Pink Bic Pens and Man Crisps might be patronising, but we buy them

At a crude level, marketeers and advertisers will only produce such guff because enough of us indulge their campaigns with our custom. It's more troubling when companies start prescribing gender roles to infants.

I sit here writing on a sturdy black laptop, drinking coffee from an oversized, dark blue chunky mug. If I get peckish later I might pop out for a chocolate bar, or Man Fuel as I call it, or maybe a packet of crisps - Man Crisps, naturally, none of your effete, wispy, prawn cocktails for me, washed down with a sugar-free soda branded with something snappy and butch like Max or Zero. Real men don't count calories. When work is done and the woolly mammoth dragged back to the cave I might treat myself to a beer, and of course it will be a proper beer with proper colour, not one like this. I am man. Hear me burp, fart and whimper with indigestion.

OK, I'm exaggerating, but not much. Although on any given day you're more likely to find me gripping a spatula than a lump-hammer, like the vast majority of the human race, I perform my socially-decreed gender roles thoughtlessly and effortlessly. It is there in what I do, how I do it and, above all, what I buy.  Nutritionists say we are what we eat. In truth we are what we eat, drink, wear, drive, play with, use and otherwise consume.

The wags of social media have been having fun for the past week or so with the Amazon page for the new 'Bic For Her' ballpoint pens. If this has somehow passed you by, just a few of the customer comments have been helpfully collated by Jezebel and just about every other blog on the internet. There is something inherently ridiculous about a cheap biro specifically designed for the female scribe, and many of the witty barbs are well aimed, but ultimately this product is no more ridiculous than the countless products marketed needlessly at one gender or the other.

The 'Bic For Her' line caught the imagination for two reasons, firstly it served as a long-awaited sequel to the classic Bic Pen Amazon review game, and perhaps more importantly  because the manufacturer eschewed  any attempt at subtlety in their gender marketing. The company could just as easily have produced something called the 'Bic Chic', perhaps, with the same pastel colours, slimline design and feminine curves. We would all have known exactly what they were doing and why, but I doubt there would have been the same collective urge to point and laugh.

There's a popular urge to yell 'SEXIST!' at advertising campaigns which overtly, unashamedly play to exaggerated gender norms and stereotypes, but personally I find them less offensive - and I suspect they may be less socially corrosive - than the constant drip dripping of low level gender role stereotypes that serve as inescapable mood music to our lives. I mean the likes of the vile Proctor and Gamble Olympics ad, 'Proud Sponsors of Mums' which attributed the glory of British Olympians to the mothers who stayed home washing the sports kit, presumably while the dads were out teaching the budding athletes to run, jump and throw. I mean the Oven Pride 'So easy a man could do it' campaign, and dozens  more like those.

Devoid of the knowing, self-mocking irony of the McCoy's Man Crisps, for example, these campaigns present a representation of our modern society that is largely archaic and crass, and to some degree cements in popular culture a reactionary model that excludes diversity of gender roles, sexuality and lifestyle. I don't believe such adverts should be banned, but they can certainly be condemned.     

Capitalist producers and public consumers have a symbiotic relationship. Each plays their role in creating demands to be supplied, manufacturing needs to be met. At a crude level, marketeers and advertisers will only produce such guff because enough of us indulge their campaigns with our custom. Our purchases add up to our public personae, and of course our gender is a key component of our identity. As autonomous adults we can choose the extent to which we want to play along with such constructions. It is rather more troubling when companies like Argos start prescribing gender roles to infants with strictly demarcated Toys for Boys and Toys for Girls.

Gender diversity, allowed to flourish freely, individually and without constraint, is a healthy and beautiful thing. If a woman enjoys buying a pretty little pastel-coloured biro, I'm happy for her. If she decides the crudely gendered marketing is patronising and insulting, then I'm pleased for us all. Ultimately, the true social media superstar of the gendered marketing debate is the eloquent little tyro at the heart of this YouTube hit. Give 'em hell, sister. 

Bic For Her! Because women need special lady pens.
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We can't rush to war in Syria without a plan for peace

A recent visit to Iraq has left me doubtful that the Prime Minister's plan can suceed, says Liam Byrne.

As shock of the Paris lifts and the fightback starts, all eyes are now the prime minister and, at last, the 'full spectrum response' we were promised months ago.

But what's needed now is not just another plan to bomb the ground -  but a plan to hold the ground we win. Four days in Northern Iraq has made me deeply sceptical about air strikes alone. It's convinced me that after the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, we cannot have yet another effort to win the battle and lose the war. Without politics and aid, projectiles and air-raids will fail. It's as simple as that.

After the horror of Paris it's easy to ignore that in Iraq and Syria, Isil is now in retreat. That's why these animals are lashing out with such barbarism abroad. In the ground war, Kurdistan's fighters in particular, known as the Peshmerga - or 'those who face death' -  have now shattered the myth of Isil's invincibility.

A fortnight ago, I travelled through Northern Iraq with a group of MP's arriving on the day the key town of Sinjar was stormed, cutting the umbilical cord - route 47 - between Isil's spiritual home of Mosul in Iraq and Isil HQ in Raqqa. And on the frontline in Kirkuk in north west Iraq, two miles from Isil territory, Commander Wasta Rasul briefed us on a similar success.

On the great earthwork defences here on the middle of a vast brown plain with the flares of the oil pumps on the horizon, you can see through binoculars, Isil's black flags. It was here, with RAF support, that Isil was driven out of the key oil-fields last summer. That's why air cover can work. And despite their best efforts - including a suicide attack with three Humvees loaded with explosives - Isil's fight back failed. Along a 1,000 km battle-front, Isil is now in retreat and their capitals aren't far from chaos.

But, here's the first challenge. The military advance is now at risk from economic collapse. Every political leader I met in Iraq was blunt: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis. Some 70% of workers are on the public payroll. Electricity is free. Fuel is subsidised. In other words, the Government's bills are big.

But taxes are non-existent. The banks don't work. Inward investment is ensnared in red tape. And when the oil price collapsed last year, the Government's budget fell through the floor.

Now, in a bust up with Baghdad, cash has been slashed to Kurdistan, just as a wave of 250,000 refugees arrived, along with over a million internally displaced people fleeing Da'esh and Shiite militias in the south. Nearly 6,000 development projects are stalled and people - including the Peshmerga - haven't been paid for months.

We have brave allies in the fight against Isil - but bravery doesn't buy them bullets. As we gear up the battle against Isil, it's now vital we help boost the Kurd's economic strength - or their sinews of war will weaken. There's an old Kurdish saying; 'the mountains are our only friends'. It's an expression born of years of let-down. In the fight against Da'esh, it's a mistake we can't afford to repeat today.

Second, everyone I met in Iraq was clear that unless the Sunni community can find alternative leadership to Isil then any ground we win may soon be lost, if not to Isil, then “Isil II”. Let's remember Isil didn't just 'emerge'. It grew from a tradition of political Islam decades old and mutated like a Frankenstein monster first by Al-Qaeda, then Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Al-Nusra front and now Isil.

Crucial to this warped perversion has been the total breakdown of trust between Iraq's Sunni residents - and the Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad. In Mosul, for instance, when the Iraqi security forces left, they were stoned in their Humvees by local residents who felt completely humiliated. In refugee camps, it's not hard to find people who didn't flee Da'esh but Shi'ite militia groups.

Now, tracking surveys in Mosul report tension is rising. The Isil regime is sickening people with an obsessive micro-management of the way everyone lives and prays - down to how men must style their beards - with brutal punishment for anyone stepping out of line. Mobile phone coverage is cut. Food prices are rising. Electricity supplies are sporadic. Residents are getting restless. But, the challenge of gaining - and then holding a city of 3 million people will quite simply prove impossible without alternative Sunni leaders: but who are they? Where will they come from? The truth is peace will take politics.

There's one final piece of the puzzle, the PM needs to reflect on. And that's how we project a new unity of purpose. We desperately need to make the case that our cause is for both western and Islamic freedom.

I serve the biggest Muslim community in Britain - and amongst my constituents, especially young people, there's a profound sense that the conduct of this debate is making them feel like the enemy within. Yet my constituents hate Isil's violence as much as anyone else.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I heard first-hand the extraordinary unity of purpose to destroy Isil with total clarity: “Your fight,” said the Kurdistan prime minister to us “is our fight.” In the refugee camps at Ashti and Bakhara, you can see why. Over a million people have been displaced in Kurdistan - grandparents, parents, children - fleeing to save their children - and losing everything on the way. “Da'esh,” said one very senior Kurdistan official 'aren't fighting to live. They're fighting to die. They're not battling a country or a system. They're battling humanity".

Here in Europe, we are hardwired to the fortunes of Central Asia, by trade, energy needs, investment and immigration. It's a vast region home to the seminal struggles of Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia and India/ Pakistan. Yet it's a land with which we share traditions of Abrahamic prophets, Greek philosophy and Arabic science. We need both victory and security. So surely we can't try once again to win a war without a plan for winning a peace. It's time for the prime minister to produce one.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.