So, it finally happened. There’d been hints of it before (indicating the Play Doh box: “this is for boys AND girls, mummy!”) but it was never outright until the other night. A certain training pants ad came on TV, which ended on packshots, and she caught it. Up she piped: “pink is for girls and blue is for boys, mummy…”.
I’m not even going to pretend, in spite of the title of this post, that we handled it exactly right. In such a topsy turvy, arse-over-tit world, there probably isn’t a perfect way to deal with it. I went the route that, on the whole, I suspect works best, which is to ask lots of questions to help her unpick the message: “what makes you think that?” “why does it matter?”. Her dad, perhaps because the revelation is a little more recent to him and he’s less immersed in parenting communities on a day-to-day basis, went rather more strident: “if ever anyone tells you that, it’s rubbish!”. He also reeled off a list of counterexamples – not least the one that pointed out that our daughter’s second favourite colour, after red, is blue – and pulled out a shirt of his with pink and lilac stripes on it.
We probably overreacted. On further, gentle examination, it transpired she was actually only applying this rule to this particular product – although, as it’s only the packshots that show the gender distinction in that ad, it just goes to show how much even small details get noticed. But I immediately took to Facebook, depressed and feeling slightly like a failure. How could our daughter somehow not have absorbed my righteous indignation through the placenta? Why doesn’t my kid get a free pass on this shit? I’m a good feminist. I mean, I have failings and make decisions that aren’t always what a good feminist might do, but basically, I know this gendered marketing malarkey is rubbish and therefore I shouldn’t have to suffer it. Cos that’s how it works, right?
Of course, I know better. And I knew that going to Facebook was wise because it’s a place where people like Bea’s editor, Keris, can provide words of comfort and sense. One friend, Jo, whose sons are all kinds of awesome, reiterated what I suspected; that the best approach is not to go so gung-ho that you make the forbidden fruit too appealing. And really, I don’t want to exclude all pink and glitter from my daughter’s life at all – I just want balance, which apparently is too much to ask for sometimes. So – because I like to try and move myself from a point of helplessness as the gender juggernaut trundles towards me to a point of power where I amass my tools to fight the onslaught – here are my top three tips for dealing with this kind of nonsense when it strikes.
1. Don’t fight an assertion with an assertion.
The antidote to marketing assumptions is a questioning gaze. Also, try to find out what it is specifically that your child is saying, and why. It turned out my daughter was very specifically applying pink and blue to that product; she was perfectly willing to accept that her own multicoloured cartoon character pull-up pants are for anyone because she hasn’t seen an ad or packaging that suggests otherwise. Making it a bigger deal at her age – 2 and 3/4 – is just confusing.
Also, if you want to teach independence, you’ve got to teach independence, which means they get an opinion, not just your thoughts projected onto them. Obviously, you’re going to make plenty of decisions for them at this point, especially if they’re tiny, but it’s never too early to try to respect their individuality.
2. Don’t overdo it.
A rant goes over the head, and has far less power than a calm explanation; making yourself approachable sets a good precedent for far more delicate conversations when they’re older.
3. Fill your space with counterpoints.
Take inspiration from neutral clothing chains like Polarn O. Pyret, Tootsa MacGinty and Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, the last of which I can thank for giving me a mantra to pass down to my toddler: “colours are for everyone”. Seek out toys that show gender neutral play (or remove the packaging so kids are not led by the external appearance). I don’t worry about limiting TV per se, but I do TVR to try and avoid ads – though clearly not as well as I could have been. But having a gender balanced home in as far as you can achieve this means that when this situation does arise, you have a wealth of counterexamples at your fingertips.
This will not change overnight, but plenty of campaigns are starting to have an impact, with Boots, Hamley’s and other retailers gradually giving in to pressure from parents to change the gendered way they display toys. It is a matter of time, patience and persistence – as well as the snowballing successes of alternative options like PPBB – before manufacturers begin to follow suit, and advertisers along with them. That doesn’t mean sitting back and waiting for it to happen, but it does mean that options are beginning to appear and need to be grabbed with both hands.
It ain’t over til the gender-neutral choir gives an encore.