What I learned while shopping: Girls are babes. Boys are leaders

Jennifer O’Connell: Clarks shoes isn’t the only peddler of back-to-school stereotypes

Clarks: the footwear firm sparked a sexism row after naming a girls’ shoe range Dolly Babe and a boys’ line Leader. Photograph: Nick Ansell/PA Wire

Clarks: the footwear firm sparked a sexism row after naming a girls’ shoe range Dolly Babe and a boys’ line Leader. Photograph: Nick Ansell/PA Wire

 

Clarks shoes has been forced to withdraw a pair of school shoes it called “Dolly Babe”, amid accusations of sexism. “It is almost beyond belief that in 2017 a major company could think this is in any way acceptable. Shows what we are still up against,” the Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon tweeted.

What made it particularly egregious – in the eyes of some commentators at least – is that the equivalent pair for boys was called “Leader”.

“We are working hard to ensure our ranges reflect our gender-neutral ethos,” Clarks told the BBC, after it had withdrawn the shoes. “We apologize for any unintended offence caused.”

I suspect the reason the “Dolly Babe” shoe caused such uproar is the vaguely sexual undertones it evokes. The unfortunate fact is that sexist and gendered marketing is everywhere – never more so than during back to school.

Screengrab from the John Lewis website showing a shoe from the Clarks Dolly Babe range
Screengrab from the John Lewis website showing a shoe from the Clarks Dolly Babe range
The Clarks website showing a shoe from its boys’ Leader range
The Clarks website showing a shoe from its boys’ Leader range

In Clarks, the withdrawn shoes are not even the worst example of the retailer’s anachronistic view of what boys and girls get up to in the playground. Far more objectionable is the girls’ “Gloform” range, which includes the Mariel Wish, a range of patent Mary Janes with 2cm wedge heels, available in infant size 9 upwards. “The durable rubber sole has a 2cm heel for subtle elevation,” says the Clarks website.

“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom” goes the Gloform slogan – but where is the wisdom in suggesting to little girls that they should spend their lunchbreak wobbling around, “subtly elevated” on wedge heels, while their brothers are kicking footballs?

What parent would seriously choose to have their little girl teetering around the playground in wedge heels?

“What messages are you giving to my daughter? That she doesn’t deserve shoes that put her on equal ‘footing’ with her male peers? That she should be satisfied with looking stylish whilst the boys are free to play and achieve in comfort?” wrote one parent, Jem Moonie-Dalton, on the Clarks Facebook page. “These messages may not be explicit, but they are there, and are insidious.”

Predictably, the boys’ version of the Mariel Wish is the much more practical Maris Fire, a sturdy Velcro number with “an abrasion-resistant toe guard”. “The rubber sole is durable, perfect for playground activities,” the website says.

Clarks may be one of the more blatant offenders of back-to-school pinkwashing, but it is by no means the only offender. In any of the big back-to-school retailers, the girls’ section is a pink wall of unicorns and lovehearts and ponies, while the boys’ is all spiky slogans, spaceships and dinosaurs.

Tesco is currently selling two versions of the same backpack – one predominantly pink, the other predominantly green and blue. The pink version says “Little Princess” and “Little Miss”, while the slogans on the blue version read “Mayhem on Mars” and “Asteroid Destroyer Causing Trouble in Space”, alongside the words “speed” and “light”.

Tesco’s pink backpack says ‘Little Princess’
Tesco’s pink backpack says ‘Little Princess’
The blue version reads ‘Mayhem on Mars’
The blue version reads ‘Mayhem on Mars’

It’s a similar scenario in Dunnes, where the pink version of a €15 backpack is emblazoned with peace signs and the words “sweet” and “love”, while the equivalent boys’ version has explosions and the words “zapp” and “clank” and “bam”.

In the Tesco stationery section, one peach-coloured PVC pencil case has the word “Gorgeous”, while there’s another purple and pink one with the legend “Beauty and Brains”.

At least brains get a look in – but why are we encouraging girls to self-identify by how they look at all?

The pencil cases targeting boys, inevitably, don’t say “Beauty and Brains” or even “Handsome” – because plainly that would be ridiculous. Instead, they’re simple, dark colours or feature animal themes. (Not bunnies, mind you – fierce animals like tigers, sharks and dinosaurs.)

In the Tesco shoe section, there are, at least, no wedge heels. But that’s about the best that can be said about the girls’ range, which is called “Sensitive Sole” and comes with pink insoles and flimsy rubber soles embossed with butterflies.

This isn’t about a single clumsily named pair of shoes, an inappropriate wedge heel or a lone pink backpack

Once again, the boys’ range looks and feels much more solid, with blue insoles and the much more sensible name of “Airtred: Ultimate Comfort Technology”.

Yes, as countless people piled on to Twitter to tell Sturgeon, they’re “just” shoes  – in the same way that they’re “just” pencil cases and “just” pyjamas and toys and vests and underwear and cartoons and slogan T-shirts and movies.

But we shouldn’t dismiss it that easily. This isn’t about a single clumsily named pair of shoes, an inappropriate wedge heel or a lone pink backpack. And it isn’t about political correctness or outrage-mongering, or parents who have nothing better to do with their time.

It’s about the message modern society gives children about how we see them, and the limitations that their gender imposes.

Even before a child can read, we are shaping how they see themselves, how they see their gender

Countless times a day, the youngest children are exposed to the suggestion that, while boys are off causing mayhem and travelling to space and going on safari and kicking balls and wrecking their shoes, the role of girls is to be sweet and pretty and to learn to sport a high heel and a unicorn bag.

We brainwash children to think that being “sensitive” is for girls, that real boys are brave and bold and disruptive. Even before a child can read, we are shaping how they see themselves, how they see their gender.

Sure, some girls love pink and sparkles – but how much of that is a real and individual expression of their personal taste, and how much is just the result of years of pinkwashing?

Should liking a bit of sparkle on your backpack preclude you from wanting to be a space explorer? And should being a boy preclude you from liking shiny things or wearing pink or showing kindness?

Princess is not a role model I want for my daughters – a princess is, let’s face it, a well-dressed welfare sponger – just like I don’t want my son to grow up believing that he’s not a real boy unless he’s causing trouble and hiding his sensitive side.

I want all of my children to have the chance to run and explore and kick balls and sparkle and be bold and brave and sensitive. But we’ll pass on the wedge heels, thanks.

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