Ugh. Where to even start?
Today, on a whim, I decided SB’s wardrobe could do with a little updating. She’s still comfortably in 12-18 month clothes, and will be for a while, but it never hurts to be prepared. So, off to the shops I went, for some 18-24 month and 2-3 years clothes. I only had two major criteria.
Nothing pink, and nothing setting back the feminist cause by fifty years.
Thankfully, in a venn diagram, most of the clothes that say “It’s Important To Be Pretty” and “Be Cute” are also bright pink, so I could just waltz right by them. I don’t have anything against pink, but it’s not my favourite colour to see on SB – I love her to have a real mix of colours in her clothes, rather than just row after row of pastels.
This is challenging enough when you’re shopping for a girl, and it’s pink as far as the eye can see. I’d say SB’s clothes are a good 50/50 mix from the Girls and Boys sections.
Still, it was depressing to walk through the girls aisles and see the slogans. Before anyone says “They’re just silly slogans”, I remember when I was eight or nine, girls my age were walking around with “SEXY” emblazoned across their bums. We look back on that with horror now – not in judgement of the young girls who wore the clothes, but the designers who think that’s a good message to be sending. It’s the same case here – I don’t judge anyone who buys these clothes for their daughters, but I sure as hell wish the designers would catch on to the fact that we’re in the 21st century, and few – if any – young girls now hold “being pretty” as their only goal in life.
A simple slogan of “CUTE”, I can just about deal with, although I still didn’t buy it. “You’re beautiful when you smile” ignited my judgypants – surely we should be teaching our kids that they’re beautiful all of the time? – but the worst culprit for sending my blood pressure soaring was “Be cute. Be beautiful. Be lovely”. How about be strong? Be intelligent? Be kind? Why are we still using clothing to send the not-so-subtle message to young girls that their attractiveness is the most important feature – and why are we telling one-year-olds to be beautiful? A) They already are beautiful, and B) Who are you suggesting they “be beautiful” for? How exactly do you suggest they “be beautiful” – a full face of make-up?
No doubt many will think this a petty gripe, but it’s a symptom of a wider problem in the message we’re sending to young girls. Still not convinced that sexism is prevalent in childrens’ clothing? I present to you exhibit B – character merchandise.
There’s been a lot made of the exclusion of Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens merchandise, and although I was disappointed by the exclusion, I wasn’t surprised. Two awesome, kick-ass female characters – Rey and Captain Phasma – totally ignored because of their sex. Captain Phasma wears armour, you can’t even tell if it’s a man or a woman under there without hearing the voice (it is, of course, the amazing Gwendoline Christie!) and yet she was still left out from so much merchandising because the companies felt their target demographic – young boys – wouldn’t want to play with a toy of a girl (forgetting that they now have a huge demographic of girls wanting merch too!).
According to this article, an insider in the toy/merch industry commented that toymakers were instructed not to produce merchandise featuring the female characters. “No boy wants to be given a product with a female character on it”, they were told. Apparently, they were asked to do the same for Power Rangers and Paw Patrol.
Paw Patrol is SB’s particular ‘thing’ at the moment. She’s watched it all on Netflix and will quite happily sit and watch for hours if we let her. The show in itself isn’t the most diverse cast of characters – only one female team member in Season One – but hey, they’re also talking, lifesaving emergency service animated dogs, so we’re not expecting gritty realism here.
I saw some Paw Patrol character clothing while I was out shopping, and thought “Brilliant! I’ll get some for SB, she’ll love it”. There were onesies, t-shirts, pyjamas, slippers, a jacket. There was only one thing missing.
Skye, the female member of the Paw Patrol.
Everyone else was on there. It was a big group shot, a great design for a pair of pyjamas, but with one member of the Paw Patrol missing, I decided not to buy it – and I certainly don’t think leaving Skye off every single piece of the merchandise in the shop was an accident or coincidence.
Paw Patrol is aimed at the pre-school age range, and the clothing goes from 12 months up to seven years. If your toddler is saying that they don’t want to wear a piece of clothing because there is a female character on it, or that they don’t want a toy because there’s a girl figurine as part of the set, then you need to evaluate what they’re picking up from the people around them. Kids don’t naturally say “I can’t play with this firefighter kit, it’s for boys”, or “I can’t read this book, there’s a girl in it”.
These designers and retailers play into the messages we send to our children – that boys become firefighters, doctors and superheroes, and girls become mothers, princesses and the girls that marry superheroes.
Defeated, I went to the Boys section, and picked up a load of great tops and t-shirts. Only a few of the t-shirts I saw said things like “Boy” or “Chap” on the design. I didn’t see a single one that said “Be Handsome”. Even Frozen merchandise got a look in, with Olaf and Sven designs (no Kristoff, unfortunately). Most of them had fun, cool, gender-neutral slogans on them. None of them made me particularly angry, with the exception of the Marvel t-shirts that ignored Black Widow.
In the end, I left with a selection of t-shirts from both sections for SB, with slogans ranging from “Messy Hair Don’t Care” to simply “EPIC”, so the shopping trip was a moderate success – but I know I can’t be the only one who gets frustrated by the experience of shopping for a girl, when you realise that these slogans are more than just words on clothes. Kids pay attention to them; they soak these things up.
Why are we still allowing designers and retailers to tell our sons they can do whatever they want, but our daughters that their attractiveness is their most important trait? Surely in this age where body-shaming, dysmorphia and eating disorders are so prevalent, selling clothing that values appearance above all else is the last thing we need?
I think it’s about time designers and retailers were forced to take responsibility and accountability for the messages they send out, and realise that if they’re profiting from selling clothes that say “I’m too pretty to do maths” to girls and young women, you’re letting them down in a big way.