We’re asking publishers to take the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ labels off books and Let Books Be Books.
Ever since the launch of the Let Toys Be Toys campaign supporters have been in touch highlighting the problem of books labelled as ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’. How can a story be only for a girl, or a sticker be just for a boy? It may be a successful marketing tactic to convince one segment of your target audience that a particular product is ‘just for them’. But we think it raises serious ethical questions. Children are listening, and they do take the messages about what’s ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’ quite seriously, as the stories our supporters have shared with us show.
Do we really want to tell children that certain stories are off-limits? That robots, trucks and adventure are strictly for the boys, and butterflies, cakes and friendship are girls-only themes?
We’re not leaving toys behind. Our Christmas 2013 survey showed that 20% of toyshops were still using ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ signs, so there’s still work to do. We need to make sure that retailers who have promised change follow through, and keep up the pressure on the dinosaurs, like WHSmith, which are still using these dated signs. And of course there are still big issues with the limiting messages given to children by toy packaging and advertising, and toys themselves.
Books are a really important part of childhood play, and activity and colouring books are of course toys in their own right.
We’re looking at books because it’s another area where explicit labelling of playthings ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’ is widespread and because of the amount of contact we received from supporters on this topic.
That’s making a massive assumption about what children actually do like. Real kids are a lot more interesting than one-dimensional stereotypes. Why can’t they like cars AND palaces, adventure AND friendship?
Separating stories and activities in this way sends harmful messages to children that only certain interests are acceptable, and also creates an unrealistic division between boys and girls. There is far more variety of personality and interests among boys or girls than there is between them.
But where does this demand start? Marketing is highly influential, else businesses wouldn’t do it. Segmenting your audience by gender – telling part of your audience that a certain product is ‘just for them’ – is a successful and growing marketing tactic. The gendered marketing of children’s books and toys has become so extreme that it starts to seem ‘normal’ for girls only to be offered princesses and fairies, and ‘normal’ to them only ever to ask for those themes.
Children aren’t able to understand marketing messages in the same way as adults. There is a real ethical problem with marketing techniques that promote limiting gender stereotypes of boys as active superheroes and girls as passive, decorative princesses. Responsible publishers, particularly those with an educational objectives, should not use them.
Firstly in many (if not most) cases, these books won’t be selected by children themselves, but chosen for them by adults. The wonderful range of books available can be daunting, and when it comes to buying for children we don’t know well (such as for children’s parties) there’s enormous social pressure to go for something stereotypical as a ‘safe’ choice.
This is about shopping habits and social norms, but these didn’t arise in a vacuum; marketing has a significant role in shaping them. Unfortunately, the marketing trend of ‘segmenting’ the boys and girls markets for toys and books sends children a harmful message that their interests are, or should be, entirely different.
Secondly, there’s no comparable data on the books that AREN’T bought because of gendered marketing, because shoppers don’t pick them for children who might enjoy them, or because children don’t pick them up, feeling that they’re ‘off limits’.
Thirdly, there isn’t always that much choice. Shoppers might not want a ‘Girls’ sticker book’, but if their child likes puppies, and that’s the one with the puppies in, they might well buy it.
People may well search for ‘books for boys’ or ‘books for girls’, but we needn’t assume that people starting with these search terms are necessarily seeking a package of lazy gender stereotypes. People search by gender because, often, for parties or extended family, they don’t know much else about the child they’re buying for and are searching for ideas. Choosing books isn’t easy: many children’s books are published every year, but few are reviewed. The Book People website, for example, stocks thousands of children’s titles, several hundred in each age category.
Even when a shopper puts the word ‘boys’ in a search engine, it doesn’t mean they are buying for a boy, as this quote from a supporter demonstrates; “I used to type in “boys” when shopping for girls, just because it was a neat shorthand for “normal toys minus the pink crap”.
Marketing has created a situation where buying by gender seems normal, but arbitrarily dividing children’s interests in this way doesn’t reflect reality, and limits children’s choices.
We can see the books that are sold by telling boys and girls their interests are different, what we can’t see is the reading that doesn’t happen because of this artificial division. The books left on the shelf because it didn’t occur to the buyer that the girl or boy they’re shopping for could like them. The books never read, because the reader believed they were ‘not for them’.
What of the reluctant reading boy, who is reluctant because he would prefer family or pony stories to snot and football, but daren’t pick up a ‘pink book’?
Learning to read is hard. Choosing books can be hard. It can’t help kids to know that the adult world has ‘rules’ about what they’re supposed to find interesting; rules that they have to second-guess or risk mockery. How many children decide not to pick up a book at all rather than risk getting it wrong?
We’re not asking for publishers to get rid of any of their books, but to remove ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’ labels when they reprint or commission new titles. And if the only thing holding a set of colouring pages or stories together is that they’re all stereotypically associated with girls or boys, then it might be time to come up with something more interesting or creative.
There’s nothing wrong in itself with a pirate or fairy themed activity book. The problem is the presentation of these themes as inevitably connected to one gender or the other. Girls can like pirates and adventure, boys can like magic and dressing up. Why tell them otherwise?
Many, but by no means all, publishers do have titles with these gender labels. We chose to highlight Buster Books, Igloo and Usborne because they are the ones our supporters have most commonly contacted us about. Usborne is an educational publisher, with a reputation for quality and many great, inclusive titles – we think these books really let them down.
We do think there are plenty of other issues with the way gender is used to sell books. Just as with toys, the ‘coding’ of something as ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ goes way beyond the visible use of those words. But explicitly labelling books in this way is the most extreme example, specifically excluding children from themes or stories that they might enjoy. We felt it was the right place to start, and a chance to raise wider discussion in the publishing industry.