In the past 6 years I have watched a hell of a lot of children's television and I would like to start by reiterating, thank Christ for the BBC. High quality children's television is in pretty short supply and the BBC provides most of it, though an honourable mention must go to the consistently brilliant Ben & Holly's Little Kingdom, which is basically Das Kapital for toddlers. There is one feature of many children's programmes that is a real bug bear of mine. It's all those programmes with an anthropomorphic gang of things - they might be dogs, dinosaurs, pirates or monster trucks (ffs) but the personalities remain pretty pretty consistent; there's a leader, a clumsy one, a nerdy one, a funny one and a girl one. Like being female is a personality type.
It's just so frustratingly limiting. They are constantly reinforcing the message that boys have agency and action and options. Girls are supportive sidekicks. I am very happy to be corrected on this but I can't think of an episode of an ensemble tv show where the girl one gets angry, insults a team mate and has to learn a valuable life lesson about working as part of a team. She always works as part of the team. I have watched boys and girls playing together - this is patently not reflecting the real life of 3 year olds. There is little more monstrous than a thwarted three year old ego - gender does't come into it. Floor-rolling, fist-clenching fury is accessible to all. But on TV the girl one smiles and helps and does what she's told by the boys... or she sits tight and waits to be rescued, if the clumsy one is having a week off.
Nick Jr is apparently trying to appeal more to girls. The screen now looks like a unicorn has vomited over 50% of the schedule. There's Shimmer and Shine, the pink and purple genies, Little Charmers, pink, purple and ice-blue witches and Dora and Friends: Into the City, which has an ensemble of girls and one boy. I don't think this is helping.
It's easy to argue that it was ever thus... but it wasn't. That's not true. There were quite a few female characters in He-Man but the spin-off series about his sister, She-Ra gave us so much more. She got her own series, a kick-ass movie to launch it and her own toy line, which I wanted more than pixie boots, hair crimpers and a hologram alter-ego combined.* Dungeons and Dragons had a range of boys and girls with different personalities and abilities wading through an existential nightmare. The Get-Along-Gang were equal in their anodyne moralising. It was a boy and a girl who worked together in The Mysterious Cities of Gold. You might argue that I'm cherry picking the programmes I'm mentioning, but these are the ones I remember watching. These ones mattered to me. It's also safe to say that kid's TV wasn't quite so targeted in terms of age groups back in the eighties either. I watched Press Gang - with it's flawed but fabulous boys & girls and plot lines including suicide and sexual abuse - with my friend's 6 year old brother. So, not all targeting is a bad thing.
The segregation of boys things and girls things is whittling away at the range of options available to both. I think by specifically marketing products to girls we are fortifying the pigeonholes. Those girls' science kits that encourage you to make lip balm, bath bombs or whatever seem reductive rather than expansive. Lego Friends focusses on imaginative play (and a reductive set of roles at that) rather than designing and building, because that's what girls like, apparently. My daughter is perfectly happy making The Emperor, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader have a lovely tea party on the Lego Death Star thank you very much, she doesn't need pastel colours to make this ok. Also, my son would love to do pretend play with a lego ice cream parlour but he doesn't even see it exists because he no longer registers what's in the pink boxes in the toy shop. I tried to get him to look once and he laughed in my face. He knows it's not for him - those are the rules and I have taught him that it is good to follow the rules. A girl's rainbow is now three colours; pink, purple and, thanks to Frozen, ice blue. My son is expected to inhabit a grimy world of brown and khaki green with the occasional splash of JCB yellow. It's hardly a full spectrum for either of them.
But I am a coward. I will tweet the @lettoysbetoys account with images of my kids engaging in barrier-smashing play, barbie riding a dinosaur etc., but I have never once rocked up to a birthday party with a toy that isn't gender appropriate. I strive for gender neutral but sometimes the pink thing with sequins is the easiest thing to wrap, so when the party is t minus 20 minutes and I'm going to have to wrap this shit in the car that's what I get. I'm going for the rather weak line of positive affirmation - I will now only buy toys from toy shops where the Star Wars display has Rey front & centre. Where she should be.
* The majesty of Jem requires a post all of its own. Sometimes undiluted girl power is a good thing.
Header image from calker.com