Sugar and spice and all things nicely stereotyped

It’s that time of year again. Christmas catalogues are dropping on door mats, and packaging up a nice bit of gender stereotyping seems to be as high on the Christmas menu as it ever has been.

Susan Whitehouse wrote to us recently, after the Cancer Research catalogue she received literally “sickened” her: with gender stereotyping like this, who needs the Disney princesses?

“For the Fashionistas and Creative spirits in your lives”

Fairies, crowns, embroidered, ribbons, tea sets, knitting needles and sequins.

“For sporty gadget fans and wannabe scientists”

Robots, detectives, power, torch, mechanical, monster and puppets.

No prizes for guessing which page is for girls and which for boys? In fact they don’t even bother trying to be subtle about it.

The Cancer Research Christmas catalogue

We might be forgiven for thinking this was a catalogue from the last century, but unfortunately not. Insulted?  We are! how many of the scientists working on a cure for cancer are women? I don’t have the answer but I’d wager there are a fair few. The Women in STEM group that I met recently would have a thing or two to say about this that’s for sure.  Loaded with messages, is this really how we want to label our girls? Fashionistas? At the age of four?

Ahhhhh Boots – I can admit that I didn’t have high hopes for you, and I’d be right!

The top ten toys for “little princesses”* – that’s ‘girls’ to you and me – include toys to make dreams come true, toys for budding fashion fans, Hello Kitty chocolate (we’ll come back to these shortly) a selection of Disney Princesses and a baby doll. Over the page, Miko make-up (with a similar looking cat to the aforementioned Hello Kitty) is marketed along with a picture of a little girl, no older than four years old. With the words “little girls who love accessories and grown-up make-up”. Grown up make-up? For four year olds! That’ll be for the fashionistas right? And on the next page another selection of make-up called “glitter babes” with some choice adjectives again including “sparkly, celebrity, spangly, trendy and gorgeous”.

For Boys –  allowed to be called boys clearly: Scary, Speedy and Sporty describes the top ten toys. Lego is clearly FOR BOYS, and Playmobil, whilst featuring a girl in the picture, is in the ‘boys’ section, or immediately following the Boys’ page, and therefore off the radar for girls.

Boots Christmas catalogue

Whatever happened to simply TOYS?

We’ve been thinking about the Early Learning Centre as the one year anniversary approaches of our first campaign the “Early Learning Emergency”, and hearing from you too about how it continues to simply not live up to its logo or name, or indeed the new tv ad.

So in response, and with determination, maybe we can all encourage our four, five, six, seven year olds, and enable them – through play – to forget fashion, prettiness and sparkly celebrity gorgeousness. To search inside their fashionista self, and to release the real-girl … the free, alive, loud, challenging, funny, quirky true and wonderful **_________ girl inside.

I’ll end with a link to this fantastic performance by Katie Makkai on the dreaded “prettiness” epidemic.

*their words not mine

**insert your own adjective

***the film contains strong language

We’ll be back soon with more on the ELC …

22 responses to “Sugar and spice and all things nicely stereotyped

  1. great article. i took my (just) 5 year old niece to meet Father Christmas at the weekend and when she was asked what she wanted she replied with “make-up”. I was horrified, I have no idea where she has picked this up from and me nor her mum are big fans of the stuff. I can only assume she picks it up from TV or school friends. It was a strange experience.

  2. I think Playmobil was possibly my favourite toy as a child. We had a campervan set, and my best (girl) friend had a boat! I also enjoyed K’nex, remote control cars, my Micky Mouse toy and of course the workable JCB in the sandpit…
    I love Katie Makkai’s poem, especially the end 😀

  3. I was 7 years old when I realized that these catalogues didn’t understand my needs as a non-pink-loving, knowledge-hungry girl. It seems as if pink = stupidity. I got that message a very long time ago, and I’ve spent my entire adult life in an income group that these catalogue publishers would LOVE to reach.

    Sorry, catalogue guys. You underestimated me 30 years ago, and *every* year since. And yet, every year, my income has been high enough that you should’ve wanted to target me.


  4. Stephen Nelson-Smith

    Super article – thanks very much. We were delighted to find you, and discover that we’re not alone in our crusade. I have a slightly different spin from you because I have four children (two girls, two boys). While I absolutely see that the odds are particularly stacked against the girls, with a lack of role models, and programming from an early age to seek rescue in the arms of a prince, or hope at least to be pretty enough to be married off, I also find the selection of themes for boys to be highly damaging. Boys are taught from an early age to be interested in ‘nasty’ things, and to be rough, aggressive, competitive and fierce. One need only look at the crime figures to see the result this has on boys growing into men. Thankfully, our 7 year old son delights in confounding these stereotypes, and can often be heard emphatically saying: “They aren’t BOYS’ toys, or GIRLS’ clothes, they’re PEOPLES’ things!”. Keep up the great work, but don’t forget the other side of the coin 😀

  5. I saw one that went one worse here in Australia. A popular chain department store here advertised a “Girls Microscope” for Xmas. It was pink instead of the standard chrome colour obviously designed for boys (it was also dearer). It sickened me.

  6. I’m fighting this battle at the moment. On one side, me and my daughters, on the other, every streeotype that can be thrown at them. I have taught them to laugh at the adverts, to decipher their real message and then reject it, but it is hard work. However, I will NOT be defeated. I WILL have girls who can be discriminating and swim against the pink tide. This site makes that fight a little easier.

  7. This is bad. I get a fair trade / planet-friendly type product catalogue and even they’re not immune, despite apparently being forward thinking and alternative. Thankfully the toys are not segregated by gender – that’s a big plus. There are also quite a few obviously unisex toys. Hurrah for these. However there are some small fails. Like a bag whose colour is described as ‘princess pink’. The make-your-own puppet sets that come in ‘ballerina’, ‘princess’ (both of which are dressed in pink) or ‘knight’. The ‘I love you mummy’ photo album (very sweet, but what about daddy?!).

    And then there was this, winning the most uncecessary gender-segregation award: a toy chef’s set that comes in two colours – blue for boys (with a boy on the packaging, just to make it Very Clear who the product is for) and pink for girls (with a girl on the packaging). Now, while it’s obviously great that they are marketing cooking toys to boys, *why* does there have to be two types of set? Why not just one, in a neutral colour like green for example, showing both a boy and a girl on the packaging? It’s a radical idea, I know.

  8. I’ve been complaining about this ever since my daughter was born and realized her world was expressed in the pink, and her choices in toys limited to princesses and fairies. I have been encouraging her to find other ways to explore and be creative and have fun. The result, a girl not yet 8 who is moving in the direction of science and wants to be a mystery solver like Nancy Drew! Hooray. Her grandmother just shipped her birthday present to her and I’m thrilled to say that even grandma is on board with me; her present is a starter microscope kit!

  9. I despair this time of year. Its a full on assault every time the adverts come on when the children’s programmes are on in the morning on Channel 5. My girls sit as in a trance until I mute the TV and I get an uproar of my little ones who find the adverts more compelling than the actual programmes.
    Marks and Spencers are no good either, their clothes range for 7-14 year olds is either Hello Kitty (what? what? what?) or what I can only describe as the “trampy child look” neither of which I would like my 7 year old daughter to wear.
    I take the opinion though that I am the one they take their lead from and to help shape their identity so at least I can be confident I wont be raising vacuous, clothes obsessed wannabe pop stars. What ever happened to ambition? And no they wont ever be getting the hoover from ELC….

  10. doodlemum: interesting you say that M&S girls’ clothes are only in the “trampy child look’ – yet M&S are supposedly backing Mumsnet’s Let Girls Be Girls campaign. Next time you’re in M&S, can you photograph the clothes on your phone and send them to Mumsnet?!

  11. Pingback: Hi. Is this thing on? « Aprons & Heels

  12. Every junior school age child I buy presents for will be getting a big neutral box of lego this year. Best present ever.

  13. @doodlemum, I was in M&S recently and agree that there are some questionable items there. Such as jeggings for 0-3 month olds (srsly), little fur coats etc. I was there helping my friend look for baby clothes for her neice, and her sister had specifically said ‘no pink’ (hurrah). The vast majority of baby clothes were segregated into pink and blue. There were some neutral (i.e. white) baby gros etc, and there were some baby clothes that were neither pink nor blue, but even then there were irritating signs of gender segregation. Such as pastel colours for girls (peach, pale yellow etc) and bright colours for boys. Flowers and cupcakes for girls, cars and dinosaurs for boys. One baby gro annoyed me so much – it had little pictures of animals in various primary colours with the motif ‘jungle friends’. It was actually very cute and could have been worn by *any* baby, but was in the boys’ section. I left the shop thinking, wtf, why can’t a little girl have jungle friends too?!

    • There is an awful lot of stereotyping in most of the high street stores and most people I know are happy to go along with it. Once to stop and question why? It becomes quite unsettling. What on earth are we doing?

  14. Hey, those catalogues are great for recycling paper and the compost… Not much else. I don’t buy toys for my son or daughter, however pink is not so bad. I get your point and the catalogues are backward, then so is most advertising which is why we ignore it and our son (4) tells people that ads are designed to make you buy things you don’t need 😉

    I have pink Muay Thai shorts and we did compete at the Byron Bay 7’s for Eastwood in pink and navy rugby (union) jersey’s… I ordered my daughter a beautiful pink, violet and blue fairy skirt for Christmas and I’m sure it’ll look awesome with her new bike helmet. I favour red for both of my kids to wear as it suits their colouring and the red motorbike gear my son is about to grow out of will look great on my daughter when she inherits it.

    I get your point entirely though, however I love wearing bows in my hair when I play rugby even if they get lost in the dirt during a tackle… Girls can be ALL things, pretty and tough; we are luckier than boys.

  15. Ironic that the fairies of folklore were nothing like the pink sugery concoctions that plague our shops.
    They were nasty, could be ugly and certainly were not tiny creatures in sparkly dresses with wings.
    The folklore of the little people (fairies) is a lot more interesting than the disneyfied versions.

  16. Bianca Nishitani

    As a child my mother always got me both types toys. She got me cars and blocks even dolls I hated dolls and my mother never got them for me again. Any way I grew up being a tomboy and I am still kind of one now @37. I am not in to sterero type grown up women, stuff like handbags & make up and fashion. I like computers and video games and gadgets.

    I have a daughter and I let her choose what she wants to play with. She isn’t in to pink princesses or dollies. By the way many years ago in japan a. Particular cat called Hello kitty wasn’t like what she was today. In the 70’s late 80’s she wasn’t Girly and pink. She fly in a plane and her roll was more neutral, it was the new designer who made her like she is today 😦

  17. I stumbled upon this site doing something related (being a librarian I was searching for faculty staff something about sociological implications of home appliances, which in turn led to gender roles, etc. )
    I think you may find interesting (in the Chinese curse sense, I suppose) a short story by the Finnish sci fi author Johanna Sinisalo titled “Baby Doll”, showing a very near future where sexual exploitation of very young girls becomes standard business practice and ten year old girls model for Cosmopolitan advertising lingerie named Sinful Black and the like: the text is available at
    Year’s Best SF 13, 2007
    It’s really scary, something between an object lesson and a cautionary tale (think 1984…)

  18. Fantasic website and cause!! I have a website called Mankini Revolution and am on a similiar mission to rid the world of harmful gender stereotypes. My aim is to educate and to promote female-friendly media. The more profitable female-friendly media and merchandise becomes, the more we will see it. I have started to create a list of female-friendly tv, music, book, etc. recommendations each week. Please check it out, bookmark it, and add your suggestions at

  19. Great campaign. I am 51, so been around long enough to see how times have changed, and its not for the better. There seemed to be more diverse, and stronger role models when I was young. I remember at 8 wanting to be Emma Peel from the Avengers, or a jet plane flying angel from Captain Scarlet. These characters were strong, sexy and more importantly WOMEN. In real life Brigitte Bardot was considered attractive, and she was someone very much in control of her own sexuality. What do we have now? Cheryl Cole et al who seem to see liberation as appearing in cringe-worthy cosmetic commercials, and other female singers with little talent whose only selling point is their ability to gyrate half naked in videos, and still manage to present an insipid, and somehow sexless, version of female sexuality.
    I’ve been aware of, and concerned about, an increasing pinkification of femaleness for years, so it was great to discover people feeling the same way as I do. Then, just before Christmas I saw a pink globe for sale in WH Smith’s. I guess only boys can handle a globe that is the true colour of the planet! I was speechless.
    I would have hoped that in the 21st Century both genders would have less restrictive stereotypes placed on them, instead of being fed cartoon images by advertisers and the corporate world of what it means to be male or female.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s