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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.

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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.

Glorious summer sun in York, about 10.30am, as I arrived for day two of the book sale at St Edward the Confessor Church in Dringhouses.

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Regular readers of The Mortal Bath will have an idea of the extent of my bibliophilia, but to those dipping their toe in the waters here for the first time, my book lustings are extensive and entirely incorrigible. Nothing sets my nostrils twitching like a second hand book sale, and if you throw in a bit of church architecture as well… you had me at ‘book sale in a church’.

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St Edward’s is a building I have passed often enough but never made time to pop into as I’ve toiled along Tadcaster Road on cycle or in car. Taddy Road, the A1036, is not really conducive to passing trade. Often absurdly busy at rush hour, it turns into the A64 (river of death) shortly after the Askham Bar park and ride, which abuts one of York’s growing number of superTescos…

Yet there is a fair bit of green belt/garden suburb here as well. A lot of leafy and pleasant (Valley Sunday) residential streets vein off the slightly furred arterial road. Those on the south side, by St Edward’s, back on to the Knavesmire, York’s racecourse. Away from the main thoroughfare it is a delovely locale for a walk or jog, and there are cycle routes around and about the place, leading to Fulford, Bishopthorpe, Selby. And, to counter my passing trade mumbles, there is a Co-Op, a petrol station (both massively undercut by Tesco, of course) and two pubs here that seem to do quite well, in particular The Fox and Roman, for ale and food. I cannot speak for the The Cross Keys as I’ve not been in, but it is currently being refurbished.

The pubs form a triangle with St Edward’s, framing the junction of the A1036 and St Helen’s Road. The Church was built in 1850, all in one go, unusually, and under the watchful gaze of Frances Barlow, local dignitary and recent widow to Edward, one of the church’s namesakes. She then got remarried in 1851, which seems to be a sensible approach to the grieving process.

The building has been extended in more recent times, with an extra aisle space screened with a movable partition, for meetings, societies, band practices and so on. Apart from the primary school a short step up the road, Helen the book sale organiser told me, it is pretty much the only community resource in Dringhouses – not vending ale or BOGOFs, of course.

Today’s book sale was not in aid of the worthy cause church fund, however, but the worthy cause Feed the minds, a charity aimed at promoting education and literacy. I did say you had me at ‘book sale in a church’.

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My intention had been to bike to the book sale across Hob Moor and along one of the aforementioned cycle paths, but I got me bike out to discover an aggravating slow puncture. With such a lack of compunction it pains me, I drove across town, radio tootling Classic FM to amp up the ponce factor, and parked outside the church, thereby adding to the furring and, book fever’d, giving not two shites about it.

Hey, the roads are quiet at that time. And look! Books! In a church!

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Entering the cool of the building, I spent a few minutes getting some snaps before settling down to the serious business of splurging my daughter’s inheritance on inessential tomes.

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Purty! Being the second day, there was a feeling that one might have missed a few bargainous volumes, although I imagine that Saturday will see some new leaves turn up. There was a good selection of paperbacks. I was strictly budgeting, however, and I forced myself to forgo some Will Selfs with scarcely a whimper.

The pricing system was colour coded stickers, as seen on the large sign at the door, reproduced in miniature on pretty much every table, handily, for every time I looked up trying to keep a running total of the teetering pile in hand.

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The books were mostly yellow stickers, or the ones I picked were, anyway.

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Complete works of Saki, and a selection of pre-Shakespeare English plays (‘Ralph Roister-Doister’ ‘Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay’ &c) are the two hardbacks in the middle. Third title down is heading for J.C. Greenway at ten minutes hate, to make up for a previous second hand literature event, from which she enjoyed a complete absence of any booky goodness.

Any road up, as no one says here: Feed the Minds benefited to a moderate extent, and I had an edifying chat with the volunteers staffing the cash tubs, about books, buildings, bikes and balmy weather. Then it was out in the sun to tootle home, via a brief stop to procure a puncture repair kit in Tesco. Very well, I am a critical mass of contradictions. Blame it on the book fever.

The ‘Feed the Minds’ book sale continues at St Edward’s on Saturday 8th, and throughout the summer in York.
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May the days be as glorious, sunny and packed with reading as today.