I’m a dad. My daughter will be two years old next month and she’s a healthy, inventive, cheeky little girl, just like millions of other healthy, inventive, cheeky little girls. But I worry about her a lot. Or to be clearer, I don’t worry about her, I worry about the world she’s growing up in and the impact it might have on her. And one particular facet of this worry is the strikingly narrow ways in which we define gender roles.
I’d thought about gender roles before becoming a father, of course. But once you’re actually responsible for the upbringing of a burgeoning little person you start to think a little more deeply about some of these issues. It starts before your little bundle of joy even arrives with starkly outlined choices about the colour of their nursery, the style of their first babygrow or the kind of animals to put on the mobile over their cot. Pink, cutesy and with flowers = girls. Blue, boistorous and with cars or robots = boys. Simple, innit…
Girls’ things and boys’ things
Or is it that simple? Why does a girl’s room have to be pink? Why do we always think boys will love playing with cars over, say, a doll? Are these preconceptions actually written down somewhere in the Acme Book Of Rules For Gender Stereotypes? Of course they’re not. And you’d think that in the supposedly enlightened 21st century that saying ‘Well, she’s a girl. Of course she must play with dolls’ would be as outmoded, wrong and offensive as saying ‘Well she’s a woman. Of course she shouldn’t have the right to vote’. But, sadly, this idea of the world being divided into ‘girls’ things’ and ‘boys’ things’ is manifested in all sorts of peculiar ways..
You think I’m kidding? How about this one then: you can buy a pink Prittstick glue stick that’s ‘just for girls’. Yes, really. A glue that’s gender specific. Because you wouldn’t want to be cutting out paper princesses and not have a completely feminine glue to stick them down with. And how do we know it’s for girls? Well, it’s pink, of course.
You can also get Kinder Eggs in both pink and blue versions. Pink again, you see. Now this is allegedly not done to divide the eggs into blue ones for boys and pink ones for girls. But I think we can all see the not-so-subtle subtext here. The pirates, dinosaurs and space rockets are not gonna end up in the pink egg, are they. But the really scary thing, for me, is that when I was a small boy in the 1980s Kinder Eggs were just… Kinder Eggs. There was no gender specific version. It was just a mildly disappointing chocolate egg with an invariably crappy plastic toy inside. It didn’t matter if you were a boy, or a girl; the experience was the same.
Why are gender roles moving backwards?
So, in an age where discrimination and bigotry is rightly challenged on a daily basis, are we actually going backwards when it comes to gender roles for our kids? Were we more progressive in the unreconstructed 80s than we now seem to be in 2015? Are we getting more conservative and narrow-minded rather than less?
Over 40 years ago, Lego set a quite pioneering precedent for users of its creative (and potentially extremely painful when stepped on) building bricks. It included a letter with selected boxes of a Lego dolls house which starts with this opening phrase:
“The urge to create is equally strong in all children. Boys and girls.”
It goes on to say that it’s imagination that’s important and that it’s absolutely fine for a boy to build a doll’s house or a girl to build a spaceship. Pretty awesome. Especially when you consider this is 1974, an age when strong, female role models aren’t exactly easy to come by.
And that’s why it’s so scary that we seem to be going backwards, rather than forwards, where gender roles are concerned. How can we expect my daughter’s generation to grow up with open minds about gender when they are constantly told ‘No, this is a boys’ toy, not a girls’ toy’. If a girl never builds a spaceship, a bridge or a racing car is she going to be equally restricted in her choice of occupation in later life? I really hope not.
Promoting creativity, not preconceptions
I’ve tried to be as open as possible in the choice of toys I’ve given my daughter. She’s as happy playing with a pirate ship in the bath as she is playing with a pink Peppa Pig doll. She gets as much fun growling like a brontosaurus and playing with her dinosaur as she does colouring in princesses in a colouring book. She’s as excited about finding the apple shape that fits in her wooden puzzle as she is being read a story about a cute bunny rabbit. In short, she’s two year’s old and doesn’t think about whether something is ‘for a girl’. She just interacts with it and learns from it.
And I really hope it stays that way. If she wants to dress as a princess in two years’ time, that’s fine with me. And if she wants to also dress up as an astronaut or a soldier or Spiderman, that’s fine too. As long as she’s being creative, using her imagination and having fun, I don’t have a problem with her choices. If she can grow up in a world where there are just ‘things’ without them being ‘boys’ things’ and ‘girls’ things then I’ll be a happy dad. And I hope if someone challenges my daughter that she’ll be as fearsome as the girl who forced Tesco to change their sexist signage for a superhero alarm clock because the advertising called it a ‘fun gift for boys’. As she rightly pointed out, it’s not a clock for boys: it’s just a clock. And if we can all get used to that concept, we’ll give our daughters a much better and more open-minded world to live in.