Pirate swords and burglars’ hats: that’s what little girls are made of

Princess When I found out I was expecting a girl, I was dreading the idea of having one of those little girls who likes princesses and glitter and sparkles. I’m just not sure how I’d relate to that child, frankly. I’ve only worn a dress once as an adult (on my wedding day) and look how well THAT turned out.

Fortunately for me, Flea’s a tomboy. She likes pirates, she likes monsters and she likes dinosaurs. She prefers to wear jeans and she loves her red racing car trainers. When she grows up, she wants to be a burglar.

I don’t think I’ve encouraged her in any direction. My mantra has always been: “There is no such thing as boys’ toys or girls’ toys. You can play with whatever you like.”

The same applies to clothes. I’m sure if the girls’ section included clothes with dinosaurs and pirates on, Flea would be happy to wear girls’ clothes, but the reality is we mostly end up buying from the boys’ section. And I’ve never commented on that, I just let her choose what she likes. (for a great visual representation of this issue, check out Noble Savage’s post here)

The only thing I find odd about our situation is how odd other people find it. I've lost count of the number of children who have said to Flea, "You can't play with that, it's for boys," or "Why are you wearing a boy's t-shirt?".

Now Flea's at school, it's a real dilemma. I don't want her to feel weird, or to be the odd one out. But I also don't want her to buy into what I consider to be a stupid notion that girls should be 'cute' and 'pretty' while boys get to be 'cheeky' and 'adventurous'.

But we're really up against it. The retail industry works so very hard to convince us that boys and girls are entirely different creatures – has anyone else noticed now that even toys like the Leapfrog Tag and VTech Early Walker are available in boys' and girls' versions? You can even buy gender-specific tins of spaghetti hoops. Jesus, that’s depressing.

I recently watched High School Musical 3 with my six year old niece, who told me it was her favourite film. She loves Troy, of course. But am I the only person who was concerned with the scene where the group of male characters openly ogle a female character’s rear end? Yes, little girls, one day when you grow up, if you're very lucky, a group of teenage boys will ogle your arse, and then you'll know you're a success. Gross.

This kind of thing is a big part of the reason why Flea doesn’t watch television and I'm careful of what toys I introduce to her, but now she's at school, I'm increasingly aware that there will be new influences in her life. What do other mothers of girls (and boys) think? How do you approach issues of gender with your kids?

About 

Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

16 Comments

  1. Carole
    18th September 2009 / 1:30 pm

    I know my sons are older, but it is just the same for them. All the way through toddlerhood they had a mix of dolls, paints and crayons, buggies, wheelbarrows, sandpit toys and wheeled trasport. They enjoyed gymnastics and went along to junior lessons – with a majority of girls already wearing leotards and pretty hairbobbles!
    I remember when my younger son started at Nursery school and the kids had a dressing up box. He came home furious at a couple of girls who had played “weddings”. They didn’t want “stupid” boys to join in, so two girls were the bride and groom, they had a female vicar and any boys there were ‘allowed’ to sit in the congregation and watch!
    Luckily, as more and more glass ceilings are shattered, children who are open to interest in all subjects and who appreciate people for their character traits (and not their stereotype) will win through.
    Flea will make her own friends at school. She is highly likely to have a “pink” phase at some point in her childhood. She will watch movies and television at someone’s house, as well as within her school lessons. All of these ‘cultural’ influences will have an impact – but discovering new things and rejecting or embracing them is part of the “growing-up” process.
    If she becomes an archeologist in her later years, her love of dinosaurs may well lead to an appreciation of undisturbed fossils!

  2. Kassia @ Working Mum
    18th September 2009 / 2:00 pm

    I was (still am) determined that I was never going to have a ‘prissy’ girl, and like you we’ve encouraged Ami, and now Izzy, to have diverse interests.
    Ami is definately a tom-boy. She loves dinosaurs and really liked Thomas the Tank Engine. It was really noticable when she started school, in the mornings nearly all the other little girls used to stand in the playground holding mummy’s hand whilst Ami used to dash round with the boys and kicking the ball.
    School has changed her. She now loves dresses and is definately having a pink, disney princess, barbie doll phase. However, give her a choice and she would much rather hand upside down off a roundabout or go rock climbing.

  3. 18th September 2009 / 2:53 pm

    My daughter is not even 2 but she is more atracted to balls and cars than dolls.And i must say I’m very happy for that.I’m still a bit frighten that she will want to be a princess or something of the kind of damsel in distress.
    Usually I buy toys that are not too much on way or another , that is caracters from Sesame Street like Elmo, I bought her a ball with Bob the Builder.
    I never was an adept that women are victims and I’m certainly am not going to teach my daughter that. And if someone is going to look at someone bottom it might as well be her looking at some guys behind aprovingly.(is this too shocking?)

  4. 18th September 2009 / 4:33 pm

    I think i can understand your reluctance to have a ‘prissy’ girl (whatever ‘prissy’ means)… although like everything, it’s only bad if you think it is. I didn’t have an opinion either way. Not being particularly feminine myself I just naturally dressed Daisy in trousers – not because i took a stand on dresses, but because they were more practical. But one day, literally one day, Daisy woke up with a pink fettish and an obsession for dressses (at one stage, she would only wear pink and no other colour). I was slightly alarmed but went with the flow – this after all was what she wanted and this made her happy. She loves to feel pretty, it makes her feel good, and for her pretty is a dress (at least now she’ll wear other colours, and occassionally a pair of leggings). Poppy hasn’t seemed to develop the same obsession and likes both dresses and trousers, pink and other colours (although her favourite is orange). We live in a society where – like it or not – Boys look at girls. All we can do is make sure our girls are strong and confident, sassy and smart and know how to take it, and how to give as good as they get. Daisy is now at Pre-school and has decided she doesn’t like boys – no doubt she’ll change her mind next week. Oh and she wants to marry her best friend Mia. Girls are girls, boys are boys, and sometimes children are just children, whatever their gender. I guess that is the important thing to remember.

  5. 18th September 2009 / 6:04 pm

    @Alana – it’s not so much a reluctance to have a prissy or girlie girl – more a reluctance to have her freedom of choice restricted by someone who basically just wants to sell some plastic crap or other. Flea’s 4 now, and hasn’t hit a dress phase, yet, but if she does, that’s fine – I just want her to have real choices.
    @Cecilia – Think Geek has a great kids’ t-shirt with a “self rescuing princess” motto on the front – perhaps you should get one for your little girl!
    @Kassia – excellent points, I hope Flea follows the example of your girls.
    @Carole – your poor boys! I suspect boys getting married would be less of an issue in school if we still lived in Brighton, mind you…

  6. 18th September 2009 / 10:21 pm

    I wanted Amy to be a tom boy, but either genetics or cultural pressure or a combination of the two proved my undoing.
    Mind you, the only reason I wanted her to be a tom boy was so I’d have someone to watch superhero cartoons with. So maybe it’s just karma punishing my shallowness,

  7. 18th September 2009 / 10:40 pm

    That’s such a tough one. My son used to love all things pink and girly. I used to take him to the shops in a dress and flowery shoes and a handbag (he chose them all in the shop). When he went to school, he was comfortable with all that for another year or so. Now he won’t even wear something with a pink stripe. He is so scared people will laugh at him. I know he still loves it all, but he refuses to have anyone notice. At home he will still dress up like a little princess, but I’m not even allowed to tell the mothers at school because he gets so embarrassed. It’s a minefield.

  8. 18th September 2009 / 10:58 pm

    Having had 2 boys, and having been a tomboy myself, I was, like you, a little appalled at the idea of all that pink glittery princessy sparkly yeuuurgh. But my daughter was very much into that (and I definitely didn’t encourage her). She is growing out of it now, and starting school has hurried that along – kind of the opposite to your experience with Flea.
    I just went with it. She always had plenty of boy toys around anyway, and I didn’t want to prevent her having pink dress-up stuff, or fairy wands, or Barbies, or tiaras, if she wanted them. I often talk to her about it all, though, and how it’s fine for girls to wear blue and have short hair, and how princesses are just in stories, and these days girls grow up to have interesting jobs and not have to sit around in a boring palace all day.

  9. 19th September 2009 / 12:43 pm

    Alas, my attempts at avoiding gender stereotyping has gone wildly astray. With NO encouragement from me all Kai wants to do is play with his cars and diggers and chase balls round and wrestle with daddy. And, god damn it, the boy doesn’t half look gorgeous in blue.
    However, despite his desperate love for all things macho I do try. I don’t want Kai to grow up thinking he has to be a rowdy macho boy – that it’s also ok to be sensitive, or arty or WHATEVER he chooses to be. So I do try to fill his life with as much ’balance’ as I can manage so he’ll grow up free to develop in whichever way he chooses.
    I’ve always avoided buying anything too gender specific, picking gender-neutral colours for things like baby equipment and toys, favouring lots of animal things rather than football, trains etc. This is partly for practicality’s sake though. We really hope to have a little girl one day and plan to re-use a lot of stuff. This will include Kai’s clothes for the most part so future-girl will end up wearing as many jeans and tee-shirt combos as she does pretty dresses.
    I have to say though I would really struggle having a girly girl. I am a very, very long way from a stereotypical girl and have to admit the thought of Disney princesses and Hannah Montana (even through her own choice) fills me with horror. Maybe boys are safer??!
    One thing I hope will be a hugely positive influence on Kai in terms of gender perception is his family. Not one of my family members really ‘fit’ a gender stereotype being pretty much every personality and sexuality under the sun. My brother and I were given the freedom from stereotypes growing up – my abiding memories of my brother (who is still deliciously camp) is him prancing round in his favourite ensemble of a faux leopard fur coat, skirt and fancy hat. I hope I can give Kai the same gift of freedom and choice.
    (Wow that was an essay! Sorry!) x

  10. 19th September 2009 / 9:35 pm

    The thing we have to be careful about is not making our daughters (and sons!) feel that girly stuff is ‘bad’ or ‘undesirable’ somehow. Because even though we, as adults, know that what we’re trying to do is make sure our girls know that they can do and be more than just a pretty face in a pretty, pink dress, kids are much more black-and-white about things and if they pick up from us that we consider things traditionally associated with girls (like dolls and pink and princesses, etc..) to be worthy or scorn or derision, they might internalise that to mean that things traditionally (or stereotypically) ‘feminine’ are not as good or worthy as things that are considered boyish or masculine, and that may eventually affect their outlook on motherhood, the role of nurturing, etc.. which isn’t really a desirable outcome either.
    Also, I don’t know how comfy I am with the term ‘tomboy’ because it might say to a girl that if she does anything that is not defined as ‘girly’ then she is, essentially, just trying to be like a boy. Girls can be rough-and-tumble, into science, climb trees, and hate pink without necessarily trying to emulate boys. Being into those things as a girl isn’t some kind of purposeful statement against femininity and I think that the term ‘tomboy’ adds to that idea and perpetuates the belief that girls who act like boys are doing just that — acting — and will eventually have to succumb to the roles and actions that biology has already dictated.
    I’m sorry if that made no sense, I’m trying to multitask while eating my dinner and watching tv right now so I’m not explaining myself very well! At any rate, I’ve found myself doing the same things as I’ve desribed above but am trying to make a conscious effort to move away from them.

  11. 19th September 2009 / 10:21 pm

    Some really interesting comments – it’s good to know other people struggle with these ideas, too.
    @Dan – yes, that’s karma.
    @Mwa – yes, I often think it’s even harder for boys. I had a friend whose little boy was desperate for a pushchair (you know they all go through that phase of loving to push things) but his Dad wasn’t at all comfortable with the idea.
    @Iota – sounds like a healthy approach.
    @Josie – yes, I think lots of kids benefit from that kind of “it’ll do for two kids” approach – you don’t want too much pink and frilly, do you?!
    @Noble Savage – Agreed, it’s important to let kids find their own way. Hence I’ve always said “you can do or wear whatever you like”. It’s not that I don’t want her to be girlie (although I’m not) it’s more that I don’t want to limit her choices.
    In fact, the only “girlie” thing I absolutely forbid her from doing is that scream thing that some little girls to – I just can’t cope with the pitch of it. From an early age, I’ve told her that only stupid kids who can’t speak make that noise and she is never to do it. I know this is not textbook parenting, but I just cannot abide that noise!

  12. 20th September 2009 / 8:40 pm

    I have two boys and they have been offered all sorts of toys to play with and there are plenty more to choose from at Playgroup. They both love to push vehicles along. In fact, if there are no vehicles handy they will push anything along the floor.
    My two year old also loves to push a pushchair around at Playgroup, he used to have long hair so the ‘other mothers’ would give him (and me) disapproving looks.
    I hadn’t realised how relaxed we were about gender until my Mum came with us to Softplay. P was happily driving around in a car when my Mum took him out and placed him in a different car. The reason? He was in a pink car!
    I don’t know why almost everything you buy for children has to have a gender. Why do toys have to be pink or blue, princesses or robots?
    Also why are clothes gender specific? Children are the same size at age two, aren’t they?

  13. 20th September 2009 / 8:42 pm

    I really agree with what Noble Savage said – it’s really hard to find the balance whereby we don’t inadvertantly stereotype one particular outlook (prissy, or tomboy) as a negative. with any luck, girls should develop both aspects – Daisy is a princess through and through – in fact changes into her princess outfit evry day she coms hoem from pre-school – luckily the long skirts hide the cuts and bruises on her legs from her antics up trees, bouncing on anything that is over 3 feet high, digging up slugs and snails and generally being as ‘traditionally’ unfeminine as possible. Hooray to both I say – she get shte best of all worlds.

  14. 20th September 2009 / 11:00 pm

    It’s good to know that I am not alone in my determination not to stereotype my daughter. It’s so frustrating that toys and clothes are marketed in such a silly and gender specific way, but it is all about marketing. I find it annoying when people assume my daughter is a boy unless she is head to toe in pink. I agreee that the important thing is to give our girls choices. At 2 1/2 CJ is already talking about things being for boys or girls. She must have picked this up from playmates, certainly not from me, so I just make sure that I emphasise that there’s no such thing. Apart from when it comes to toilets. She refuses to let her Dad take her to the mens loo and I can’t say I blame her!

  15. 21st September 2009 / 5:22 pm

    I have 3 girls and a son all pretty well grown up now. The girls all went through a tomboy stage – my youngest only moved from tom boy/ sporty girl to girly girl in the last couple of years. My son enjoyed playing with dolls and all his older sisters friends till he went to school but then became football mad and that was it. I have no idea whether it is what is genetic or what is programmed into them really. I guess as long as they get the opportunity to play with a variety of different toys and have the opportunity to experience a range of activities that is the important thing.

  16. 21st September 2009 / 10:42 pm

    My daughter, who’s just 4, is in the middle of the pink phase (complete with princesses and kittens). Like Iota, we’ve talked a lot about how princesses are just in stories, and tried to give her other things to think about as well (her father’s kindled a deep love of Thunderbirds and 1970s/80s music, for example).
    Thankfully, horse obsession appears to have hit, so we may yet escape the tyranny of pink. Although allowing her to watch Strictly Come Dancing may be my downfall…I can just see the sequin bill!

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