This week's New Statesman: The new patriotism

What the Olympics tell us about modern Britain + Fiction special

The Olympic Afterglow by Ed Smith

In this week’s New Statesman cover story, the former England cricketer and NS columnist, Ed Smith, considers how the Olympics can “reboot” Great Britain. Sceptics, writes Smith, once argued that the Games have become detached from sport; in which case “the logic follows that Britain must have succeeded at something much more important”.

While “[a]rguing that a sports tournament could heal the scars [of last summer’s riots] sounds quixotic,” the Olympics has provided the “surface and the pretext . . . the opportunity to reboot” the capital – or even the country. One logic, at least, has been left underexplored:
Team GB could not have won many of its medals without the support of the state. Only a few sports can nurture elite athletes (and their coaches, equipment and nutritionists) in a free market; most require handouts from the taxpayer.

And Smith draws a parallel between the success of the Olympic champion Mo Farah and that of London itself, host city of the Games:

[C]oldly calculating, London should be able to stage a great Games, just as Farah was favourite to win the 10,000 metres. But somehow that only exacerbated the tension. It was hard, watching the race, not to imagine all the ways in which it could go wrong . . . We had all imagined similarly disastrous scenarios for the whole Games . . . Farah’s victory brought to life what we had hoped these Olympics would be about.

David Blanchflower: The recession deniers are wrong. Build now!

Following the Q2 reports of a 0.7 per cent drop in GDP – confirmation that Britain is in a double-dip recession – the New Statesman’s economics editor, David Blanchflower, predicts growth for the year of below -1 per cent: “a long way from the 2.8 per cent predicted for 2012 by the Office for Budget Responsibility in its cloud-cuckoo-land ‘emergency’ Budget forecast of June 2010”.

The data from the quarter, writes Blanchflower, points to “a collapse in construction, driven by the coalition’s decision to kill off public investment”. Data from the ONS and RICS survey show no sign of private-sector recovery to offset the cuts, “leaving little optimism for recovery in the near future.”

Employment data is also consistent with this trend. Blanchflower notes, through comparison of the UK and US’s labour markets of the last two years, that “in job-creation terms, Barack Obama and his Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, easily beat Cameron and Osborne”.

Summer fiction special with a new short story by Adam Foulds

This week’s Critics opens with “A kindness”, a new short story about hope, charity and a chance encounter in Britain’s bleak winter by Adam Foulds, the award-winning author of 2009’s The Quickening Maze.

Elsewhere in this Fiction special, Leo Robson, the NS’s lead fiction reviewer, explores the lofty ambitions of first-time novelists; Claire Lowdon is only faintly amused by Nicola Barker’s Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel, The Yips; Jonathan Coe admires Javier Marías’s attempts to reimagine the novel and Sophie Elmhirst meets the essayist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson

The Quiet Australian: Tim Soutphommasane

Ed Miliband’s new political guru, Tim Soutphommasane, is the subject of this week’s NS Profile. Speaking to George Eaton, Soutphommasane explains why “liberal patriotism” holds the key to Labour’s success at the next election:

“The task of rebuilding and reshaping the British economy after the financial crisis and after austerity is something that could be a patriotic project.”

He argues that the success of the Olympics and the praise for Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony is an opportunity for Ed Miliband to redefine the debate over national identity:

“Sometimes political parties can let these moments do the work for them. But the patriotic goodwill generated by the Olympics does provide an opportunity for Labour. It is almost as though Boyle has managed to pave the way for a new chapter of British nation-building.”

Elsewhere in the magazine

  • Peter Wilby on Lords reform, work-life balance and snacking on salad in First Thoughts

  • In the Politics Column Rafael Behr explores whether the coalition is tearing itself apart 

  • In the NS Essay, Malcolm Beith reports from the vicious drug war in Mexico

  • John Burnside on Berlin’s wild wasteland in the Nature column

 

All this and more in this week's issue of the New Statesman, coverdated 13 August 2012, and available on newsstands around the country from today or for purchase online here

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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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