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?

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.

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.

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.

Fruit

My daughter has a strawberry hat:

Photo of baby wearing a hat that looks like a strawberry

Berry berry quite contrerry

She’s recently learnt to take it off all by herself. At the children’s centre the other day she took it off and cheerfully held it out to a little boy (let’s call him T) whose mum (H) is a friend of mine.

Me [to my daughter, laughing]: “Don’t give your hat to T, please, darling. It’s a lovely hat, and we’d like to keep it.”
H: “And it’s a girl’s hat!”
Me [surprised]: “Er. Is it?”
H: “Yes! You wouldn’t put that on a boy, would you?”
Me: “Yes! Why not?”
H: “It’s a strawberry.”
Me: “How do you know it’s a girl strawberry, not a boy strawberry?”
H [looking at me as if I’m a bit weird]: “Er, OK, whatever.”

My daughter wears this hat nearly all the time when she’s outside, and people assume she’s a boy all the time — though to be honest I think that’s more to do with people assuming maleness as the default than because the hat makes her look like a boy, or a girl, or anything other than a baby (or, I guess, if you were really gullible and/or shortsighted, a very large strawberry). Anyway, someone clearly thought that this hat was not girly enough, as they had to make a pink version:

Photo of pink strawberry hats on a rail in a shop

Let's not over-analyze

When I saw this in a shop I thought “oh, they do a raspberry hat as well” (I know, raspberries don’t really look much like that, but that’s what chronic sleep-deprivation does to your brain). When I looked it up online, however, I found that it was sadder than that: the pink version is called crushed strawberry.