.

Of course, they don’t actually say in the text that one is intended for boys and the other for girls (whereas adults’ gifts are explicitly divided into “For Him” and “For Her”), but the URLs give them away: “The Rocket Easter Egg” is Easter-Gifts-For-Boys-P300255, “A Flight of Twinkle Toes” is Girls-Chocolate-P400052, and so on.

I can’t bear to read through all the descriptions, but here’s an example of how they compare:

Twinkle Toes Yummy Bag: “A gorgeous milk chocolate adventure specially chosen by our graceful dancing ballerina. And as you can see, she certainly knows delicious chocolate when she sees it!

Nibblatron Yummy Bag: “An exciting adventure of milk chocolate goodies, personally chosen by our friendly robot and easy to share – if needs be!”

I suppose at least girls get some “adventure” too, even if it is the nonsensical “gorgeous milk chocolate adventure” (can an adventure be “gorgeous”?) rather than the more fun-sounding “exciting adventure of milk chocolate goodies”. (I’m not even sure what the rest of the Twinkle Toes text means: how are you supposed to be able to tell that the fairy ballerina “knows delicious chocolate when she sees it”? She’s not eating chocolate, she’s fluttering around gracefully or whatever fairy ballerinas do.) I note with a weary sigh that boys aren’t expected to want to share unless they absolutely have to.

Here’s another pair in the same range:

Pick Me Up The Twinkle Toes Nibbling Kit: “Filled with the cutest milk chocolate goodies fit for a princess and ideal for birthday parties or best behaviour treats!”

Pick Me Up The Nibblatron Nibbling Kit: “Filled with out-of-this-world chocolate goodies for parties, treats or even just because!”

So the girls’ chocolates are “the cutest”, and “fit for a princess”; the boys’ chocolates are “out-of-this-world” and you don’t have to conform to any particular stereotyped dress-up role to eat them. Also, while boys are encouraged to have chocolates “just because”, girls are encouraged to see them as “best behaviour treats”: if they’re good enough, they might be allowed to have the same treats as a boy.

It makes me sicker than eating a whole box of chocolates in one go.

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.

51% off your customer base

Happy new year! It’s time for the January sales, which means marketing emails, which — unfortunately but inevitably — means more colour-coding cobblers. Here’s the latest from Green Baby:

Screenshot of Green Baby marketing email showing 'click here for boys and here for girls'

Clicks for chicks

“Click here for boys and here for girls”, they say. So where do I click if I want to browse a whole range of t-shirts and make my own mind up about which might appeal to my daughter or my nieces and nephews? Not on this site, I guess.

Even worse, when I did actually look at the t-shirts, they were the same old tired nonsense: all the boys’ tshirts are blue, and feature a football, a monkey, a frog, and (OK, this one was surprising) a ‘peace’ sign; all the girls’ tshirts are pink, and are decorated with lovebirds/hearts, the slogan “little angel”, more hearts, and butterflies.

Screenshot of tshirts for boys from greenbaby.com

Tee for he

Screenshot of tshirts for girls from greenbaby.com

Shirts for skirts

The tshirts we actually bought for the niece & nephew’s Christmas presents were these ‘96.4% Orangutan’ tshirts; we bought them from a local fairtrade shop rather than the website, so I was spared the explanatory note about which colour I was allowed to buy for which gender — “available in Geranium Pink or Turquoise for girls and Kermit Green or Sinatra Blue for boys”. (The other design is “available in Hibiscus Pink or Lemonade for girls and Yellow for boys”. “Lemonade” is a kind of washed-out yellow, if you were wondering. See also xkcd on the naming of colours by gender.)

I bet boy orangutans (available in RUSTY CAR ORANGE) and girl orangutans (available in SWEET MARMALADE ORANGE) don’t have to worry about this sort of thing.