Why I Don’t Like Being Called A ‘Gender Neutral Parent’

Asking for an end to gender specific marketing doesn’t equal asking for gender neutrality. Asking for trucks to be called trucks, not boys’ toys, or for all colors to be open to everyone, is just asking for fairness.

When I became pregnant in my late 30s and began to visit stores aimed at new parents, I was shocked to realize that feminism seemed to be in reverse. Baby clothes for girls were all about pink princesses, while boys clothing tended to darker colors decorated with vehicle or dinosaur motifs. Toys were divided into stereotypical boy and girl lines, with signs telling customers that science, tech, and battle toys were for boys while girls were all about prettiness and domesticity. I felt sure it should be easier to find unisex products than when I was growing up, but it was clear that the stuff of my seventies and eighties childhood was a feminist dream compared to what’s being offered to modern day children.

The precious new human being I was bringing into the world would, judging by the merchandise and media I was seeing through new eyes, be bombarded from birth with the message that her worth depended above all, on her prettiness. My daughter’s early childhood coincided with the rise of social media, and by the time she was 5, I had helped to set up an online campaign that asked the toy industry to stop segregating children’s toys.

With the aid of social media support, surveys, petitions, and meetings with retailers, the Let Toys Be Toys campaign has helped persuade 14 U.K. retailers to remove in-store boy and girl signage, make changes to packaging, and drop online gender filters. Ten publishers have agreed to remove boy and girl labels from books, the campaign has made headlines worldwide, worked with similar campaigns in other countries, and won international awards.

I’ve been interviewed many times and often seen myself and other campaigners described as “gender neutral parents,” but I really don’t like the term “gender neutral.” And I’ve found that almost everyone I’ve asked, who support or campaign for gender equality, also dislikes it.

Let Toys Be Toys successes have meant wide media coverage, but some commentators will deliberately miss the point and try to represent campaigners as fanatics who want to ban pink, or force boys to play with dolls. By calling us “gender-neutralists,” opponents paint parents who want the best for their children as extremists. They use the term gender-neutral to suggest that our children live a dull, beige, “genderless” existence.

How disingenuous to label people who raise their children in a spirit of fun and freedom, with a term that evokes an image of bland extremism. These commentators don’t want to see campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys associated with mainstream, common sense parenting. It seems they’d prefer children’s interests to be proscribed by big business, using archaic stereotypes, than allow children to explore their own identities.

The term “gender neutral” aids the portrayal of equality campaigners as politically correct oppressors, when in fact it is oppression that we are fighting against. Sexual oppression begins in childhood, when children are pressured into fitting into restrictive, mutually exclusive ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl; pink or blue, trucks or dolls, active or passive.

Gender neutrality is presented as a new, possibly scary, trend, when the new trend is, in fact, the increasing pink/blue divide, which campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys are a reaction against. Everyone wants the best for their children. Most parents would say they want their daughters to have the same opportunities as their sons, and while many find it more difficult when boys cross the gender divide, the popularity of hashtags like #caringboys, #stillaboy, and #aboycantoo prove there’s a big demand for change.

Fighting stereotypes does not make me a gender neutral parent. I’m not raising a gender neutral child. My daughter is a girl. She’s a girl with a variety of interests, from remote control cars, tree climbing, and kicking a ball about, to kittens, Jaqueline Wilson novels, and sparkly crafts. None of these things are boys’ interests or girls’ interests, despite being assigned as such by businesses looking to segregate and profit.

Asking for an end to gender specific marketing doesn’t equal asking for gender neutrality. Asking for trucks to be called trucks, not boys’ toys, or for all colors to be open to everyone, is just asking for fairness.

Nobody wants beige building blocks for all, use every color, but stop aiming building toys at boys and then saying girls need a special pink version. Dinosaurs on T-shirts are great, just stop putting them under a boys sign. Let toys, clothes, and media have universal appeal instead of targeting one gender, in a way that encourages differences and promotes harmful gender stereotypes. Stop telling children what they should like and how they should be, based on whether they are a boy or a girl. Let them work out for themselves the things they like, without pushing ideas about gender onto them.

I don’t call myself a gender neutral parent. Rejecting traditional notions of what gender means doesn’t make me, or the things I buy, neutral. It just means that my idea of a girl is different to corporate ideas about girls. Children don’t fit into stereotypes. I raise my daughter to let her know that she can like anything and that if anyone says, (or if it’s suggested by marketing), that some interests are not for her, then they’re wrong. Children’s interests are not defined by their gender, and girls and boys are more alike than they are different.

Tricia Lowther is a freelance writer and campaigner from the UK. She writes about parenting, feminism, and books and has been published by Bitch Media, New Statesman, and Writer’s Forum amongst others. She helped found the campaign group Let Toys Be Toys who have persuaded several major UK retailers to stop selling toys under ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signs.

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