Magnetic Girls Talk

If you’ve gone anywhere near the Internet in the past few weeks, you’ve probably seen a mocking reference to the pink/purple Bic “pens for HER”. They even made Newsround.

Via Angry Black Lady Chronicles:

  • Before I bought this product I couldn’t write but now I’m an engineer. Mind you, I only design pink, flowery bridges, motorways and sewers. Blue ones would be wrong wouldn’t they.
  • I think this is what they call “product failure.” Gendered razors I get. What woman doesn’t enjoy a nice shaving strip while scraping the hair off their legs? But pink gendered pens? Come on, son. Either come at me with a ribbed-for-her-pleasure pen, or don’t come at me at all. Pink alone ain’t gettin’ it done, IYKWIMAITYD.

Crates and Ribbons also adds pics from Early Learning of their gendered toys, and points out:

Children aren’t born knowing what is expected of their gender. Boys aren’t born believing that it’s shameful to be a girl. Through the toys that we make for them and the messages that we send them, they are taught about their roles and status every day. And when they grow up, they will pass it on to their children in their turn, unless we make an effort to end this cycle and make gender roles a thing of the past.

This kind of thing amuses me and infuriates me in almost equal measure, especially when it comes to childhood favourites like Lego. When the Lego Group knows from its own research that at least 38% of their potential market is girls, and yet they refuse to market real Lego kits to girls because their marketing managers “know” that girls like dolls, not building things, something is deeply wrong. It takes a huge kind of processing error to ignore your own research and act surprised at falling sales.

As Ally Fogg noted, though, the main reason people mocked “Bic for Her” is that it was too obvious:

The ‘Bic For Her’ line caught the imagination for two reasons, firstly it served as a long-awaited sequel to the classic Bic Pen Amazon review game, and perhaps more importantly because the manufacturer eschewed any attempt at subtlety in their gender marketing. The company could just as easily have produced something called the ‘Bic Chic’, perhaps, with the same pastel colours, slimline design and feminine curves. We would all have known exactly what they were doing and why, but I doubt there would have been the same collective urge to point and laugh.

I was guided to Melissa and Doug’s online toyshop via Cory Doctorow , where I found that they sell, as part of their Art Essentials for kids (“a thoughtful line of art supplies designed by parents and beloved by creative kids”): Truck Crayon Set and Princess Crayons.

Princess Crayons Truck Crayons

As one of the first commenters points out, these aren’t just crayons in gendered boxes – the boy set gets a full spectrum, but

“Princess” has 1/2 the crayons in a spectrum from purple through violet & pink to red. There’s barely any green nor even a decent orange, and the angle makes it difficult to see if the two next to the blues are brown and black which are also important colors for drawing.. And “Truck” doesn’t get a decent purple. (I’m not too keen on pink–OD’d as a kid I guess—so I’m not going to complain they aren’t there).

So if you buy the Princess Crayons for your daughter, she’s actually limited in the pictures she can draw with them to only the appropriate “girly colours”, while if you buy Truck Crayon Set for your son, he gets the full spectrum across 12 crayons. And that’s not okay. Not even a little bit okay.

But what inspired this post is something even worse. Words.

Indigo Worldwide makes fridge magnet “educational sets”. In principle, this looks great: there’s a set for learning fractions, decimals, and percentages, a set of the 50 words the National Literacy Strategy says children should learn to read during their reception year, and a three-pack set of the words for years one and two. There is an odd omission from this list of words for children to learn in the first years at school.

The fifty words are:

I in and big went it we for this come at all you dad look go no are get mum of am was she going up on cat see they is he day yes away a me the can play to my dog like said

The wider set of words (I’ve added in the fifty reception years words: they also have the days of the week and the months of the year) includes words for doing things:

can can’t could call(ed) came come dig help jump laugh like live(d) look love made make did don’t do from go get going got had has have just how may must off play push pull put ran said saw see seen should take took want went

Words about time:

time when after again been day first last next night now once new then was is

Words about numbers and directions:

another all half many more much one two three out over some in on where down up away here back there way

Words for self and family and other people:

I am me we you dad mum brother sister home name our us boy girl man she he her him his people their them these they with who your

Words for things and descriptive words:

it cat dog ball bed door house school tree water good old big little very

And a useful handful of sentence-construction words:

a an and are as at be because but by for not of or so than that the this to too were what will would

There is nothing more revolutionary or more useful that any child will learn at school that this: How to construct a sentence.

I don’t remember learning how to read, but I do remember learning how to write: the process of putting words together to create lines of communication. I could write down three words on a page and show it to my mother and make her smile and cry at once: I remember doing it.

(The words were I love you, and before you smile too sentimentally, I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain to my mother at the time that I was discovering for myself the primacy of subject-verb-object in the universe of sentence creation, though as I recall that’s exactly what I was doing. Had she walked in five minutes later, she would probably have been handed a piece of paper that said You like trees.)

Words are essential and paragraphs are important and letters are archaeological, but a sentence is the first line of communication from me to you.

These word sets for the fridge are designed to let small children construct their own sentences. A child could post on the fridge:

  • when are we going back to school
  • you like the old cat not the new dog
  • get mum to jump on the other tree
  • my big brother called you another little whatso
  • can’t make many all the way
  • dig from time the night ball because half home

But Indigo have decided that girls and boys should make different sentences. They have provided two expansion sets for the basic National Literacy word sets, one for girls and one for boys.

Words for girls:

clothes hairband heart love sparkle perfume beads necklace furry lipstick ribbon handbag wand glitter fairies fluff candy flowers wings sherbet bubbles sweets pink make-up skipping magic dancing ballet bunnies rainbow ladybird lemonade stars sky shoes chocolate doll party secret diary hair jewels princess queen tiara ice-cream teddy music sunshine birds butterfly sugar angel diamond cooking friends

Words for boys:

boots glue monster scary bones racing moon helicopter aeroplane tractor money lorry wizard conkers frogs sticks mud dirt spiders snails stones bubbles sweets flags magic pond string grass rugby bug days caterpillar cobweb worms dinosaur dragon bike scooter forest treasure climbing swinging skeleton running ghost trees swimming lawnmower treehouse blue football chocolate car

There are very few shared words. Both girls and boys get magic, bubbles and sweets/chocolate. Girls get love in their extension pack though the word is already in the standard set. Boys get days and money: girls don’t get any words about time or finance.

The girls’ words for doing things are:

ballet cooking dancing magic party skipping

The boys’ words for doing things are:

climbing magic racing running swimming swinging

Girls get more words for sweeties (and betray this as originally an American set of words):

sweets chocolate candy ice-cream lemonade sherbet sugar

Girls get friends in their list of people:

angel fairies princess queen friends

Boys don’t:

ghost monster wizard skeleton

Girls get more descriptive words:

furry glitter pink secret sparkle

Boys get only:

scary blue

Girls get fewer plants or animals:

flowers birds bunnies butterfly ladybird

Boys get:

forest trees bug caterpillar dinosaur dragon frogs snail spiders worms

Girls get fewer words to describe outdoors:

rainbow stars sky sunshine

Boys get:

cobweb conkers dirt grass lawnmower moon mud pond sticks stones treehouse

Girls get 23 words for things, and boys get 17, but of a very different pattern.

clothes hairband ribbon shoes perfume beads necklace jewels tiara lipstick make-up handbag wand fluff wings hair bubbles doll diary teddy music diamond heart

boots helicopter aeroplane tractor lorry bike scooter car money treasure bubbles flags string rugby football glue bones

Put together, unsorted by gender, and these are a good set of words, if a little Americanised. But sorted into gendered sets they’re appalling. And betray how peculiar our gender expectations are. Why shouldn’t boys make sentences about friends and ice-cream and clothes? Why shouldn’t girls make sentences about the moon and a ghost and some trees?

What’s the word oddly omitted from the national literacy strategy for years one to three?


Man and boy and brother and dad are all there: girl and sister and mum.

But not woman.


Filed under Childhood, Children, Education, Women

5 responses to “Magnetic Girls Talk

  1. caseyparry

    Oh good grief! Words fail me. Possibly because they’d all come from the constructing logical arguments and demolishing assumptions in marketing strategy add-on that wouldn’t be given to girls.

    One good thing: if dragons are only for boys, the girls won’t get to write sentences about passive pink princesses captured by scary blue dragons.

  2. Words that are cool:

    boots glue monster scary bones moon conkers sticks mud spiders snails stones pond string bug caterpillar cobweb worms dinosaur dragon forest treasure climbing swinging skeleton ghost running swimming treehouse football ladybird stars secret friends

    As a child I would definitely have concluded, based on this evidence, that being a girl sucked.

    • Lissa

      Agreed. I was a girly little girl with a lot of typically feminine interests, and I still would have been severely disappointed at the limitations of the girls’ word list. I liked dresses and My Little Pony and Barbie, and I also liked dinosaurs, wizards, monsters, dragons, and playing outdoors and collecting caterpillars or snails. And there are little boys who like stereotypically feminine things like crafts and dolls. Children shouldn’t be shoved into such narrow little boxes.

      I’m a little disturbed that “makeup” and “lipstick” are included in the girls’ list. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, or maybe it’s just the way I was brought up, but I don’t think that preschoolers should be wearing lipstick. I never wore any makeup except colorless lip balm until I was 12. It seems like this set is pushing beauty standards onto children who are too young to understand them.

  3. As the mother of a boy these gender stereotypes have been equally damaging the other way around. He is a gentle chap who loves making friendship bracelets, crazed me for an overpriced ‘fashion designer’ doll, enjoys arts and crafts and natural history. He has been bullied mercilessly for being a ‘girl’ and having a girl best friend to the extent that school had to intervene in the children’s view of gender appropriate behaviour. When we stereotype children in this way it is damaging to the sense of self-worth in both genders as they try to find their place in the world as the unique beings that they are.

  4. Pingback: When Words Fail [Guest] | Sacraparental

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