Watching TV on catch up last night I was delighted to see Mary Portas on Channel 4, Barbie - the most famous doll in the world, but dismayed as I saw her explore the links between gender stereotypes and the toys children play with. You see, as a young student I wrote my teaching dissertation on gender bias and stereotyping and I really hoped that over 20 years later things would be different, which quite frankly, they're not.
All those years ago I concluded that children were subject to gender conditioning from birth when they were wrapped in a pink or blue blanket and placed in parental arms. From that moment I argued, the child would be responded to differently, with little girls praised for being quiet and good and little boys the opposite. I was convinced that in the longer term this led to the repression of girls' confidence in speaking up for themselves and an indulgence for aggressive masculine behaviour, with the excuse that 'boys will be boys'. I argued that it was hardly fair to teenage boys and men that the rough and tumble and shows of strength so admired in a boy child is labelled as anti-social or worse once they are too big to sit on the naughty step for whacking someone.
I berated the marketing that categorised toys into 'boy' or 'girl', each neatly packaged with pictures of delighted girls or boys on the side so there could be no mistake. Needless to say, little girls were given nurses outfits, irons and tea sets and boys, who would doubtless grow up to do important things, doctors kits, building bricks and chemistry sets. This 'concentration of pink' as it was described in the programme, is reflected in clothing, nursery decorations and everything else.
I, like Mary and her wife, decided that gender-neutral toys were the order of the day for my children. Both my sons and daughters spent many happy hours dressed as princesses and building mechanical cars, until they left the confines of home for nursery school. Within a week I was in for a big shock when they would only play with the toys they saw as appropriate for their gender. Even now my eldest son cringes if I so much as mention the baby doll he took everywhere with him for the first three years of his life. Yet, I think my point stands; how can we expect our sons to be caring, responsible fathers when their early world experiences tell them that only girls 'look after' babies?
Even more alarmingly the programme claimed that the gender stereotypes perpetuated by toys are actually limiting the future choices of girls by closing off their horizons to well paid careers. It's a confusing world out there. On the one hand we see a drive to encourage girls into STEM subjects, and on the other Barbie, the ultimate pink princess, is still the most famous doll in the world. Is it still the case that girls' main aspirations are linked to the size and shape of their bodies, and how 'pretty' they are judged to be by others? Listening to the five year olds discussing this last night it would seem so. Certainly the new 'curvy' Barbie, which has been criticised for still not having the body mass index of a normal, healthy young woman were she real, has not resulted in the sales boost that Mattel, the manufacturers, were hoping for.
As a youth worker I want young women to be offered exciting opportunities, rather than lining the walls of the youth club whilst their male peers hog the pool table. Whilst agreeing that it is not good enough that young women are underrepresented in the majority of youth services, I am still repeatedly met with suggestions of 'doing hair or beauty nights' to encourage girls through the door and whilst I'm not opposed to grooming nights for young men or women, I can't help thinking that this reinforces the dolls play of the early years.
So what can be done? The world is an increasingly non-gendered place to grow up in and we need to teach our children the skills to thrive in it. This has to start from the early years, with children being offered toys and learning experiences across the spectrum to breakdown some the old school barriers that persist. They may ultimately still grow up to choose pink or blue, but hopefully they will learn to enjoy a bit of purple in the middle too.