|Dr Javid Abdelmoneim with pupils from Lanesend, Isle of Wight|
We may just have come to the end of the summer holidays but anyone watching BBC Two’s fascinating class room experiment with 7 year-olds, No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender-free?, should feel they’ve had a lesson they’ll never forget. By challenging some of the silly stereotypes that children of this age have, sadly, already taken on board, the idea was to show all of them, whatever sex, that with regard to what they want to do in life, the sky’s the limit. ‘Everyone can choose to be anything they want,’ cried one boy after discovering that, just as girls can become car mechanics and architects, so can boys go in for ballet and make-up artistry. Hurrah!
Good news though this is, I can’t help asking – why is it news? How, in the name of our children’s health, did we get to the point where 7 year-olds – interviewed before the experiment - have already decided that ‘girls are good at being pretty’ and ‘boys are better at being in charge’? Nearly 100 years after women won the vote and with rafts of Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination legislation on the statute book, sexist stereotypes are aliver and weller than they have ever been. I’m so cross I don’t even care that those aren’t words.
Because while we can all be guilty of following – instead of questioning – traditional lines of thought, the real villains are those creating traditions that were never there before. Yup, the manufacturing companies. The people who tell us not just that boys wear blue and girls wear pink (yawn, yawn), but that boys’ shoes are Leaders, tough enough to run around in, climb trees and yes, you’ve guessed it, be in charge, whereas girls must wear flimsy Dolly Babes (thank you, Clarks, who until now I held in high esteem).
The divide goes further: that great universal building toy, Lego (remember when it was just red and white bricks?) now comes in sets with names like ‘Andrea’s and Stephanie’s Beach Holiday,’ ‘Emma’s Ice Cream Van,’ and ‘Willy’s Butte Speed Training.’
When challenged, the standard response from toy/clothes/shoes/book/household goods manufacturers is that they’re giving customers what they want – an outrageous claim, since the very creation of gender-based products removes all choice of buying universal ones. Sneaky, too, since the real reason is screamingly obvious: profit. Divide the market and you double it. Buy pink wellies for your daughter and your son will refuse to wear them, so you can’t pass them on and will have to shell out for new blue/black/grey/spiderman/whatever ones for him.
Indeed, when it comes to merchandising, the manufacturers go further: Skye, the only female character from the popular series, Paw Patrol, is inexplicably absent from ‘boys’ wellies,
As a children’s writer, I find this very depressing. We are told all the time that girls will read stories about boys, while boys won’t read ones about girls. From my talks to boys in all kinds of schools, I’m convinced this needn’t be the case; but if the message feeding through from infancy is that adventure, excitement, climbing trees, fighting monsters, building space rockets and flying to the moon are for boys only, who can blame them for assuming that a book with girl characters won’t have any of this kind of stuff?
Both hero and villain of my first book, Ante’s Inferno, are girls, with a boy being the other main character. My next title, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, is peopled almost exclusively by boys; while the cast of my current wip, The Fall of a Sparrow, is nearly all girls. I don’t do this deliberately, it just happens. In all of the books, much is demanded of the main characters: bravery, quick-thinking, endurance, survival, a willingness to risk injury – even death – in pursuit of their cause. I hope this is what will count when arranging school visits, not the sex of my characters; but I know from bestselling writer Robin Stevens’ experience that I may have a fight on my hands.
Which is incredibly sad.
Find out more about Griselda Heppel here: