A Gap advert that pictures boys as brainy and girls as sociable reflects the distorted reality we live in
The little girl looks winsomely into the middle distance, passive and unsmiling, presumably waiting for the next titbit of gossip to descend upon her kitten ears. The little boy grins and proudly shows off the image of Albert Einstein on his chest. Your future starts here, a new Gap advert tells him, which unfortunately is true. He is destined to be a little scholar. And the girl? A social butterfly, which isnt even a job. Oh well, her chambray shirt (with pink logo, obviously) may not fast-track her into a science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subject but it will be the talk of the playground. And what more could a girl want?
Welcome to the world of everyday sexism in childrens advertising. Like advertising, and Gap, it is everywhere. Watch any TV advert aimed at children and you will see girls in shiny princess outfits emoting into microphones and boys dutifully pushing fire engines. Go to the childrens section of any clothes shop and you will encounter primary-coloured stripes for boys and pastel polka dots for girls. We are living in an age when even shapes are gendered. It is that ludicrous.
The Gap ad designates boys as brainy and girls as sociable gender stereotypes that have been around much longer than pink Lego. But people are fed up with it.
Last year a similar row arose when Marks & Spencer brought out a dinosaur-laden Natural History Museum clothing range for boys only, leading to the Labour MP Chi Onwurah to accuse the retailer of gender specific marketing and the launch of a #dinosaursforall campaign by Let Clothes Be Clothes. Unisex clothing is becoming more prevalent in adult ranges, with the high street retailer Zara launching its Ungendered line earlier this year. And small changes are happening in the grimly gendered world of toys, with Hamleys abandoning its pink and blue signs for girls and boys, and Sainsburys no longer labelling its doctor costumes for boys and nurse outfits for girls.
My son is almost three, and I can think of many times in his young life when he has encountered the kind of sexism in the Gap ad. Sometimes Im the one dishing it out, such as when I find myself saying he is such a boy because he loves trains, hates arts and crafts, and cant sit still for a second. All of which is true, as is the fact that he has two mothers and no masculine role model. None of it makes him such a boy: we have society to thank for that.I have to keep reminding myself of this because thats the insidious nature of gender stereotyping: were all at it, all the time.
Another random example: when my son was learning to walk, a friend advised getting a toy pushchair to help him along. She had done this successfully with her son in spite of his dads embarrassment. See what I mean about sexism being everywhere? Anyway at John Lewis, where toy pushchairs come in pink and blue (which Im guessing is supposed to be progress) the shop assistant said she had never in all her life seen a boy push a buggy. I told her to go outside and look for herself at a world in which dads push them all the time, seemingly without shame. Anyway, I never bought the stupid pushchair but my son learned to walk all the same. Im sure there is a moral in there somewhere.
For some, concern about the impact of gender stereotyping on children is middle class over-reaction to the point of caricature. You know the argument: when two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former partner, who cares if little Sylvie is wearing a fair-trade gender-neutral top covered with yellow cars? (Yellow, in clothes-speak, is a leading gender-neutral colour.)
The point is that all of it matters, and all of it is connected. Whether gender stereotyping takes place in an email, on a T-shirt, in a toy shop or at a school, the effects are serious for all of us. And they are far-reaching, with an impact on everything from the gender pay gap and women being under-represented in Stem sectors to widespread sexual bullying in schools.
The Gap ad is not an anomaly: it is the product of the deeply gendered world in which we all live, work and are grossly misrepresented. This kind of gender stereotyping is harmful not only to girls and boys but to women, men and every gender in between. After all, each of us should grow with the possibility of becoming a scientist, a social butterfly, neither or both.