Fresh outrages with children’s clothing and social nudging at Tesco.

Recently acquired for our 21-month-old female child: the kind of funky “Digi Robot” pyjama set, in exciting oranges, blues, stripes…
tesco-boys-pyjamas-roboto

By far the nicest jammies in the (limited) selection available, and she loves them. In fact, within seconds of seeing them she had stripped off, the quicker to get into them. Yet they are, somewhat perplexingly, labelled “boys pyjamas”.

Here are some other pyjamas with which you can “update his nightwear”:

"...because Mummy is soft as shite."

“…because Mummy is soft as shite.”

And here, by contrast, are some “girls pyjamas“:

Sarcastic captions fail me.

Sarcastic captions fail me.

The more I think on these colour associations, and the not-so-subtle social nudges provided by the stuff written on clothing, when I consider our two year old daughter and the choices being made on her behalf by Tesco and all the other outlets getting all pink and beauty sleepy in her face at every turn, the more… well, actually, it makes me just baffled. Like, whaaat? I really don’t get it. How is orange male? Why is that strong just like daddy? What if boys want to be beautiful and/or sleepy? How many meetings have I missed?

Then I worry. It’s not just Tesco, of course. It’s everywhere. It’s constant. So the problem must be me. In the face of this realisation, I think, what sort of monster have I become? Buying something intended for a particular function, then transgressing social mores and chromatic decency by misusing it!

Then I think, right. I want a king size bag of blue grips over here for all the males, and a queen size bag of pink ones over here for the little ladies. Now we can all GET A GENDER-APPROPRIATE GRIP.

It is the start of the holidays, yet I cannot quite escape the chalkface. First, Britain’s state propaganda news organ the BBC reports on a forthcoming speech by Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of the schools inspectorate Ofsted, to be delivered later today (3rd April 2014).

(I will quickly gloss over the annoyance of news media pre-reporting speeches as having been ‘said’ by someone, an annoyance prompted by five years spent transcribing and editing speeches, scripted and unscripted.)

The meat of the nub of the crux of Sir Michael’s gist is that nurseries, playschools, need “greater emphasis on structured learning”. However, in a related report, the Beeb notes that despite expert advice to the contrary, “play” at playschool is not deemed worth mentioning in Early Years Teacher training.

“While the Early Years Teacher (qualification, EYT) requires the teacher to have a clear understanding of synthetic phonics in the teaching of reading and appropriate strategies in the teaching of early mathematics, there is no mention of theories underpinning structured play.”

There are several hats I could put on to be annoyed by this news – as a qualified teacher, as a parent and as someone who likes playing about, for three.

Any fule in teeching kno about the benefits to be gained from play, if only looking as far as the vaunted Finnish approach to education, which features no formal learning until the age of seven.

This pre-school annoyance sits, second, beside further dismay at the non-news that an “ultra-high grade” will help a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) “shake-up” in England and Wales. Again, I will gloss over my irritation at the term “shake-up”, which rather than actual change suggests snow-globe inversion, cascading flakes for a short time then as you were.

When the idea was first floated last year, I was saying – informed comment in my capacity as a teaching professional, just to waft my certificates at you once more – that the problem of “A*” becoming devalued is not one to be solved by introducing another scheme entirely. As if letters have suddenly stopped being able to do what we tell them. Maybe numbers work better on spreadsheets? Or should we just go for Alphas, Deltas, Gammas? Aldous Huxley gently rotates. The concept of the A* has in any case always seemed risible:

“…these go to 11…”

I will now be thoroughly annoying myself and quote my own commentary on the grades from Twitter, last Jun:

Education is too easily seen and used as a political football… with successive governments and inspectorates also moving goalposts, widening them, or replacing them with giant sausages. I dunno. I do not have ready answers. There’s a lot to think about, and I’m supposed to be on Easter hols as well. All I can say is, people know what Sam Cooke means when he sings of “being an A student, baby”. Do we want A student babies though?

Sometimes I love the career I embarked on. Sometimes it just makes me feel like I’m playing for the wrong side.

Hey! Teacher!

Hey! Teacher!

LTBT_logo
The consumer organisation Let Toys Be Toys (LTBT) is “asking retailers to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys.” I think this campaign is worthy of support.

Gender is a problematic term. Many people take gender simply to mean ‘Do you have a willy or a fanfan?’ As well as this seemingly straightforward idea of biological gender – and I tiptoe about the concept because there are so many nuances that this piece will not address – there are ideas of gender as a construct, gender as behaviour, which is a jumbo family-sized can of worms, served on a bed of nails, with a banana skin reduction.

An idiot, recently.

An idiot, recently.

On the whole, having just now checked my privilege, I would say that I consider myself aware of many ‘gendered’ problems, although with regard to getting wound up about it I let it slide most of the time. I am dissuaded from involvement in gender politics by some of the types of very earnest people who are involved deeply, and who like throwing around magic word bombs like ‘cisnormative’, language that excludes at the very moment it claims to speak of including. For balance and the record, I am also repelled by the kinds of idiot who call people ‘feminazis’.

One has to pick one’s battles, in short. I continue to modify my views where needed, recognising the tendency of habit and opportunism to solidify abstractions and ideas into actual cages. One would be a dogmatist to do otherso. Yet, since my partner and I welcomed a baby daughter, I am becoming increasingly militant about the way ‘society’ continues to try to organise ‘the genders’. There is a point for starters: ‘the genders’. What LTBT are talking about, and me, here, is the ways in which society usually limits itself to just the two genders, and define them, in profoundly unnatural, superficial and restrictive ways.

Since baby daughter arrived, the kind of phenomenon referred to by LTBT is continually coming to our attention. I mean, we were conscious of it before as well, it has just now been foregrounded. Wandering round Tesco, we saw the toys to which the LTBT site refers.

Tesco_toys

We goggled. I mean, fair dos to Tesco who have, according to LTBT, said they will no longer assign a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ category to toys on their site. Yet this is really just a cosmetic measure – and, of course, it is not just Tesco. Pushing or toting Oh Bibbed-One round, we observe the same phenomenon in all sorts of shops, in all sorts of areas, from stationery to electronics, cards to clothes.

Clothes in particular – the pink for girls thing? Awful, and omnipresent. There is actually a website devoted to this specific issue, called Pink Stinks. There is a comprehensive article, ‘Make-up for babies’, which is well worth a read.

This topic links pinkies with a similar out-in-public phenomenon, which I do not think is the same as corporate nurture, witnessed in people who are doubtless well-intentioned but full of odd chromatic prejudice. We are told regularly ‘What a beautiful baby boy!’ or asked ‘What’s his name?’, the masc. prn. based solely on the blue or green top she’s wearing.

Just to be clear, we are not offended or upset by this. I mean, she’s a wee baldy androgynous baby, you know, and you would have to be a bit of a twat to get upset by someone being nice to your kid, even if they are wrongly identifying them. I think what is interesting is that assumptions based on the colour of clothes persist, and, also, that people often seem deeply embarrassed to be told, if they are going on and on about “the boy”, that it is in fact a girl… to the point of walking off, red-faced, with barely another word.

Such confusion. The literature does not help. A sciencey book on childcare I read recently (the name escapes me A Child’s World, Dr Sarah Brewer) referred to the action of sitting on a vacuum cleaner making car noises as ‘boy-like behaviour’. I began to wonder. What is inherently boy-like about this, any more than blowing raspberries or hitting bits of wood together – both of which are the eight-month old daughter’s favourite activities at the moment?

Regarding the junior science sets for boys, for example, I – a boy – ‘did’, but was never interested in, chemistry at school. I have developed quite an affection for it since. However, I am a keen cook – which one could argue is food chemistry anyway – and I did Home Economics, as once it was called, too. Survivor. When I was even younger, I had a great liking for Action Man, swords, guns, etc. A pretty basic complex of Freudian symbolism, of course, but also SHOOTY BANG BANG noise and excitement toys, which most young people seem to enjoy until told they should not.

Wrong kind of bow: Disarming Disney makeover for Princess Merida (from 'Brave')

Wrong kind of bow: Disarming Disney makeover for Princess Merida (from ‘Brave’)

I don’t think it would have occurred to me at the time that I was being indoctrinated through socio-sexual conditioning one way or the other, though, and there’s one of the problems. I have been fortunate in having had some education, taught from young to read, write and ask questions about things. Most importantly, to make decisions for myself. It is my sincere wish that our daughter will be brought up knowing the difference between being offered a choice and being told what to think.

‘She’ll want to dress up as a princess.’ Yes, perhaps she will, but she may also want to dress up as an extra from a Frankie Goes to Hollywood video, and that will be fine as well. If she wants to be a firefighter, she can be. If she wants to massage people’s heads with scented oils while mentally designing her website ladygarden.net (I HAVE MADE THAT UP) that’s cool too. While not confident enough to predict a future in which I do not have some sort of reservations about her choices, what I can say is that I will endeavour not to make these decisions for her by buying solely skirts of pink, dollies, My Little Vacuum Cleaner, or whatever.

No, but, really, though.

No, but, really, though.

When manufacturers say ‘for boys’, or only use images of boys on their packaging of certain toys or things, they perpetuate an idea that we are naturally segmented and therefore naturally marketable, and that we will naturally be drawn to certain colours. There is no reason at all why blue means boys any more than pink means pooves girls, nor why we (society again) should accept this compartmentalisation of individuals into colour-coded boxes of convenience for the extraction of our monies. I have seen Pink Lego, for goodness’ sake. It’s Lego, let go. When parents tell their child that ‘that’s for girls’, the kind of refrain one hears repeated in playgrounds and classrooms, they may be saying ‘try to fit in’, they may be paralysed by the idea that standing out, or making your own decisions, is to be feared and prevented.

The title of this post comes from a shortish story by John Wyndham, from 1961, which I just re-read. Consider her ways is mostly Jane Waterleigh’s first person account of a nightmarish experience, waking up as from a drugging to find “herself” in the massively fat body of Mother Orchis, wrapped in pinks, fed and revered by diminutive ‘Servitors’ and Amazonian ‘Workers’, all women, genetically engineered to form an Ant-inspired future society led by ‘the Doctorate’. The Doctorate assume this lead following the mysterious death of all men due to scientific experiments to wipe out brown rats.

Now, there’s a real grab-bag of early 1960s preoccupations for a reader! Bearing with the ‘men in an office explaining the case of the poor girl’ pipe-scented coda, as well as the rest of its foregrounded heteronormativity (etc, etc), there are some interesting ideas. I liked this sentence, where Laura the Historian explains at length the history of cultural suppression of women to Jane/Mother Orchis:

‘But unfortunately, in the time we are speaking of, women had, in the main, been successfully conditioned into bringing up their daughters to be unintelligent consumers, like themselves.’

Conditioning is the thing, and consumption. LTBT, and the other websites, have been interesting. They have helped to clarify some of the thinking I have been doing about the choices one makes for one’s little girl or boy. It makes me muse on the benefits of ‘standing out’ or not in a society that operates like that… or even participating in a society like that.