Equal or Opposite

In which our reluctant hero bravely tackles a topical issue.

While working through my weekly bag of fan mail, awards, gifts and begging letters, I came across a message from a mum (and presumably a big fan) who was incensed about gender stereotyping. On a Tuesday. Blimey.

Apparently, some Strictly Come Dancing (whatever that is) contestant or other, Greg Rutherford, and his family faced a backlash from a very angry mob of keyboard warriors after their two year old son appeared on the show, dressed in clothes that some insightful commentators have referred to as being “a bit girly.”

“Gender stereotyping for kids drives me nuts!” the message continued. Go girl!

Clothing choices on prime time BBC asides, it’s the 21st Century so surely the notion of gender stereotyping still being around is a terrible mistake, yes? It’s not the 1930’s after all. We sent our top man (me) to investigate further.

Avoiding the obvious banana skin of trying to rationalise the opinions of a bunch of “Strictly” fans through the medium of lazy stereotyping, I instead turned to Google. Facts. That’s what we need. All of them, via a cursory glance at the first couple of pages of hits.

I confess that I hadn’t spent much time pondering this issue until now. Our youngest child, a boy, is two and a bit and our eldest, a girl, has recently turned four. Having a boy and a girl, there is a wide range of things to do, and both “girls” and “boys” toys (not my labels) around the house to play with. Mostly on the floor.

Things got handed down from sister to brother. There lies a pink sheet on his hand-me-down cot bed for no other reason than it fits the bed and we haven’t got round to buying another one. Bothered? His sister “borrows” things bought for the little man “just until he’s big enough.” They both have Fireman Sam swimming suits because they both like Fireman Sam and that is what they picked. This all seems like pretty progressive, if not all that planned, parenting to me. Go us!

Back to Google and the search results were worse than I had predicted. They always are. And not just the ones with the phrases “Donald Trump” and “elected President of the United States of America” in the the same sentence. Clothes, toys, film, television, adverts, shops, schooling, books, you name it, they’re all helping to subliminally define gender role behaviour. And much of it seemingly a little out of our control.

The biggest influence on our son is his elder sister. Fact. He will happily be the patient while playing hospitals. He will also demand equal custody of the angel’s wings and cat’s ears when dressing up. He’ll make dinner or cups of coffee on the toy cooker, or push dolls, teddies and other things around in a buggy if there’s one to hand. He has the occasional meltdown wanting Rapunzel on the telly, because Rapunzel is on the telly a lot as his sister likes it. It’s a familiarity thing.

Equally, he will play with cars, tractors, lorries and the like as he loves things with wheels. The only thing he wants for Christmas is a green Number 1 (Tettenhall Wood to Dudley) bus. No, really. Football, golf, Lego, selling ice creams at the pretend shop. He asks for Fireman Sam and Paw Patrol on the telly because he likes them. He plays with what he likes, when he likes, as he knows no different. Just as it should be.

Our eldest was pretty much the same at his age but, two years on, things have changed. She is growing up and becoming a sponge for ideas and information. From seemingly nowhere, she has become obsessed with Disney Princesses, which I initially thought odd, not least as she’s never had any of the dolls, films or anything else associated with them. But then I twigged. The biggest influence on our recently turned four year old is advertising.

Adverts. Adverts between programmes, sneaked into the programmes and films, in magazines, in shops, on posters, on the sides of buses, on clothes, and in books. Most of it is gender suggestive, ALL of it after my cash. Dolls, tea sets, hairdryers and princesses for girls. Superheroes, cars, tool sets and footballs for boys. The adverts with girls playing in are usually quiet, pretty, and submissive. The ones with boys are often loud and in your face. Those with both girls and boys playing together are usually for board games that the grandparents can join in with at Christmas.

Even children’s films are heavily stereotyped. Princesses, most of them negative role models (“Ooh, please save me handsome prince”) for girls and the square chinned, muscle-bound Buzz Lightyear saving the universe on behalf of the boys. What sort of messages are they sending out? Actually, let’s leave Toy Story out of this. It’s ace.

Almost everything comes in pink or blue these days. You can spot a girls section or boys section in a toy or clothes shop a mile off. It is probably a lot worse now than when I was growing up in the 1970’s too, when everything was made in more gender neutral primary colours. And the 1950’s, when everything was in black and white.

Campaigns like “Let Toys be Toys” have probably got a point, if for no other reason than it makes handing things down tricky. No reasonable person would pop a young boy in a bed with hand-me-down pink sheets after all.

So, are we powerless to stop it? To a degree, yes. Advertisers, retailers and the like certainly need to be more responsible. According to an article in The Independent a couple of years ago, some are making progress, which is good, but there’s much more that needs to be done against a lot of heel dragging. And drag they will. The formula works. It makes money. Forget the rest.

However, as parents, we can, and should, make efforts to challenge this through our own behaviour. Should I be worried that my daughter was bursting to tell me that “I’ve made your dinner with my mummy while you were at work” is falling into the same trap? No. Because although it’s clearly woman’s work (*ducks*), there’s days that she makes dinner with daddy while mummy is out at work. And when the little one is a bit bigger, he will too. What better role models than mum and dad?

And the children, and my wife, can all start taking turns washing the car, cutting the hedge, doing the “Shake and Vac” and emptying the bins when the time comes, because I’ll be old and in need of a nice sit down by then. By the fire, with a pipe. As it should be. Probably.

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