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

Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.