Thursday, 25 October 2012

Only For Boys

Both Maggie and Alice love the Dear Zoo book. As did all of my kids. You probably know it but if not: it’s a lift-the-flap book that features a different animal on every page. It’s very simple and very charming.

Yesterday I was in Sainsbury’s and was impressed by their range of rather wonderful Dear Zoo kids’ clothes. But when I picked up one of the tops I saw a large label that boldly declared it was for boys. All of the other clothes had the same label.

According to Sainsbury’s then, Dear Zoo is no longer something for all children, something gender neutral – but something that’s only for boys. Zoo animals are now only a boy thing.

This annoyed me not because it was so singularly outrageous but because it was so depressingly familiar. Everywhere you turn these days girls are encouraged to like things that are... well, utterly soppy and dippy. Things like fairies, princesses, cupcakes, celebrities, flowers, pink dresses and babies. Of course, this kind of gender division has always been with us but over the past few years it’s become much worse. It’s almost as if they – marketing twats, toy manufacturers, clothes makers – are determined to turn girls into fucking idiots.

Boys, on the other hand, are encouraged to like cool things: robots, monsters, music, space stuff, cars, planes and sport (even though sport, of course, isn’t cool). Not only that, they also get to enjoy things that should be, by any definition, gender neutral. Buses, for instance. Or tractors.

Take a look at the photographs at the bottom. The Next train cushion and the bus light shade are marketed specifically to boys. Why?

I tweeted someone at Sainsbury’s today and asked why they were marketing those Dear Zoo clothes exclusively to boys. Here’s his response:

“The Dear Zoo range was originally introduced for both boys and girls back in 2011 but the girls’ range unfortunately experienced a distinct lack of demand, hence this year’s collection being focused on boys. It doesn’t mean that girls can’t wear Dear Zoo stuff. I hope your little one isn’t put off.”

How did they know that girls weren’t buying the clothes? Because, of course, they had some specifically for boys and some specifically for girls. Why they didn’t just sell them as children’s clothes is beyond me.

Actually, it isn’t beyond me. It’s because marketing twats love to know who/what their demographic is. They love to know this so they can target stuff better. As they see it, they’re not in the business of worrying about what’s culturally or morally suspect – they’re in the business of making money. Which is normally ok, when it comes to adults – because we can, and should, trust them to be a bit more savvy. With kids you have to be more careful.

My response to the Sainsbury bloke’s hope that my “little one isn’t put off” was: “She’s three-years-old. Just starting to read. She sees ‘BOYS’ on a label, she’s put off.”

The thing is, at that age kids are starting to learn about rules and regulations and boundaries. And every parent who doesn’t want a horrible little bastard running around tries hard to get them to understand them. So it’s hardly surprising that when girls see BOYS written on things they regard it as somewhat instructional, somewhat authoritative. And when they constantly see TV ads and programmes that feature little girls dressing up as princesses and swooning over celebrities, they regard that as just the way of the world.

(That makes sense, right? I was going to do a lot more research into this whole issue but a) I just don’t have the time and b) who needs research? I know I’m right.)

The bottom line is: I hate, with a passion, those aspects of our society that demean, belittle and devalue girls. That says that only certain things are for them: that only soppy, stupid things are for them. Worse: that some things definitely aren’t for them. And we wonder why girls aren’t doing science at school.

Without turning into one of those nauseating “Oh, women are so much better than men” men, I’d say this is all the more tragic and depressing because girls, in general, are brighter than boys. (If this were a proper essay or something I’d link to some kind of citation - but as it’s just my blog I’ll go with anecdotal/personal evidence.) Girls, in general, are brighter than boys. It evens out as they get older but when they’re very young, girls make boys seem like halfwits. And what do we do with this? We encourage them to be idiots. Maybe it’s some big patriarchal conspiracy to stop them getting ahead...

(Actually, I have a little theory about why this has got worse in recent years: the increased role of fathers. Or, rather, those fathers who are obsessed with having daughters. It’s like they want to live up to that “dads and their little girls” cliché. You know what I mean. The kind of bloke who treats his daughter like a little princess, who constantly tells her she’s his little princess, who treats her completely differently to the way he would his son. I’m not saying this is the only reason, obviously. Just partly. Maybe. I don’t know. If you're reading this and you're one of those fathers - I don't mean you, obviously.)

I’m not suggesting that there’s no place for fairies and princesses and all that nonsense. Just that it doesn’t have to be all about that. Don’t we have a collective responsibility to say to girls that anything and everything is for them too? Don’t we have a responsibility not to force them into stereotypes? And particularly not to force them into stuff that’s only... well, utterly soppy and dippy? Don’t we want our girls to grow up thinking that they can be anything they want to be, that they’re just as good as boys? That they can be smart and clever and interesting?

Of course we do. We’re not the fucking Taliban.


  1. Great post! Totally agree.

    We are decorating our kids' bedroom and - being somewhat nerdy - we would like some little aliens and space stuff, glow in the dark stars and the like. Finding anything that could be gender neutral - let alone for girls - of that type is pretty impossible.

    Have you heard of this book: Cinderella ate my daughter?

    She is even more angry than you.

  2. Hello Stacie. Alice has star curtains, a planet rug, Spongebob stickers and posters and framed pictures of Mickey Mouse, Tom and Jerry, Peppa Pig and Spongebob. Her great love is Spongebob...

    Thanks for the book recommendation. Will look.

  3. I love your post and have to totally agree. When I was little I used to hate being told by adverts that I was supposed to play with babys and kitchens. As is they were saying 'well this is what your going to be so get used to it' So dad bought me cars and gardening stuff instead. I now have daughters of my own and one is a girly girl but I am slowely teaching her you can be pretty and like dress's and still be inteligent. Its difficult when the other parents seem determined to make their five year olds into little teenage princess's covered in makeup. Ahh thanks for that needed a rant haha.

  4. Hi Paul,
    Just had to add a little something to your discussion.
    As a mum of 2 boys, I can re-assure you that the balance totally changes once they start school. Boys' fine motor skills develop later than girls, and by their very nature they are 'boisterous' (of course this is a sweeping generalisation, based only on my own experiences), they love running around, being loud, climbing, fighting etc. So, when they walk into school at the age of 5 (or earlier) and see lots of colouring, sitting still on mats, quietly listening to stories and of course almost exclusively female teachers and teaching staff, who can blame them for thinking 'this is not for me'?
    Many boys are switched off school/education at that point, and its hard to ever change that. Not sure when that balance shifts back the other way, as it undoubtedly does. Being a 'girl' myself, its an endless frustration that despite this early 'boys ahead', then 'girls ahead' does at some point shift back around to boys being ahead and staying there (is this when 'girls' leave work to have babies? I dont know the answer to this), when men storm up the career ladder, whilst women either stay at home doing the enormous and highly underrated task of raising a family, OR take on the almost impossible task of trying to do this whilst maintaining a career, either way, they then can't compete in the workplace so the men do end up on top!
    Blimey, I have catapulted us all forward a few years there, and as I said these are just my own sweeping generalisations. I am learning and changing viewpoints all the time as I watch my boys go through school, so will keep you posted on when things switch back in their favour, but can say that the early years of school are very definitely not 'boy friendly' so this is when girls need to take that lead and try and keep it.
    Incidentally, we went out of or ways not to push the boys into 'boy stuff' but ultimately once they started school, all our hard work was undone. Really school has an awful lot to answer for!
    Suz :-)
    (Ouch! I didn't realise I was so bitter about their early years at school!!)

    1. i was always 'boisterous' and loved running around, being loud, climbing, fighting etc.

  5. Hello Susie. Thanks for this. Of course, you know that I have boys myself? Now 22 and 12. And an 18-year-old daughter. So yes, I've also seen the strange wonders of school and gender disparities. A whole other kettle of fish!

  6. I seem never to have needed to steer my girls away from girlie things - they naturally hate them .. Maybe it's genetic. Or the 'throwing- up' face I pull when girlie adverts are

  7. Excellent post - and my daughter agrees.

    She hates the patronising way people (particularly women teachers) treat girls as somehow weaker than boys. (As her father, I hate the patronising way women are portrayed in the TV ads for Boots - all fluffy headed and obsessed with make-up.)

    She was disgusted to hear that the local football club segregates boys and girls ("from the age of 5 for goodness sake, not just when they get to puberty") so decided not to join.

    She was also furious when she saw a toy catalogue last week with two gift packs: one marked 'Good things for Boys' (with wooden balloon-powered boat, juggling balls, dominoes, playing cards, glider plane, notepad and pencil) and the other marked 'Good things for Girls' (with knitting doll, 3 colours of acrylic yarn, skipping rope, pick-up sticks, sketch pad and pencils).

    Thankfully she is independently minded - so buys boys trousers "because they are better made and aren't pink" and boys shirts, for the same reason.

  8. We have 5 daughters, so we have our fair share of fairies and dress up clothes. But, our girls are just as interested in building sets, dinosaurs, and sports. I think avoiding television has a lot to do with them being very gender neutral. We only watch limited videos, and they rarely see commercials,(it also cuts way down on begging for toys). My 12 yr old was recently very disappointed when she received a "girls" Lego set from her aunt. The pieces are all pink, there are lots of flower pieces and it comes mostly pre-assembled. In her words, "it sucked". We exchanged it for real Legos, that you can actually use to build something. It was interesting to see that she is very aware of how stereotypes can really shortchange girls. But boys too, can miss out if we buy into gender roles. I got my son a baby doll for his first birthday and it's his favorite thing. He pretends to dress it and feed it, and carries it around all day. He loves the pretend play, it's sad to think how he would miss out on that if I thought dolls were only for girls.

  9. Well done C Smith (as Anonymous) for letting your son have dolls - you make a very good point about how this stereotyping can damage boys as well as girls.

    People (the chattering classes) frequently bemoan the lack of 'emotional intelligence' shown by boys - yet throw their hands up in horror if you suggest giving boys dolls and other toys that encourage them to be gentle. If you give them guns, violent comics and war machines, don't be surprised if they grow up a tad aggressive.

  10. Michael (Milton Keynes)21 November 2012 at 21:10

    Excellent piece, Paul. I bought my little girl Mike the Knight pyjamas the other day - she loves Mike the Knight. It's just about saying 'all these opportunities are open to you as well'.

  11. ah, we decorated our baby's bedroom in space theme before we knew what sex it would be.

    We've not done glow in the dark stars (although I did buy a big box of glow in the dark stars for my niece from amazon last year), but we bought a space border, space curtains, lampshade and rocket door knobs from an online company. We used very dark blue paint from homebase, and bright lime green for above the border

    I am embarrassed to say that I bought the bright lime green paint in case it turned out to be a boy, because I didn't want people to say "oh, you were hoping for a boy then!" (they still say that when they see her room...)

    1. it didn't let me put my name!

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