Why are social conservatives so triggered by John Lewis's gender-neutral kids' clothing?

The most staunch defenders of essential gender differences know their value system would fall apart at the slightest touch.

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This morning I sent my son to nursery in a Peppa Pig T-shirt. It’s OK, though, the main fabric was blue and the image included Peppa’s brother, George. Like most responsible parents, I consider it essential that the entire world knows at first glance the potential future reproductive role of my two-year-old.

Or at least that’s how I’m discovering I’m supposed to think. Call me a Remain-voting, latte-swilling member of the liberal elite, but the current outrage over John Lewis’s decision to use gender-neutral labelling for its children’s clothing has taken me by surprise. Are people really that bothered? Why, yes, it turns out they are.

I’ve always viewed gender-neutral children’s clothes as one of those “soft”, relatively easy-win feminist issues. Unlike the defence of pornography, male violence or the idea of male and female brains, the belief that girls should button their shirts on one side, boys on another, has never seemed to me a hill that anyone would really want to die on.

Yes, people care about it, and there is still huge stigma attached to boys wearing what are seen to be “girls’” clothes. Even so, I’ve tended to feel confident that when it came down to it, no one would kick up a fuss over girls having dinosaurs on dresses or labels saying “girls and boys” or “boys and girls”. They’d feel too stupid, right?

Alas, I was wrong.

On one level, the John Lewis gender-neutral clothing backlash is really rather funny. It’s an opportunity for us liberals to poke fun at social conservatives who find themselves, in this instance at least, on the wrong side of history.

Yes, you may have Brexit, Trump and reproductive rights in disarray, but look! A triceratops on a pink unisex sweater! In your face, suckers!

“Can we call it John Lewis anymore or does it have to be Joan Lewis?” trolls Piers Morgan. “Wicked beyond comprehension,” tweets a Catholic priest. “There are two sexes, MALE and FEMALE, no inbetween. I have two girls who DRESS as girls,” declares intersex-denialist and CapsLock fan Sir Loin.

While I don’t wish to make fun of trauma deeply felt, the special snowflakery on display here is rather amazing. What do these people want? Content warnings whenever there’s a risk they might come into contact with a toddler of ambiguous gender presentation?

On another level, there’s something more serious going on. What this backlash illustrates is the fact that even the most staunch defenders of so-called “essential differences” between males and females know, deep down, that their value system would fall apart at the slightest touch.

If you really, truly believed that girls were born to be compliant and compassionate, boys to be aggressive and dominant, you wouldn’t be scared of an item of clothing undoing all of this complex hardwiring. You wouldn’t see any need to make sure the entire world knew, at all times, whether your baby had a penis or a vagina. You’d simply trust in nature to do its thing, regardless of how anyone else saw and responded to your child.

In some ways it’s reassuring to witness such public displays of insecurity on the part of sexists. At the same time, the gender-neutral clothing debacle reminds us that eradicating sexism isn’t just a matter of educating the ignorant. If sexists already know that gender is a social construct, it’s more a question of persuading them that the benefits of equality outweigh those of patriarchy. The trouble is, for men such as Piers Morgan, it may well be that they don’t.

Gendered clothing differences are ridiculous, but they are effective in maintaining a hierarchy which benefits some people while disadvantaging others. As this excellent thread on school uniform by @honeypsquared shows, so-called “girls’ clothes” are often uncomfortable and impractical, limiting freedom of movement and leading to broader, lasting changes in how girls behave. 

An alternative world – in which girls move as freely as boys – is one which many people fear. Telling them “it’s only clothing” isn’t enough. They know it’s more than that.

That’s why I was wrong to underestimate how much a change in labelling matters. It’s also why tomorrow, I’m definitely sending my son to nursery in pink. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.