Ed Miliband being patronised by Harriet Harman's pink sign. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Beyond the pink bus: why we still need to talk about "women's issues"

The Labour women's campaign launch has been obscured by criticism of their pink bus. But ask yourself: would you rather be mildly patronised - or totally ignored?

The moment I saw the picture of the pink bus I knew Labour's women launch was doomed. I've been to enough vaguely feminist events to know that two questions inevitably crop up. First, why aren't any men involved with this? Second, isn't pointing out that women are disadvantaged in any way deeply patronising, because it paints them as helpless victims? To this, there has recently been added a third query: are there any women's issues at all, any more?

This challenge comes from both ends of the ideological spectrum. Libertarians assert that the pay gap exists because women "choose" to have children and damage their careers; and in any case shouldn't we be talking about parents' issues? Variations of "what about the men" ring through this argument: what about the men who look after children? What about male rape victims? What about male victims of domestic violence? What about male circumcision? From people who are in most other ways their polar opposites comes a similar challenge: not all women are biologically female, so isn't it exclusionary to mark childcare and vaginal rape and abortion out as women's issues?

My answer to both is the same. Yes, we often talk about "women" in ways which do not do justice to the variety and complexity of women's experiences. But to abandon the idea of "women's issues" entirely is to give up our ability to construct a coherent argument about the way that one section of society is silenced and discriminated against. If we refuse to acknowledge the existence of a system, we deprive ourselves of the way to make any kind of alliance to fight it. We are left like David Cameron, urging individual business leaders to pay their workers more while refusing to acknowledge the system that makes any rational economic actor exploit a disposable workforce with zero-hour contracts and attrition of their labour rights. 

Childcare should be a parenting issue - but it's not. More women than men stay home to look after children. More women than men face the inevitable setback in status and salary that this entails. Caring more generally follows the same pattern: 75 per cent of those who claim a carer's allowance are women. The vast majority of nurses are women. The vast majority of primary school teachers are women. In our culture, caring overwhelmingly means women's care. I would like this to change, but until it does, robbing us of the right to call it a "women's issue" is robbing us of the right to speak at all.

I also feel a touch of nausea about the way in which issues of "low salience" - things that it is impossible normally to get people to talk about - suddenly become vital. Male rape victims face just as much trauma as female ones, and they have to navigate a system which regards them as the exception (something women have had to do for decades in other areas). It is hugely disrespectful to their suffering to invoke it only to shut a feminist up. Similarly, if you've spent the last two years gaily ignoring the Let Toys Be Toys campaign don't have a Damascene conversion to the fact that pink for girls is patronising just because Harriet Harman annoys you.

So, back to the Labour women's launch. The first thing to note is that they had one at all - and not some grudging, shame-faced sop, either. Actual money has been spent on this, and it was symbolically held in Labour HQ at Brewers Green in Westminster. As Harman noted, "I've had to get to 64 before I can do this." My prospective colleague Stephen Bush notes that you could fit every female MP the Liberal Democrats have ever had into Labour's 16-seater Pink Bus. (They also missed the opportunity to have a women's campaign fronted by Lady Garden, which is a travesty.) You could fit all the Tories' female full Cabinet ministers into a family pedalo, or even a bobsled if one of them sprained an ankle and had to sit the excitement out.

That's unlikely to change in the next parliament. Labour's research shows that 24 per cent of the Conservative's candidates (both existing MPs and new entrants) are women. There are only 10 women standing in the 56 seats currently held by the Liberal Democrats. Eleven per cent of Ukip's candidates are women. For the Greens, it's 39 per cent and for the Scottish National Party (which also uses all-women shortlists) it's 37 per cent.

Much as it pains me to defend a party stupid enough to have a pink women's campaign bus, the only reason that female representation in parliament has reached its current dizzying heights - 22 per cent! - is because of Labour. And at least the party is trying to talk about the burden of care, equal pay, rape and domestic violence during the election campaign instead of repeating "long term economic plan" like their lives depend on it.

The pink bus was a terrible idea. But still, on balance, I'd rather be mildly patronised than totally ignored.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Bennett Raglin / Getty
Show Hide image

How gendered are this year’s most popular Christmas present toys?

Meet the groups fighting back against the gendering of children’s toys over the festive season.

You’re a young girl. You go into WH Smith’s to pick out a colouring book for Christmas. You could buy the Girls’ World Doodling and Colouring Book, a "gorgeous gift for any girl". In this, the pictures range "from flowers, fans, feathers, to birds, buttons and butterflies". Or Colouring for Girls: Pretty Pictures to Colour and Complete, where you can colour in "beautiful birds, seashells, cupcakes, pretty patterns and lots more". The counterpart Boys’ Colouring Book has a range beyond buttons and feathers: "Planes, trains and automobiles – plus the odd alien spacecraft".

In the run-up to Christmas, this kind of gendered marketing is rife, particularly finding its way into the predominantly pink colour scheme of girls’ toys.

Take Amazon’s page "2016 Toys for Girls": a pink icecream trolly set, a pink light-up tablet, pink building blocks, pink and purple friendship bracelets and so on.

There are several groups taking action against the "pinkification" of children’s toys. One of these is Let Toys Be Toys, a group that targets large supermarkets with the aim of reducing the gendered marketing used on children’s goods.

The Let Toys Be Toys blog focuses on specific examples of targeted gendering within shops, catalgoues and online. A particularly revealing example of how prevalent this has become in recent years is in two pictures published from the Argos catalogue, one from the Seventies, and one from nowadays. The eye-wateringly pink page from now makes the 1970s page look dour by comparison. The lack of change over four decades of what kind of products are marketed at girls is equally striking:

Despite the efforts of campaign groups such as Let Toys Be Toys, the prevalence of gendering within the highest-rated children's gifts for 2016 is staggering.

Look no further than the Ultimate Christmas Gifts Guide from Toys R Us. One of the most immediately obvious examples is the way in which the pink/blue colour schemes are used to market identical products. This is repeated again and again:

This identical drawing board is uniquely packaged to the binary colour codes that are so common within children's toys stores.

The same applies with this keyboard, where the young girl and boy are pictured almost identically, save for the coordination of their clothes to the colour of their toys.

The message is a hugely limiting one: one that allows little movement away from the binary of pink/blue. The effects of this are longstanding. A recent poll from YouGov shows that "only a third of parents approve of boys playing with Barbies". The data goes on to explain that "while most parents approve of girls playing with toys marketed to boys, a minority of adults approve of the opposite".

Images like this were the inspiration behind Let Toys Be Toys, back in 2012. The campaign began on Mumsnet, the forum for parents, on a section called "AIBU", which stands for "Am I Being Unreasonable?". One parent posted the question: "Am I being unreasonable to think that the gendered way that children’s toys are marketed has got completely out of hand?" The heated discussion that followed led to a sub-section with the founding memebers of Let Toys Be Toys.

This aside, Let Toys Be Toys has made signifcant progess since it began. It targets large stores, focusing on gendered signage both in store and online. In their four years, they have campaigned for signs like "girls' toys" and "boys' toys" to be removed from retailers such as Boots, Debenhams, Morrisons, Toys R Us and TK Maxx. It is the go-to hashtag on Twitter for examples of the often shocking gendering of children’s toys.

"This is ostensibly about toys, but what we’re really talking about is gender stereotypes that shape our children’s worlds in an apparently very unassuming way," says Jess Day, a Let Toys Be Toys campaigner. "It seems very innocent, but actually what we’re doing is giving children very clear instructions about how to be a man and how to be a woman."

These clear instructions work beyond colour coordination: where girls are sold the image of the pink "girly girl", for instance. This is evident in children’s fancy dress costumes. Early Learning Centre’s (ELC) children’s fancy dress range imposes very rigid gender roles. To give examples from the current christmas range:


Credit: ELC

Again, the predominant colour sceme is pink. The roles offered are mainly fairies and princessess: generally make-believe.

“I found it really interesting that there were almost no ads showing girls doing anything," comments Day. "Physically they were very passive. The only physical activity we saw girls doing was dancing. They weren't really moving around much."


Image: ELC

By contrast, young boys are offered the possibility of pretending to be a firefighter, a policeman or a doctor, among other practical, professional roles.

This year's Toys R Us Christmas advert follows on from this, with girls mainly dressed as princesses, and boys dressed as knights and kings. Much like the pink/blue colour scheme that we see all over children's shops, these fancy dress costumes create an unnatural binary. They send out a message that restricts any kind of subversion of these two supposedly polar opposites.

What's more, the subtext is one that is deeply rooted in expectations, building up a picture where careers such as that of a policeman and fireman come more naturally to boys, who have been socialised into these roles from childhood through fancy dress costumes of this type. Instead, girls are later forced to learn that most of us aren't going to become princessess, and none of us fairies – and so the slow process begins to unlearn these expectations.

There are certainly groups who try to counteract this. Manufacturers such as the toy brand IamElemental aims to break down the gendered distinctions between boys' toys and girls' toys, by creating female action figures.

“We always say that we are not anti-doll or anti-princess, but that if you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story," says Julie Kershaw, a member of the organisation. "As the mom of two boys, I always say that it’s just as important to put a strong healthy female action figure in a boy’s hand as it is a girl’s”.

Like the campaigners behind Let Toys Be Toys, IamElemental sees children’s toys as the starting point.

“We want kids – both girls and boys  – to internalise these messages early and often,” says Kershaw. “While there are certainly biological differences between girls and boys, gender-specific toys are not a biologically dictated truth. Toys are not “for girls” or “for boys”  – toys are for play; for exploration and creative expression.”

This attitude is ingrained in a child’s early years. Only through reconfiguring the gender sterotypes of the toys we buy for our children can we begin to break down their expectations of how to behave in age. We challenge you this Christmas to avoid these highly gendered products. Below are our three favourite Christmas presents for children this year, for girls AND boys, as approved by Let Toys Be Toys:

Mini Table Tennis (£7.99)


From: The Little Toy Box

Djeco Intro to Origami - Animals (£3.99)

From: Rachel's Toy Shop

Seedling Make Your Own Dino Softie! - Dino(sew)or Kit (£5)


From: Gifts For Little Ones