“I never went into physics or the astronaut corps to become a role model. But after my first flight, it became clear to me that I was one. And I began to understand the importance of that to people. Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.” Sally Ride.
I recently turned the world of my two little girls upside down. Normal, chaotic home life has just become a lot more exciting for my 5 and almost 7 year old daughters . We are due to open an online toy and gift store for girls in Spring 2016 - After Alice. Part of our USP is that we only stock treasures we have examined, played with, enjoyed and reviewed. Cue box after box of toys, arriving at our door. It is the proverbial honey pot and my daughters are having the ultimate sustained sugar hit, day after day.
Most of the time this goes as you would expect. Lots of excitement at every new delivery. Utter delight. The occasional tantrum (failed negotiations regarding stock versus personal booty). I wonder if we could have chosen a more thrilling family venture for the younger members of our clan, and most days I am pretty sure we couldn’t.
But in this bright new shiny year of 2016, as I marvel at how advanced and creative humankind has become, I am also compelled to see how at times, we desperately cling on to outdated and tired notions. My particular bugbear? The way that toys are marketed to 50% of our population. Brave new world? Sadly no. For time after time as a champion of girls (I have two daughters, did I mention?), I am faced with the limits of their galaxy. A world, that sadly, seems to stop before the wonders of space are explored. For the final frontier, it would seem is the domain of men and boys. Take the vast majority of space themed products for children (pyjamas, dressing-up clothes, pretty much any story about rocket ships). There are some laudable exceptions, but more often than not the girls are left firmly back on planet earth, or at best in a subsidiary role, while the boys get to enjoy infinity and beyond.
Luckily, not all girls have listened. I wonder how many of our schoolchildren are aware that there has been a British female astronaut. Helen Sharman was the first Briton in space and the first woman to visit the Mir space station in 1991. Fabulously she used to work as a chemist for chocolate manufacturer Mars (cue endless ‘Girl from Mars’ jokes) before she responded to an advert heard on the car radio. The rest should be well known history. Surely Sharman is the perfect champion to demonstrate to pupils what opportunities can follow from a career in science and an ambition to head for the stars? We should be shouting out her success loud and clear for all to hear. Instead, before the recent press surge resulting from Tim Peake’s space mission, she seemed relegated to pub quiz trivia.
Dale Ride (father of America’s first female astronaut) was once prompted to write a strongly worded letter to the creators of an advertisement about a boy dreaming about the day he would go into space. This father understood a simple truth. Girls need to see role models in their own image. Sally Ride and Helen Sharman show our girls everywhere that the sky really is the limit, and there is space in space for everyone.
For children, imagining what is possible, starts with play. And from a personal perspective nothing sums up the gender power of toy marketing for me better than the following exchange between my two girls, just last week.
Space Mad Daughter Number 1 (6 years old), is rifling through latest box: “Wow. Look at this. An astronaut duvet set. I sooooooo want this for my bedroom.” Younger daughter points at the packaging which features a boy in the bed: “That one’s not for you. Look it is the boys’ one. I like this one.” (bagsies the bedding featuring girl in red and black Flamenco outfit).
I watch from the hallway, unseen, listening to their exchange.
Older daughter persists: “Well I like space. Girls can be astronauts too. I have stars on my wall and a constellation night light. Mum says I can try out all the telescopes when they arrive.”
Second daughter considers this. It seems plausible to her. Older daughter puts the astronaut bedding set in ‘her pile’ (to negotiate with Mummy later). Little daughter takes the dancer version. They move on to some other discussion about why Mummy never buys Coco Pops despite them being the most mind-blowing cereal ever invented.
At the risk of sounding all Fifty Shades, my inner feminist backflips across the room at the conclusion of this conversation. When this particular product arrived, I was surprised (and yes, disappointed) that a cool and seemingly forward looking European company like Snurk would put so much effort into the innovative design and high quality materials of their bedding, and so little into the message they are sending to half of this world. I applaud their commitment to charity (they donate a % from their profits) and loudly boo the way they give space to the boys as if it was a piece of pie to be cut up and dished out on a plate.
This is a popular bedding range. I am sure you have seen it. The little boy in his astronaut suit. Every night, he gets to dream of a universe of adventure, discovery, and the unknown. The most often publicised girl version? Night after night, puts her in a frilly peachy pink ballgown and tiara. What is the message here? Boys. Dream big. Embark on the most exciting career you can find. Girls? Look nice. Maybe find a nice prince? No training, skills or ambition needed.
But why such lazy marketing? Why not have a girl posing in the space costume too? Hello! Double your appeal? Ching-ching!
I freely admit that I have become a packaging freak of late, given our new business venture. Toys can be marketed in a way that is girl friendly, gender neutral, or even gender smart. It can be done, and done very well. So big thumbs up to American toy company Melissa & Doug who feature girl and boy in the packaging and website shots for every one of their dressing up outfits (astronaut, magician, fire chief, paediatrician, chef). And, I am afraid, a big thumbs down for Snurk who persist in peddling all the most lazy assumptions about genders preferences in their children’s bed set range. So, predictably, girls get everything to do with dance (a great skill, don’t get me wrong) — ballet, flamenco, and of course they are allowed the horse and rider. Boys get the pirate range (oooh don’t get me started, you think space is gettoised?!) and to my mind anything that involves action and adventure and essentially half a brain.
I will just mention here that Snurk (who I will be stocking if they still let me!) have a lovely pet range (cute little animal curled up on the end of your bed) that appears to be unisex (i.e. they don’t put models on the website, it is a wonderfully empty bed that anyone can jump in). Hooray!
Now clearly I will harumpf about this from the viewpoint of being mother to two daughters (one who loves space, the other who couldn’t give a hoot and would rather spend her time stealing my lipstick and begging me to buy her pink plastic clippy-clop high heels). But if I happened to have a son, I think I would feel similarly aggrieved for him. For every real life Billy Elliot, Patrick Swayze and Carlos Acosta who ‘Grand Jeté’ against the tide and choose ballet, there must be other boys out there just dying to dance, ride horses, cook, bring up baby that get to a certain age and just feel those aren’t ‘their toys’. If they are lucky and they have a sister, a cool nursery or are simply bloody minded enough, none of this will matter. But this is just a small way of me saying (as our toy shop champions gift choices for girls) that I can see the stereotypes and assumptions that limit the play experiences of boys too.
So the next time we wonder why our industry is so lacking in female inventors, computer coders, head teachers, scientists, architects, politicians and engineers we should cast our minds back to where children first start trying out who they might want to be, in this mighty world of ours. It all begins at play. Girls and boys are children first. Toys should empower and embolden. Not limit and restrict.
So come on Hasbro. Are you really surprised that the fans want decent merchandise including Rey? She is one of the key characters in the Force Awakens. I can’t help but blame that age old assumption that boys won’t want to play with a toy if it is female (Lara Croft aside) as if that somehow demeans its value. That Star Wars is only appealing to dads and sons? And yes, I have heard stories of all the Princess Leia figurines left gathering dust on toy store shelves across the country. But that was 40 years ago! We are ready for something different this time round. Alongside the magnificent Gravity, the latest odyssey from Disney is welcome proof that female protagonists when given the opportunity can play more than a token or bit part in compelling cosmic story lines. The merchandise available should keep pace. Even JJ Abrams has felt compelled to wade in and refers to Rey’s omission from the latest Star Wars themed merchandise as ‘preposterous and wrong’.
Indeed, excluding Rey from the Millennium Falcon set (which features Finn and Chewbacca) seems especially absurd — she only flies and fixes the damn thing, and then becomes a co-pilot. And Hasbro claiming Rey was excluded from their special edition Monopoly range to prevent plot spoiling just doesn’t ring true (Finn after all did feature). I applaud the inclusion of a great, powerful female character in the latest Star Wars. Women in space - Yeah! I am just waiting for the toys to catch up. Hasbro. You can sell twice as much of your stuff! Just don’t forget the girls!
After Alice - thoughtful gifts for thinking girls - launches in Spring 2016. Join our mailing list at www.afteralice.co.uk
Editor's note. This was the very first blog piece for After Alice. It was published on Medium on January 14th 2016. After Alice Ltd. actually launched in November 2016. Certain sections of this blog have been used on other forums.