All I want for Christmas is… presents that aren’t bloody pink

The rigid gender division of toys is a problem for both boys and girls.

Many things terrify me about having children -- no day that involves an episiotomy can be a good day, I feel -- but there is one which stands out. If I had a daughter, what would I dress her in? What toys would I buy her? What would I do if she turned to me and said: "Mummy, when I grow up, I want to be a pwetty pwincess"?

I got a preview of that future when buying a present for my four-year-old niece this Christmas. My sister had vaguely suggested I get something for her doll Baby, but I find Baby deeply sinister. (Its eyes roll back into its head as if it's had an overdose, and there's something about the plastic toenails which tips it into the Uncanny Valley.) What else is there that she would like, then? The answer is: pink. Yards of it, stretching off as far as the eye can see.

Now, if you've been following Pink Stinks -- the campaign which raises awareness of the limited range of toys marketed to girls -- you'll know why I have a problem with pink. The "pinkification" of toys has led to such horrors as these "Science Kits for Girls" (will it be the beauty salon or the perfume lab?). Because, you know, girls don't do "proper" science, only girly science: even though a good proportion of those in the cosmetics industry, and perfumiers, are men.

And it's not just a problem for girls: one mother on Twitter told me recently that her son would love a diary and a craft kit this Christmas, but the only ones she can find are pink. Male child, know your place! Feelings are for women! Also macramé!

OK, how about some Lego, the beautiful construction toy of my childhood, and the creator of possibly the sweetest advert ever created? My niece happily plays with her brother's collection, after all. (Don't worry, I'm not spoiling her Christmas: she prefers to read the Spectator.)

But even Lego has let me down, launching a special "girl-friendly" range of figurines, with big dopey eyes and delicate blush skin, instead of the yellow heads and dot pupils I remember strewing round my bedroom as a child.

It seems like a backwards step for the company, which has largely resisted the rigid gender divisions that affect other toy brands. (Yes, there have been previous girly ranges, but a search for "LEGO for Girls" on its website yields pirates, zoos and camper vans.)

According to the Stylist's report, "Researchers for the company found that girls aren't massive fans of the traditional yellow faced 'boy' figurines". I'm going to call bullshit here, for two reasons. The first is that the yellow-faced figurines aren't unarguably male: with those snap-on bowl cuts, they remind me heavily of myself as a nine-year-old. That's just a bad haircut, not a statement of gender. The second is that -- and I don't know if anyone has pointed this out before -- children are malleable, responding to the stimuli they are exposed to and the cues they are given. If they truly don't like the yellow figurines, it's unlikely to be an immutable facet of having a second X chromosome.

There's always an attempt with these stories about toys to come back to an essentialist view of gender: "look, boys just like trucks, OK? And blue. And girls like pink and dolls. That's NATURE!" The trouble is that the picture is a lot more complicated than that. As smartarse QI-loving types like me never tire of pointing out, the association between pink and the feminine is, in the history of humanity, an incredibly recent one: it arose within the last century. Cordelia Fine and others have made a convincing case that many other supposedly "hard-wired" differences between male and female brains have been overstated, or are heavily affected by social pressures.

This last point explains why many anti-feminists are so keen for toys to remain gendered: because if it's not really "natural" for boys to play with soldiers and girls to play dollies, then what other "natural" differences between the sexes (and the iniquities which arise from them) are no longer supportable? Perhaps it's not really "natural" for women to be under-represented on boards, or get paid less, or do more domestic chores even when they work the same hours as their male partners.

You can see this tactic at work, if you can bear it, in the comments on the Telegraph's report of Hamleys' decision to scrap having a blue boys' floor and a pink girls' floor, and instead order toys by type (dolls, computers, traditional etc).

Although a feminist blogger, Laura Nelson, claimed this was down to her writing letters to the chief executive, a Hamleys spokesperson said at the time: "The changes to our signage were not due to any campaign." And I believe them: it seems a sensible commercial decision not to stigmatise your customers. If a girl wants a construction set, how is making her feel abnormal going to encourage her -- and her parents -- to spend money at your store?

The majority of the Telegraph commenters, however, thought differently, and many engaged in that angry two-step that feminists should be familiar with: "Why are people bothered about this -- it isn't important! I'm going to boycott Hamleys!" It's a classic tactic: get fumingly angry in support of your own position, while calling your opponents pathetic for asking for a debate at all.

Amid a fiesta of insults and hatred directed personally at Nelson for daring to voice an opinion, and the usual "WHY DID THEY BAN GOLLYWOGS?!? WE CAN'T SING BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP NOW" nonsense, there were some real corkers. Two classics of the genre: "The woman who caused this is a disgrace to mankind. Wait, can I say mankind? That might be too sexist" and "When Tampax will be sold in chewing gum section, the mission will be accomplished". (Nope, me neither.)

Clearly, it matters a great deal to lots of people what toys are given to children. Let's not deny it. It matters to feminists because many "girly" toys give the impression that life is about being, not doing, which does nothing to create the next generation of Rebecca Adlingtons and Angela Merkels and Zadie Smiths and Jane Goodalls. And it matters to those who want to keep the status quo because if they win the battle of the toys, they can tell us it's our fault we're not succeeding. Because women are just built that way. Pass the pink sick bucket.

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Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage