How Darth Vader defends my daughter’s right to be a girl

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‘Don’t take no sith from anyone’

It’s fancy dress week at my daughter’s preschool. So what should she go as? The question I should have asked my daughter was “What fancy dress would you like to wear?”. However, what we actually asked was “Would you like to wear your Darth Vader costume?” I just couldn’t let this opportunity to enlighten her peers slip by.

A local mum recently made a good point to me that I had never considered. Many of the children my daughter goes to preschool with will be at the same primary school, in the same year, maybe even the same class. They may continue to be her closest peers until adulthood. The same goes for lots of the children we see at playgroup, at the local park, soft play, the library, or even just the high street. What these children think, how they perceive the world, how they treat my daughter, will have a massively influential impact on the woman she becomes.

Part of my approach to parenting is to constantly refer back to my memories of growing up, and use that to positively inform my approach. The fantastical worlds of comic books and Star Wars loom large in my childhood (and adulthood too). They fired my imagination, but perhaps more importantly provided both escapism and inspiration to make sense of the world in the darkest times of my youth.

I want my daughter to have access to all of this too. Luckily, superheroes and Star Wars are still very much in vogue.

It’s also fair to say that I’m not a fan of Disney Princesses, and pinkification in general. So as well as simply sharing my enthusiasm for Star Wars with my daughter (she has all my old toys), this is also about me offering her an alternative to girly girl culture before she heads into the school system, and peer group pressure becomes a driving force in her development.

So far, my daughter really enjoys this stuff. So do all the little girls who come over for playdates – they always love to play with our Star Wars and superhero toys.

However, it seems very clear that to the likes of Hasbro and Disney (who own Marvel and Star Wars) these brands are just for boys. That’s another battle being fought by myself and others, but in the meantime, here in the trenches, our kids are forming opinions on what is and isn’t for boys or girls, based on the way these brands are marketed.

As she grows older, I worry my daughter might be singled out for displaying an interest in this geek stuff, simply because she’s a girl. I don’t want her to be perceived as ‘weird’ because she’s a geek. Perhaps even teased, ostracised, or bullied.

This mentality starts young. One time, a little boy saw me with my daughter, looked unsure, then asked me: “Is she a boy or a girl?”. When I confirmed ‘she’ was in fact a girl, he countered “Then why is she wearing a Spider-Man t-shirt?”. “Because she likes Spider-Man.” I replied. The boy’s older sister then chimed in, “Yeah, girls can like Spider-Man too y’know!”. The boy went away with a new concept to contemplate, while hopefully this exchange supported his sister’s seemingly healthy outlook on gender.

It also exists in adults who should know better. A friend who recently became a dad asked me ‘Why are you trying to make your daughter into a boy?’. Grasping for a calm answer, I replied ‘I’m not. There’s nothing inherently male about any of this stuff. I think whatever she wears are girl’s clothes, her toys are girl’s toys, her books are girl’s books. Because she’s a girl.’ After mulling it for a moment, he agreed with me. I think this had never occurred to him before, but now it makes sense.

My daughter & I get so many positive comments from parents when we’re out and about. I often then hear them telling their son or daughter how cool my daughter looks. So perhaps we are influencing some parents too.

I am confident I am doing right by my daughter, that these things are a positive influence on her developing personality. But in order for her to not be socially excluded because of it, I also need her peers and their parents to accept girls can be just as engaged with these things as boys.

So I feel that each time she runs around with a cape, carries her cuddly Spidey to the playground, wears her beloved Batgirl dress yet again, or goes out dressed as Darth Vader, she is doing her part to challenge (some) people’s idea of what it is to be a girl.

My hope is that by the time she gets to school, and her attire will switch from geek chic to school uniform, her fellow pupils will be so used to the idea that girls can like this stuff too, that it won’t be weird at all.

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A Dispatch From The Gender Frontline (I Went to Some Toy Shops)

Needing to kill an hour or so, I took a stroll around the Westfield London shopping centre this week. I naturally gravitated towards the toy shops, and I decided to amuse myself by indulging in a spot of gendered toys mystery shopping.

The first shop I went into was The Entertainer. They are a large independent toy retailer, and I have a particular soft spot for them as they began with one shop in my home town neighbour of Amersham, Bucks. But sentimentality aside, I had no idea what they were like as a toy shop these days.

I was pleasantly surprised and really impressed with the way they categorise their toys – eg. ‘Action & Adventure’, ‘Arts & Creative’, ‘Cars, trains, and planes’ etc – not by gender. This seemed like such progressive (and logical) way to sort toys, that doesn’t exclude on the basis of gender – at least in how product is grouped. Bravo Entertainer!

The Entertainer toy shop
The Entertainer toy shop

What I didn’t realise (until I tweeted about it) was that this came about because of a campaign by Let Toys Be Toys (we were living outside of UK when this happened). So bravo to them too. 🙂

I didn’t buy anything, but I will definitely be back to shop here, another branch, or online.

I was expecting the worst with the next shop I visited. I have written about the divisive way LEGO creates and markets its product before. The beloved Universal toy of my youth is no more. I have resigned myself to not buying any new LEGO, that in all likelihood my daughter will be playing with our ample hand-me-down supply throughout her childhood. So I went to the LEGO shop all prepared for their gendered marketing tricks.

But then I spotted this.

Lego Female Scientists set, Lego Female Scientists kit, Lego Female Scientists sold out, female scientist lego
Lego Female Scientists

Yes!

The female scientists minifigure set, that I had in my own little way campaigned so furiously for, that had finally been released only to be sold out everywhere… It was back! I stopped looking around the store, grabbed the set, and headed straight for the counter.

As I paid, I asked the staff about it. They told me they had only been delivered a small number of sets in the original release, and everyone in the company was surprised how popular it had been. The staff were keen to point out that they now have a much healthier stock of it. So if you’re thinking of buying some LEGO for your child (or you!), then I would strongly suggest that you get this one. I’m intending on saving it until Christmas day. Hopefully I can resist the urge to put it together it until then.

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My daughter’s LEGO Research Institute 21110

That’s all I can say about the LEGO shop. They could have had an entire wall of pink Friends sets, with a sparkling sign proclaiming ‘LEGO FOR GIRLS’, and I wouldn’t have noticed. That’s how chuffed I was to finally have this awesome set in my hands.

So it had been a really positive experience so far. My final stop was The Disney Store, which I entered with trepidation. I love Star Wars & Marvel (both acquired by Disney) as much as I do not love princess culture (pretty much created by Disney).

IMG_4015Given that Disney & gendered marketing to kids go together like the Empire & the Death Star, I tend to browse Disney’s virtual and actual aisles with frustration. This occasion was no exception.

Starting with Marvel, there was nothing in the store featuring a female character. No Black Widow in the Avengers line, no Gamora or Nebula in the Guardians of the Galaxy stuff, no additional female superheroes, nothing. *sigh

On to Star Wars.

There’s large section of the store devoted to movie merchandise, primarily the original trilogy. The lack of Leia merchandise was an early issue on this blog, so I was keen to see if things had improved at all. At first glance, it hadn’t. There was a prominent display featuring Han Solo, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and a Stormtrooper – but no Princess Leia.

IMG_4040I scanned the large selection of Star Wars stuff here, and eventually found a Leia. In fact I found a couple. They were each part of different play-sets figures. One set was Jabba’s palace, which of course means one thing – Slave Leia.

An eagle eyed fan on Twitter also spotted a Torryn Farr figure. Who is she? The blink and you’ll miss her Rebel Comms officer from The Empire Strikes Back. She may not be the most active character in the trilogy (she sits in a chair and relays orders), but I guess at least she’s a female Star Wars character figure.

That’s not all the Star Wars gear the shop has now though. There’s a big display of merchandise from the brand new TV show Star Wars Rebels. It’s early days for the show, but it has TWO major female characters that are prominently featured in the artwork of the toy display. So I was curious about what the the product would be like.

Product? What product?

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That’s right. There was nothing, nothing, featuring either of the female characters of Sabine or Hera. Not an action figure, not a t-shirt, nothing. I asked a member of staff about this. She looked surprised, had a glance at the section, and then kind of shrugged “No, there’s nothing with any of the women”.

What’s a girl gotta do to get into the Star Wars line at the Disney Store? It seems even a pink skinny waisted Boba Fett with a boob plate can’t break the gendered marketing glass ceiling far, far away…

So in this flagship Disney Store, in one of the premier shopping centres in Britain, there were just three items including any female characters in the whole of their Marvel & Star Wars sections – nothing in Marvel, and Star Wars had a classic Princess Leia (as part of a set), Slave girl Leia (as part of a set), and an individual figure of a rebel who says “Stand by ion control…Fire!” and nothing else.

Apparently, Sabine & Hera will be included in the second wave of Star Wars Rebels figures being released by licensee Hasbro. Staff also told me “We’re going to get Princess Leia stuff soon. But they keep saying that”. They had no idea about female Marvel characters.

I didn’t buy anything, and I’m not planning on going back. I left the shop more frustrated than ever about the fact that The House Of Mouse now own Marvel & Star Wars. I really hope things change for the better, and they embrace the female – and girl – market for these brands.

I reflected that my previous positive toyshop experiences were both due to the willingness of brands/retailers to engage with feedback, listen to those seeking change, and take a good look at their offering.

In conclusion, in terms of gendered marketing and division of toys: The Entertainer good, The Disney Store sadly not, and the LEGO shop? Well, they had me at female scientist minifigure set and was the only shop I spent money in.

So while this may have been an unscientific survey, in the end it was all about science.

Playgroups: A Survival Guide for Dads

playgroups, dads, mums, stay at home dads, stay at home dad, moms, mothers, toddler, baby, survival guide,
My daughter at playgroup. Other than me, a stay at home dads free zone.

“Do you all spend the whole time cackling about shoes and celebrities?”

That was an actual question I asked my wife about our antenatal group. Like most men, I hadn’t really spent much time around large groups of women, and when I had they were usually drinking lots of Pinot Grigio or watching Mamma Mia. Or both.

Well, they DIDN’T chat endlessly about Women’s Mag stuff, and they accepted me as a stay-at-home dad without batting an eyelid, comfortable to talk of cracked nipples and weaning strategies alongside the kind of stuff we all used to converse about a lot more before becoming parents.

Playgroups are an extension of these gatherings. However, when you’re the only man walking into a roomful of women & kids who know each other but not you, it’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed. Don’t be.

You will be told how brave you are for going to a playgroup with lots of mums. Don’t believe this for a second. You’re not being brave at all. You’re just a dad taking his child to a playgroup. Treat it as the most normal thing any parent would do, because it is. If you approach it this way others will too.

So dads – whether you’re stay-at-home full-time or on temporary leave – don’t be shy and get out there. Here’s a few pointers to help you on your way.

Baby and toddler groups survival guide

1. Smile
No one wants to hang out with grumpy Graham in the corner. If you look like you don’t want to be there, you also look like you don’t want to talk to anyone – so they won’t bother. Smile, and people will smile back.

2. Children are a great conversation opener
“How old is your child?”, “How long have they been walking?”, “What a cool outfit”, etc. It’s very easy to start a conversation with women at a playgroup, by simply sharing facts & compliments about each other’s children. This also works in bars.

3. Be the engaged parent you are
To many, it’s still a novelty (even weird) to see a dad enjoying spending time with their child. In all likelihood, the mothers you want to know will recognise the same level of engagement that their partner has, or even wish they were more like you (no, really). Either way, they’ll like you all the more for it.

4. Offer to help out
Whether picking up a dropped toy, tidying up at the end of the session, or helping to run an actual group (as I do), helping out is a great way to endear yourself by showing again what an engaged parent you are.

5. Remember peoples names
I’m terrible at this, and it does really help to build a connection by demonstrating you’re interested in them enough to recall their name. Here’s a good playgroup hack: If you’ve forgotten, ask the child’s name, DO remember this, then look down the sign in book/sheet for that name and cross reference the parent’s name.

6. Bake something
Possibly sexist (sorry), but mums at one group still mention the batch of Anzac biscuits I brought to a group once. I didn’t even bake them – my wife did. It was the first time a lot of mothers actually talked to me, and they have done ever since.

7. You will think your singing voice sounds worse then everyone else’s. Probably because it is…
Most groups end with a sing-song. Your voice is (probably) lower than the mums & kids, so your singing will stand out. Don’t worry. This isn’t choir practice. If they do notice you, it’ll be for enthusiastically singing with your child, because it makes them happy. Which is cool.

8. Not all groups of mothers are a clique…
Don’t be intimidated. Just because there’s a group of women talking intently to each other in the corner, it doesn’t mean they’re an exclusionary clique. Stop basing your idea of female social structures on Mean Girls and Heathers.

9. …but mother cliques do exist.
Just like Mean Girls and Heathers, there are still exclusionary cliques around. If you encounter one, just walk on by. Don’t even assume it’s because you’re a dad – there are plenty of mothers who also feel excluded by these packs too. Be thankful – there are far more interesting people for you to get to know.

10. If you don’t like it, move along
It took me a few groups before I found ones I liked. Remember, it’s ok not to like them. Some groups were too religious, some classes too scripted, some full of mothers that just wouldn’t talk to me. Wherever you are, there are probably a bunch of groups to choose from, so shop around. Don’t be swayed by other people’s opinion – even your partner’s. Just because they found a group or class brilliant, doesn’t mean you have to. Find what works for you and your child.

When a Four-Year-Old Girl Thinks Science Toys Are Only For Boys, Something is Very Wrong

Some friends recently had an upsetting family trip to the Natural History Museum.

They have a bright, bold, and delightful daughter called Zoe – she amused me no end when inventively used our toys to enthusiastically stage a river raid on Noah’s Ark by Spider-Man & Hulk to rescue the animals from the clutches of supervillains Annihilus & Joker. Sitting cosily inside the marketing category of ‘Girl’ is seemingly not for her.

So at the museum shop, it was a shock to her parents when then four year old Zoe, after carefully inspecting the general science toys on display, sighed and lamented how they were only for boys.

Zoe’s mother was so upset about this that she wanted to cry. This is definitely not the way they wanted to bring their daughter up, and in fact they thought they were doing well by giving her trucks and other non-traditional girls toys. Their only conclusion was that this message must have come from outside the home.

It indicates the scale of the problem with gendered marketing. As parents, we do what we can to instil our children with positive & empowering messages and influences, to encourage them to discover what will engage & inspire them. But gendered marketing is so threaded into our everyday life – shops, TV, movies, magazines, and peers – that its effects will probably permeate through whatever defences we put up.

People like myself and others can rail against this. We may even convince the occasional retailer or manufacturer to change the way they define their products. One thing some companies are doing is introducing ‘girl’ versions of toys. You know the sort of thing, tool boxes, toy crossbows, and even science kits, that instead of being ‘normal’ colours, are pink. Some people (usually toy industry people) hail these as an ingenious development. But to me it simply reinforces the ‘pink is for girls’ mentality. They may play with the ‘perfume factory science kit’, but what happens when girls see an item that isn’t pink? They may assume it’s for boys and ignore it. What do boys take away from this? That only pink things are for girls, but this also excludes them from the likes of baby dolls and kitchen sets.

While we have this mentality, there will be countless stories where a girl decides a career isn’t for her because it’s not presented as such, or a boy may think being home with children is for mothers only. Children may privately carry on in this way of thinking their entire lives, perhaps even perpetuating it when they become adults. Who knows, maybe they’ll move into toy & children’s clothes marketing.

I actively encourage my daughter to play with toys that are not in the ‘pink aisle’, and to also wear clothes from the boy’s section too. But it’s easy for me to be an idealist. My daughter is not even three. As she gets older, and seeks out her own media, the marketeers will be able to reach her directly. The peer group pressure upon her to conform to the identity portrayed in these messages will also grow.

The retailers and manufacturers in question claim they are only feeding demand, but if as a consequence our children can grow up with the belief that science – and any tech or engineering role – is only for boys, something is very wrong. At least Zoe’s parents became aware of the the issue, and have managed to turn it around with her, by getting her a dress-up labcoat, science kits, and they even had a female chemical engineer telling Zoe how cool her job is! Many children will not be this lucky.

I hope the colour palette of childhood in retail evolves. That pink and pastels stop being the exclusive domain of our girls. That the whole spectrum is opened up for all. That brands I love such as Lego, Star Wars, and Marvel & DC stop positioning themselves as a girl free zone, and domestic & nursery toys are made to appeal to boys too. Luckily, there are entrepreneurial companies spotting the gap in the market for something beyond pink and blue.

The recent #WearYourSuperheroes Day was created by a girl in the US in support of her sister, who was teased for her love of superheroes. Whenever my daughter runs around the playground in her beloved superhero cape, I know (because they tell us) many boys and girls notice and have their already formed assumptions challenged.

Girl Wearing Cape, Female Superhero, supergirl, superhero fancy dressI dearly hope my daughter’s love of all kinds of colours, toys, and interests continues, that she doesn’t get directed exclusively down the pink aisle – and that we inspire others to join her too.

An earlier version of this post appeared here.