There’s still a world of difference in terms of what we buy girls and boys for Christmas, writes Clodagh Finn
I’M a little disappointed not to be able to put the new hijab-wearing Barbie on my Santa list. Sadly, the doll, which is modelled on Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, won’t be making her point about diversification and sporting prowess until next spring.
It’s a pity because we could do with a doll that has muscular thighs and is not dressed in pink in the run-up to the toy season.
Blasphemous as it is to suggest that Christmas is all about what we put under the tree, the figures prove the point: Irish parents spend more than their European counterparts on
presents for their children, forking out an average €254 per child, according to a 2015 Mummypages.ie poll.
If only there was a survey to tell us how much of that will be spent on something pink. Why is it that girls are condemned to a playtime that has been reduced to that used-and-abused
In fact, everything to do with little girls seems to be swaddled in
pernicious pink — clothes, accessories, stationery. On the flipside, as a friend and mother of a young boy pointed out recently, clothes for boys are black or gunmetal grey and stamped with skulls.
There’s no doubt about it, the gender games start early. As proof, let me offer these two vignettes from my local park this week.
Vignette number one: the other day, a mother and her three little girls came towards me in a haze of pink. All her little ones were pushing something pink on wheels — a pram, a scooter and a bike.
Vignette number two: A little boy pointed his toy gun at me and fired. Being the half-child that I am, I feigned injury with the theatrics of a professional footballer and bent over in agony. I smiled then, because it was fun. Even girls (grown-up ones
included) get that.
Yet, you’d have to ask why we’re still giving little boys guns. It’s worth recalling that they are even banned in Afghanistan, a place flush with the real thing, to try to curb the culture of violence. But then, does our choice of toys as children have any influence on how we behave in later life?
I’m asking that as a girl-child who, at aged five, had a toy ironing board and iron and spent many happy hours “ironing” tea towels. I grew up to become an iron-averse adult with a finely attuned array of tactics to remove creases from clothes that don’t involve ironing.
Yet, despite all the progress made elsewhere, there is still a huge dividing wall between boys and girls when it comes to toys.
It is good news, then, to see that the makers of Barbie are at least widening the view of what women look like and what they do.
Putting Barbie in a hijab has, of course, prompted a debate about whether or not an Islamic headscarf is a symbol of oppression, but the new doll is about much more than that.
She is a celebration of a woman who became the first Muslim American woman ever to take home an Olympic title. Hijab Barbie is a two-arms-in-the-air cheer for Ibtihaj Muhammad, the fencer who won bronze at the women’s team sabre event in Rio last year.
The doll is proportioned like a real woman and a strong athletic one, at that. It is a blessed departure from the blonde, blue-eyed impossibly shaped piece of plastic that had a generation of children thinking that their thighs shouldn’t touch.
If traditional Barbie had been a real woman, her tiny 16in waist would mean that she could accommodate only half a liver and a few inches of intestine. What harm, though, when she looked so pretty in pink.
Thankfully, dollmakers Mattel have moved on and produced a new collection of dolls that come in four body types, seven skin tones and with 24 different hairstyles.
The latest Barbie is part of the Sheroes line which, according to Mattel, recognises “female heroes who inspire girls by breaking boundaries and expanding possibilities for women everywhere”.
Muhammad, herself a Barbie fan, said she wept with joy when she heard she was to be the inspiration for a doll. She said something that should be printed on the box: “When I was a kid, I remember people commenting on the size of my thighs. Then I got involved in sports, and I came to appreciate my body.”
But here’s another suggestion: isn’t it time that we took the pink out of play and encouraged girls to play with so-called boys’ toys and vice versa?
They did just that in a social experiment that was recounted in a fascinating documentary aired earlier this year on BBC Two called No More Boys and Girls: Can Kids Go Gender Free?.
In it, Médecins Sans Frontières doctor Javid Abdelmoneim wondered what would happen if you treated a classroom of seven-year-old boys and girls equally.
That meant painting over pink and blue with neutral orange, introducing boys to sewing, girls to geometrical puzzles and changing the usual storylines: the princess will no longer wear pink and she doesn’t need a prince to rescue her.
If only we could try similar experiments in all schools, although by the time children are seven certain messages are already deeply ingrained.
Unconscious sexism starts in the maternity ward when parents/doctors/nurses pick up an 8lb baby and find themselves saying the same old sexist, though terribly well-meaning, things. If it’s a boy: “Fine strapping boy.” If it’s a girl: “Oh, sweet little thing.”
Unfortunately, the pinkification of girls starts right there and then insinuates itself in a subtle process that lasts a lifetime. We can fight back, though. And we can start by not allowing ourselves to be tickled pink this Christmas.
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