Letting toys be toys is harder than you think

Targeting gender marketing in toys is a worthy battle. Children like my son know what pinkness and blueness mean, and they fear a life without the correct marker.

This weekend my eldest son had a birthday party. The first present he received was handed over by a shame-faced mother, who apologised profusely for the fact that the wrapping paper was a bright shade of fuchsia. This paper was all she had left, she said. After all, she only had girls. The need for blue paper didn’t usually arise.

Of course, this mother was right to expect my son not to like pink; he hates it. He has learned to do so, moving first from liking, then to not liking, then to outright revulsion. Green used to be his favourite colour but now it is blue. There is nothing in-between, just blue and pink. Nothing else, no other colour, merits the slightest response.

Sexism-by-shorthand is insidious. Children like my son know what pinkness and blueness mean, and they learn to fear a life without the correct marker. To them, the wrong colour has to come to mean the wrong self. You are either a pink girl or a blue boy. Anything else is not difference but failure.

It’s hard to measure the precise impact that this has on children’s lives. We know that stereotype threat can seriously restrict a child’s range of interests and potential. We know that the qualities associated with pinkness push girls towards a passive, decorative role, while blue qualities are more aligned with aggression and violence. We know that when a girl reaches adulthood, a pink role – a life of caring, being pretty, waiting to be rescued – doesn’t really pay, while the true blue standards of manliness frequently collapse in on themselves into a much-vaunted “crisis of masculinity”. We know that all this is arbitrary, and that not too long ago pink was for boys, blue for girls.We know all of this, but it’s hard to put a figure on the damage. It’s just something we’ve allowed to happen because … well, it never feels quite as harmful as it is. Pink, blue, boy, girl, they’re just colours, just words.

One group who have been challenging our acceptance of this gendered worldview is Let Toys Be Toys. Their campaign originates from a thread on Mumsnet and yes, I know how that might sound to some – more middle-class mummy feminism, focussed on the trivial. But gender stereotyping isn’t trivial. It affects everyone, altering relationships, self-esteem and opportunities. Whether we get the pink/blue messages from parents, employers, teachers or toys, they still hold us back.

The reach and engagement of the Let Toys Be Toys campaign has been broad. A petition aimed at retailers has led Tesco, Boots, Sainsbury’s and TK Maxx to agree to take down ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signage for toys. More recently they’ve met with Toys R Us UK board members, who have agreed to draw up a set of principles leading to the long-term removal of “explicit references to gender” in their toy marketing.

I think this is brilliant news. It suggests that the old-style gender essentialism which has, in recent years, been rebranded as science and/or harmless fun isn’t convincing people any more. And if the decision made by Toys R Us is based more on finances than morals, then perhaps sexism no longer sells. Gender-neutral toy marketing – once the preserve of posh boutique toy shops selling ultra-expensive Noah’s arks – has finally gone mainstream. Hooray for that! Nevertheless, we’ve still a long way to go.

Retailers can commit to removing explicit references to gender – but what about all the implicit ones? Removing the categories “for girls” and “for boys” is important, as is including a mix of children playing with different toys in catalogue illustrations. Nonetheless, without further changes made by retailers, advertisers and manufacturers, we will still know which toys are meant for whom.

We don’t have to use words. Colours and categories are enough. We all know that, as long as domestic or family play is seen as distinct from work play, there will be girls’ aisles and boys’ aisles. Truly imaginative play, whether it’s based in real life or in fantasy, remains a long way off.

The sad thing is, given half the chance, children are far better at mixing things up than we are. Why shouldn’t Luke Skywalker visit the Sindy hospital? Isn’t that the best place for someone who’s just had his hand cut off by Darth Vader? And if you’re going to play houses, it’s frankly irresponsible not to at least have the option of playing emergency services too (who hasn’t left the imaginary iron on once or twice?). Life is not compartmentalised into pink and blue; the active mixes with the passive, the public with the domestic. Children are more than capable of engaging with this creatively, at least until we teach them not to.

In case you are wondering, my son was not bothered by his pink wrapping paper. This may be because an enormous tantrum over the party guests “not singing happy birthday properly”  meant very little attention was paid to presents at all. Alas, such full-on, in-your-face outbursts transcend all gender boundaries. Let’s hope that in future we don’t have to go to such extremes in order to disregard definitions that are harmful, dull and utterly disrespectful of who we all are.

The Let Toys Be Toys campaign recently met with Toys 'R' Us UK board members. Image: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.