How far have we come when it comes to gender stereotypes? Not far enough it seems, and not by a long way, as gender stereotyping in advertising is very much alive and well in the 21st century.
A recent BBC article has highlighted which ads have received complaints over their sexism. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has supplied a list of offenders in advance of it introducing new guidelines next year, designed to crack down on ads that reinforce stereotypical gender roles, or that mock those who don’t conform to these roles.
The ASA’s examples include an ad for baby formula that has two boys growing up to be an engineer and mountaineer, and a girl becoming a ballerina. While the ad received complaints, the ASA didn’t feel it had the grounds for a formal investigation.
The danger of gender stereotyping in advertising is that it’s somehow seen as non-threatening, or trivial, when in fact it’s deeply harmful, and reflects badly on the sort of modern society we claim to be. At Kidult and Co we want to break the mould and blur the boundaries with a fashion range of kids’ unisex clothing; we think it’s important, because gender stereotyping sets limits on children’s futures.
Gender Stereotypes Then and Now
There’s a nostalgic view of a “golden age” of certainty, conjuring up images of contented housewives, pipe-smoking husbands as sole breadwinners, and their happy children: typically, one girl and one boy. The girl plays with dolls, complete with doll’s house, and a tea set. The boy plays outdoors, with a football, climbing trees, or indoors with his Meccano set, or Airfix models.
Now, you might think we’ve left all this behind, when in fact we’ve simply updated it. In fact, in many ways the stereotypes are more damaging because they have a wider reach, and they’re subtler.
Another of the ads that made the ASA list was for kids’ clothes, where the boy was described as a “little scholar”, and the girl as “the social butterfly”. You get the idea – the boy’s destined for a future as an intellectual, the girl as someone who flits around parties making small-talk. In the ad, what the kids are wearing reinforces this gender stereotyping; the boy sports an Albert Einstein t-shirt, the girl a pair of sparkling cat’s ears.
It’s not as obvious as blue for a boy and pink for a girl, but in many ways, it’s worse, because it presupposes that their interests will be so far apart. However playful, the boy has Einstein to idolise, while the girl relies on her cat’s ears to make her fit in.
Why Gender Stereotypes Matter
It’s about far more than the clothes or the imagery. Society often works at confining people’s behaviour along gender lines, from as early as birth. Why should they be confined, if we’re all supposed to be equal?
For young children, they do not have the choice – adults choose the toys and clothes they have for them, and advertisers help them to make these choices. This can mean that for many kids, the idea they have of what society expects of them becomes ingrained from a very early age, and affects their behaviour in turn. To this extent, gender stereotypes can become self-limiting for many people.
The evidence of how gender stereotyping has a bad effect on people, and on the society in which they, and we, live, is everywhere. The gender pay gap is still with us, as recent headlines about the BBC have shown. Women continue to be under-represented on executive boards, and in entire sectors such as engineering, technology and science.
Boys are more likely to be excluded from school and are more likely to enter the prison or youth offender system. Girls are more likely to suffer from some form of eating disorder – though this is creeping up for boys, which is hardly a sign of progress.
There is still widespread bullying in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity. There are set ideas about how girls and boys, and women and men, should behave, and people who don’t conform to these views can find themselves victims to discrimination, denigration and harassment.
What Can We Do About It?
You might think that kids’ clothes are a relatively minor consideration when it comes to the whole issue of gender discrimination and how to change it. However, we think that much change comes from the grassroots, from real people taking their own action to make a positive difference.
As we said earlier, kids generally don’t choose what they wear, because adults do if for them. But these clothes can help shape who they are and who they become. So, at Kidult and Co, we’re committed to gender neutral kids’ clothing – designs that are minimal and monochrome, but that’ll resonate with the children wearing them, and with their mums and dads.
Clothes for kids should have personality, and they should be comfortable, washable and wearable. At the same time, we want the kids wearing them to have fun by being themselves.
And fortunately, we’re not alone in our goals. Other people are working hard for change too when it comes to making gender stereotyping a thing of the past. The Pinkstinks campaign targets advertising, the media in general, and products that pigeonhole girls in stereotyped roles. The Pinkstinks campaigners are vigilant, critical when they need to be, but also encouraging where organisations have taken clear steps to make changes.
The ASA is promising to crack down on ads featuring stereotypical gender roles, but the real change will come from the choices people make. That’s why, here at Kidult and Co, we want people to think about the clothes they’re buying for their kids, to stop and consider their choices and what sort of impact they might have on their future development.
We’ve got a whole range of bold, minimal kids’ clothing designs – our Playtime and Signature collections – because choice is so important to us.
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Why not give your kids the freedom to be themselves, with a little help from us?