This week, my youngest son declared that girls cannot be pirates. The conversation went as follows:
“What would you like to be Mummy?”
“You can’t be a pirate, you must choose something girls are allowed to be”
“Girls can be pirates”
“No they can’t, you can be a princess and that’s it”
My heart sank. All of my Woman’s Hour principles and best endeavours had come to nought. The fact that, this week, it coincides with the selling of his beautiful wooden silver kitchen was a double blow. The visual representation of all my hopes and dreams exchanged for hard cash to be spent inevitably on Hot Wheels.
There had been debate about the purchase of the kitchen, when our eldest son was 2. My husband wasn’t keen. He thought I was making a stand, that I was buying him a ‘girl’s toy’. I was at pains to point out that, in its elegant gender-neutral glory, it was no such thing. He did most of the cooking – therefore our toddler would never think of it as such. (I was also at pains to point out that any time he fancied knocking up some shelves for the alcoves in the front room, I’d be happy to buy a ‘just like Daddy’ workbench). It was just a toy.
I’m trying to find reasons not to blame myself that my child thinks girls are rubbish. I’ve currently settled placing equal blame on me, for straying from Cbeebies, and Nick Jnr, for the extraordinary amount of adverts he manages to watch in between Peppa Pig bonanzas.
Watching, I have to admit, he’s got a point. To a novice outsider, girls appear to be vacuous, pointless individuals who do nothing but get distracted by glitter.
Now Christmas is a time when toys are uppermost in my mind, and is almost certainly a time for nostalgia. So I make no excuses for pointing out that things were not like this in my day. I was a pre-school child of the 70s. There was no pink. There was brown; there was possibly some orange.
I’m not remembering some androgenous utopia – there were very definitely girls’ toys, and the majority of women very much knew their place, and that was at home. However, they had a purpose. They did something.
Sindy, for example – the no-nonsense, stiff upper lip British alternative to Barbie. Very much the Camilla Parker Bowles of the doll world, she looked like a nice girl. More importantly, she had something to do. There was Nurse Sindy, Ballerina Sindy, Showjumper Sindy – all delightfully accomplished in their own special way, if a little pigeon holed. They were never going to burn their bras but at least they had constructive tasks.
The cheap, mass produced fancy dress imports were nowhere to be seen but I did have a nurses outfit (Nurse Nancy from Twinkle was my poster girl). OK, so Germaine Greer probably would have sneered but it least it involved a positive action.
And the rest of it was just stuff. It was just toys. There were the same roller skates and lego but they didn’t come in a pink box, weren’t rolled in glitter.
And what has 30 years of female emancipation given us?
Princess to Popstar Barbie and Barbie Hair Artist, not to mention Barbie fashionista. No Olympic showjumping medals for Barbie, instead we have the Barbie Puppy Playpark! “Barbie knows puppies are cute, but they also require training. With the Barbie Puppy Play Park Playset. Barbie can train and play with her two puppies outside. Press the lever on Barbies back to move her arms in a clapping motion or clap your own hands and the larger puppy will obediently come to Barbie or go up and down the slide!”
It’s no wonder he thinks girls are rubbish. The board game where the girls pretend to make a phone call to a mystery boy probably hasn’t helped.
How on earth did it come to this?
I’m a big fan of girls, after all I used to be one (technically I suppose now I’m a woman but I struggle to use the word without channelling Whitney Houston). Most of the girls I know are fabulous (and to be fair none of them own a Barbie puppy play park). I’m not entirely sure who’s buying all this, or why.
I blame Disney, and their creation of the Princess money press. The sudden cheapness of production, and the disposability of toys means it probably doesn’t need to be handed down from brother to sister anymore – but it doesn’t quite explain it away.
As a child of the 80s, I grew up with Alexis Carrington, Margaret Thatcher (completely interchangeable of course) and Madonna. As a teenager of the 90s I was constantly being reminded that feminism meant that we could have it all, be anything that we wanted to be.
But apparently, now that girls can be anything that they want to be, they seem to be told from a very early age that they are probably better off not doing very much at all.
Lego ‘friends’ is a hilarious, if depressing illustration. Why build really cool stuff like houses, or rockets, or funfairs. All that construction belongs to the boys – they’ve done focus groups. What girls clearly want is “Stephanie’s Outdoor Bakery”, “Andrea’s Bunny House”, “Emma’s Splashpool” and lest we forget “Mia’s Puppy House”. They can have a little box of lego, but it will come in a pink box and you can’t expect them to follow instructions.
It is a far cry from the advert at the top (I saw this on someone else’s website last week and I can’t remember who, otherwise I would credit them!).
It isn’t really a boys’ toys versus girls toys’ thing, although I maintain that boys’ toys are infinitely better. It’s that the ‘ just toys’ section of the Venn diagram is all but disappearing, with the boys snatching all the cool stuff and the girls’ section being ever more relegated to the pink and the fluffy. **On a tangent polemic, it’s the same reason why even grown women are not really allowed to eat cake anymore, unless they’re pastel and beautifully decorated with flowers, or lustre, or glitter. For God’s sake what’s wrong with a slab of Victoria sponge!**
What we are really telling girls is that they don’t need to take themselves seriously, and that they shouldn’t expect other people to either; that everything especially designed for them has to be shiny and sparkly to keep their concentration.
Now arguably, I’m the one taking the Argos catalogue too seriously, and this is all really an irrelevance. Arguably, I am stereotyping girls just as much by assuming that this is all that they play with. It is unlikely that the toys they play with at 4 define their life’s path. I, for example, am as far from medical profession as I could be.
However, it’s an insidious beginning that tells girls what they should be and what is expected, even if they choose something different. It tells them that the things which are ‘especially for them’ are ridiculous. In a world of infinite possibilities for girls it seems that some people are desperate for them to choose not very much.
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not stating anything new or radical, and there are plenty of other parents and girls to fly the flag. The ‘Pink Stinks’ (http://www.pinkstinks.co.uk/) and Let Toys Be Toys campaign (look them up on Facebook) is a powerful one and long may it continue. All the girls I know give me confidence that we are not rearing a generation of pet groomers.
It’s just that it’s a difficult job at the best of times to teach ones sons to be feminists. And when Kiera Knightly becomes my pin-up girl, I know I’m in trouble.