Why should boys get to take it to the max while girls are left with pink play sets?

Parents: if you want to curtail your daughter’s ambitions, limit her imagination, and stymie the development of her analytical…

Parents: if you want to curtail your daughter’s ambitions, limit her imagination, and stymie the development of her analytical skills, I suggest you take her toy shopping.

In a retailer near you, the annual festive bonanza of gender-based stereotyping should by now be in full swing. In store, on TV and in catalogues, little girls are getting their annual reminder about what they’re “good” at. And that’s wearing pretty dresses, minding babies, sticking glitter on things, and staring at themselves in a four-foot vanity mirror.

Boys, meanwhile, are being reminded that they can be superheroes, pirates, firemen or footballers – anything as long as they’re loud, competitive and aggressive about it. (So, if you want to curtail your son’s opportunities to be creative, develop social skills or learn how to operate a hoover, best bring him along, too.)

So why do we put up with this yearly onslaught of gender-based stereotyping directed at impressionable kids? Well because, as argued by many retailers and parents, it’s what they want.


Girls, they insist, seem genetically programmed to love pink. They like being princesses, just as boys want to be pirates.

To an extent that might be true, but it’s hardly the whole picture.

If my six-year-old daughter is representative, it seems girls also like building Lego, studying insects and playing with train sets.

Little boys, including my almost-five-year-old, love aliens, cars, dinosaurs and robots – and anything that can conceivably be repurposed as a weapon. But they also like playing with kitchens and Barbies, and they sometimes take their Power Rangers to bed “in case they get lonely”.

Unfortunately, few of these nuances are reflected in toy shops.

Last year, it seemed as though the tide of pink might finally be about to turn, when British toy retailer Hamleys announced that it would no longer be designating special “girls” and “boys” areas in its stores.

At the time, it said the changes were not a response to a much-shared blogpost that had accused it of “gender apartheid”, but were made to “improve customer flow”.

One year on, in its Dublin store, there is some evidence of a more egalitarian approach. Lego is located in the demilitarised zone between the girls’ and boys’ areas – although the presence of pink boxes among the ninja and Star Wars-themed kits slightly undermines the effort at gender neutrality, though this is hardly Hamleys’s fault.

But deeper into the sickly pink glow of the area formerly known as the girls’ department, not much has changed. Here, your daughter can have her nails done in a teeny-bopper beauty salon called Tantrums, while she ponders the merits of the coy Hello Kitty versus the alarmingly precocious Bratzillaz dolls.

Over in what was once the boys’ area, everything is spiky, cool, and seems to either come with the prefix “Max” or end in “Force”. There are remote-control cars, racing tracks, and a very impressive science section, in which a lone pink box – a perfume kit – sits forlornly amid junior chemistry sets and anatomically correct skeletons.

The message is clear: girls are passive, artistic, caring and preoccupied with looking good, while boys are active, daring and preoccupied with sport and science.

You don’t have to be remotely interested in gender politics to see why it’s wrong to funnel children into such a narrow, stereotypical view of their lives and interests. You don’t even have to be a parent to care that a whole generation is being bombarded with the message that the two sexes are so fundamentally different that, once out of babyhood, there is barely a single category of toy they can both enjoy.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, when I was a child, dolls were for girls, and guns were for boys. But everything else – Lego, wooden blocks, train sets, video games, board games, art kits – was unisex.

Somewhere along the way, toy manufacturers realised that the easiest way to expand their market was to magnify gender differences – or just invent them. Now, even Lego is segregated. Last year, the Danish company launched a range called Friends aimed at girls, complete with cupcake bakeries, pet salons and little action figures with curvier bodies. A petition objecting to the products was signed by almost 50,000 people, prompting a lot of eye-rolling about joyless feminists. But it matters – and here’s why.

Acres of inches in columns like this one are given over to wondering why women aren’t breaking through the glass ceiling; why they aren’t better represented in the media, politics or in business. There are many reasons for this – at least one of them is this corralling of children from a young age into outdated stereotypes.

By indicating to young children that their sex is their most important distinguishing factor, or that there are things they’re never going to be good at, just because they’re a girl – or a boy – we’re reinforcing the cycle.

I’m not advocating that we turn our children into lab rats in some kind of gender utopian experiment. I’m not even about to tell my daughter that she can’t play with her Barbies, any more than I’d tell her she couldn’t have a science kit. But enough of life is spent discovering what we can’t do. So why start erecting obstacles in childhood?

A general state of military affairs

Fans of Homeland won’t have been surprised by the rate at which a personal indiscretion has escalated into a major US national-security crisis.

In case you missed it, the scandal concerns CIA director David Petraeus, who had an affair with his married biographer, Paula Broadwell (Petraeus has been married for 38 years). The affair came to light when another woman – a friend of the Petraeus family, Jill Kelley – made a complaint to the FBI about “childish, jealous” emails that had been sent to her. The investigation turned up correspondence between Petraeus and Broadwell, leading this week to his resignation.

Now, the leading US commander in Afghanistan, Gen John Allen, is also under investigation for alleged inappropriate communications. Reports yesterday revealed that the investigation also turned up some 20,000 to 30,000 pages of communications – between Allen and Jill Kelley – all sent while he was supposed to be running the show in Afghanistan. Allen’s nomination to be commander of the US European command has now been delayed.

In a further further twist, it has emerged that the unnamed FBI agent Kelley made her complaint to has also been under scrutiny – for sending Kelley photos of himself, shirtless. Still keeping up? No, me neither. Someone call Carrie Mathison.

Bridget’s back and this time it’s personal (again)

Cigarettes: seven. Alcohol units: 15. Calories: 5,242. Sharply observed tales of anxiety and sauvignon, remastered for a new audience: one more.

After almost 13 years, Bridget Jones is back. Her creator, Helen Fielding, has said she’s working on another novel featuring Jones, who will return in a “new scenario” that may involve “the way life is lived through texting and Twitter” now. (Separately, a movie called Bridget Jones’s Baby is in the works, but it won’t be based on Fielding’s writing.) Will the book be written in tweets? Will she and Daniel be indulging in a bit of Fifty Shades-style S&M? Will she be trying to coax a wailing infant to sleep? The bad news is you’ll have to wait until next autumn to find out. In the meantime, I refer you to the piece above.