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 will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.