News this week about five-year-old Poppy Lambert-Harden’s frustration about the lack of gender neutral Halloween costumes, captured on video by her mum, has caught the national imagination. Poppy wanted to be a scary vampire this year – but the choice for girls was limited to pink frilly numbers and “fairy vampires”. This is an issue that divides opinion. In August there was quite the brouhaha about a shoe launched by Clarks under two different brand names – “Leader” for boys and “Dolly Babe” for girls. Reaction was mixed: heated outrage from some quarters, but others just couldn’t see what the fuss was about: “It’s only a shoe!” The National Trust found itself in similarly hot water when one of its properties was found to be selling hats for girls emblazoned with the slogan “future footballer’s wife”. The same month the year before, Gap was lambasted for its ad campaign featuring a little boy in a blue T-shirt with an image of Albert Einstein on it captioned “Little Scholar”, and a girl equivalent in pink labelled “Social Butterfly”. This appears to be a lesson society is finding hard to learn. Perhaps as the horrors of the Weinstein saga ricochet through other industries, making it clear it’s not just one or two rotten apples but a pervasive culture affecting much of the barrel, everyone is now waking up to the awkward reality that we have a problem with attitudes to women. These advertising tropes are reflective of that.
Indeed earlier this year the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) announced it will crack down on adverts that feature stereotypical gender roles – a girl as a ballerina and a boy as a scientist, for example. Guy Parker, the chief executive of the ASA, has said, “Portrayals which reinforce outdated and stereotypical views on gender roles in society can play their part in driving unfair outcomes for people. While advertising is only one of many factors that contribute to unequal gender outcomes, tougher advertising standards can play an important role in tackling inequalities and improving outcomes for individuals, the economy and society as a whole.” Quite.
Bringing women up with tags like Social Butterfly and Dolly Babe automatically places them in a submissive, less serious box. So when they do have something serious to say, maybe they won’t feel it’s their place to. A recent poll by Girlguiding found that 55% of girls aged seven to 21 did not feel they could speak freely because of their gender. TV and other media were cited as factors reinforcing these negative stereotypes. 95% of those surveyed wanted to see more positive, diverse representations of women in advertising.
There’s a darker edge to this too: these attitudes to women automatically set them up to be treated as inferior human beings – and at worst, chattels. No wonder some men have no sense of the wrong they are doing when they take advantage. I see this day in and day out in the cases of coercion and control of women I handle in the courts, not to mention the cases of gender based violence. This is no superficial matter. Indeed, at the most extreme end, the statistics of those dying each year at the hands of a violent partner tell their own chilling story: on average two women die every week as the result of domestic abuse.
Some retailers are starting to take serious action: this September John Lewis became the first retailer to dispense with separate ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ clothing sections in its stores. Now all its children’s clothes sit under the all-inclusive ‘Girls & Boys’ banner (or, indeed ‘Boys & Girls’) and non-gendered items have also been introduced. This October Mothercare has launched a gender-neutral range – a quick turnaround following criticism this August for its ‘sexist’ marketing of children’s clothes and ‘harmful’ gender stereotypes.
As a society we have a duty to change attitudes to women. We all need to learn lessons. We need to listen properly to the complaints and understand, to draw the right conclusions as to how this has come about – how a culture that allows sexual harassment of women go unchecked, in so many different walks of life, for so long. And worse. And this responsibility is a collective one: men and women alike all need to take it seriously.