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.

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Who is in Jeremy Corbyn's new shadow cabinet?

Folllowing the resignation of over a dozen MPs, Jeremy Corbyn has begun appointing a new front bench.

Following an attempted coup over the weekend, Jeremy Corbyn has begun forming his new shadow cabinet, appointing MPs to replace the numerous front bench resignations that have taken place over the last 24 hours.

The cabinet is notable for containing a relatively large proportion of MPs from the 2015 intake, many of whom were also among the 36 MPs who nominated Corbyn as a leadership candidate last year. 

Emily Thornberry

Shadow Foreign Secretary

Thornberry, a former human rights barrister, served under Ed Miliband as shadow attorney general until she resigned in 2014 following a “snobbish” tweet about an England flag sent on the day of the Rochester by-election. The MP for Islington South since 2005, she returned to the shadow cabinet in 2010 as Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow employment minister, and then helped him out of a difficult position by accepting the position of shadow defence secretary in the January 2016 reshuffle after a spat between her predecessor, Angela Eagle, and Ken Livingstone.

Diane Abbott

Shadow Health Secretary

Diane Abbott, known for her forthright interventions on a wide variety of subjects as well as her zany appearances on the This Week sofa with Michael Portillo, has held a health brief before – she was shadow minister for public health under Ed Miliband (although she was sacked in 2013, saying “Ed wanted more message discipline”). A long-time ally of Corbyn’s – they had a brief relationship in the 1970s – she nominated him for the leadership and accepted the post of shadow international development secretary upon his victory in September 2015.

Pat Glass

Shadow Education Secretary

Pat Glass, a former Labour councillor in the north-east, was elected to parliament for North West Durham in 2010. She was initially appointed shadow education minister in September 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn first formed his shadow cabinet, and was then reshuffled to shadow Europe in January 2016. She now returns to her old brief.

Andy McDonald

Shadow Transport Secretary 

McDonald entered parliament in 2012 after the by-election following Stuart Bell’s death. He served Emily Thornbery as PPS from 2013, and then joined the shadow cabinet in January 2016 to replace Jonathan Reynolds as shadow minister for rail (Reynolds resigned in protest after Corbyn sacked Pat McFadden).

Clive Lewis

Shadow Defence Secretary

Clive Lewis is part of the 2015 intake, and has been a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. He was appointed shadow energy minister in September 2015, and has been staunch in his opposition to Trident renewal. He has military experience, having done a three-month combat tour of Afghanistan in 2009.

Rebecca Long-Bailey

Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Rebecca Long-Bailey is MP for Salford and Eccles elected in 2015. She previously worked as a solicitor, and was given the backing of Unite and Salford’s elected mayor Ian Stewart when she decided to run for parliament.

Long-Bailey was one of the MPs who nominated Corbyn for the leadership in 2015. After winning the leadership, Corbyn used her to replace Hilary Benn on Labour’s NEC.

Kate Osamor

Shadow International Development Secretary

Kate Osamor is the MP for Edmonton, also elected in 2015. She is Labour Co-operative politician, and was previously a GP practice manager.

Osamor also nominated Corbyn for leader. In January, she was made Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities.

Read a profile with Osamor from last year.

Rachael Maskell

Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary

Rachael Maskell is the MP for York Central, elected in 2015. Before becoming an MP, she was a care-worker and physiotherapist in the NHS. She is committed to improving mental health services and has served on the Health Select Committee since July.

Until recently, she worked on the Shadow Defence Team under Maria Eagle.

Cat Smith

Shadow Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs

Cat Smith has been the MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood since 2015. Prfeviously Shadow Minister for Women, Smith worked for Corbyn before entering parliament, and was one of the 36 MPs to nominate him for the leadership in 2016.

Lancashire Constabulary are currently investigating allegations that Smith breached spending limits on election campaigning.

Dave Anderson

Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary

Dave Anderson has been the MP for Blaydon since 2005. He worked as a miner until 1989 and then subsequently as a care worker, during which time he was also an activist in UNISON.

He has been a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee since 2005, with a longstanding interest in the Peace Process. In early 2015, Anderson was one of the signatories of an open letter to then leader Ed Miliband calling on Labour to oppose authority and renationalise the railways.