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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser