Scotland's Simon Cowell?

I've been portrayed as some kind of godawful combination of Elizabeth Bathory, Simon Cowell and Bird

Those of you who read this blog with any kind of regularity will know that I’m currently locked in a potentially unsafe spiral of typing and more typing with food, sanity, sleep and all of that other being alive stuff removed to a safe distance so that it can’t interfere – which isn’t really a spiral, now I think of it, more like being trapped in a lift in an abandoned building with - well, with me, in fact. How dreadful.

The disadvantages of this heady and artistic lifestyle have recently involved my developing an exhaustion- and anxiety-induced ear infection and going all wobbly for a few days before the antibiotics kicked in.

And this was the perfect preparation for a week spent talking to creative writing students at Warwick University. It meant I could sit in a borrowed office, facing a succession of bright-eyed and hopeful typists, waving manuscript pages (that seemed to have been both savaged by a dog and copulated-upon by some sort of red-ink-secreting insect) and simultaneously yelling, “LOOK AT THIS ! SOME OF THESE HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED ! WHAT WAS I THINKING ! ? WE NONE OF US KNOW WHAT WE’RE UP TO, YOU KNOW ! SCARED ? OF COURSE YOU’RE SCARED. I WAKE UP IN THE MIDDLE OF NIGHT, BLOODY TERRIFIED – BEEN LIKE THAT FOR DECADES. THE PURSUIT OF PERFECTION - IT LEAVES YOU MAD-EYED AND WAVERING ! NO. I MEAN, IT WRECKS YOUR HEALTH AND RENDERS YOU FRIENDLESS ! NO. I MEANT TO SAY – IT’S A VERY GOOD THING. MADE ME WHAT I AM TODAY !”

Actually, we have another dandy crop of students this year and very few of them are scared of me. Given that all the other lecturers have spent weeks portraying A.L.Kennedy as some kind of Godawful combination of Elizabeth Bathory, Simon Cowell and Bird Flu, I have turned out to be a terrible anti-climax.

Puppies have been mentioned, there have been gifts of baking… my ability to appear even remotely evil seems to have been sapped by rewriting all night and tutoring all day. Appearing unhinged is, obviously, much easier under these (and any other) circumstances – so I’ve aimed for that. Plus, a number of undergraduates seem to have encountered me first as a stand up, so I am settling into my usual role as Temporary Village Idiot.

I did take an evening off to watch the first episode of “The Devil’s Whore” and see a variety of folk in big hair galloping about South Africa. I kept expecting a scene where someone asked Cromwell, “Isn’t that an impala ?”

“No. That’s a typically English sheep.”

“It looks like an impala to me.”

“It’s a sheep. An Edgehill, long-horned sheep.”

“I thought this bit was in Newbury.”

“Well, anyway, that’s not an impala and the thing chasing it isn’t a leopard. It’s a peasant – in a special hat.”

“God, the Civil War’s complicated.”

“Not to worry, that Andrea Riseborough will show you her knees again in a minute and then John Simm will take his shirt off – fun for all the family. And remember the old verse - When Adam delved and Eve span – we had parliamentarians who were willing to die for democracy. You wouldn’t even joke about that now, would you ? ”

There’s nothing like a bit of historical drama. That’s why I loved “Eistein and Paddington” so much – very well-crafted piece about the forbidden love of a remarkable physicist for a small Peruvian bear. This, of course, led to the discovery that God has a moustache. I was moved.

And meanwhile I’m recovering from a big double dunt of Shakespeare and that lovely feeling he leaves you with which runs along the lines of – you’re a hack, you’re a dreadful, weasely hack, you shouldn’t be allowed to touch a pencil, why do you even bother with your unmelodious and stringy bits of syllables and nonsense, you ought to be ashamed and then a bit more ashamed than that and then you might want to nail your tongue to an upper window frame, wrap it round your neck and fling yourself out into the morning - or whatever time of day would be relevant, but I’d suggest morning, that would get it over with.

Of course, low self-esteem and brooding are a narcissistic waste of energy and imagination when you’re engaged in professional typing, but I have to say that a healthy bit of awe and a good, attractive mountain top to aim at are often very useful. And I can report, to the four or five of you who are in any way interested, that I am perilously close to having finished the next book. Huzzah ! Watch this space – by the next blog I should be on to the next whateveritis I said I’d do.

Bennett Raglin / Getty
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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