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.

Felipe Araujo
Show Hide image

Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.