Friday, 27 April 2012

Images of Breastfeeding in Children's Books: Part Six

(Catch up with Part One, Part Two, Part ThreePart Four and Part Five).

The Body Book
Claire Rayner

This is an epic review for an epic book. I grew up with this book in the 80s and have fond, pervy memories of it. I say ‘pervy’ because it features copulation is all its glory. I’m talking full-on penetration including an erect penis that would make John Holmes blush. As a child I felt devilishly naughty looking through its pages and would take great pride in ‘shocking’ my friends with the contents. The characters have cheesy 70s hairdos and facial hair, as well as a reluctance to use anatomically correct terms. For instance, a vagina is a ‘baby-making place’, an anus is a ‘little hole’, testacies are ‘little round balls’, and yet curiously a penis is still called a penis. The book covers all aspects of the human body, from boring aspects such as the skeleton, muscles and blood cells, to yucky aspects like bodily excretions and farts, and then of course the interesting well-thumbed part of the book: “Growing and Changing and Making New People”. In this chapter a conservative text explains that: “When a man and a woman want to make a baby, the man’s penis stops being floppy and stands to attention”. We are promptly treated to a close-up illustration of a penis saluting.

After the usual timeline of pregnancy, the process of birth is depicted vaguely and somewhat bizarrely: “It is hard work for a mother to help her baby get out. She has to stretch her baby-making place very wide, and that takes a lot of time. But it is worth the hard work, because a new baby is a very happy person to have in a family”. Is the stretching referring to the vagina or cervix? We will never know as this book seems to have a fear of reproductive terminology. Also the assumption that ‘a baby is a very happy person to have in a family’ is amusingly nonsensical considering how much of a baby’s first year it spends crying.

After birth the book features a brief nod to breastfeeding. The text describes that: “After the baby is born, his mother holds him close to her breasts and puts the soft tip of one of them in his mouth. Then he can suck, and get the milk the breasts are making”. Although the word ‘breast’ is used correctly, there’s no mention that ‘the soft tip’ is called a nipple. Refreshingly however the mutual pleasure of breastfeeding is described: “Mothers like doing this. It feels nice for them. Babies like doing this. It feels nice for them, too”. Also skin to skin is championed: “Breasts are for making milk to feed the baby with. They are also to help cuddle the baby. Being cuddled by a mother with warm soft breasts is very nice for babies and children”. In all I would recommend this book for its nostalgic quirky value.

The Bare Naked Book
Kathy Stinson

Each page in this bubbly light-hearted book focuses on a different body part. Hair, eyes, nose, shoulders, tongue, and so on. It acts as a charming introduction to the human body for inquisitive toddlers. The text is shy on detail so as not to be overbearing, and serves as a simple bedfellow for the stunning illustrations. For instance, on the page titled ‘Hair’ the detailed illustration shows a bustling family in their bathroom. The text simply and eloquently reads: “Dripping hair. Straight hair. Tangled hair. Curly hair. Where is your hair?” Unlike ‘The Body Book’ (reviewed above), this book features the correct anatomical labels for each body part (including penis and vagina). On the page titled ‘Nipples’ the text reads: “Little nipples. Hairy nipples. Milky nipples.” An accompanying illustration shows a multitasking mother breastfeeding her infant whilst reading with an older child. A miscellany of body shapes are celebrated throughout the book - double chins, mutton tops, fat rolls, short people, tall people, old people, and of course, children. However for a book that purports to “play tribute to the wonderful diversity of our marvellous bodies” there is one flaw – everyone is white.

When I Was a Baby
Catherine Anholt

From the same author-illustrator that brought us ‘Sophie and the New Baby’ and ‘Aren’t You Lucky’ (both reviewed in Part One) here is another story featuring a young girl learning about babies. The familiar felt-tipped illustrations that Catherine Anholt is famous for are plentiful, however this time, instead of preparing for the arrival of a new sibling, the little girl is reflecting on her own babyhood. Together with her Mum, they discuss the various milestones of her infancy, starting with her arrival home from hospital, then discussing babycare tasks such as bathing and nappy changing, and ending with her first birthday party. There is an eclectic mix of parenting styles depicted in the book. Breastfeeding and cosleeping are shown at the start. An illustration shows Mum nursing her daughter in bed, with moses basket close by, whilst Dad delivers breakfast to them. In the accompanying text the little girl asks “What did I eat when I was a baby?” to which her mother responds: “For a long while you only drank milk”. No more is said regarding breastfeeding and later in the book a bottle is shown. There is no babywearing. Instead the baby is transported in a pram. However the baby does appear to be wearing cloth nappies rather than disposables, and babyled weaning is hinted at. So as I said, an eclectic mix.

Hello Benny!
Robie Harris

I dislike this book. Why would I dislike a book which features breastfeeding and was created by the same author who brought us the pro-breastfeeding books ‘Happy Birth Day!’ and ‘Hi New Baby!’ (reviewed in Part Four) you may be wondering. I dislike this book because of the clumsy way it describes breast milk and formula. After announcing the birth of baby Benny the text inform us that: “The only food new babies need is milk from their mother’s breasts or from a bottle filled with special milk for babies. This special milk is made from cow’s milk or soybeans. Breast milk and the special milk taste different from the milk we drink. The special milk has a stronger taste because extra vitamins, salt, sugar, and fat have been added to it”. Firstly, why use the word ‘special’ to describe formula? Why not just call it formula? Secondly, why mention that ‘special milk’ has vitamins added but neglect to mention that breast milk already contains those vitamins and a host more? None of the attributes of breast milk are mentioned. These oversights are a real shame considering that the book contains a wonderful full-page illustration of a happy mother nursing her newborn with proud father on looking.

Giles Andreae and David Wojtowycz

Farmyard Hullabaloo ticks all the boxes of a great book for toddlers. Simple illustrations? Check. Lots of primary colours? Check. Bubbly rhyming text? Check. Animals? Check. Each page describes the life of a different farm animal from their own perspective – and that perspective can be bluntly honest at times. For instance, the rather menacing-looking fox says, “I wait in the woods until nightfall, Then down to the farmyard I creep, Because nothing looks quite as delicious, As chickens who’ve fallen asleep”. The fox is shown stalking around the dark farmyard, licking his lips in anticipation. The best part of the book (not that I’m biased) features a plump cuddly mother pig watching contently as her piglets search for a teat, piling on top of each other like a rugby scrum. A lot of books in the farm animal genre feature pigs nursing their young, but in my opinion none of them do it as endearing as this. The little fatty butts wriggling, the piglet on the right nuzzling its mother’s face adorningly, even the little fella in the corner who is waiting for a teat with a disappointed expression on his little piggy face.

Little Baa
Kim Lewis

Yes I know, it’s another book from the farm genre, and some people have issues with linking farm animals with lactating women; but you know what, we’re all mammals. That fact is to be embraced. Little Baa is a simple yet deeply tender story about a baby lamb and its mother becoming separated. The bulk of the book follows the mother as she desperately tries to locate her baby. She could not see her baby’s spotty ears. She couldn’t smell his familiar smell or hear his little baa. She searches frantically sniffing amongst other lambs but, “None of them were her very own the way Little Baa was hers”. The poor mother, now childless, is rejected by the other mothers. The atmospheric illustrations and endearing narrative capture her desperation at losing her lamb: “The sun was starting to go down. Her voice became a lonely sound. She couldn’t rest or eat or think”. But wait, don’t reach for the Kleenex just yet folks, this is a kiddies book remember. The climax of the story brings with it a tearful reunion between mother and baby. The illustration shows a shaken yet relieved baby lamb nursing, snuggled in his mother’s warmth. “Ma” said Little Baa sleepy. “Are you still there?” “I am, Little Baa, I’m here” said Ma, lying quietly beside him.

Fast Food for Ben
Ruth Brodbeck

This book, written by a paediatric nurse, midwife and lactation consultant, follows a baby’s breastfeeding journey from birth to six weeks old. The premise is a familiar one – a little girl called Hana adapts to the rival of her new baby sibling. The story features all the elements you’d expect, including a supportive grandma, new mother lounging her in pyjamas, father bathing the baby, relatives visiting, and so on. Interestingly a midwife takes a central role visiting the new baby at home and then weighing him when he is older. The narrative is factual and non-patronising with an appropriate level of depth: “Ben’s tummy is only very small so he needs lots of feeding”. Babywearing and extended breastfeeding are featured prominently. In one scene, an older child of at least toddler age is shown lifting his mother’s top for a feed. This is refreshing to see, particularly as the scene takes place in a public setting around a dinner table with friends and relatives. Another of my favourite parts features Hana playing with her friend. “Mum gives baby Ben fast food from her breasts” she explains as she wears a doll in a sling. Another illustration shows Hana breastfeeding a doll whilst her mother breastfeeds Ben. The retro-style felt-tipped drawings are a wash with primary colours. There are plenty of details to discuss, such as a cat nursing her kittens on the kitchen floor. Some of the illustrations are a little amateurish, for instance in a few of them, pencil sketch outlines have not been rubbed out and the characters’ fingers are often misshapen. However in one sense, this adds a childlike quality to the meaningful text.

Nursies When the Sun Shines
Katherine Havener

Here is a book of exquisite quality. First to catch the eye is the stunning watercolour illustrations. The soft pastel colours beautifully depict a peaceful night time scene. Graceful shadows linger around a bedroom. A moon glows softly through the clouds casting gentle light onto the bedroom walls. “Baby, sweet baby, it’s sleepy time” begins the text, as we watch a cosleeping family settle down for the night. Mum, Dad and toddler snuggle in the family bed as a cat slumbers at the foot. A perfect scene for breastfeeding right? However there’s no breastfeeding until morning for this toddler, because this book is all about night weaning. There are many reasons a mother may wish to night wean (for instance, desiring a return to fertility), and this book is a useful resource for reassuring young children. Throughout the book the word ‘breastfeeding’ is replaced by the word ‘nursies’. This can feel either cute or awkward, depending on your preference for correct terms. What I like about this approach is that it enables the reader to replace the word ‘nursies’ with their own special word that they use with their child to describe breastfeeding. The text explains that ‘At night time, we sleep. Baby sleeps. Mommy sleeps. Nursies sleep.” Night time is equated with darkness, so if the child wakes and it’s dark out of the window, it is not yet time for ‘nursies’. At the end of the book we see the sun peaking over the window ledge and the family rousing from their sleep. “In the morning, Baby wakes up. Mommy wakes up. Nursies wake up. It’s time for nursies!” (Interestingly, the text and storyline appear to be taken from THIS book by William and Martha Sears, pages 150-151, although this is not acknowledged).

A Gift for Baby
Jan Hunt

A Gift for Baby is an warm and playful look at natural parenting with an anti-consumption message. Narrative flows from the main character – an inquisitive and confident baby. Detailed illustrations combine pencils and watercolours to bring the baby’s world to life. Each page is decorated with a colourful patchwork border and displays text in both English and Spanish. The book begins with the baby discovering a giant gift-wrapped present and proceeding to guess the contents. Is it a photo? – I’d rather look at Mommy! Is it a teddy bear? – I’d rather hug Daddy! And so on. Other potential contents that baby shuns include a stroller in favour of being carried, a pacifier in favour of being comforted, a crib in favour of cosleeping, and here comes the cheeky part: “Is it a bottle?” the baby ponders. The accompanying illustration shows a thought bubble with a bottle inside. Turn the page and the baby continues, “But I like to nurse!” Here, baby is shown snuggled up to his smiling mother who nurses him upon a patchwork quilt. The climax of the book finally reveals the contents of the mystery present. Of course I’m not going to tell you. Suffice to say it is in line with the anti-consumption, ‘the best things in life are free’, message.

We’re Having a Homebirth
Kelly Mochel

The ‘new baby’ genre is littered with hospital births so ‘We’re Having a Homebirth’ provides a welcome bucking of the trend. Witnessing the birth of a new sibling can be an exciting yet daunting experience for a young child. This honest and optimistic book prepares children for this event through a blend of factual narrative and simple yet colourful graphics. The full spectrum of childbirth sights and sounds are explained; the sight of naked Mum as she sways her hips like a belly dancer; the sound of the midwife offering words of encouragement; the sight of the blood and fluid as baby emerges; the sound of gulping as baby has his first breastfeed. Curiously the text uses anatomically correct terms in some areas (‘placenta’), yet not in others (‘boobies’). This dichotomy between non-apologetically factual details on one hand, and yet toned-down sanitised details on the other, is present throughout the book. For instance, the placenta is shown, complete with cord, and Mum has pubic hair, both of which are excellent on the realism front. However I was disappointed that the baby itself was not covered with blood and fluid, as this is an important part of preparing children for the reality of the childbirth scene. Nevertheless this book remains a brave attempt at exploring unchartered waters in children’s literacy. What’s more, its child-friendly size and light weight make it perfect for a midwife or doula to keep in their handbag, ready for home visits.

Coming up: Images of Breastfeeding in Children's Books, Part Seven

Friday, 20 April 2012

Sexism and the Early Learning Centre

Ever since I left the innocence and naivety of my own childhood behind me I've loathed the Early Learning Centre. Their toys are renowned for being overpriced and promoting stereotypical ideals. Has anything changed over the years? I decided to pick up their recent Spring/Summer 2012 catalogue to find out. Although to be honest, the cover design didn't instil me with much confidence:

White girl on the cover? Check.
Is she wearing pink? Check.
Is she wearing a tiara? Check.
Is she wearing fairy wings? Check.
Are the wings pink? Check.
Does she have a wand? Check.
Is she smiling? Check.
Is her head turned coyly? Check.

In this article I am going to look at the assumptions bound up in this catalogue which are aimed at an age when children are beginning to assimilate notions about the world and their roles in it.

Pink and Blue Fetish

The ELC has a relentless obsession with dividing their toys into pink and blue. The toys are normally identical in design and function (for example, a plastic spade), yet the ELC has felt it necessary to separate them across implicit gender lines, thus separating boys and girls in the process. In the vast majority of instances girls are shown with the pink items, and boys with the blue. This pink/blue dichotomy fills the bulk of the catalogue.
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Even generic toys such as bubble machines and space hoppers, which are about as gender-neutral as you can get, have been gendered into pink and blue.

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Anybody might think that, when it comes to these kinds of toy, there'd be little reason for making any kind of distinction between the sexes.

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Normally plasticine would give massive scope to a child's imagination. However, even here there's been a closing of doors as the endless search for novelty, and therefore further profits, has worked against creativity. The tools and moulds in the sets above restrict children's play in narrow, circumscribed ways.
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These sets show how even Lego, once renowned for being unisex and stimulating free play, have started prescribing how their products should be used. Here boys are instructed to make a farm whilst girls are instructed to make a house. These products illustrate, once again, how commercial pressures work against creativity and imagination.

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A child does not need to be reminded of gender every time he or she picks up or looks at a toy. Alongside the pink/blue dichotomy, sometimes the ELC goes a step further by applying indicators of sex-role expectations to their products. Take this example from page 49:

The boys' bike is named "The Rascal" thus playing on the stereotype of boys as naughty. The girls bike is named "Glitterbug" playing on the stereotype that girls love bling. Notice how the boys' bike is fitted with a bottle stand and water bottle to hydrate the boy after all his strenuous biking. The girls' bike on the other hand is fitted with a dolly seat to reinforce her mothering role (more on this later). Also the boys' bike has greater grip on its tires enhancing movement, while the girls' bike has cheerleader style pom-pom tassels hanging off the handle bars which can hinder movement. The message is clear: the boys' bike is for serious biking. The girls' bike is merely a decorate accessory. This is even reflected in the corresponding helmets. 

Girls do not have an innate attraction to pink. Nor do boys to blue. In fact, blue was once regarded as a girls' colour, because of its association with the Virgin Mary, while pink, as a lighter version of red, was a masculine colour. 'Genderisation' of colours is a cultural construct.

I decided to see if this pink/blue dichotomy was mirrored in the way ELC stores are laid out. Sadly, yes it was. As you can see one section of the store was overwhelmingly pink and contained gender-biased 'girls' toys (dolls, kitchens, vanity sets):

Photos taken in ELC Gateshead UK store, April 2012
Another section contained only gender-biased 'boys' toys (cars, dinosaurs, trains):

Note that alongside blue, a generous mixture of other primary colours fill the boys' section.

Campaign group 'Pink Stinks' has commented that, "Pink has become the trademark colour that represents modern girlhood. It seems no ‘girl’ product/item of clothing is safe, with just about anything being able to be pinkwashed."

Creating unnecessary gender distinctions in children's toys is socially harmful, as the message that girls and boys are radically different becomes reinforced again and again.

Boys as Default. Girls as 'Other'.

In the ELC catalogue 'male' is often taken to be the default or unisex category, with 'female' is a notable, marked, non-default one. In other words, boys are portrayed as the norm (using primary gender-neutral primary colours), while girls are a special subcategory (using pinks). It is no coincidence that the girls' colours are more subtle.

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Notice the cars are labelled as "red", "police" and "princess". Only the girls label is gendered.
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There's the assumption that anything that's good for boys is good for everyone. Boys are the default. They get the neutral colours.

Example from the ELC store:

This doctrine of Male-As-Default treats girls as a negligible subgroup, and femaleness as abnormal but always noteworthy. So apart from being told, and shown on the packaging, which sex these products are for, we have coded messages in the design, form and colour.

Boys and girls are more alike than different in biology and attitudes. So why does the ELC have a relentless desire to separate them? The answer, as you would expect from a Capitalist corporation, lies in profitability. The more children share toys, the fewer toys get sold. Gendering toys is a great way of nudging families toward buying more items per child. The deeply unfortunate consequence of this marketing strategy is that boys and girls are indoctrinated into the strict gender roles deemed appropriate in a Patriarchal society. The ELC catalogue provides some perfect examples of this indoctrination in action:

Boys are Scientific.

There are certain people who think that the greater presence of men in high-end math and science positions is a result of the distribution of inborn abilities. These people probably never walked into a toy store and saw the type of toys that boys are nudged towards. Luckily here's the ELC to remind us.

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One aspect that's noticeable about the marketing of these toys is the assumption that girls are less interested in STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) playthings than boys. This assumption is diluting our society's pool of scientific talent. It leads girls to develop an internalized notion that boys are smarter than they are, even when their grades are equal or better (S.P.A.R.K 2012).

Boys are Breadwinners in Training.

In boys' toys we see a range of careers being offered. It is a perfect illustration of gendered job segregation, and the social construction of skill. A notable example is the 'handyman' career:

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Examples from the ELC store:

Bosch "My First Work Bench"

Other popular career examples promoted to boys include police officer, truck driver, fire fighter, pilot and astronaut.

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The little people that accompany these toys increase the range of things that the ELC can say to children. The toys pictured above say to them it's an mainly white, mainly male world, where men hold all the jobs, and women, on the rare occassion they appear, are mere consumers. Of course, you could find some female figures and put them into the fire engine and plane, but then the males often have non-removable hats attaching them, so to speak, to their roles. So the pilot of the plane and the driver of the fire engine, both male, have appropriate helmets indicating that they belong in their machines. It could be argued that this is how life is. The point, however, is to change it.

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These toys introduce toddler boys to the world of competition and speed which will loom so large in toys for later years. 'Speeding', 'flashing', 'ignition' and 'siren' and just a few of the words used on this page.
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Here we see lorries, engines, wagons and tractors from the ordinary workaday world. Also note that ideas of size, power and aggression are much to the fore.

And last, but certainly not least, of the many careers open to boys are builder and technician.

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A lot of the above toys have something in common - putting things together - and this means making sense of the world and increasing awareness of space. Many encourage the skills needed to be successful in technical career fields. They foster autonomy and mental stimulation, teaching coordination and problem solving. Through these toys, boys can freely, explore and experiment, establishing a confidence for future interactions with science and technology.

Boys Fantasise About Being Violent.

Boys are thought to be naturally boisterous. Another way of looking at this, however, is to take the view that they are turned away from most of their emotions, or at least from expressing them. Only emotions associated with competition and aggression, such as anger, are generally open to boys.

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Descriptive phrases used on this page include: "Terrifying", "Scary", "Mighty", "Roaring". One of the characters is referred to as a "beefy chap" which presumably means muscular and well-built.
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Notice that the characters are permanently bent at the knees, which gives the figures, when standing, a crouching ready-for-a-fight posture. What the body language says is 'aggression'. The figures are armed, mostly with various axes, swords and clubs, pushed into fists which have holes made through them, for this purpose.
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Not much of a look-in for girls here, while boys get a good push in the direction of the macho image.
Boys may seem, at first sight, to have the run of the world - but what sort of world is it? As we've seen, especially in this section of the catalogue, it's a world without care or compassion, where questions of causes or principles don't arise, and where power, aggression and violence are seen as good in themselves.

"Boys are less infantilised and vulnerable than girls – at least they get strong messages about practicality, activity and strength. But they also get a huge dollop of ‘agro’ marketing to help render them emotionally stunted, uncaring, aggressive and hyper-butch. Lad-culture clearly starts here" ('Pink Stinks').

In the ELC catalogue's "Goodies and Baddies" section, the goodies and baddies are clearly distinguished, often by their appearance and dress; the baddies tend to look repulsive and to dress in black or, at least, dark colours. The goodies are of aristocratic stock or from some sort of elite. The hero (it won't be female of course, or other than white either) often has a magic weapon, or talisman, to which he owes his powers. Female figures don't come into the picture much and, when they do, they tend to create problems by having to be rescued. Why the baddies are so evil or why they want to dominate, as they usually do, is never explained. Rather, we just have to accept it as a kind of odd quirk they happen to have.

This section of the catalogue is also an example of how boys’ toys encourage more fantasy play that is symbolic or removed from daily domestic life, whereas, as we shall see bellow, girls’ toys encourage fantasy play that is centered on domestic life.

Girls are Bland.

Girls' toys come in very few color options and are severely lacking in primary colours. Toys such as those shown bellow present almost a complete world, or a way of looking at the world, and therefore it's very important to ask just what values, attitudes and ideas are being presented to children by these means. All have characteristics in common which girls have been socially conditioned to respond to: colours which are not too strong, curved and rounded shapes and flower decorations. This is not healthy for the way that girls think of femininity, or the way that boys and girls think of each other.

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The society depicted in these toys is affluent, conventional, western European and all-white.

Girls are Sex Objects.

A section of the ELC catalogue is devoted to beauty-related toys. It is an example how girls are encouraged to focus on activities centred around physical appearance and vanity. There is no boys' equivalent of such products. Boys have zero focus on attracting members of the opposite sex. In this sense it could be argued that girls are encouraged to grow up quicker than boys.

Take the mini stilettos for instance. Aside from hooking children onto the idea of fashion as early as possible, there’s something more insidious about the idea of a little girl in stilettos. Perhaps it’s because the purpose of high heels is: “to give the optical illusion of a longer, slimmer leg, a smaller foot, and a greater overall height. They are also designed to alter the wearer's posture and gait, flexing the calf muscles, and making the bust and buttocks more prominent” (Wikipedia).

The catalogue uses the word 'fun' to describe the stilettos. "Great 'fun' with a friend or three" it tells us. Using the word 'fun' is deliberate. There's less of the grown-up in it and more of the child; it has less to do with the role of sex object and more to do with play; it's what manufacturers of 'beauty-related' toys want to pretend their products provide for children. How else could they attempt to justify their activities? It seems the meaning of the word is being stretched here as, whatever little girls get out of putting their feet into tight-fitting plastic faux shoes, it can hardly be described as 'fun'.

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These products set the agenda for a ceaseless round of triviality and self-indulgence. There's little room for anything else. When playing with such toys, girls learn that appearance and attractiveness are central to their worth.

Here are some examples from the ELC store:

'Braun Beauty Set' for 3 year olds 

Girls Love Cooking and Cleaning.

Almost anything connected with food and cleanliness is thought proper for little girls. For the record, I have no problem with children pretending to cook and clean. It is only natural that they would want to mimic the adult world. My problem lies in the fact that cooking and cleaning toys are disproportionally marketed to girls, socialising girls into a life of domestic martyrdom whilst giving boys the impression that this domain is not for them. Here, the ELC almost seems to be running a campaign to nudge, or rather push, girls into the role of dutiful housewife.

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Everything in this range limits play as much as promotes it. In other words, you can only play out actions suggested by the items themselves. As a rule, children are very good at adapting but these playthings are so detailed that it would be very difficult to put them to any uses other than the obvious ones.

Girls Belong in the Home.

Like the items above, the toys in this category also link into the 'housewife' role. The overall point to be made here is that these examples of dolls' houses and furnishings have a great deal to do with the indoctrination of particular social attitudes and not very much to do with children's play, as such. In particular, the amount of detail in these products set severe limits on the imagination.

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Children make up stories and dramas about their toys as they play with them but the toys themselves can set limits on such creativity. For example, these doll figures, in their narrow but well-stocked little worlds, offer small scope for imaginative and varied role play. Here, a deliberate attempt is made to prompt children into restricted and conventional fictions.
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In the catalogue and on the packaging of these toys, the figures are shown sitting in the chairs or beds and there's not much else for them to do.
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Notice how girls toys - dolls' houses and play kitchens for example - tend to be static and to confine children to a particular spot. Boys' toys on the other hand encourage movement. And they wonder why girls have poorer spatial awareness than boys!

Girls Fantasise About Being Passive Princesses.

These princess-related playthings encourage girls to think that looking pretty and getting feedback from others about what a pretty princess you are is essential. It also teaches girls that materialism - i.e. having the most stuff - is very important. This leads to narcissism, rampent consumerism, and future self-esteem issues. Furthermore, valuing girls for their appearance over their other attributes (which is what the princess culture is all about) is the first step on the ladder of sexualizing little girls.

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Here we see how the ELC use certain words again and again, as if they are pressing buttons. Descriptive phrases used on this page include: "lovely-looking", "beautiful", "sparkly", "pretty", "gorgeous".

While all children want affirmation, princess culture teaches little girls to get that approval through their looks. It encourages them to define themselves from the outside in.

Girls are Mothers in Training.

Similar to cooking and cleaning toys, the only problem I have with baby dolls is that they are marketed almost exclusively to girls. This means that boys are being denied the opportunity to develop confidence in caring and nurturing.

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Competition for the vast baby doll market has led to all sorts of gimmicks and an ever-increasing realism (which usually involves ever-decreasing scope for imagination).

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"My First Pram" - the first of many it is presumed.
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Notice the token boy in the corner. Shame this doll only says "mum mum". Not "dad dad". Also notice the token black doll, which is identical to the white dolls, apart from the colour.

Boys Build. Girls Decorate.

The arts and crafts section of the ELC catalogue is dominated by mainly girls. All the items they are shown playing with are decorative. Boys, when they appear, are shown building functional items. The boys' craft products encourage spatial awareness, dexterity, precision and movement. The girls' craft products encourage vanity and aesthetics.

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It's a shame that so many of these items push girls into rather trivial and uncreative directions - decorating a spoon, putting together 'jewellery' and making paper flowers. Whilst boys' crafts tend to mimic work done in skilled employment.

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The Matryoshka, the traditional Russian nesting toy, says something about motherhood in a simple yet symbolic way.
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Here, all girls have to do is copy the projected outline of a fairy. No independent brain activity required.

Girls are Flexible.

On a positive note, some gender flexibility is shown in the catalogue (i.e. children playing with toys traditionally associated with the opposite gender). However girls and boys are not equal in this regard. In the catalogue significantly more girls than boys crossover to the "non-traditional gender toys".

That girls are more likely to use unisex toys is not a new concept. The ELC catalogue has simply chosen to strengthen the generally accepted notion that gender flexibility is available to girls, but not to boys. Why might this be? The answer lies in androcentrism. Androcentrism is the idea that we value masculinity over femininity such that we admire both boys and girls for performing masculinity.  Androcentrism explains why we tend to like it when girls play with cars and dinosaurs, kick footballs and build with bricks, but do not typically think it’s equally awesome when boys play with vanity sets, wear tutus or collect dolls. It flows from the fact that feminine activities are generally those activities which our Patriarchal society does not attach great value (domestic chores, childcare, looking after others). So when boys play with such activities, they could be viewed as diminishing their dominant position in society. However when girls play with masculine activities, they can be viewed as rebelling against their subservient position in society.

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Shame this toy is described as a "he" when there is no need to assign gender to it.

It is no surprise that if a toy helps to build knowledge and encourage learning and spatial awareness, it is almost always associated with boys (e.g. maps, telescopes, construction blocks, sports equipment). On the other hand, toys associated with subservience and waiting on others are almost always associated with girls (cooking utensils, cleaning equipment, baby dolls). To give ELC some credit, I did come across these refreshing examples of male gender-deviance in the catalogue.

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The blue/pink dichotomy is present in the push chairs, almost as if the colour blue gives the boy 'permission' to be using one. There is some attempt to counter this by using dolls of the opposite colours.

Of course we could argue that playing with dolls doesn't have to be solely a feminine activity, and playing with construction bricks doesn't have to be solely a masculine activity. We could argue that these are labels I have placed on the toys as a result of my own gender indoctrination, and we could instead embrace all these activities as gender neutral. Sadly, the ELC won't allow for this. On their website (accessed 20th April 2012) they separate toys into 'boys' and 'girls'. So even though the catalogue has token boys playing with dolls and cleaning equipment for example, the website unfortunately classifies all dolls and cleaning equipment as for girls. Similarly, cars and construction bricks are placed in the boys section of the website. This diminishes the credibility of any gender flexibility shown in the catalogue.

A screen-grab of the website's drop-down box

The ELC website also includes the option of shopping by "learning skill"; for instance, 'creativity', 'problem solving' or 'imagination'. At first glance this seems positive and gender neutral. However sadly this is merely a smoke screen for more gender bias. For instance, the products defined as promoting the learning skill of "problem solving" are the products mostly placed in the "boys" section of the website. To reinforce this, it is predominantly boys who are shown playing with these items.

The consequence of boys being unable to exercise gender flexibility is that boys are being denied certain aspects of normal play. The roles of caring for others and home-making are important and valuable. Our society would not function without them. However if boys ‘gender-deviate’ by playing with such activities, our culture classifies them as homosexual or transgender.

When I Grow Up...

Toys tell boys and girls a lot about what society will expect from them in the future. Take these jigsaws from page 152 of the catalogue for example. The first jigsaw also appears in the 'boys' section of the ELC website. The second jigsaw appears in the 'girls' section of the website. Thus a boy can become a fire fighter. A girl can become... umm... someone who sits in a house.

This is an example of how even jigsaws present children with a particular view of the world. Here, socially conditioned roles are presented simply but forcefully.

In the world of ELC, besides being home-dwellers, mothers and cleaners, girls can look forward to a career as a... princess. Out of the catalogue's 'dressing up' outfits a massive two thirds of the girls are wearing a type of princess dress. These dresses restrict movement and are difficult to launder - thus staying still and keeping clean is a must for the child wearing them. It is an example of how girls are nudged away from activeness. Colette Dowling’s Frailty Myth describes the consequences:

Boys learn “to use their bodies in skilled ways, and this gives them a good sense of their physical capacities and limits…. Girls hold themselves back from full, complete movement, Although it’s usually something girls are unaware of, they actually learn to hamper their movements, developing a ‘body timidity that increases with age.”

Out of the remaining seven girls in dressing up outfits, two of them are nurses and two of them are vets (jobs involving looking after others). Only three are gender neutral (doctor, fire fighter and police officer). Boys on the other hand, are given pirate outfits (fighting and law braking) Batman (fighting and heroism), knights (fighting), cowboy (fighting), and builder (breadwinner). All encourage boys to be active. The title for this part of the catalogue reads: "When I Grow Up".

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The playthings on sale in this category don't leave much to the imagination, and only prompt children into rituals to do with power, race and gender.

Even the girls' 'Peppa Pig' outfit is dressed as a princess.
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Hold on! What's going on in the tent?!

Oh. A girl nurse dressed in pink is looking after a brave Batman boy.

Note that beside the nurse there is a girl shown wearing a doctor's outfit! However sadly this is mere tokenism. The same doctor's outfit features in the boys' section of the ELC website and in the ELC store the outfit is colour coded blue whilst the nurse's outfit is colour coded pink:

To add insult to injury, the nurse outfit is decorated with a badge reading: "Nurse in Training". The doctor's outfit is decorated with a badge reading: "Doctor: Head of Surgery". There is a blatant hierarchy.

It would appear that the ELC still enjoy shoehorning very young children into traditional gender roles. Here are how the girls' dressing up clothes are set out in the ELC store:

The range of work presented to girls by the ELC is very narrow and most of the jobs can be seen as extensions of the housewife and mother roles - that is, they are ones that involve caring, providing and servicing. 

Alternatively your daughter could always be a cheerleader.

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Image from page 41.
Interestingly, adults are featured sparsely in the catalogue. There are only six adults in total and they are all female. This strengthens the stereotype of 'Women as Primary Child-Carers'. The women are shown supervising children playing on large apparatus, smiling adoringly as they do so. But why no men? It would seem that men have no place playing with children, at least in the eyes of the ELC.

ELC Catalogue Stats:

Total number of pages: 158.
Total number of boys photographed: 228.
Total number of girls photographed: 263.
(Of 228) Boys playing with gender-biased toys: 97 (pirate outfits, tools, lawnmower, sports, cars, etc).
(Of 228) Boys playing with non-traditional gender toys: 11 (cleaning equipment, play kitchen, dolls, etc).
(Of 263) Girls playing with gender-biased toys: 78 (princess outfits, cooking, dolls, vanity sets, etc).
(Of 263) Girls playing with non-traditional gender toys: 44 (wheelbarrow, sports, cars, dinosaurs, fire fighter outfit, etc).
Three main colour themes for boys: blue, green, red.
Three main colour themes for girls: pink, lilac, fuschia.
Three main activity themes for boys: cars, construction, sport.
Three main activity themes for girls: princesses, domestic chores, dolls.
Total number of female adults photographed: 6.
Total number of male adults photographed: 0.


Image from page 143.
The ELC is just one example of a large corporation dividing children along sex lines and according to supposed sex roles, that is, according to the imagined abilities, preferences and even duties of either sex. The toys are products of a system, an irresponsible system motivated, not by children's needs, but by profit.

Although the "L" in ELC stands for "Learning", studies such as those found in the Journal of Sex Roles (here) have found that the stronger that toys are gender-typed the less supportive they are of optimal development. This is an important issue when we consider that toys make up a large part of a child's world from a very early age and are very important in laying the foundations for the child's future attitudes and ideas. After all, children play with toys during some of the most impressionable years of their lives, starting, in the case of the ELC, from before they can read and even before they can understand the spoken language. Patriarchal society passes on specific cultural messages through the medium of toys and, in in this way, reproduces itself. When toys dragoon children into roles thought to be proper to their sex then the potential of all children is limited. There is a great need for this industry to be opened up to the public gaze. This article is only the start.

Who is the ELC?

The Early Learning Centre is a British chain of shops selling toys for very young children. There are 215 stores in the UK and over 80 international stores in 19 countries across the world. Over 80% of products sold are own brand, being designed at a research centre in Hong Kong.

Sexism and The Early Learning Centre: Spread the word - Pin it!