One of my favourite plays is Far Away by Caryl Churchill. The character Joan’s final monologue tells us of a nightmare future war where ‘everything’s been recruited’ – coffee, foxgloves, grass, gravity, bleach. ‘Who’s going to mobilise darkness and silence?’ She asks. ‘That’s what I wondered in the night. By the third day I could hardly walk but I got down to the river. There was a camp of Chilean soldiers upstream but they hadn’t seen me and fourteen black and white cows downstream having a drink so I knew I’d have to go straight across. But I didn’t know whose side the river was on.’
Recently I’ve been reminded of this dystopian vision every time I’ve been into Mothercare’s clothes department. The tigers, bears, lions and monkeys, for example, have clearly been recruited for the boys, whilst the rabbits, mice and cats are with the girls. Girls can count on all the pastels (except blue) plus purple and hot pink, whilst red and green are siding with the XY chromosome. In terms of territory, the boys most definitely get the sea, including whales, crabs, anchors, navy stripes and all who sail on it. They also get Space – astronauts and monsters fight the male corner. Oh and they get the past (dinosaurs) and the future (robots) and all modes of transport. Girls will be pleased to hear they have allies in flowers, birds and strawberries though. Yellow and elephants, like Switzerland, are neutral.
Seriously, what is happening here? How have we let things get this binary? I swear when I was growing up in the 80s it wasn’t this bad – I can’t remember ever wearing pink, and me and my sister read the Beano and Dandy and had Star Wars figures without anyone blinking. Lego was just Lego. This divvying up the whole of childhood has got worse recently, and it’s driven by money. When you have a son and your second child’s a girl, the corporations want you to think one thing only: ‘what a shame – now I’ll have to buy a whole new set of stuff.’ And now they’ve even got to Kinder Eggs. Or all the chocolate eggs – last Easter, when I hid cheap ones around our garden for my niece and nephew, my niece got teary, and I realised it was because the eggs I’d bought were red and blue. ‘They’re boy’s eggs’ she said. She knew whose side they were on.
I did sociology A level, and I still believe what it taught me makes sense. It’s just so clear to me that people are formed through nurture as much as nature. And I am absolutely baffled by all the otherwise highly intelligent parents who say:’Oh well, I didn’t encourage him/her with the train/pink thing, they just seem drawn to it – does make you think it’s genetic.’ I mean, you’re joking with me right? You don’t think their interest is maybe related to every advert and shop and treat and set of pyjamas they see, plus the T-Shirt slogans and toys of every kid they socialise with EVER reinforcing these stereotypes? You don’t think they might pick up on these less-than-subtle nudges? Instead you just accept that millennia of evolution have brought us to a point where girls like frills and boys like wheels, because it’s – what – some kind of survival mechanism? You complete mug.
I mean it’s not like these things are even a reflection of the real, adult world. Every other mummy in East Dulwich wears blue stripes, and footballers go on TV in pink shirts. It’s 2015, why are we bringing up our children in the 1950s?
As a poet I think words matter; the metaphors we use to represent ourselves matter. It’s not just innocent fun when boys are bright green and girls are lemon; boys are monkeys and girls are mice. This International Women’s Day the theme is ‘inspiring change’ and we need to start in our nurseries. It’s not that you should stop your kids playing with cars or dolls, but why are these girl or boy things? We’re fortunate, we don’t live in Saudi. Women drive. Men push buggies. Can we just be more aware, at least? Can we stop recruiting everything?