It’s always illuminating to look at how we present things to children. We tend (in the West, anyway) to portray the world to them in a kind of sanitised, round-edged, Technicolor version of how we believe it to be – or perhaps how we would like it to be – which says a lot about us.
I’ve been thinking recently about children’s clothes.
Clothes, of course, are practically a language all of their own: what we wear screams out information to the world (and this goes double if there are actual words on our clothes).
Do you buy children’s clothes? Have you noticed how insanely gendered they are these days? In some of the online circles where I hang out, it’s a commonplace almost no longer worth alluding to: if the fashion world had its way, girls would drown in a sparkly ocean of pink and lilac; boys would be engulfed in a tidal wave of blue, muddy shades, and military chic.
The colour thing is law, by the way, to an extent I don’t remember from when I was young. Nowadays, unless you colour-code your girl-child with pink or lilac, or other “feminine” talismans (talispersons?) (heartsflowersbutterflies), or a girly hairstyle, she will be assumed by strangers to be male. Yes, this really happens. Often.
And colour is, in many ways, the least of it. If you really want to get riled up, pause for a few moments to consider the words. Here are some real-life examples:
- On a blue top: My travel diary – African safari – Tropical island
- On a T-shirt: Little adventurer – Explorer club
- On a brick-red T-shirt: I’m travelling around the world with my friends
- On a yellow T-shirt: I’m the boss
- On a red, navy and grey top: Taxi – Police – Air Rescue
- On a grey, navy and green top: The big city – Swoosh! – Air rescue (illustration: helicopter)
- On a navy and grey top: If you think I’m cute you should see my daddy!
So far so good, right? OK, perhaps a touch of white privilege, but nothing too horrible (apart from the last one, which makes me feel queasy). Now, check these out:
- On a white top: No. 1 baby (illustration: flowers)
- On a white T-shirt with pink trim: Sunshine (embellishment: abstract flower motifs)
- On a pink T-shirt: Rosie’s secret garden (illustration: girl in a dress surrounded by floral motifs)
- On a white T-shirt: Good toes, naughty toes, good toes… (illustration: pink bow with suspended ballet pumps)
- On a navy and white top, in gold embellished script: Heritage
- On a white T-shirt: Follow the line to help baby elephant find his mummy (illustration: elephants and other animals, a dotted line)
- On a frilly turquoise T-shirt: Princess in training … almost perfect (embellishment: sequins, stars, hearts)
I take it you do not need me to explain which set goes with which gender? No? Good.
These examples are all from Mothercare in Dublin: I stopped there one afternoon a few months ago and wrote down everything I could see, because the contrast was so egregious. I haven’t shown you everything I wrote down, but this is a broadly (as opposed to statistically accurate) representative sample.
The Boy message is all about action, adventure, agency, while the Girl message is all about appearance, passivity, being the object of judgement.
The Boy tells us that he’s travelling around the world with his friends (who are African animals, as far as I remember), in a presumably carefree manner. The Girl is instructed to follow the line to help baby elephant find his mummy: to take responsibility, in other words, for minding a male child and sorting out a pretty serious, grown-up issue.
In general, the Boy gets to speak – “I’m the boss” – while the Girl is labelled – “No. 1 baby”. (Look out for that one. It’s a depressingly common distinction. I once saw a pair of gendered T-shirts reading “I’m the cutest!” (Boy) and “Cutie Pie” (Girl) – took me ages to work out why they annoyed me.)
Embellishment and illustration are ubiquitous in the Girl section, less so in the Boy section. (I didn’t note all of the illustrations in the Boy section, because they didn’t particularly strike me. Bad researcher, no biscuit.) This underlines the message that girls are decorative and looking at them is proper and pleasurable.
In the Boy section, there is nothing approaching the jawdropping world of WTF we see in the Girl section. (Heritage? What?) The message of Good toes, naughty toes, good toes… is that there is a paradigm of judgement, to which the wearer is subject. The same goes for Princess in training … almost perfect, which also encourages aspirations that can never be fulfilled (contrast Explorer, Air Rescue, which actually could feature in a child’s future).
Girls are pressured to strive for perfection – which as far as I can see is defined as community approval. Boys aren’t. My afternoon in Mothercare didn’t yield any examples of the “Boys are delinquent, unsanitary sociopaths, and we (women/mothers) love them anyway” meme, but look out for it – it’s everywhere (e.g. the picture at the top of this post, of a T-shirt belonging to the Feaster). Best example I can think of, spotted in the same Mothercare branch last year and neatly combining delinquency, militarism, and the glass ceiling: Trouble Squad: Team Leader.
But let us – with some difficulty, at least in my case – tear ourselves away from the sexist imbalances for a moment. The overarching message of these slogans, supported throughout this society by adult purchasing power, is basically, “Hey, look, here is the world. Regard it in all its teeming richness and beauty. One day, you will hold sway here. But remember – this is really important – you have to ignore this half over here. It is not for people with genitals shaped like yours. Focus exclusively on this half. Here is the arena in which your ineluctable destiny is to be played out. The other half is not for you – repeat: NOT for you. Because look! In your pants! See?”
Don’t you think that’s weird?
In the spirit of David and Goliath (or even, dare I suggest, a female version of the same trope – any suggestions?), my Zazzle shop provides a few alternative messages. These ideas have been kicking around in my head for a while; more will follow as inspiration strikes. (Meanwhile, if inspiration strikes you, it’s dead easy to start up there.)
I ordered an “I’ll be a post-feminist in the post-patriarchy” T-shirt for the Feaster last week, in pink with lilac writing. I got myself a “miles to go before I sleep” top as well, for good measure. I’ll let you know when they arrive.
I always welcome comments, but I’d particularly like to know what you think of this post. I hesitated for ages before publishing it – it’s quite a departure from my usual crafty subject-matter.
But then, clothes and fashion are definitely within the remit here, and there’s plenty I want to say about them. Like it or not, we live in a political soup: everything is touched by it. Plus, this blog is called “String Revolution”, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise when I wax polemic.
I’m probably overthinking this. What’s your verdict? Should I stick to the crafts, or would you welcome more of this sort of thing in the mix?