At a mother’s group Christmas party, three young girls were jumping up and down on a musty old couch. All three were in their party dresses, yelling, ‘I’m Barbie One!’, ‘I’m Barbie Two!’ and ‘I’m Barbie Three!’ The dark-haired girl assigned to be ‘Barbie Three’ suddenly stopped jumping. She thought for a moment about the implications of being third and declared, ‘I’m Barbie Five!’ to which her companions countered, ‘I’m Barbie 56!’ and ‘I’m Barbie 65, 72, 15!’ The hall where this party was taking place seemed filled with the infamous plastic doll, although the Mattel product was, actually, nowhere to be seen.
None of these three girls, one of whom was my daughter, own a Barbie. Their mothers are what Mark Latham has dubbed ‘leftie feminists’ and we engage in what he would term ‘feminist parenting’. We try to encourage our daughters not to swallow whole-heartedly the vision of small-waisted, long-blonde-haired femininity that Barbie represents.
But as that scene demonstrated it doesn’t always work.
The all-pervading, insidious nature of popular culture is such that, despite your best efforts as a parent, it will find a way to suck your children in. At the supermarket, Peppa Pig beckons from a yoghurt container. At the back of the children’s clothing store, a special area is set up to play the latest Barbie movie (Barbie and the Pearl Princess, in case you wanted to know), on a loop. At child-care, the dress-up area is decorated with pictures from the most recent Disney invasion, Frozen, and at a princess-themed birthday party, four out of the six little girls are dressed as the film’s heroine, the Ice Queen, Elsa.
Before my daughter was walking and talking, the ability to control her world seemed easy. Children’s television was limited to an hour a day. Books were carefully screened. As she grew, gifted toys that did not fit my version of who I wanted her to be were quickly and quietly disposed of. The pink plastic make-up table, with nail polish, lipstick and vanity mirror she received for her third birthday disappeared into the recycling bin before it had time to imprint onto her brain.
But I could not see the future coming. I believed that, by the sheer power of my will, I would ensure she would not be interested in princesses, mermaids or fairies.
The Boys and Girls aisles of Toyworld were a shock. The division of Lego into blue construction sites and superheroes versus pink cafes and friends jarred with every memory I had of playing and building. The search for ‘gender neutral’ toys became exhausting and frustrating. I did not believe my daughter had an innate interest or predilection for things covered in flowers or multi-coloured ponies. I could just see the gendered roles seeping in, via TV, her peers and her carers.
Often it seemed there were only two choices available: we could home-school on an isolated farm out the back of Bourke where no television, internet or retail chain could infect our child’s mind, or we could give in. Then a third option appeared: the No Gender December campaign.
In the first week of December, the grass-roots organisation Play Unlimited (‘Every Toy for Every Body’) launched the campaign No Gender December, in a bid to draw attention to the gender stereotyping of toys. The website asked supporters to sign the following pledge:
I pledge to support ‘No Gender December’ because there is no place for gender stereotypes under my Christmas tree. Gender stereotypes limit children’s imagination and development, also perpetuating inequality. I encourage every child’s freedom to choose, to grow and develop, to be themselves without the damaging influence of gender stereotypes.
Those who took the pledge were added to a ‘hero wall’.
There were statements on the site by Queensland Senator, Larissa Waters, Australian Greens spokesperson for women; Dr Emma Rush, a lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Charles Sturt University and Dr Christia Spears Brown, a Developmental Psychologist and author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue. All discussed the ways in which defining toys as either ‘boy’s’ or ‘girl’s’ linked to adult perceptions of what is permissible for either gender to do.
Waters declared: ‘Out-dated stereotypes about girls and boys and men and women, perpetuate gender inequality, which can feed into very serious problems such as domestic violence and the gender pay gap.’
The backlash began almost immediately. Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, asserted on Channel Nine: ‘I certainly don’t believe in that kind of political correctness. Let boys be boys, let girls be girls – that’s always been my philosophy’.
Liberal backbencher Cory Bernardi told Fairfax that the campaign harked back to the gender wars of the 1970s and derided Waters as having ‘consumed too much Christmas eggnog to come up with an idea like this.’
Federal MP, Bob Katter, told the ABC, ‘I think all the presents I have anything to do with – all the boys are getting guns and the girls are getting dolls’ (sic) and ACT Labor senator Kate Lundy said the Greens were ‘going a little bit too far’ and quipped, ‘Well blue’s my favourite colour but what does that say about me?’
Mark Latham also took a swipe at the idea in his column for the Financial Review, describing the Greens and, by implication, the No Gender campaign as ‘a political sect that extrapolates the simple, everyday parts of life into wacky sociological conspiracies.’ Never mind the fact the campaign was actually not set up by the Greens, but only endorsed by them.
Latham then went on to describe mothers like myself, living in the inner suburbs of major cities, as conducting ‘a fascinating experiment’. We are, apparently, locking our young ones in ‘a gender-neutral bubble’, attempting to grow our children ‘in households manipulated by their mothers to fit the left-feminist mould’.
This reactionary derision directed at a perfectly valid attempt to raise awareness of gender stereotypes reeked of easy anti-intellectualism, with politicians creating sound-bites utilising clichés.
The No Gender December website was further high-jacked by negative ‘pledgers’ who used the forum to mock the idea they were supposed to be endorsing.
‘Mohammed The Prophet’ posted from ‘Syria’: ‘I will definitely buy little Aisha only gender neutral toys! Oh wait, she’s dead. Because there are people in this world who think their pseudo scientific bullshit is a political issue that should come before war and hunger.’
‘You Suck’ posted from ‘Hell’: ‘I pledge to not be a god damned moron like the rest of you, and just buy toys my kids think is cool. Jesus christ.’ (sic)
It’s easy to accuse the issue of triviality. That’s often the simplest bomb to lob at Western feminists (from Syria, no less) demanding that we white, middle-class, female whiners just ‘shut up’. Our issues are so First World they barely count as problems. We need to be constantly addressing the biggies, like ‘war and hunger’, with any attempts to engage with the realities of our lived experiences labelled as ‘self-absorption’ (Mark Latham again).
Yet Michelle Smith argues in The Conversation that the ‘segregation of toy aisles is a reflection of a society in which gender inequality is normalised and children are taught to understand that the disparity between male and female social roles is inescapably natural.’ And, while it is easy to say there are other, more pressing matters, children’s early learning seems an important place to start an examination of how gender plays out.
Furthermore, as Allison Kaplan Sommer notes in Haaratz, ‘in this part of the world, in this Middle East, we are faced squarely with the frightening extremes of gender stereotyping and terrible oppression that many women face – all in the name of feminine “gender difference”. And frankly – every little bit helps.’
To date, however, only around 2000 ‘heroes’ have taken the so-called ‘pledge’ on the No Gender December website, with this number including those who are actually mocking the campaign. The interest is abysmal, especially when you consider a ‘cute baby goat’ compilation gets over a million views on YouTube.
Does such a small response reflect the success of conservative derision or did the campaign fail to connect with even those parents who were probably sympathetic to the idea in the first instance?
I’ll be honest. I didn’t – and won’t – sign the No Gender December pledge. Why? Primarily because the rhetoric of the crusade was so unappealing, even for someone who was looking for ways to counter the prevailing orthodoxies.
Take, for instance, the website’s odd over-use of the word ‘hero’. While we might baulk against the division of toys at super-chains, we don’t have campaigns during the months of Mother’s and Father’s Day about the sexist and silly ways in which products are deemed manly or feminine (although there are usually a few minor articles about breaking out of the norm and getting mummy a lawn-mower). But I would not expect to be deemed a hero for buying my husband a frying pan. Can we honestly call our purchasing decisions ‘heroic’?
Similarly, why is it a ‘win’ when, as one of the pledgers states, ‘my daughter wants a transformer and a Spiderman cake for her birthday’? Why is the purchase of a violent toy and a superhero, long-term upholder of the patriarchal status quo, considered preferable to those toys marketed to girls? Why is this an example of buying without attention to gender when, in fact, it is clearly linked to encouraging a girl to play with so-called ‘boy things’? This does, indeed, seem to hark back to the notion of fighting gender stereotypes by simply flipping them: ‘I’ll buy Annie a gun and David a dolly and all will be well!’ (And the fact I now appear to be agreeing with Cory Bernardi is terrifying in itself).
It is little wonder that so many Liberal (and a few Labor) politicians were able to dismiss the idea as a manifestation of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas when the parameters of acceptable behaviour were so simplistic.
The failure of No Gender December was, also, that the target audience – those parents who, unlike me, have never thought about gender stereotyping when purchasing toys and may not even know what it is – quickly became un-reachable. Having pitched their view in academic jargon, the organisers failed to simply, and clearly, identify the problem for those who might not have an issue with guns for boys and dolls for girls and then asked ordinary people to make an un-realistic assurance at a time – Christmas – when families are already under pressure.
Nowhere on the site is there recognition or a critique of the over-buying or the toy frenzy that makes Christmas so stressful for so many parents.
I would have been happy to pledge to buy one toy, whether gender stereotyped or not. Of course, this is another issue but it goes back to the feminist problem of constantly fighting the surface labels, rather than the economic system beneath.
The fact is, large corporate marketing is not, and never will be, directed to the thinking minority. It is easy enough to avoid the Boy and Girl aisles: shop at small, independent toy-stores or, better yet, at charity shops where you can prevent thousands of hardly-used toys adding to landfill. The harder battle is to change closed minds. No Gender December was a missed opportunity to speak to the daily determination many parents have to counter the gendered limitations of capitalist cultural product.
When the three girls had finished jumping up and down, they all stripped off their dresses and ran outside, in their underpants, to climb up a rope ladder. In a perfect moment of not-often-seen cooperation, they each found a spot on the ladder and began to swing together with unbridled, unfettered joy. Naked – and, for the moment, Barbie-free.