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.

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.