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?

All calm on the home front

From Tesco Living magazine (July-August 2011):

Did you know? Pink is often used in football changing rooms as it’s thought to have a calming effect on players. So try managing your own gang this summer with a few strategically placed pink accessories.

This is… odd. It sounds like they’re referring to Baker-Miller Pink (here, look at a page of it next time you get angry about gender-stereotypical colour-coding), and there may even be some truth in the assertion that football changing rooms are sometimes painted pink.

So on one level it’s not entirely nonsense. But at the same time, the underlying message seems to be “Boys! It’s OK to have pink in the house! Even FOOTBALL PLAYERS (who are very manly) use pink!” And that shouldn’t really need to be said at all. Also, of course, the message isn’t actually aimed at boys, because boys wouldn’t be seen dead reading Tesco Living (OK, to be fair, neither would I… though I may occasionally be seen furtively rifling through it for vouchers) — it’s aimed at Mum, who has to “manage” her “gang” (which you just know is meant to include Dad as well as boy-children), because men and boys are not actually rational beings but crazed beasts who need calming down by means of sneaky pop-psych tranquilizer darts.

Here’s the quote in context so you can judge for yourself who this stuff is aimed at (and enjoy all the calming pink on the page):

Page from Tesco Living magazine - relevant text reproduced in article.

All calm on the home front

Beyond parody

I get catalogues through the post for various different reasons. Some have been sent to me because I’ve asked to be put on a mailing list, or because I’ve bought something from the company before. Some are just random junk mail. And some, like the recent Studio 24 catalogue, seem to have been dropped through a time-machine by some malignant force which is deliberately trying to make me angry.

I started out being mildly annoyed by the all-too-common problem that all the gifts and toys seemed to come in two options: not-pink for boys, pink for girls. Here’s your options for personalised kids’ chairs:

Catalogue pictures of chairs - red with cars etc for boys, pink with fairy princess nonsense for girls.

Who's been sitting in my chair?

For boys: a big red fire engine in a street full of houses! For girls: Cinderella’s pumpkin coach (which has somehow become pink rather than, you know, pumpkin-coloured), pulled by a pink horse. For boys: a racing car! For girls: a vase of flowers. The chairs are shown personalised with boys’ names and girls’ names, just in case you were tempted to think that fire engines or racing cars might be exciting for girls as well.

It’s the same with clocks — boys get another fire engine, girls get a ballerina:

Catalogue pictures of children's clocks: one pink with a cartoon ballerina, one with a red fire engine.

Isn't it time we stopped this nonsense?

It gets sillier. Boys: how about a drum kit? Girls: how about a pink drum kit?

Catalogue images showing 'natural' guitar and pink guitar; red drum kit and pink drum kit.

Sorry to bang on about this...

The main picture, of course, shows a boy playing drums; the pink drum kit is a smaller inset, an afterthought. The message is clear: drum kits are for boys. As for the guitars, we’ve got “natural” for boys, and (unnatural) pink for girls. At the risk of sounding like the Daily Mail, you couldn’t make it up.

But it’s the dressing-up options that are really angrymaking. Are you ready? Here we go:

Catalogue images of dressing-up sets: boys are shown as fireman, cowboy, knight, red indian, pirate; girls are shown as model, ballerina, princess, bride, or belle of the ball.

You couldn't dress it up

Boys: “You can be a fireman, cowboy, knight, red indian, or a pirate!” Girls: “Be a model, ballerina, princess, bride, or belle of the ball!” (I’m not even going to address the “red indian” issue here: it’s off my topic, but all this stuff has clearly fallen through some kind of stereotype timewarp.) Basically, though, boys get five options which are instantly recognisable as active roles and adventurers; girls get… well, OK, ballerinas are pretty active (with the emphasis on “pretty”), but “princess” and “bride” are both roles that have more to do with the men in your life than what you actually do, a “model” exists to be looked at, and a “belle of the ball”… is that even a thing any more? What do you do, apart from stand around looking pretty? The five outfits are pretty much indistinguishable anyway, a mess of pink frills, short skirts (even for the bride), tiaras and glitter. Of course, the boys’ clothes come in a piratical treasure-chest, while the girls’ clothes come in something more like a dowry chest. And am I overanalysing lazily-written copy by noting that boys are given opportunities (“You can be…”) while girls are given orders (“Be…”)?

But wait! It gets worse! Here’s yet more dressing-up ideas so your children have a chance to get used to the assumptions society will make about their potential because of their sex!

Catalogue images of dressing-up clothes. Girls: horse rider, waitress, nurse, ballerina, beautician; boys: businessman, astronaut, postal worker, policeman, pilot. Also: dalmatian/tiger for boys, bunny for girls.

I want to be...

Girls’ costumes: horse rider, waitress, nurse, ballerina, beautician; boys’ costumes: businessman, astronaut, postal worker, policeman, pilot. This is just beyond parody. Girls don’t even get to be a “policewoman”, “businesswoman”, “postwoman”, or… I dunno, “astronautess”? “Lady pilot”? (Yes, I know. We call them “astronauts” and “pilots”.) We’re not even talking about clothes which would have to be fitted differently for boys and girls here: these costumes are loose-fitting tabards which aren’t even sold in different sizes, and let’s face it, by the age that girls start developing hips and breasts, they’re probably not going to want to dress up as ballerinas or astronauts.

Even the animal costumes play to the same old stereotypes, for crying out loud. Boys are shown dressed as a dalmatian (come on, even in The Hundred and One Dalmatians some of the dogs were female) and a TIGER! Grrr! Girls get to be… a bunny. A bunny that’s pink, just like a real bunny isn’t. Do I need to spell it out?

Just one more — and a slightly more subtle one this time:

Catalogue image showing personalised aprons - a girl with pink-edged apron saying 'super cook' , a boy with blue-edged apron saying 'super chef'.

Back to the kitchen

OK, that’s “subtle” like a meat-tenderiser — which presumably our pretty little cupcake cook wouldn’t use, unlike the manly maker of MEATY BURGERS. But it’s the text that really makes me cross. I’d have almost forgiven them the pink-and-blue colour-coding and the pictures if both aprons had said “super chef”; but no, the girl gets demoted to “cook”. Perhaps they actually think that “cook” is to “chef” what “cow” is to “bull” — just the word for the female of the species, rather than a lower-status job? Because at this point I’d rather think they’re that stupid: the alternative is worse.