The nation’s favourite middle class pilgrimage site, John Lewis, announced a range of children’s clothes labelled for both boys and girls last month. Rather than dividing the genders up with a big pink and blue wall, they want to avoid the gender stereotypes that permeate pretty much every product aimed at children, making everything a bit more equal. The future of John Lewis (whether it’s a cynical PR campaign or not) is dinosaur-print dresses and practical, cosy leggings for everyone.
However, loads of people are mad about it, obviously. Every newspaper in existence has done an opinion piece, asking parents for an “I’ll never shop there again”. Some fear that it might push dresses on boys (Christ, don’t watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, Brenda). Others have taken a bit of a leap and called it “cultural Marxist…BS” (Karl Marx would probably have considered John Lewis’ co-ownership policy a step in the right direction). The controversy can only really come from one place – the people opposing it don’t think there’s anything wrong with having very different clothes for boys and girls.
Gender stereotypes are a bit like having an emotionally abusive boyfriend. We cling to them because we’re comfortable with them and we don’t think we can really exist without them. Even when they make us cry because we just want to go to Pizza Express with people from work without it turning into 16 missed calls in a 90-minute period, we still find ourselves back on the sofa with them, justifying it all.
It’s easy to see the things children do, wear, watch, and read and think it’s innocent. Look at them with their podgy arms and nonsensical chat, they don’t have a clue. If we put a tiny pink cooker in front of a little girl, jokingly ask her if she’s making the dinner, and then give her brother the ability to make a rocket in the garden, fire it into the air, and congratulate him for his engineering skills, surely that’s fine because toys are just toys, not a way of rehearsing real-life scenarios in preparation for adulthood.
Pink isn’t inherently bad, but it’s also not inherently feminine. T-shirts with spaceships and stars on them aren’t guaranteed to persuade a child to be an astronaut, but it does send a message when it’s routinely bought for a little boy and not a little girl. Girls’ clothes that tell them they’re pretty and sweet also tell them they’d better start getting comfortable with mascara now they’ve turned 6. That’s so demotivating and limiting if it’s all a girl ever sees. Restricting boys to a range of neutral, inoffensive navy and beige, which will funnel them from Gap Kids right through to Blue Harbour and then the grave, doesn’t give them much freedom to feel they can wear (read as: be) anything other than homogenous, bland masculinity.
They’re not just clothes. The clothes we wear carry expectations and baggage, even more so when they’re chosen for us as children, when our brains are plastic and malleable. Toddlers can practically learn as many languages as they want if they hear them spoken: that’s how good they are at picking up on things around them. I nearly missed a tram stop yesterday because I was thinking about scones.
There are lots of people out there, fresh from giving their soundbites to The Sun, who really don’t believe it. They’re still in the bathroom of a Pizza Express pleading with gender stereotypes to stop calling, they’ll be back before 9. They might think introducing genderless kids’ clothes means making everyone wear the same grey, shapeless smocks, like they’re in Divergent’s dullest faction. They might think it gets rid of choice, that it tells parents what they can and can’t dress their child in, tells boys and girls they can’t be themselves. It doesn’t: it tells parents that they can give their child choice.
One little girl reaches for a princess dress, or one little boy reaches for a t-shirt that reads “Boys will be boys,” and some would have us believe that’s it – cemented. They made their choice, it’s what they like. It’s actually a small part of a massively complicated tornado of gender expectations, what mum or dad does, off-hand comments made by a teacher, books on the shelf at home, people seen on TV between mouthfuls of potato smiles (legit might get some of those for the freezer now I’ve remembered they’re a thing.) It’s everything, it’s every decision we make. It’s everyone’s fault and no one’s at the same time. We can’t solve it with just clothes, but we should celebrate a range of clothes that does something so many don’t. I cannot stress enough how much I want a plate of potato smiles right now.
People are going to do what they want, especially when it comes to their kids – their biggest, shoutiest, and most personal responsibility. It might even push some more aggressively towards pink and blue. Ultimately though, I think people have pushed back because they can’t bear the accusation that they could be harming their favourite people in the world, particularly if it might be true.
John Lewis’ gender-neutral clothes won’t make every child feel accepted or comfortable, and they won’t make every parent deviate from something they’ve always known. But if the future of childhood gender expectations has colourful dinosaurs on it and lets people play, explore and live uninhibited, I think more and more people will start to get comfortable with it pretty soon.
Written by Helen McCarthy