A recent story about a dad who hacked into his ancient Donkey Kong game so that his 3 year old daughter could play the princess and rescue Mario got me thinking. I haven’t spent much time around babies and toddlers, but all of a sudden I have two sort-of nieces and I want to show them that they can be whatever they want to be and do whatever they want to do. They’re lucky that their mum is a doctor, so they have a great example close to home, but I’m hyper aware that our culture will offer stereotypes in opposition to that every single day of their young lives. Stereotypes in which appropriate behaviour, games and clothes for girls are prescribed and a rigid and solitary definition of girlhood is presented to them through television, books, advertising, shops and the other girls they play with.
I come from a little family, and I’m the eldest of a grand total of five grandchildren. Everything I wore was passed to my male cousin then my sister then my female cousin and finally (if the clothes hadn’t worn thin) to my brother. That wasn’t a problem in the mid 80s to early 90s because we all ran around in wool, cotton and corduroy (so much corduroy) in a mixture of reds, blues, greens and yellows. My parents and aunt weren’t being political or even particularly gender-conscious. They were just buying normal clothes for kids.
Oh yeah. Now you’ve taken in that smorgasbord of high fashion – let’s take particular note of the buttoned up shirt and green cords combo – try to imagine a little girl from a totally non-political, working class family wearing these outfits now. No skirts, no frills, no cartoon characters and absolutely no pink. It’s pretty difficult.
If the same set up were to happen in 2013, it would require some pretty deft and conscious clothes shopping to avoid the plethora of pink and lilac froth that is the bedrock of little girls’ clothing. Outfits and toys are so gendered that it’s likely that a wee boy would refuse to wear the hand me downs of his elder sister, via two other girls on the way down. And that is, I think, what’s at the heart of the pinkification of little girls – not a deliberate sexism, but money. You can make twice as much if parents have to buy double the amount of clothes, toys, blankets, prams, books etc etc if they have both sons and daughters.
Consumer culture and the idea that children need new, gender-appropriate clothes and toys if they are to be happy and demonstrably well-looked after, is no doubt a source of financial anxiety for lots of new parents. But aside from being financially problematic if you feel ashamed to take hand me downs of the ‘wrong’ colour from friends and family, the ‘one size fits all girls’ model of consumerist parenting is no doubt squeezing lots of girls into a pink, Princess-filled childhood that may not be the best fit for their needs. Growing up I played with Barbies, Thomas the Tank Engine and Lego. Two of those have now been branded as boys’ toys, with a special pink lego range for making beauty parlours and malls (I’m not even joking. I wish I was). It’s all narrowing down for girls, offering them a culturally sanctioned vision of femininity that they have to squeeze into, rather than an open choice of all the clothes and toys available.
Our niece’s second birthday is this week and I’m not sure how a Thomas the Tank Engine figure would go down, but I’m sure as hell not getting her a Barbie. So the answer lies in books, as usual. She’s getting Maisy’s Fire Engine – in which a wee firefighting mouse rescues a cat after her juniour colleague Cyril scares it on to a roof – and The Paper Bag Princess – in which a princess rescues Prince Ronald from a dragon but then he’s rude to her so she dumps him. God bless the internet for helping me find this stuff, because it sure as hell isn’t on the high street.