Real Role Models

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Last year I read a piece by Polly Toynbee about 'girlification' and its part in the backlash against feminism. By 'girlification' she means the relentless way young girls are targeted from the minute they're born with pink toys, pink clothes, pink accessories, princesses, Barbies, Bratz, makeup and heels. The way they're encouraged to judge each other on the way their look and how much they weigh and pick at 'flaws' in their own appearances from a progressively younger age. As I don't have children of my own I don't get year-round exposure to this sort of thing but you can't fail to miss it at Christmas, when the television is filled with adverts for the year's 'must-have' toys and gadgets. Boys get to be superheroes, pirates and soldiers, work with their hands and go on adventures. Girls get to be princesses and learn to be 'just like mum' by playing with toy kitchens and home appliances.

When my sister and I were young, my mum had no problem with us playing with dolls or the toy kitchen we received one Christmas from our grandparents. But she also made sure we owned toy cars, miniature gardening tools and a farmyard complete with animals, barn and working chute for bales of hay (this was *the best*). I distinctly remember acting out scenes from favourite Disney films in the playground at school where we'd all fight over who got to be Ariel or Cinderella, but we loved playing Robin Hood, pirates and adventure-based games. Thinking back I remember there being much less of a divide between 'boys' stuff' and girls' stuff' than I see today when I look in children's clothes or toy shops. All girls' clothes and toys were not pink or purple when I was a child. If being a girl is about worrying about your appearance and weight, wanting to be a princess or 'famous' and playing games which involve housework, how do girls who don't fit this 'norm' feel?

I don't think that liking the colour pink or pretending to be a princess is going to damage young girls. I do believe that promoting this 'girlification' as the only way for a girl to be is going to cause damage. Over the next few years I hope to have children of my own. It occurred to me yesterday that it really worries me that any daughter or daughters I might have could end up being negatively influenced by the 'cult of pink'. Of course it's pretty easy to keep these influences out of your own house but what happens when your daughter starts school? Will that mark the beginning of preoccupation with appearance, weight and narrowing down her choices in life, all because of the marked division between 'things for boys' and 'things for girls'? I don't think it's a case of wanting to stop girls enjoying wearing pink and playing 'princesses', but really making them aware that there are a whole range of choices for them in life and that being female doesn't have the narrow definition toy companies and television shows would have them believe.

Recently it has come to my attention that Amazon sells magnetic words for children, aimed at helping kids aged four and up with their vocabulary. There are separate versions for girls and boys. A few of the 'girl' words: clothes, lipstick, want, pink, makeup, princess, diamond, tiara, party. Compare these to a selection of the 'boy' words: monster, racing, moon, helicopter, grass, dogs, forest, swimming, blue. I can't believe they've used 'want', for one thing. One reviewer has summed up my feelings exactly with this comment:

Thank goodness the set excludes any complicated words like Doctor, or Car, or Career, or heaven forfend: Reading. We don't want our little ones to get silly ideas in to their heads. The right social conditioning from as early as possible will present the world with compliant, self absorbed, distressed, depressed and anorexic teenagers who are all the more willing to spend, spend, spend on hopeless diet cures, makeup, hidden, guilt ridden chocolate (one of the special words placed here!) and anti-depressants which will really make life worth living.

This is why i'd like to promote a website i came across a few weeks ago: PinkStinks. PinkStinks hopes to 'inspire, educate, excite and liberate girls from the negative stereotypes which increasingly saturate the world around them'. One section of the campaign website lists women who are great role models for young girls - women who excel in sport, music, science, film and technology (among others) - and the women behind it are currently developing a website for girls themselves, entitled 'Cool To Be Me'. To read more click here or visit the PinkStinks blog. I can't wait to see how the campaign progesses.


designermonkey said...

Very interesting. I completely agree with what you're saying here, I've seen it for years!

My Mum and Dad let my Brother and I play with girls things when we were growing up like makeup, shoes, dolls etc etc along with He-man toys and GI Joe figures... I think it gave me a sense of a 'feminine side' that I've held dear all my life.
Your argument goes both ways in my opinion, boys have the same rubbish forced down their throats about how to be 'men'. Rubbish. I've never been what other men class as a 'man' and I don't much care to be honest...

I think there needs to be a change both ways to make the world a better place.

See you at work ;0)

Anonymous said...

i really enjoyed reading this. i also had toy cars when i was little, and a train set and meccano. in fact, i'm sure that i only ever wanted a barbie when i was at school. it's head fell off too easily though, and i got bored and went back to my cars.

Anonymous said...

great post! completely agree.

Hannah, can we re-post this on liberal conspiracy? We can credit it as saying it was first posted here, but I'd like the sentiment here, and the link to the campaign.
(please email (sunnyh AT liberalconspiracy DOT org if you don't mind. I couldn't find your email.)

Hannah said...

John, i definitely agree about boys having the same forced down their throats to negative effect. The promotion of overly-'macho', sneering at all things 'girly' masculinity causes so much damage.

See you soon :P

Hannah said...

Sunny, i dropped you an email, hopefully you received it ok! I say this because my email has been playing up over the past few days.

Eline said...

This is such a great post, Hannah! Thank you for linking because I must've missed it in my Google Reader somehow.

It's great that you're raising attention for this because lord knows this is needed! Personally though the "Pink Stinks" stings me a little. I love wearing pink because it symbolises a brainless bimbo with no aspirations whatever and I'd like to turn that around and surprise people with the fact that I possess such a thing as intelligence! I do get why they're targeting and naming this pink but ai! it stings, haha.

Christine-Felicity said...

Great post! I agree that there needs to be variety of choices and things to expose younger girls to in terms of learning and playtime. When I was a little girl I distinctly remember collecting Barbie dolls, but I also remember being an obsessive reader because reading was how I got the chance to spend time with my parents.

I don't think wearing or liking pink is a bad thing either, it's what other facets to yourself you have that matter. It's being taught that there are other things out there open to you. It's kind of like what I said last night... that just cause someone is a girl doesn't mean that they have to be stupid. We're lucky these days, we can go to school, go to university, get a degree (I recall women being able to go to uni but not have a degree at the end of it in around the 1940s... Oxford and Cambridge... but maybe all universities), have a job, drive, vote etc etc. There are still so many avenues open for women it's just knowing that they are open and that they exist.

Bratz are so so wrong though. They look like warped Angelina Jolies and no matter what race each one is they all look the same and portray some set standard of 'this is how beautiful people look'.


Hannah said...

I agree, it's definitely all about knowing that there are a range of choices open to you and knowing that being female doesn't mean being confined to certain hobbies and careers. Glad you liked the post :)


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