Girls will be girls: The battle for our children's hearts and minds this Christmas

Katy Guest investigates the true colours of the so-called 'gender divide'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Christmas is a hard time to be generous and a feminist. We all like to think that we shun the consumerism of chain-store-sanctioned gift sections, but it is becoming ever more difficult in shops to dig out anything that a real person might like among all the "gifts for him" (golf balls) and "gifts for her" (soap). And then you come to the children's presents...

About now, if you haven't yet bought all of your family's presents and you are not one of those people who do all their gift shopping on Christmas Eve at a petrol station, you might be tempted to go to a toy shop with a big wad of cash. Last week, Hamleys removed its "boys" and "girls" floor signs and reorganised toys by type after a blogger accused the shop of "gender apartheid". But most of the toy retailers, including Toys R Us, have yet to catch up.

Just inside, you will find some fun cameras for kids. They come either in pink, with a picture of a girl on them; or in blue, with a picture of a boy. In the next section there is Thomas the Tank Engine, with a young boy pictured on his box, and Hello Kitty, the saccharine superstar from Japan, shown being cute with some little girls. In the dressing-up area, the boxes show several outfits worn by boys – "doctor", "fire fighter", "police" – and some worn by girls, for example the green uniform of a nurse.

There is no section "for boys" in the shop, and no aisles specifically labelled "for girls". There doesn't need to be. Instead of an open area in which boys and girls with individual interests and personalities can seek out the toys and games that appeal to them, most toy shops increasingly resemble the Pink & Blue photography project by the Korean artist JeongMee Yoon, whose images illustrate this article. It is not just in Britain and America that boys and girls are subtly segregated from an early age, he says; in Korea, too, "the saccharine, confectionery-pink objects that fill my images of little girls and their accessories reveal a pervasive and culturally manipulated expression of 'femininity'."

Even if you make it past the girls with their Barbies and the boys with their guns, by the time you get to the aisle that has along one side cars, planes and trains, all of which bear images of boys racing, swooping and shooting, and down the other side a bunch of girls in pink playing with toy washing-up bowls, toy vacuum cleaners, toy cookers and toy ironing boards, feminists will run away, crying.

Nor will they find any hope in the Christmas gift catalogues. One major high-street retailer offers a section of gifts for boys that suggests a Star Wars lightsaber, dragster kit, electric scooter, Lego and an Alien Creation Lab Set. Its gifts for girls include dolls, perfume, knitting and sewing kits, and a page of "Gorgeous girlie treats and sparkly make-up for little girls who want to be pretty in pink... Suitable from 3 years." Suitable? In what sense?

One famous UK brand's catalogue does not segregate its toys into "boys" and "girls" selections, but it does offer a "boys' eraser set" of tools, rugby and footballs, and a "girls only fashion handbook: totally secret! My book of girl stuff!" These are on blue and pink pages, as if to reinforce the blue/pink gender divide which continues among the other presents that do not so explicitly state their role.

Most parents of five-year-old girls will probably tell you that the relentless pressure for the pinkification of everything comes, primarily, from their daughters. But where does it start? In one baby retailer recently, the girls' section contained a babygro with "I §..." in glittery pink lettering, followed by an image of lots of pink shoes. It was labelled "0-3 months". "Once you have children, you start to realise that they're given boxes to sit in even before they're born," says one mother of a five-year-old boy. "Presents for newborns are white, pink or blue."

Some parents will insist that baby girls pop out of the womb demanding pink stilettos and begging to do the ironing, of course, but it was not always thus – at least regarding the colour schemes. Victorians dressed little boys in pink, as a diluted version of manly red, and in 1914 an advice columnist in the US newspaper The Sunday Sentinel advised parents: "If you like the color note on the little one's garments, use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention." Nor does the preference for certain types of toy seem to be innate among children.

Dr Cordelia Fine is an American psychologist and neuroscientist who works as an associate professor at the Centre for Ethical Leadership, Melbourne Business School. "One recent study of toddlers found that a shift k towards more gender-stereotypical preferences was associated with the beginnings of the use of gender labels by the toddlers to refer to themselves or others, just before two years of age," she says. "So at 17 months, boys and girls were equally interested in a doll, tea set, brush and comb set, and blocks – although girls were less interested in playing with a truck. But four months later, coinciding with the use of gender labels, girls had increased their doll play and boys had decreased it."

While researching her book Delusions of Gender, Dr Fine analysed many of the scientific experiments that have historically "proven" that babies of all cultures have innate preferences from birth: towards interest in people in girls, and towards interest in moving objects or systems in boys. She found that most of the research was not very scientific at all, and proved little except for the prejudices of the researchers.

What's more, if children are being led towards certain preferences and affiliations even from birth – by being dressed in pink, when pink is associated everywhere with girlishness, make-up and domestic tasks, or told as newborns that they love shoes – how can we even find an unbiased toddler whose preferences we can test? "Children's environments are relentlessly gendered," says Dr Fine, "and from the age of about two, children know what sex they are. How can children be expected to ignore the very salient gender 'rules' when their environments so relentlessly reinforce them? Well-meaningly-egalitarian parents are no match for such a strongly gendered society. The staff at my local toy shop even demand to know the sex of the child any gift is for, lest they expose a girl to wrapping paper with a car on it, or a boy to paper with pink. Gender-neutral parenting is not the social experiment that failed – it is the social experiment that has never taken place."

We've all heard, of course, about experiments by rare, brave parents who are determined to buck this gender segregation. In May this year, the Canadian media reported on a couple in Toronto who had decided to raise their third child, Storm, as a "genderless" baby. When Storm was born, they emailed family and friends to say: "We've decided not to share Storm's sex for now – a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm's lifetime (a more progressive place?)." Storm's older brothers choose their own clothes and hairstyles – a mix of colours, trousers, dresses and usually long hair, and know the "real" gender of their younger sibling. So far, the family has mostly been met with bemusement.

But what would happen if more families just plain refused to pander to traditional gender roles for their children? "We could expect boys to object more than girls," says Dr Fine, "since we are generally more comfortable for girls to 'cross up' to boyish things than for boys to 'cross down' to girlish things. Incidentally, I doubt many girls would object to being given Lego to play with. One problem that researchers of toy preferences sometimes encounter, in fact, is that the girls like the 'boy toys' so much."

This brings us to another, more controversial question: if boys and girls are being channelled increasingly down different roads, is it really a problem? At, they think so. The site was founded by Emma and Abi Moore, sisters who have two children each (Abi has two girls, Emma two boys). Founded in May 2008, the website points out the relentless messages that bombard girls "under the umbrella of pink", and by highlighting the idiocy of a world in which girls are supposed to be obsessed with prettiness, shopping, passivity and make-up, attempts to challenge it. Its simple mission statement is that: "There is more than one way to be a girl."

Pink Stink's next campaign, says Emma Moore, will launch in the New Year and target the burgeoning market in make-up for children aged two-plus. "People might see it as a bit of fun and a bit of fluff," she explains, "but we say that it's about defining womanhood and girlhood from day one. At children's birthday parties for four- and five-year-old girls, the presents you get at the end nearly always include a make-up compact. My daughter ran up to me and said, 'What's this?' She doesn't know what make-up is, nor should she. It's a very stark message. Girls are being told: you need this."

Messages that girls receive about their looks are particularly under scrutiny at a time when half of girls are said to be unhappy with their appearances. This was the finding of a study by Central YMCA, reported last month by The Independent on Sunday. Another recent study by the Centre for Appearance Research found that a fifth of teenagers stay away from school on days they are concerned about how they look. "A significant proportion of girls aged 14 won't leave the house without make-up on," said the research fellow, Dr Phillippa Diedrichs. Anecdotally, teachers say that 14-year-olds have grown out of fake tan and that teeth-whitening is now the must-have cosmetic treatment among schoolgirls. Earlier this month, an all-party group of MPs launched a landmark inquiry into body image in the UK. Perhaps they could start by looking at toy shops that sell make-up tables to three-year-olds.

"We're not saying that your daughter is making the wrong decisions," says Moore. "We're talking about three-year-olds making decisions! It's drummed in since children are one year old that things that are pink are for girls. At the age when she wants to identify with being a girl, these are the things that are being sold to her. All of it is saying that there is only one way to be a girl, and that is pink and pretty and passive and fluffy. The word 'pretty' is used time and time again. We're talking about business – and powerful business, when you're talking about the likes of Disney – making untold billions out of selling lipstick and high heels to little girls. We're moving away from the traditional understanding that a woman's place is in the kitchen and moving towards it being in front of a mirror. It's amazing that it goes unchallenged, and almost unnoticed."

Moore is keen to stress that she is not calling for pink to be banned, and that she is focused on improving opportunities for boys, too. "Boys are growing up with the notion that 'this is what girls are and I don't want to play with them'. We want something better for our boys and girls."

So does Kathleen Redmond, a young mother and entrepreneur who has just launched Slugs & Snails (slugsand, a company that manufactures tights for little boys. Living in Sligo, on Ireland's chilly west coast, and with a young son who liked crawling, hated jeans that rode up his legs, and shed socks like Barbie sheds outfits, Redmond looked around for some warm tights for him – but found only pink ones. "There's nothing about tights that makes them specifically for girls," she says. "But often, older people will say, 'You'll make him gay.' Let's not even talk about discussing a child in terms of his sexuality!" k

The comments are already starting to bother Redmond's little boy, however. "I have heard him say, 'No mummy, I can't have that; it's for girls.' Children have ears like bats. They hear the chat of nursery nurses and shop staff, and of course they see advertising. This is the first time that we've really watched children's TV around Christmas. All the baby dolls and baking sets are for girls, and all the monsters are for boys. Lots of the boys' toys are really aggressive – they're about fighting and warriors. We're making them into adults – into something that we find attractive. It's not appropriate. We're making girls more sexualised, and boys more aggressive, and then we complain when they get a bit older and the girls are pregnant and the boys are fighting. We're creating monsters."

Redmond's company launched formally only last month, but already interest in tights is high from parents of boys and girls – including one top American snowboarder, The OC and Entourage actress Autumn Reeser, TV presenters Angelica Bell and Amanda Lamb, former Hollyoaks actress Terri Dwyer, and singer Cerys Matthews.

Perhaps what is most worrying about allowing such insidious stereotypes from such early ages is that boys and girls will find it more and more difficult to make free choices about who they are and what they want to do. On the opening page of its website, the toy manufacturer Wild Science dives straight in to defend itself against complaints about its boys' and girls' science kits. Basically, the ones called things such as Wild Physics and Cool Chemistry, or involving explosions, worms or Weird Slime, are all explicitly marketed at boys; the ones with pictures of girls on the front are called Beauty Spa Lab, Bath Bomb Factory, Lip Balm Lab and Luxury Soap Lab. The manufacturers say that parents complained when the kits were gender-neutral, and that major retailers "hid" them away. "The pink and purple is like the icon of a woman in a skirt signifying 'ladies toilet'," they say. "Rarely do jeans-wearing, extreme-skydiving women complain about skirt stereotyping in a mall toilet sign." They add that, "By flagging kits along gender lines, we can double our product variety!"

Emma Moore of Pink Stinks puts it another way: "This is how marketing and advertising work – they sit around their boardroom tables rubbing their hands together in glee when they discover a new market. Everything comes in pink and blue, so you have to buy two of everything."

Of course, nobody can measure the influence of toys, advertising, peer pressure and immense marketing budgets on the choices girls and boys make about their lives. But it is worth noting the results of the Girlguiding UK Girls Attitudes Survey. Earlier this year, it found that the most popular career choice among girls and women aged seven to 21 was to be a hairdresser or beautician; 43 per cent of respondents attributed this choice to the fact that "some jobs are more for girls", and 35 per cent said that, "It's all girls know about." In the same survey, just 1 per cent of girls said that they wanted to work in science and engineering. (Sadly the survey didn't ask how many girls wanted to make lip balm for a living.)

It's hard to remain calm and analytical when confronted by all this pink, so perhaps we should leave the final word to Dr Cordelia Fine, who is, after all, a scientist. (More the Cool Chemistry type than the Bath Bomb type, I think.) "We should be equipping all children, regardless of their sex, to be caring, empathic, competent, ambitious and assertive – but the gendering of toys helps to circumscribe boys and girls to traditional spheres," she says. "Strong gender divisions in toys also very strongly convey to children that boys and girls are very different kinds of people. Surely our goal as parents and as a society should be for our children to believe that what sex they are makes no difference to what they want to do, what they are interested in, or what they want to be.

"This goal is thoroughly undermined by a childhood culture that relentlessly genders children's toys. But above and beyond all this, when we prematurely and complacently conclude that differences in boys' and girls' toy preferences are 'innate', we are also endorsing the view that sex inequality is to some extent natural, inevitable and immutable – set in the womb. In fact, the science does not currently justify that door being slammed in our faces."

This year's Christmas bestsellers for girls & boys

Fijit Friends

A robot, but one for girls! These curvy, smiley, wide-eyed critters come in a range of pastel shades (including pink, of course) and are being sold as "a bundle of cuteness". As it's a nice toy for nice little girls, your dancing Fijit Friend "chats, jokes, but never argues!"

Lagoona Blue's Hydration station

Well, at least it's blue not pink... Lagoona is the daughter of a sea monster, even if she still looks more like Barbie's offspring. The doll comes complete with her own "hydration station" – a lit-up pod in which to "re-moisturise" at night. milky the bunny

"This rabbit has the power to make little girls fall in love with him instantly," apparently – an evil-sounding idea that goes with its frankly evil-looking eyes. Milky is a white-and-pink rabbit that wiggles its earsand responds to "touching and caressing".

Nerf vortex nitron blaster

One for the boys, judging by the packaging: this toy gun may be made of gender-neutral orange and green plastic, but its promo images feature only macho-looking men. Pick up a mission kit, too, for an "awesome battlefield experience!"

Doggie Doo

It's not all bad news: predicted to top this year's bestseller list is a game based on a pooing dog. It's brown, the poo is yellow – and, depending on your view, it's teaching kids about hygiene or appealing to their cross-gender liking for gunge. Holly Williams