Children can be comically fierce in their ideas of which toys are or aren’t appropriate: “It’s for babies!” or “It’s for girls!” they will insist. But when, on a recent visit to a toy shop, Emma Moore’s daughter announced that farm animals were for boys, Emma was disappointed.
“All the signage was blue and there was a boy playing there,” says Emma, 40, and the mother of two daughters.
Other parents might just roll their eyes and move on, but not Emma. “When I had a second girl, the onslaught of pink rubbish piling into my house, and all the slogans, ‘Daddy’s little princess’ and so on, became even more noticeable,” she says. She and her twin sister Abi, who has two boys, were so angry about the gender division of children’s toys promoted by retailers that they decided to act.
The result was Pinkstinks, a campaign they set up four years ago to raise awareness of what they say is damaging gender stereotyping of children, and which this week won a Mumsnet-sponsored award for promoting body confidence in children. The sisters say they are thrilled, partly because they thought they were too radical for Mumsnet, but also because the accolade coincides with the launch of Slap, their new campaign, which is aimed at challenging the increasing tendency to target makeup at little girls.
Emma and Abi grew up in south-east London, not far from where they live now, and although their mother was active in the women’s movement and their stepfather was a Labour parliamentary candidate, no one expected the sisters to become activists. When they started Pinkstinks, “It was really challenging within our own family as well as in the wider world,” says Emma, who jokes about mothers running away from her at the school gate, presumably because she makes them feel awkward.
“Some of the presents Mum had given my daughters, I was like, really? A pink, plastic Disney castle? Are you sure?” she says. Abi chips in: “Vast swathes of people have accepted all this stuff as normal, and when we started questioning it, we were questioning ourselves as well.”
As the mother of two girls myself, I find this reassuring. We have pink duvet covers, pink scooters and a pink plastic piano. And when Emma describes, in a voice filled with scorn, sequin-covered trainers that come with a wand you pass over them to make a “brrring!” sound, I catch myself thinking they sound fun. This may show a lack of taste on my part, but I have chosen to go with the flow because I think disdain for mass-marketed pink plastic and cheap fashion often comes with a whiff of snobbery.
“I think it crosses class. I’ve been to extremely middle-class birthday parties that have been as pink, fluffy and ridiculous as any,” says Emma.
Their first targeted campaign, in December 2009, attacked the pink/blue colour-coding system used by the Early Learning Centre. Their outrage struck a chord, and they quickly found themselves on breakfast television and in newspapers around the world. “Would you put your son in a fairy dress? Why not”? one radio host asked them, while broadcaster Nina Myskow squared up to them on TV dressed in pink. The sisters say neither could have done it on her own. “You’ve got to be so strong to use your voice,” says Abi.
The sisters run Pinkstinks alongside their day jobs: Emma works for a health research company and Abi is a film-maker, working mainly for charities. Two volunteers have been recruited to keep an eye on social media, but otherwise this is it: two working mothers talking in the evenings via Skype. But they are influential. They have followings on Facebook and Twitter, and John Lewis and Marks & Spencer have responded quickly to criticism, removing a “girls” label from a pink Playmobil set and a “boys” label from a science kit.
We meet in Abi’s terraced house, where the table is covered with catalogues of children’s toys and clothing they use as props, showing me their least favourite items. A pink globe is Abi’s “most hated thing. The sea and the land and the girl and absolutely everything is pink.”
When they started campaigning, they were concerned that brightly coloured “boys” toys tended to focus on work and outdoor activity, while pink “girls” things were domestic and homely. But about a year ago they noticed a change of emphasis. Emma’s daughter Rebecca, then four, was given a makeup compact in a party bag. Emma threw it in the bin, but soon they began to see makeup everywhere, some of it labelled for girls as young as two and three.
“Girls’ toys are now very much about being in front of a mirror. Beauty parlours, makeup, brushing your hair,” Abi says, pointing to a catalogue featuring toddlers in a pink bedroom scene, hair dryers and vanity cases on the dressing table. Emma says: “Think for one minute about sitting your three-year-old down at one of these beauty tables and giving her a makeup set. What is that telling her? By the time she’s 16 or 17 she wants a boob job, her bum done, her vagina vajazzled.”
Slap, Pinkstinks’ newest campaign, calls on retailers to move makeup out of the pre-school bracket and to stop giving it away free with other products. But the campaign also, and less comfortably, targets parents who, Emma says, “must start thinking more about this, because if this isn’t the sexualisation of children, I don’t know what is.”
It is not just the mothers of girls who need to be aware of the trend, says Abi: “I don’t want my sons growing up in a world where they have a one-dimensional view of women, where Cheryl Cole, or whoever, is what we should all aspire to. No offence to Cheryl.”
Abi watches women’s football with her sons and makes a point of seeing films where the main characters are girls. The Golden Compass, an adaptation of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, is a favourite and she is looking forward to the forthcoming Brave – the first Pixar film with a female lead.
But while both women agree that boys, too, can be badly affected by the limited roles on offer, they see girls as the main victims. “We’re going backwards,” says Emma. “It’s all about looking hot,” says Abi, “there are teenage girls who will not leave the house without a full face of makeup on.”
Further information: Pinkstinks.org.uk