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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.