Picture the scene, Dear Reader: In an affluent area of South Manchester a dozen women gather at a children’s centre for a ‘stay and play’. These are intelligent women. Many of them are educated to a high level. These are kind, interesting, socially aware women.
After a fruit plate snack (which was free, big up Manchester City Council for that one) these women take their places, children on laps, for story time. Aw, sweet. ‘Shall we sing some songs?’ Asks the kindly play-worker. Any requests? After a few rounds of Old MacDonald (more on him later), The Wheels on the Bus is requested. Classic! That is, without doubt, the nursery rhyme equivalent of a BIG TUNE. Me and Bubs sing it in the bath regularly (okay, I sing it, he splashes along semi-rhythmically). So, the chorus begins. The wheels on the bus go round and round; the horn on the bus goes ‘beep beep beep’; the wipers on the bus go ‘swish swish swish’; the mummies on the bus go ‘natter, natter, natter’; the babies on the bus… hang on, hang on, what was that last one??
The mummies on the bus go natter, natter, natter. Um, okaaaay. Here we are, this intelligent group of human beings, making that ‘nattering’ hand gesture (which, incidentally, is the same motion we make for a duck’s quack: rude), singing sweetly to our children about those noisy mothers on the bus. Women, hey? Once they get together, you just can’t shut ’em up!
The song moves on and we then hear that the babies on the bus are fast asleep (yeah right); the children on the bus make too much noise (what a negative message to send our youth); and the daddies say ‘shh, shh, shh.’ Good job the men are there really, or those negligent chattering women would let their children run a muck!
I must confide that I do not sing such derogatory things about the mummies on the bus. I refuse on principle. So, I either sit mumbling the tune for that verse or, on my more bolshy days, I sing ‘people’ instead of mummies, loudly enough so my neighbouring parents can hear. I also scan the assembled crowd for someone who will exchange a knowing eye-roll with me. I usually find one. I should probably scream at the top of my lungs “Come on people, it’s 20-bloody-14, what are we doing???” But I’m rarely that bolshy without the aid of alcohol.
As you are probably aware the Wheels on the Bus debacle is not an isolated incident. If only. I am constantly suppressing outrage at the a thousand subtle sexisms that assault my son on a regular basis. Actually, some of them are not so subtle. For example, below is the second page of an Old MacDonald book I got from our local library. Bubs loves that farmyard tune, so I was already singing enthusiastically as I turned the page to discover that the first thing Old MacDonald had on his farm was a…
Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought women stopped being included as part of livestock inventories some time around the industrial revolution. Just saying. And a ‘kiss kiss’? She has her own noise? Bleurgh, a thousand times bleurgh! Now *spoiler alert* the last page of the book is ‘Old MacDonald had a baby’, which makes the inclusion of this wife a bit more logical, but still. Well, at least her noise isn’t ‘natter, natter, natter’. Needless to say I skipped this page. Also considered ripping it out, but I restrained myself. I won’t let the casual sexism of a children’s book turn me into a literary vandal!
I do despair, Dear Reader. For all of of the brilliant progressions made in the past century, women in children’s fiction are still all too often the wife, or mum, or the sensible one (yes, that’s you Hermione). Unless the book/song is about a girl defying her restrictive gender roles. There are plenty of those books; books that make a feminist statement. And I love them (Jane and the Dragon, what a book!). The thing is I was kind of hoping we’d be past statement making now, but it seems instead we’ve regressed.
Of course, literature is probably the most enlightened aspect of the cash-cow that is the children’s market. Occasionally I wonder over to the girls section in Asda/Sainburys/Boots to see if there is anything I could dress Bubs in. WALL TO WALL PINK. Maybe a bit of green and white too; plenty of frills and hearts and bows. I’m a feminist but I’m not dressing my son up like a social experiment.* And it doesn’t have to stop at the obvious clothes and toys; any product can be marketed in this kiddy-gender-enforcement way. Even Airbus are doing it, apparently.
It’s all around us folks, and it troubles me. I am raising a boy and I want him to grow into a man who sees women as equals. I’m dreading the day he discards a toy, telling me “that’s for girls”. In a way I am more concerned with him being exposed to these images and ideas than I would be a little girl. Because if in 30 years we still have a situation where there are over 20,000 reported rapes a year, or women still only make up a fifth of MPs, or, God forbid, programmes like ‘snog, marry avoid’ still exist , then my son will be one of those who hold the balance of power. He will be a man in a patriarchal society. #winning
So, Dear Reader, what can we do to stem the tide of mummies who ‘natter’ and wives who go ‘kiss kiss’? Well, I have started with a little DIY project concerning my son’s book ‘When I Grow Up’.
It’s part of a lovely set of six M&S boards, which he loves. However, I felt that this particular volume needed a few changes made. Observe:
Yep, I actually did this. I could have been watching Downton, or playing Candy Crush, but I cut out little bits of paper with the correct terms (not politically correct, just correct) and did an edit on a board book. And I loved every minute of it. Fight the power!
Now, do I actually think me papering over the gender-biased terminology in one book will have any real effect my son’s vision of the world? No, I’m not a mad woman. As long as there’s a woman presenting the cookery show on CBeebies, whilst men run zoos and have Dinosaur adventures, I feel I’m fighting a losing battle. (Yes I know there’s a female pirate captain, and yes she is ace). As long as the Super Mario Brothers are rescuing the princess from the castle and women computer games critics are subjected to terror threats,(yes, that’s an actual thing that happened) I reckon me doctoring a few pictures isn’t going to have the greatest impact. Even posts like these, just a mum rambling on about being a mum and feminist, invite such serious trolling that bloggers stop writing (also a real thing, bleurgh). So I have no delusions of grandeur when it comes to stemming the misogynist tide
But these little things make a difference to me. I probably can’t change the world, but I don’t have to lie down and take it either. So my son will be subjected to ‘girl’s toys’ and female heroines for a long time yet, and I hope he’ll be a better man for it.
What sexist songs/books/toys are grinding your gears? Share the rant! Comment below, tweet me @aafew or like my facebook page and join in the fun!
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* FYI. If my son later chooses to wear women’s clothing, or informs me that he is in fact my daughter, that is 100% okay with me.