Gender and stereotyping

In about 1985, I went on holiday for about a week to Herefordshire with my first wife and my son, then two years old and walking. I like Herefordshire: it’s one of those easily-overlooked counties, and it has – or had – pubs which were beguilingly comfortable (old sofas everywhere). It was at a time when it was generally deemed everywhere that parents should strive, whatever the odds, to prevent their children growing up according to any stereotypes. I think there were actually some people who dressed boys in pink and girls in blue, but we didn’t go that far (speaking of which, it has always occurred to me that you could teach a dog to do exactly the opposite of what you say, i.e. to sit if you said ‘Lie down’ or to fetch if you said ‘Don’t get it’, but I promise I’ve never tried it). But we did avoid giving my son any fake armaments. I always felt a bit hypocritical about this, since I regularly carried a cap-pistol when I was a kid, and I have yet to shoot anyone, or even contemplate it. But the logic seemed right. Besides, I had actually spent a lot of my own childhood playing with my sister’s dolls and soft toys, even to the extent of naming most of them (I don’t think this was being in touch with my feminine side – it was more a case of my being bossy).

We went to Broadway, which is not in Herefordshire (I am beginning to wonder if I have mixed up my holidays here, but let’s not worry about inconsistency). Broadway is the most spotless place I have ever seen. It is so spotless that you feel almost driven to drop litter. We did what we always did on holiday: wander about, a bit aimlessly, with my son in tow. Rather justifiably, he spent his time looking into shop windows, in which shop-owners had cannily placed things at his height.

Suddenly, he stopped, and said ‘I want that.’ Since this was not uncommon, we probably gave him a tug or two, but he was most insistent. So we went back to see what it was that had caught his attention. And there it was, bright and pink and agreeably garish – a 50p hairdresser set, with curlers, tongs and so on and so forth.

It was a moment of great pride, of course. In his short life, our son had already absorbed the tenets of feminism and defied the huge cultural pantechnicon of television which had constantly attempted to run him off the straight and narrow path. It was with a certain pride that I went into the shop, and parted with the silver coin. I may even have made a smug remark to the shop assistant.

I came out of the shop, and handed the plastic case of styling equipment to my son, who must have been surprised by the speed with which his demand had been met.

He wasted no time. He reached into the pack and removed the toy hair-dryer, returning the rest to my wife. He held it for a moment, lovingly. And pointed it at a passer-by, shouting ‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’


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