Today, with the might of well-known authors Philip Pullman, Malorie Blackman, Carol Ann Duffy, Joanne Harris and Victoria Lamb behind me, not to mention the huge coverage of @LetToysBeToys ‘LetBooksBeBooks campaign, I tweeted The Book People again about their stocking of gender-specific and sexist titles. Would they still ignore me, I asked, now that these well-known names were supporting the cause?
Very quickly they tweeted me back, thanking me for my feedback and asking me to email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. I thanked them for the invite, had some lunch and set to…
Hello Book People, and thanks for asking me to email you. I would love to have had this dialogue with you earlier, and did attempt it, but unfortunately it seems it took other people taking up the baton – particularly famous names like Malorie Blackman, Joanne Harris, Victoria Lamb (aka Jane Holland/Elizabeth Moss) and Carol Ann Duffy – to grab your attention. This makes me sad and a little cynical, but frankly anything that brings this important issue to your attention is worthwhile.
The concerns I’ve been tweeting you about for some time have now been neatly encapsulated by the @LetToysBeToys #LetBooksBeBooks campaign, and their petition can be found here. No – don’t click it yet! ? Hold on and I will explain to you why this is important to me –and why it should be important to you too.
Here we are in 2014; and what a journey it’s been. Over the last 100 years, voting rights for women, changes to employment law and of course the Equalities Act of 2010 have been markers on a journey that’s changed the social landscape of our country. Today, men and women have equal rights and equal choice – don’t they?? Nothing that is permitted for one gender is withheld from the other. I’m sure that at the Book People you have male and female staff, and that some of you are parents. How lucky your children are to be born in this era. Your sons know they can be nurses, and realise it’s a worthwhile profession all of its own; they don’t have to be doctors ‘instead’. Your daughters, on the other hand, are never asked if they want to be a nurse, but asked if they want to go into medicine or healthcare; because it’s made clear to them all the time that they can be doctors OR nurses, right? The choice is theirs. The choice is everyone’s.
Everything that a girl or boy could want is available in several colours, so that hopefully they can pick their favourite. It’s fine for boys to wear pink shirts and girls to wear camouflage trousers. Boys can like butterflies, flowers, rabbits and dolls. Girls can like astronauts, soldiers and skateboards and everyone buys them pirate and Buzz Lightyear costumes. Girls and boys both have similar expectations of the future: how far their career might progress, how their behaviour will be judged and how much of the domestic burden will fall on them. Boys and girls know that some Dads stay at home to care for their children, and that some Mums go back to work after having babies (and may be the biggest wage-earner in the house). They respect that. Hopefully they also know that some boys and girls have two mums, or two dads. And they respect that too.
My, what an idyllic world we live in! How far we’ve come!
Or have we? Unfortunately, it seem that this journey of ours towards equality has taken a little detour. In true Bugs Bunny style, someone’s dashed ahead and turned the sign round so that we’re now heading down Double Standards lane.
Although the majority of parents – including all of you there in the Book People office – would say that they want their sons and daughters to grow up feeling they can do anything, BE ANYTHING, what’s the reality? What do children see around them?
Daughters are told that women have equal rights. They watch as their bedroom fills with butterfly stickers, craft activities, baby dolls, pink accessories, toy vacuum cleaners and ovens – just in case they were foolish enough to believe what they were told, they and their expectations have been put firmly back in place by the time they’re five. Yep, by the time they’re at school, mentally those doors are already clanging shut. What they COULD do and what they expect to do are already two different things. Sons can choose caring professions, and should be involved fathers, they’re told… as their world becomes filled with macho, action-packed superheroes, soldiers, racing cars, pirates and astronauts, while domestic play equipment, dolls, animals and anything connected with caring or beauty is relegated to being weak and ‘for girls’ (because obviously those two go together). Not to mention that any liking for these ‘girls’ things’ might make people think – shock horror – that they’re gay. Best keep those impulses locked away… until the misery makes them another teenage suicide statistic.
Books have always reflected our world and sometimes, show us a better one. Their role in shaping children’s beliefs and expectations is every bit as vital as that of toys and other forms of media. The Equalities Act becomes just a piece of paper if we are not living our lives – and writing, designing and marketing our books – to support its principles and ensure our children can expect to live and be judged by them.
Girls need to know that pink is not the only colour – and to lose the expectation that everything pink is aimed at them. They need to open a book and be surprised by the contents, not already condemned to expect page upon page of butterflies, fairies, make-up tips and tales of princesses who got everything they wanted – once a guy showed up to sort out their life for them. Boys need to know that they are ALLOWED to like pink, and butterflies, and rabbits, and dolls. They don’t have to be an astronaut, builder, soldier or train driver, and they don’t have to live with the pressure of expecting to be the breadwinner, rescuer, knight on a white horse. They need to know that sometimes THEY will need rescuing – and that’s okay. If we adults do our job well, perhaps those boys will realise that the person who rescues them might be a girl; a girl with no make-up on, riding a Harley Davidson without a pink pony in sight.
If you want freedom of choice for your own children, and value their right to keep an open mind – and see only open doors in their future – then surely you want the same freedom for all children. So come on Book People, what do you say? You don’t need to stock gender-specific, sexist titles entitled ‘stories for girls’ or ‘cooking with mummy’. You could choose not to. You could be the first retailer (because we only have publishers so far) to make a stand and say no. I can assure you, with all the major newspapers reporting on this campaign and radio and TV taking an interest now too, if you make this stand today everyone will know about it by tomorrow. You will be Equality Heroes – and have the satisfaction of knowing that you used your power for good. Join us!