People have already worked themselves into a collective frenzy about the new John Lewis advert. The marketing team must be delighted – not only is all publicity good publicity, but we’re now talking about home insurance: thinking about breakages, shuddering as we imagine (and relate) to the havoc wreaked in the minute-long ad, which shows a young boy of about seven or eight, gleefully stomping around the house in lipstick, a pair of heels and a dress three sizes too big, scattering glitter and turning over lamps.
Some appear to absolutely hate the concept – one writer even described the ad as “triggering” (I relate to that bit because of the glitter: one playdate, two months ago, and my kitchen table still sparkles like the night sky). But while I sympathise with those who cringe as they identify with the chaos that having kids brings to a family home, and wince when I see the boy place two small hands, covered in paint, on the wall (just this week, I barked at my daughter for using the newly-painted hallway as a darts board). I think we are all missing the point, because this ad is joyful.
Just look at him: the dazzling star – an actor, of course, but still a role model for so many boys who wish they too could copy their sisters without condemnation, wear a tutu and princess dress and heels and strut to the strains of Stevie Nicks.
We’ve come a little way regarding the conversation about gender stereotyping – we’re learning to teach our kids that they can do or be whatever and whoever they want to be. Only this week, Lego announced they were pulling gendered toys from their range after global research found children are still held back by embedded gender stereotypes, while California is to enforce “gender neutral” toy aisles in large stores.
But we could still do better. Lego’s worrying analysis of nearly 7,000 parents and children aged 6-14 in the UK, US, China, Japan, Poland, Czech Republic and Russia revealed that while girls were growing in confidence and eager to explore a wide range of activities, the same was not true of boys – in fact, 71 per cent of boys feared they would be made fun of if they played with what they described as “girls’ toys”.
The study also found girls five times more likely to be encouraged to try dancing or dressing-up than boys when it came to play, and three times more likely to be encouraged to try baking, while boys were encouraged to do sports or Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities. And, in 2019, The Fawcett Society published research which showed the lifelong impact of gender stereotypes in early childhood, including notable effects on both career choices and personal relationships.
When my son was a baby I bought him a beautiful picture book to read at bedtime, Julián is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love. In it (spoiler alert), a young boy is out with his grandmother when he spots three women in lavish mermaid costumes. He dreams of emulating them, so – with his nana’s help – makes a gorgeous, glittering transformation.
It felt to me like a simple and effective way to introduce an antidote to the embedded messages of what being “a boy” is all about; a way to counter the messages my son has heard since the moment he was born: “Boys will be boys!” “You’ll have your work cut out with a boy!” “He’s such a boy!”
We all need cultural reference points that our children can relate to. When my son asked me recently why one of his best friends only ever wants to wear tutus, princess dresses and frilly swimming costumes, “even though he’s a boy”, I was able to remind him of Julián is a Mermaid, and point him towards David Walliams’s The Boy In The Dress on CBBC, to explain how they’re having fun and experimenting; exploring who they are and what makes them feel good; how it’s no different from pulling on an Iron Man or Hulk costume; and (crucially) that it’s completely OK. I can now point to the John Lewis advert, too.
This may be “just” an ad about home insurance, and it may be painful to watch a home being wrecked (accurate, though, as any parent of small children can attest), but it’s also doing a lot more than that. We’ve seen how harmful stereotyping starts early, and if we want to combat systemic societal issues such as misogyny and toxic masculinity, we need to look at where they first become embedded – and challenge them.
Perhaps adverts like this, which provide a different view of what being a “boy” really means, can continue that conversation.
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