Updated: Apr 1, 2021
What is it with the media love affair with the term gender neutral parenting? It’s gained real traction in its attempt to capture the zeitgeist of campaigners who want a retail landscape based on choice, not stereotypes. As terms go, its a really poor one, and instead of promoting a rainbow of choices, we have this sense that some parents want identikit beige uniforms and the banning of dresses, against those who don’t. The problem isn’t actually parents, and how we choose to parent, but a retail landscape dominated by irresponsible and exploitative stereotypes. Its so pervasive, so ingrained in our culture, you’d be forgiven for not questioning it, and yet question it, we must.
When my daughter was born, I was perfectly content in the convenience of letting retailers figure out my options for me. I lamented my daughter not having Dinosaur clothes without even acknowledging we both had a choice in this, I just accepted the culture – swallowed it down, like a swig of pink sugary lemonade. By age four I started to see the real damage this was doing to my child, she had accepted what was for her, and what wasn’t – on the basis she was born a girl. I guess you could call that my turning point.
There’s no denying that childhood is now commercialised and targeted by big business in ways we can’t begin to fully appreciate, and it reaches us through well funded, well researched, marketing campaigns. That is what marketing does after all, not necessarily selling you what you want, but convincing you, you want what they sell. Branding is about building trust as well, we can trust them with our kids, but should we?
Responsible Retailing in Childrenswear is something many of the UK retail giants signed up to, with a nod from the government and a hearty handshake from the BRC (British Retail Consortium), but even that makes the assumption we need gender neutral colour choices. Boys will be boys is a slogan routinely making the rounds on the high street, alongside here comes trouble and it wasn’t me, and I can’t think of a worse sentiment to embolden our children with. What, boys shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions, like girls are?
When a Mum questioned why Target was selling a T-Shirt aimed at Boys with “Is my sister done talking yet?“ the complaint was heavily trolled with comments intended to silence the mother – after all, its just a joke? As Dr Rebecca Hains states:
This may seem like a small thing. Some people will read this and say, “It’s just a t-shirt. Learn to take a joke.” But in a culture in which women’s and girls’ voices are devalued, their ideas and interests trivialized as less important than boys’ and men’s, why would any responsible retailer sell this?
The pay gap, rape culture, violence against women – you can take action on these and still question why “it wasn’t me“ is suitable for boys and “happy is prettiest” for girls. Its the big picture, and its all connected.
There’s a certain amount of irony in an industry that promotes an obsession with gender stereotyping and then interprets unisex or gender neutral as an equal yet opposite partner to this. Instead of labeling all clothes for all children, we see the very literal interpretation of neutral to mean appropriate for both sexes within the same stereotyping parameters. The Lil Londunn unisex range at Marks and Spencer is a great example of this, all grey/black and shapeless. Its telling it looks at home in their boyswear section, with a a careful nod to the idea anything feminine is demeaning to boys, but not the other way around. In fact the only dress in the unisex range is labelled Girls…
I don’t want to see shops stop selling pink, or dresses, or t-shirts with roaring dinosaurs – I want more choice, not less. I want my child to be able to find what clothes and toys she wants without being confronted by signs, labels and even shop staff who question her decisions. I don’t want a middle option either, where unisex is used to mean blank. We are individuals, with our own tastes, passions and yes, even favourite colour that can’t be determined by what genitals we have. In challenging what you feel is wrong, you’re just behaving like a normal parent.