Sugar and Spice

I am a feminist, my children are feminists (or they will be if they know what’s good for them) and my husband is a feminist. We read Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls and the Women’s History of the World.  We build Lego spaceships and sparkly snow globes. My kids use the Bechdel test to analyse the tv and films they watch without even being asked. We are delighted to see people moving ‘Natural Born Scientist’ and NASA emblazoned t-shirts into the girls section. My son has the sensitivity and soul of a poet and my daughter the grumpy belligerence of an engineer. They both love caring for babies and animals and they both like a spot of ultra-violence every now and then. They are complex and contradictory and the best people I know. I don’t want any part of this shut down or redirected. 

I am certainly not alone in this. There are endless articles, tweets, subreddits, Facebook pages, and online petitions to show that people do not want girls to be reduced to silent graceful shimmering goddesses. There are some glorious furious words being written about the idiocy of ‘girl’s science kits’ teaching them how to make lip balm or something equally fatuous. Lots and lots of people i know are ‘woke’ when it comes to smoothing the path for women to engage with and access STEM actives. It is vitally important to highlight the good work that was being done by women before men came striding through the door and changed the locks; stories like Hidden Figures, the importance of Rosalind Franklin and Ada Lovelace, the whole history of midwifery etc etc etc. It feels like people are finally pushing against the closed doors and glass ceilings like feminist Alice in Wonderlands (Alices in Wonderland?) I am delighted to be an active participant in all of this good work. It is very clear that we need a much broader range of representations of who women are and what we do.

It’s just that a lot of the focus seems to be on encouraging women to access activities that were previously thought to be the domain of men, to celebrate that women can prove they are just as capable of men in these fields. I do think, however, that there are still some structural difficulties with this focus; we are still implying that the things that men do, the activities that are defined as masculine, are somehow better than those defined as feminine. Our focus seems to be on pushing girls towards more ‘masculine’ activities rather than opening all activities up to both genders. I worry about the negative effects of telling kids who like sparkles and clothes and fashion and caring for others that these are less good choices than science or exploration or adventure. Therefore I put this up on Instagram the other day:

Such a shame there aren't many sparkles or pink things in the boys section, so I fixed it for you.

Such a shame there aren't many sparkles or pink things in the boys section, so I fixed it for you.

You may have not have heard of Daisy Meadows and Adam Blade, ostensibly the authors of the Rainbow Magic and Beast Quest book series respectively - but, just from those names you already know what kinds of books they write. (They really are icky names, aren't they?) In reality, these sets of books are written by faceless drones deep within the bowels of the Working Partners publishing house. There are over 100 books in each series. Lots of kids love these books and they are without a doubt hyper-gendered in terms of marketing and content. Rainbow Magic is clearly FOR GIRLS and in turn Beast Quest is meant to appeal TO BOYS. (I have actually read one of these myself, just to make sure my son wasn’t unwittingly being inculcated into some sort of pre-pubescent Men’s Rights Activist group; it was fine, not good, but fine.) I strongly suspect there is a scent of sulphur and brimstone wafting from the office of the CEO of Working Partners. 

My son reads the Beast Quest series and no one in the class has a problem with some of his female school friends reading these stories of magical creatures set in the suburbs of Mordor. On the other hand, I am certain no seven year old boy would touch a Rainbow Magic story with spiked gauntlet. Even adults are making these distinctions. I have seen nothing but bile for the Rainbow Magic book series spattered across Mumsnet and Facebook, that simply isn’t present in the discussion of the Beast Quest books. There is a casual contempt for this kind of reductive girl’s book but anything that gets boys reading is considered absolutely fine. There is very clear message that things liked by boys are good and things liked by girls must be judged and assessed to make sure that are appropriate, to make sure that girls won’t be damaged by what they read. 

Everything is being policed in this way. I have read myriad articles about how we shouldn’t start conversations with girls about their appearance or what they are wearing. I’m sorry but the conversations I have with five year olds are not exactly sprinkled with witty repartee a la Oscar Wilde at the best of times. Sometimes ‘Hey, that’s a cool t-shirt’ is simply what the occasion demands, regardless of the chromosome configuration of the small human squinting up at you. Children tend to respond to this type of comment better than if I were to introduce the topic of nomadic sheep-herders of the northern steppes. I think it’s fine to comment on the appearance of a girl as long as I am also making the same kinds of comments to the boys as well. Over all, I think it is reasonable to ask adults to think about and give some consideration to the conversational gambits with the under 10’s and to be aware of the impact words can have on these tiny unformed minds. I would argue that, rather than erasing compliments for girls, can't we acknowledge that complementing a boy on his appearance or his keen sense of fashion, is actually a pretty ok thing to do as well? 

If my daughter says she wants to be a princess, I can actually hear peoples eyes rolling in their sockets. To be fair, her princesses are actually pretty positive role models - Mulan, Rapunzel, Moana, Monoke - these are not wilting wallflower waiting to be rescued. I am aware that some of this stuff is problematic - if you are an adult with a degree in media studies. When you are five, Rapunzel painting a picture and then twanging a bad guy in the face with a frying pan is of more value than the collected works of Germaine Greer. It is also worth noting that no one frowns or rolls their eyes if my son says he wants to be a scientist, no one worries that society has inculcated him into a gendered role, due to societal pressure beyond his understanding. I do understand why the focus is on increasing access for girls - boys continue to have a much broader range of options offered to them before they are even aware they are making choices. My worry is that in our eagerness to redress this balance we sometimes end up invalidating the choices a girl feels she is making for herself - even if those choices involve fairies or fashion or looking after babies.

Therefore I am not pushing my daughter into science and engineering even though I know she’ll be great at them. I am taking the time to celebrate the things that she wants to explore; if she wants everything covered in sparkles and to spend time on make up and pretty dresses it is my responsibility to celebrate this, not denigrate it. My job is to build her confidence in her ability to make her own choices and to point out the barriers that she may not have noticed so she can navigate them herself. It is not my job to push her down a road she does not yet want to travel. Any choices she makes in the future should be grounded in her own sense of self, her confidence in her own abilities and her perception of herself as an active agent in her own destiny.  

The thing that has surprised me is how much I am enjoying entering this world of froth and frippery. As I grew hoarier and more cynical, I turned away from make up and dressing fancy. The feminist in me was suspicious of this sort of self regard; it was too compromised, founded upon a suspect ideology. Thanks to my daughter I have re-discovered that wearing jewellery, putting on pretty dresses and too much make up, painting nails and sticking on tattoos is remarkably satisfying. In rejecting these things I lost the pleasure they bring. I forgot that self care is about the process, not about the result. Now I remember the joy of watching Bjork on Top of the Pops and galloping upstairs to copy her eye make up. I remember when I would go to Monsoon and try on 3 of their finest dresses just to listen to the shop assistant tell me how wonderful I looked.  I loved how I looked in those clothes and this simple act stopped me worrying about my A levels just for a little bit. I had forgotten the good in all of these things. My daughter has reminded me of them.

Now, as I sit painting my daughter’s nails and my own (badly, oh so badly) I can find that simple pleasure in self care again and the joy of caring for those you love. I am enjoying the shared space, the enforced stillness that this activity requires and the chance it gives us to talk and to share secrets. It is also my responsibility to make damn sure that her brother is involved in these so-called ‘girlie’ activities too - to make sure that this kind of activity is not considered out of bounds for him. He needs to learn the importance of self care and caring for others just as much as she does. My boy deserves equal access to feeling lovely about himself as well. I must admit this is going very well. I have been rewarded for my benevolent feminism tenfold as both my children now regularly do my hair and offer me massages. I am trying to encourage them to call it their ’Spa’ but sadly both are very insistent that i am visiting their 'massage parlour', which conuures up some rather less wholesome images in my head - but hey ho, at least they're happy.

We are fighting an uphill battle for gender equality, I am aware - just look at the response to John Lewis’ excellent initiative to rid their children’s department of gendered labels. Anyone would think they had decided to set up a castration clinic at the top of the escalators not just change some signage.  I must admit though, most people I know are in favour of removing these arbitrary labels- any attempt to expand a child’s universe rather than limiting or prescribing it is surely a good thing. 

A child’s world is saturated in messages about what it is to be a boy or to be a girl and we are right to interrogate these things and to challenge the ossification of gender roles and the opportunities that are available to both boys and girls. We have a duty to keep the world as wide and free as possible, to allow our children to travel different paths and to change direction when they want. It is our job to reduce the barriers that appear on the roads before them.