The nights are drawing in, Goose Fair is done and dusted and the leaves are slowly changing colour and falling from the trees – it can only mean one thing: it’s birthday season in the Tastic household. Thankfully I only seem to be able to conceive children in the middle of February, so both my kids have Autumn birthdays. As it’s my birthday a few days later, it’s an expensive time of year. Ordinarily I love buying presents for my kids – the satisfaction and joy that comes of having found something that you know will make their day is unrivalled – but for the first time this year, I have really struggled.
The reason for this struggle has been my unwillingness to give into the demands for pink princessy plastic shite that have been issuing from the direction of my 3 year old daughter. My son was easy – he loves science and asked for and was duly bought a digital microscope, job done. My daughter, on the other hand, somehow managed to get hold of a toy catalogue, and has spent the last 3 months convinced that she will be receiving a pink ballerina Barbie riding on a pink My Little Pony to live in her purple sparkly pink and pink fucking plastic pink castle. Unsurprisingly, I have found this a little challenging.
I cannot understand how on earth I have managed to produce a female child that is obsessed with Princesses, loves playing with baby dolls and consistently chooses to wear dresses or skirts over trousers every single god damn day. My attempts to subvert her unhealthy obsession with Princesses led me to buy her both a Merrida doll (kickass warrior princess from Brave for those of you not in the know) and a copy of the Paper Bag Princess for her last birthday. She immediately stripped Merrida of all of her weapons, declaring her to be “Much prettier now” and told me she didn’t like the Princess story because she “Doesn’t have a dress” (it gets burnt off by a dragon who she later defeats with the help of her superior intellect). Despite being a bit gutted about being outwitted by a 3 year old, I was also secretly pleased with the way she refused to be swayed by my right on parenting and stuck to her guns.
The thing is, I don’t remember there being such a gender divide in the toy department when I was a kid. A friend of mine informed me that the Playschool movement was actually quite radical and meant that a lot of gendered toys disappeared from our pre school lives during the 70s and 80s which is probably why I had such a thing about Lego. Second wave Feminism seems to have made some gains in the quest to deconstruct gender stereotypes when I was growing up, but fast forward some 30 years and we seem to be going backwards. I became so enraged after my first visit to Toys r Us with its stupid segregated boys and girls sections that I swore never to return. I am sick of consumer goods manufacturers thinking that girls need pink keyboards, Jenga games, water bottles, sleeping bags and their own special Kinder eggs. I honestly don’t think I owned anything pink when I was a child and I have very few items of pink clothing now because, and this may come as a surprise to some, but I AM NOT GENETICALLY PROGRAMMED TO LIKE PINK. In fact, some might say I actively dislike the bloody colour.
All good feminists are aware that the whole pink and blue bullshit is a relatively recent phenomenon and that a hundred years ago, it was the other way round: boys were dressed in pink and girls in blue. This highlights the way in which my daughter’s apparent preference for one colour is a product of social conditioning, rather than an innate desire to drive her Mother mad. When I became aware that my daughter does genuinely seem to have a preference for pink, I also realised that I had been delighted when my son asked to wear pink clothes when he was of a similar age, because I saw this as a radical attempt to subvert social norms. Boys are normally discouraged from wearing tutus and fairy wings, but I happily let my son attend his first Christmas party at Nursery in such an outfit. I had a difficult week when he announced he wanted to go to his friend’s “Pirates and Princesses Party” as a Princess, and must admit even I was relieved when he changed his mind at the last minute.
Whilst I was mulling this over, the realisation struck me that it might just be that all 3 year olds like bright glittery sparkly things and that pink probably appeals to boys and girls alike. By the time they are a certain age, even the most determined feminist mothers then worry about the potential for their boys to be bullied and steer them towards the swords and eye patches – no more glitter for you! I felt really sad when I noticed that as boys get older, their clothes transform from toddler greens and reds and oranges to sensible boring browns, and blues and greys. I continue to seek out colourful clothes for my son, refusing to let him be oppressed by beige, but as he grows, this gets increasingly difficult. If you don’t believe me, next time you’re in a kid’s clothes shop, try and find a boy’s coat in a primary colour and you’ll see what I mean.
My Mum thinks my hatred of pink is funny and laughed when I told her that I support the Pink Stinks campaign. She clearly sees my opposition to such ridiculous gender stereotyping as humourless and unnecessary. As she is a Daily Mail reader I have not tried to explain it further, and have accepted that we are not going to see eye to eye on this one. She is not alone in her views however, and it’s easy to dismiss my annoyance as wasted ire. These things do matter however, every time we reinforce groundless gender stereotypes, we are telling boys and girls what they can and can’t be. Every time we let our girls aspire to be passive Princesses “because they wear dresses” (my daughter’s words), we are letting them down. In an attempt to resolve the issue once and for all, Cordelia Fine outlines in her magnificent book how boys and girls are born with very few inherent neurological differences – there are more differences within the sexes than there are between, and that it is the way we treat children that causes these differences to become entrenched and engrained. Girls are generally slightly better at activities involving the use of fine motor skills than boys, so we encourage them to engage in writing or colouring in, or other arty type things – whilst our boys, who are generally a tiny bit better at gross motor skills type play, run around outside and climb trees. Our perceptions of what is appropriate for boys and girls and our unwillingness to let girls take the same risks as boys, means that those tiny differences become huge by the time they are adults. By colour coding our toys into pink and blue we are sending clear messages to our children about what is and isn’t acceptable. Sorry, son, take off that tutu and come and play with these cars.
Eventually, after contemplating how I could give my daughter something she would actually like, I compromised and bought her a fairy jigsaw puzzle but paired it with a cool robotic fish in its own bowl. I tried and failed to buy her a Lamilly doll (a Barbie type thing but with correct body proportions) and then settled on some little wooden people with their own extensive wardrobe of clothes for her to play with. So far, I am still stubbornly refusing to buy her anything pink, but I have no doubt that my Mum will have that one covered.