Why do girls get glitter, hair and fluff while boys can have money, cars and trees?

The kind of cradle-to-grave gender-based marketing that suggests girls like princesses and boys like adventures has to stop. Language is the one of the most powerful tools we have, and using it to project such a sexist agenda is unacceptable.

The above picture, which was doing the rounds earlier this week on Twitter, was naturally met with much consternation. Both sets of fridge magnets are part of Indigo Worldwide’s National Literacy Range, and do much to highlight the gender differences apparent in many of the products marketed to children. The Amazon reviews are something to behold. "Usually it would take a child quite a number of years to really receive and understand all these spectacularly sexist messages about being a girl," writes Kay. "But here, for such a small amount of money, these messages can all be received at once and not only that, but they can be left attached to a fridge so the girls get to see them each and every day." C Hurley, meanwhile, writes: "Thank goodness the set excludes any complicated words like Doctor, or Car, or Career, or heaven forfend: Reading. We don't want our little ones to get silly ideas into their heads. The right social conditioning from as early as possible will present the world with compliant, self absorbed, distressed, depressed and anorexic teenagers who are all the more willing to spend, spend, spend on hopeless diet cures, makeup, hidden, guilt ridden chocolate (one of the special words placed here!) and anti-depressants which will really make life worth living."

As an example of how cradle-to-grave gender-based marketing works, you couldn’t ask for better. They do indeed prep young girls for a lifetime of fretting and preening. Boys, meanwhile, get scooters and aeroplanes and adventures. These magnets are the modern embodiment of the nineteenth century nursery rhyme "What are Little Boys Made Of?” ("slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails"), except now it’s 2013, and many parents will not have this shit anymore. Products such as this are insulting to both genders. Depressingly, just as many parents continue to unthinkingly buy into this narrative: that little boys play with dinosaurs and dirt while little girls love ballet and bunnies, and while it may seem like stating the obvious to say that no child emerges from their mother’s womb with an immediate preference for blue over pink, or guns over fairies (despite what A A Gill appears to have argued earlier this year (£)), and that much of this is down to socialisation, it is still something that needs to be said. And yet, adverts such as a recent one for the Disney store which says "join our princess and pirates academy" still imply that kids’ roles are clearly delineated. Deviate at your peril.

Any parent with a little boy who likes being the princess, not the pirate, and a little girl who likes drawing maps and hunting for lost treasure knows that messages such as this are pure, unadulterated bollocks. As children, both of us were just as into power rangers, dinosaurs, mud pies, ghosts and wizards as we were into fairies and tiaras (if not more so). We’re not saying that it’s bad to let your daughter dress up as a princess if that is what she wants, but that she be given the option. Why shouldn’t she be a pirate, and play with conkers, and have adventures too? Perhaps what’s most depressing about the fridge magnets is how active the boys’ ones are (climbing, running, swinging), and how passive the girls’, whose only doing word is "cooking". Much like that bloody Guardian article, which suggested that you teach your daughter maths through the medium of baking, these magnets show that pre-school gender stereotyping is alive and well.

The nature of the words used also raises several points about gendered language. An editor once told us the differences that she sees in male and female copy. In her experience, while male columnists will assert their opinion as fact – "the coalition government is flailing" – female columnists will tend to cloak their argument in qualifying statements - "I think that", "it seems that", "it could be argued that". Women are still taught not to assert themselves, not to stick their necks out, not to be opinionated, and, while a set of kid’s fridge magnets may not seem like a big deal to some, they bear out this idea of women being passive, compliant creatures, something which can have real repercussions into adulthood. Many of the women who submit entries to projects such as Everyday Sexism detailing sexual harassment, groping and assault have only just realised that they have had some sexism done to them, because for far too long, the message has been "don’t make a fuss", "don’t assert yourself", even if someone has undermined your bodily autonomy in the most horrific of ways. That more and more women are sharing their experiences and realising that they can stand up and fight back is heartening, but more needs to be done to encourage women to come forward and say "this is bullshit’.

Another nauseating aspect is the cutesy nature of the lingo the magnets use. "Furry", "fluff", "sherbet" – words saccharine to the point of being vomit-inducing. For a company which aims to promote literacy, words such as this certainly aren’t doing much to foster a new generation of erudite women who are masters of the English language. Perhaps they represent a training exercise for the women’s mag journalists of the future, whose squeals of "OMG! WANT!" and "OBSESSION: SCATTER CUSHIONS" permeate the pages of the glossies, making adult women sound like Honey Boo Boo on speed and showing that baby talk isn’t just reserved for those in nappies. This dumbing down of language isn’t unique to women’s magazines – as the regularly peddled out stat about the Sun being tailored to a reading age of ten shows – but within their (s)hallowed pages the copy takes on a creepily infantilistic tone.

There is a myth that women use three times as many words as men in any given day (or similar - the number varies constantly), something which is hard to believe with learning tools such as this. The words we use and the way we use them tell us much about the state of gender equality today – from how we’re told to talk about our bodies (who can forget "woo-hoo for my froo-froo"?) to the power relations in our relationships ("daddy’s little princess" "all my bitches and my hos"). Language is one the most important tools that we have, and when our voices aren’t being muffled, they’re being steeped in a sexist agenda that can be so subtle that we’re all too often unaware of the implications. It’s time we ditched the hairbands, the hearts and the handbags and taught our daughters how to say "fuck off", once and for all. 

The two sets of fridge magnets that apportion rigid gender roles to children. Photograph: @talkingdoggenre on Twitter

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder