Locked up with writers

No duffers, no loons, they could cook, they were funny and twisted and many of them had nice mums -

Once again I am hunched in the only office I may ever know – a train - my own lovely home being a distant memory filled with housework and DVD’s I haven’t watched for ages. On this occasion I’m in a Birmingham-bound diesel office which has managed to sneak out of Edinburgh Waverly without being – thus far – stymied by all of the apocalyptic and mysterious things that happen to the rail network on Sundays. Yes, dear reader, I am mad enough to attempt Sunday travel.

Sitting opposite me in a kind of smiley coma is Gill Dennis the splendid creature responsible for writing, among other things, the screenplay for “Walk The Line”. We have just tutored a screen writing course and, having talked and thought almost continuously for five days we now find it challenging to organise complex tasks like blinking. Occasionally we cry. I may even be crying now.

Tutoring residential courses represents a delicious kind of community-based Russian roulette for writers. There you will be, trapped in a remote location with a number of complete strangers in order to Teach Something About Something, perhaps with another writer who may or may not turn out to be going through a drug-induced internal soap opera, or a sex-induced external soap opera, or a typing-induced grand opera.

Expecting typists to respond warmly to group experiences always seems odd to me. We are not naturally hugging, sharing, orderly folk. We have the power to transform The Walton Family Eats Dinner into The Manson Family Gets Even. Before arriving at one of these things – on a train – I am always assailed by similar questions. Will there be more than one nutter? Will inappropriate sexual behaviour in thin-walled bedrooms cause conflict/envy/bootleg recordings? Will we end up building a rudimentary altar and sacrificing the weakest participant? And, most importantly, will all the writing be shit?

Happily – miraculously – this course involved 100 per cent charming and co-operative people who could also write like the stars I hope they become. All sixteen of them - no duffers, no loons, they could cook, they were funny and twisted and many of them had nice mums. Plus, Mr. Dennis is one of nature’s gentlemen and a joy to be around. Much fun was had, much work was done – and I got to enjoy being slightly teary on the final evening as work was presented and everyone found out how good everyone else was.

If only there was a British film industry it would all have had a point. If only there was a Scottish film industry and the powers that be weren’t more interested in rebranding themselves than making watchable, unique films that would entertain, enlighten and delight. If only they were interested in the arts at all – we could be another Ireland. But we’re not.

Lately, I’ve also managed to lie in a couple of pals’ spare bedroom and finish the first draft of a short story. (I will commence serious rewriting once I have finished this.) As said pals were away for the weekend and left me in charge of their children – no, that’s not arrestable, I am in fact a competent warder/baby sitter – I had the incalculably wonderful experience of introducing two ankle-biters who don’t have a telly at home to the full glory that can be squashed into three box sets of Dr Who.

They are excellent young people – partly because their parents love them and they have not been accosted by television and partly because they have gone to a school that treats them like human beings and has equipment and proper teachers and lots of running about and mild risk – they just didn’t have the doctor.

And now they do. Ah, the flinching, the giggling, the looking away, the being surprised when tricky situations are not resolved by murder, the gentle exploration of a world that loves adventure and intelligence and curiosity and human potential. A television show that respects the viewer. They have only a vague idea of how rare that is. But they now do know how good the doctor is. I growed up with him around and they can, too. He’s where the BBC keeps what’s left of it’s soul.

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How gendered are this year’s most popular Christmas present toys?

Meet the groups fighting back against the gendering of children’s toys over the festive season.

You’re a young girl. You go into WH Smith’s to pick out a colouring book for Christmas. You could buy the Girls’ World Doodling and Colouring Book, a "gorgeous gift for any girl". In this, the pictures range "from flowers, fans, feathers, to birds, buttons and butterflies". Or Colouring for Girls: Pretty Pictures to Colour and Complete, where you can colour in "beautiful birds, seashells, cupcakes, pretty patterns and lots more". The counterpart Boys’ Colouring Book has a range beyond buttons and feathers: "Planes, trains and automobiles – plus the odd alien spacecraft".

In the run-up to Christmas, this kind of gendered marketing is rife, particularly finding its way into the predominantly pink colour scheme of girls’ toys.

Take Amazon’s page "2016 Toys for Girls": a pink icecream trolly set, a pink light-up tablet, pink building blocks, pink and purple friendship bracelets and so on.

There are several groups taking action against the "pinkification" of children’s toys. One of these is Let Toys Be Toys, a group that targets large supermarkets with the aim of reducing the gendered marketing used on children’s goods.

The Let Toys Be Toys blog focuses on specific examples of targeted gendering within shops, catalgoues and online. A particularly revealing example of how prevalent this has become in recent years is in two pictures published from the Argos catalogue, one from the Seventies, and one from nowadays. The eye-wateringly pink page from now makes the 1970s page look dour by comparison. The lack of change over four decades of what kind of products are marketed at girls is equally striking:

Despite the efforts of campaign groups such as Let Toys Be Toys, the prevalence of gendering within the highest-rated children's gifts for 2016 is staggering.

Look no further than the Ultimate Christmas Gifts Guide from Toys R Us. One of the most immediately obvious examples is the way in which the pink/blue colour schemes are used to market identical products. This is repeated again and again:

This identical drawing board is uniquely packaged to the binary colour codes that are so common within children's toys stores.

The same applies with this keyboard, where the young girl and boy are pictured almost identically, save for the coordination of their clothes to the colour of their toys.

The message is a hugely limiting one: one that allows little movement away from the binary of pink/blue. The effects of this are longstanding. A recent poll from YouGov shows that "only a third of parents approve of boys playing with Barbies". The data goes on to explain that "while most parents approve of girls playing with toys marketed to boys, a minority of adults approve of the opposite".

Images like this were the inspiration behind Let Toys Be Toys, back in 2012. The campaign began on Mumsnet, the forum for parents, on a section called "AIBU", which stands for "Am I Being Unreasonable?". One parent posted the question: "Am I being unreasonable to think that the gendered way that children’s toys are marketed has got completely out of hand?" The heated discussion that followed led to a sub-section with the founding memebers of Let Toys Be Toys.

This aside, Let Toys Be Toys has made signifcant progess since it began. It targets large stores, focusing on gendered signage both in store and online. In their four years, they have campaigned for signs like "girls' toys" and "boys' toys" to be removed from retailers such as Boots, Debenhams, Morrisons, Toys R Us and TK Maxx. It is the go-to hashtag on Twitter for examples of the often shocking gendering of children’s toys.

"This is ostensibly about toys, but what we’re really talking about is gender stereotypes that shape our children’s worlds in an apparently very unassuming way," says Jess Day, a Let Toys Be Toys campaigner. "It seems very innocent, but actually what we’re doing is giving children very clear instructions about how to be a man and how to be a woman."

These clear instructions work beyond colour coordination: where girls are sold the image of the pink "girly girl", for instance. This is evident in children’s fancy dress costumes. Early Learning Centre’s (ELC) children’s fancy dress range imposes very rigid gender roles. To give examples from the current christmas range:


Credit: ELC

Again, the predominant colour sceme is pink. The roles offered are mainly fairies and princessess: generally make-believe.

“I found it really interesting that there were almost no ads showing girls doing anything," comments Day. "Physically they were very passive. The only physical activity we saw girls doing was dancing. They weren't really moving around much."


Image: ELC

By contrast, young boys are offered the possibility of pretending to be a firefighter, a policeman or a doctor, among other practical, professional roles.

This year's Toys R Us Christmas advert follows on from this, with girls mainly dressed as princesses, and boys dressed as knights and kings. Much like the pink/blue colour scheme that we see all over children's shops, these fancy dress costumes create an unnatural binary. They send out a message that restricts any kind of subversion of these two supposedly polar opposites.

What's more, the subtext is one that is deeply rooted in expectations, building up a picture where careers such as that of a policeman and fireman come more naturally to boys, who have been socialised into these roles from childhood through fancy dress costumes of this type. Instead, girls are later forced to learn that most of us aren't going to become princessess, and none of us fairies – and so the slow process begins to unlearn these expectations.

There are certainly groups who try to counteract this. Manufacturers such as the toy brand IamElemental aims to break down the gendered distinctions between boys' toys and girls' toys, by creating female action figures.

“We always say that we are not anti-doll or anti-princess, but that if you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story," says Julie Kershaw, a member of the organisation. "As the mom of two boys, I always say that it’s just as important to put a strong healthy female action figure in a boy’s hand as it is a girl’s”.

Like the campaigners behind Let Toys Be Toys, IamElemental sees children’s toys as the starting point.

“We want kids – both girls and boys  – to internalise these messages early and often,” says Kershaw. “While there are certainly biological differences between girls and boys, gender-specific toys are not a biologically dictated truth. Toys are not “for girls” or “for boys”  – toys are for play; for exploration and creative expression.”

This attitude is ingrained in a child’s early years. Only through reconfiguring the gender sterotypes of the toys we buy for our children can we begin to break down their expectations of how to behave in age. We challenge you this Christmas to avoid these highly gendered products. Below are our three favourite Christmas presents for children this year, for girls AND boys, as approved by Let Toys Be Toys:

Mini Table Tennis (£7.99)


From: The Little Toy Box

Djeco Intro to Origami - Animals (£3.99)

From: Rachel's Toy Shop

Seedling Make Your Own Dino Softie! - Dino(sew)or Kit (£5)


From: Gifts For Little Ones