Sexist attitudes are everywhere. We're all guilty of them, whether you admit it or not. Thankfully most of us operate at a low level, making assumptions based on what we think one gender or the other typically do. I do it myself. I once stood on a Donegal beach marvelling at the skill of a surfer who was fearlessly tackling massive waves. What a brave fella, I thought, until he emerged from the water and was very much a woman. I had assumed that only a man would be out there on that vicious day.
I always get a laugh when I'm out with my husband and order my usual bottle of beer. The beer almost always ends up in front of him. Neither attitude is outrageous sexism or discrimination, just an indicator that we all hold certain stereotypical ideas of each other's gender. We all do it because it's impossible not to draw generalisations about both sexes when there are so many to be drawn.
So that's why I can't believe the debate on 'gender-neutral' toys is gaining pace as Marks and Spencer prepares to take the ridiculous step of making its toy packaging neutral. The High Street giant says it is responding to customer complaints about a boys' range – which includes planes, cars, dinosaurs and a fire station – and its girls' range of dolls, dressing up, and arts and crafts. Within a few months, these toys will no longer be pitched at separate genders for fear of upsetting the PC Brigade. No longer will a baby doll be aimed at a little girl for fear of damaging her self-esteem for life by making her feel her horizons are limited to home-making and mothering.
The pressure of toy branding is immense and yes, you do need to be careful with the subliminal messages sent to children. I don't like toys that encourage children to grow up too quickly, but how can you rail against toys aimed at little girls and boys for being, well, little girls and boys? There are definitely areas of improvement (doctor's kit for boys and nurse's kits for girls for example) but demanding that all toys be completely neutral is taking it to extremes.
Where do you draw the line? Is M&S also planning to do away with its baby clothes ranges which come in blue for boys and pink for girls? Perhaps all children's clothing should now come in just beige and white in case wearing a gender-specific colour causes an early identity crisis.
What about the adults? Surely the next step is to merge the men's and ladies' collections. Will they have a male lingerie model in their next snazzy ad campaign, in case any of their male customers are offended by the notion lingerie should only be worn by women? Are we soon to see boxers and ties moved into a gender-neutral space?
As usual, people take a valid argument and ruin it by taking it to extremes. Little boys like planes, trains and tractors. Fact. Little girls love having a doll to mother. Another fact. That's the way it has been for time immemorial. My three-year-old daughter has a tractor and train. She didn't really look at who the products were pitched at, she just loves her tractor. She also has dolls, a kitchen and an iron (which she asked for to be 'just like mummy'.) She doesn't think too much about the long-term implications of these choices because that's the beauty of being three.
She also loves dressing up like a princess. Am I damaging her sense of self if I don't sit her down and explain that she also has the option of dressing up as a pirate?
Supporters of gender-neutral toys argue that you shouldn't tell your children what their interest should be. Fair point, but that's the great thing about children, they don't really let you do that anyway. Their minds are already free enough to take an interest in whatever catches their eye.
So let's girls be girls. Let boys be boys. If they take an interest in each other's toys, let that happen too. Let them get on with the childhood joy of toys without getting caught up in a load of nonsense.
'PERHAPS ALL CHILDREN'S CLOTHING SHOULD JUST BE BEIGE IN CASE IT CAUSES AN EARLY IDENTITY CRISIS'