Donkey Kong and gifts for little girls

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.

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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.

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2 comments

  1. Amanda

    This is complicated. We just had a birthday party, of our 4 year old neighbor. As we were looking for presents I was inclined to get machines to make things (like smoothies, ice-cream, chocolate) or science-like toys (ant farms, mini microscopes,chemistry sets etc) and books. This is stuff I would have liked myself at that age (even now! ). But, the thing is , this girl (who has a brother, is exposed to legos, puzzles, books, colors and all kinds of non-gendered toys) is in fact in that stage where she is crazy about pink, princesses and hello kitty. I know that I have liked (even still do a bit) the color pink… and I know as a kid I also liked Hello Kitty, though I was not obsessed. In the end we got her a set of canvas with drawings, watercolors and glitter so that she could make her own art and a pretty turquoise green dress. It’s hard to balance all these things while still trying to get something the kid will actually like and enjoy and is not a reflection of us, as adults.

  2. Claire A

    I too would like an ant farm! I completely agree that some girls just genuinely love the colour pink and that to me is totally fine. What I worry about is that, in the UK at least, shops makes assumptions about what girls on average and boys on average will be interested in, rather than presenting the toys and clothes without value judgements about which gender it’s appropriate for. It is actively difficult for our friend’s nephew who loves pink and dolls – he is teased mercilessly at nursery but also by a lot of the adults in his life because pink has become just for girls. It’s really interesting that you said your neighbour’s brother’s toys – lego, puzzles, books, colors’ – are non-gendered because in the UK a lot of that has become gendered; lego in particular is now advertised as a boys’ toy with special pink, rounder and bigger lego sets for girls. I hope this hasn’t reached the Netherlands yet!

    Since writing this post I’ve started reading Natasha Walter’s book Living Dolls, and she talks a lot about ‘The New Determinism’ i.e. the way in which children are now being brought up in a society which thinks that male and female brains and behaviour are biologically different and already imprinted. I’ll write about it soon – but as a non-scientist I’ve found it really helpful to have the ‘bad science’ behind a lot of these studies explained to me. I’m sure you are way ahead on this – maybe I’ll get a mini chemistry set for Christmas if I’m good! x

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