Social engineering

GoldieBlox have been in the news (by which I mean the blogs) a lot lately because of their Princess Machine video. In case you missed the memo, GoldieBlox do engineering toys for girls, by which they mean a) they’re pink, and b) they’ve got stories, because girls need everything to have a story. Think I’m making this up? I’ll let the founder tell you in her own words on the project’s kickstarter page:

GoldieBlox goes beyond “making it pink” to appeal to girls. I spent a year doing in-depth research into gender differences and child development to create the concept. My big “aha”? Boys have strong spatial skills, which is why they love construction toys so much. Girls, on the other hand, have superior verbal skills. They love reading, stories, and characters.

GoldieBlox is the best of both worlds: reading + building. It appeals to girls because they aren’t just interested in “what” they’re building…they want to know “why.” Goldie’s stories relate to girls’ lives. The machines Goldie builds solve problems and help her friends. As girls read along, they want to be like Goldie and do what she does.

Goldie’s toolkit is inspired by common household objects and craft items — things girls are already familiar with. Plus, the set features soft textures, curved edges and attractive colors which are all innately appealing to girls. Last but not least, the story of Goldie is lighthearted and humorous. It takes the intimidation factor out of engineering and makes it fun and accessible. [my emphases]

So the starting point is still “making it pink” (i.e. reinforcing the message that girls can’t use the real engineering stuff, only the special pink girl versions), but hey, it goes way beyond that … into even more bad science and stereotype. Those differences in spatial abilities may well be cultural rather than biological, but why let that get in the way of a good generalisation? Boys love construction toys. Girls love stories (and “household objects and craft items”). That’s just the way people are! It’s nothing to do with the way society genders these behaviours from before children are even born; it’s just that boys have the meccano gene and girls have the fairytale gene! (If you don’t fit into either category — ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ — then maybe you’re allowed to make your own mind up about this stuff, but there’s no way Goldie’s going to think that far outside the Blox.)

Yes, in some cases there are neurological differences between boys and girls. But in many such cases the differences between boys and girls are far smaller than the differences within either boys or girls (there were lots of good examples of this in Pink Brain, Blue Brain, far better written and better researched than I’m going to manage in a blog post).

And don’t even get me started on the idea that “soft textures, curved edges and attractive colors […] are all innately appealing to girls”. Since she’s just asserting this without any evidence, I’m going to assert (with just as little evidence to back me up) that all kids would probably like soft textures and attractive colours if given the chance to enjoy them, it’s just that approximately 50% of those kids are told from the minute they’re born that liking soft things and bright colours will make them effeminate and/or gay, and that this is about the worst thing that could happen to them.

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Anyway, I started writing this and then discovered that Shakesville already said all this and all the other things I was going to say, better. So I’m not going to rehash that article any further here; instead I’m just going to point out that girls are clearly already allowed to do engineering because look, pink Meccano:

Photo of Meccano sets available in blue or pink.

The pink car and the blue car knew their place

So boys get a primary-coloured kit for building cars, while girls get a pink-and-purple kit for building sexy cars with eyelashes (and despite the fact that the blue version is the ‘advanced’ one, the pink version is the more expensive). You can argue that girls would never touch the toys “for boys” anyway so giving them pink versions is “better than nothing”, but to my mind covering construction toys in pink, hearts, fluttering eyelashes and Princesses (yes, GoldieBlox does princesses too, despite pretending they’re all anti-princess) is just reinforcing the stereotypes: even if girls want to build cars, they have to do it in a girly way (and they can’t build proper cars anyway, just cartoonishly anthropomorphised cars); they can’t possibly use the same toys as boys, because otherwise people might try to use their Meccano and Lego and so on to build the apparatus required to climb out of the pink and blue boxes.

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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).

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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?”

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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.

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.

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.

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.