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.

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Ooh! My Interactive Talking Tablet comes in blue or pink.

colour-coded-talking-tablets

…but what is it saying?

Having long used the phrase “I’d read the back of a cereal box” to illustrate my keen logophilia, I am gladdened and unsurprised to discover that it is not just me. There is a Facebook group – so it’s official – called “Reading off of cereal boxes”, with five thousand or so people that also “like” to feed their minds while they feed their faces.

When I were studying (he offered his credentials as they peered into a suitcase that was filled with bottles of snake oil), classes in lit. theory suggested this kind of activity was essential. Cereal boxes, drinks adverts, pop videos could, as well as novels, poems and newspapers, be read as having equally profound importance. Everything is a “text”. The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls. Religion is the smile on a dog.

With all this in mind, let us draw our attention to the back of a detergent product container, a box of soapy un-delights that transfixed us with horror this morning. It sat squat on the sideboard, its malignant duck egg blues, baby imagery and fake handwritten verse dragging us to hell as we read:

soft-soap-shadow

‘I’m a little toddler
short, not stout

feel my jumper,
soft, no doubt…

When I get
all dirty,

hear me shout:

“get the box
of liquitabs
out!”‘

The copywriters of Procter and Gamble, household goods conglomerate, display an open contempt for poetry, sense and decency. A burlesque of the touching traditional nursery rhyme “I’m a little teapot”, their doggerel spits in my face, sticks in my craw, deposits jobbies in my smalls drawer. A familiar and trusted rhythm, explicitly linking the joys of laundry with the joys of parenting, the joys of singing catchy songs with trips-off-the-tongue brand loyalty.

“…and pour me out”. Dum dum dum dum. Emphatic. Tea time! “…of liquitabs out!”. Dum dumdumdum dum. Limping. Shoehorn still sticking out the back of the baby booties.

And “liquitabs”! A ghastly and ungainly neologism, a dark demon summoned from the dread realms of Copyright, the sort of tyrannical monster word a diminutive TM or R might hover around, fawning. Across the chamber I stand frozen in horror, one hand scrabbling at the door, the other pointing a trembling finger as I shriek: IT DOES NOT SCAN.

If they called it what it is – a sachet, a capsule – it would scan. Two syllables. Bish, bosh. Lunchy. They could have high fived each other round the flipchart. It would still be awful, yet it would at least fit properly. But NO! They soiled the soft jumper of all that is harmonious and true. “Get the box of ravening lions out!” calls Caesar Augustus, appalled patron of the arts.

P&G’s open contempt for poetry, sense and decency continues, should you be rash enough to check out softeningyourworld.com. Perhaps the clue is in the URL. Here you are, being flannelled into a mindset, a mode of living. The sort of thinking that would be glad to see your toddler pulling a box of Fairy detergent out from under the sink with muddy fingers and a knowing expression, as you all start to hum the “Box of Liquitabs” song. Softening Your World. You want but the fey magic of FAIRY to waft its wand o’er you and your brood.

I don’t think I’m making too much of this. In fact, if a word-loving dad were not already apoplectic about a bit of advertising fluff, the Procter and Gamble-supporting deals and magazine website supersavvyme, linked to from softeningyourworld, might just burst his pipes.

supersavvyme

supersavvysods
“Little wins for you, mum.”
“Hi, dad here! … What, nothing? No little wins for me? But… how am I supposed to recreate the catwalk looks? Is my inner wow not worth freeing? I see. What about my ability to land the perfect on-trend hair colour? …well, I find this very hard to believe. What’s that? “Treat your man to an irresistible shave.” Right, a link to some razors. Not talking to me though, are you? Are you really suggesting that the single male you could find to mention on your 1950s timewarp website is SEAN BEAN? One does not simply walk into a society constructed on gender stereotyping and consumer isolation! Oh, one does. Sorry! Carry on.”

And I back out of the wesbites, the focus groups, the chat rooms, stepping aside to avoid this avalanche of wrongheadedness. Rural-dwelling people, extolling the virtues of Febreze to blot out the smell of earthworms and mud. Really, seriously, though. What are we doing? We are letting these people – with ears of brightly-laundered cloth and the sweet smell of simulated countryside insinuating itself along their spindly fingers and close-shaven armpits – run our lives, persuade us that we are impure beings in need of stuff to clean us, de-hair us, buff us, scent us, that the lumpen, clumping, unlovely words we read should be on-trend, on message, on their forums.

Perhaps needless to add, our little toddler and we shall not be joining in this corporate chorus.

One might even, were one so inclined, go as far as to suggest that Procter and Gamble, and all their little wizards of the dark word arts, can get fucked.

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.

The Mortal Bath was meant to have about three new pieces floated in it in the last week. Sorry for the delay. Final week of summer holiday teacher plannery plus car insurance wrangling following an accident that wasn’t our fault – nuff said.

Thusly… here is a short soak. It’s a bit of a channelling of two of my favourite blogs, Wit and Pendulum and Views from the Couch, for it is rude, scriptish and about, like, wimmin’s stuff. And written by a woman. Well, spoken by one… I didn’t have to do anything but type the words. Thanks my love.

Scene: J – familiar to readers of the Holy Flying Circus skit – returns from work toting her 33-week baby bump (her lovely lady lump, ba-rumpa-dumpa-dump) and a bag with ‘Bounty.com’ and ‘Mum-to-be pack’ written on the side. The bag is emptied out on to the sofa.

J: Free treats! (Claps hands, assessing the Bounty bounty).
Ah, a Sudocrem sample. What is it? Sudocrem (French accent)… It’s a cream for nappy rash. (Reads ingredients) Dreadful. I wouldn’t put anything with liquid paraffin in on my skin, so of course I’m going to smear it on my new born baby’s bottom. Meh… some people swear by it, but I’m not touching it. Next!

(Fast voiceover: Paraffin-based products can be useful for some temporary dry skin conditions… The Sudocrem website actually says “Nappy rash cream and products for the whole family”, which bit of uncertain syntax brings to mind delightful images of a wholesome 1950s-type family, all in nappies – rashless baby; rashless dad, with a pipe, in crossword nappy; rashless mum in apron and nappy in the kitchen, etc)

Now, look at these! (J holds up a sachet of Vanish stain remover in one hand and a Fairy Non-Bio tab in the other). Oh yeah, cause that’s what a mum-to-be needs, isn’t it? Cleaning products! “Women! Know your place.” And here, look at this… vouchers to make you feel guilty. “Is your house really baby ready?” Vouchers for Dettol! What are they saying? “Mum-to-be, your so-called home is a bacteria-ridden HELLHOLE. How can you think about bringing an INFANT into this FLEAPIT OF SHAME?” (Flings paper across the room. On the voucher is a picture of a baby with a disapproving expression). This is a joke. Studies have shown that kids brought up with dogs have stronger immune systems. It’ll be a Glade Plug-In Asthma Attack Deluxe next.

…no, no more freebie tat. Right, the catalogues! Hmmm… (leafing) No… no… Jesus… No… Ooh, shall I get one of these? (It is the Simple Wishes Hands-Free Breastpump Bra:)

Ridiculous! Surely you can’t be so busy that you don’t have five minutes to sit down and pump your tits. “It is essential I have BOTH hands free at ALL TIMES!” Think what I could be doing! (Mimes doing office work with a gleeful Stepford Wife expression and thrusting tits. Hilariously, when I look up the “Simple Wishes Hands-Free Breastpump Bra” for further information, there is this picture:

The Breast Pump Review Centre suggests that “this ingenious product was designed by a group of creative and entrepreneurial moms who have taken it upon themselves to come up with a product that could help them attend to their parenting and household duties more efficiently – all without pumping breast milk getting in the way of their tasks.” This is read to J.)

I love that image of pumping breast milk getting in the way, like New York fire hydrants going off or something. And attending to my DUTIES! Duties, against all of which paying sole attention to my CHILD’S NUTRITION for a moment is simply an inconvenience. Are you even supposed to pump both breasts at the same time? “Come on, Daisy, let’s get these on your baaags.” No, you’d feel like a right cunt sitting in that.

(shakes head in disappointment)

AND, I had to wait in Superdrug 15 minutes for this, because the voucher wouldn’t scan. They couldn’t just give it to me – this free item. They had to go and Sort It Out, make it Official. Brrr! Baby big business bollocks. I look forward to the New Mum Pack. There better be pile cream and a rubber ring for me to sit on.