pirate and princess party bags

Princess or Pirate – what’s wrong with mixed parties?

Princess or Pirate? Deborah Nicholls-Lee looks at the pink-blue divide in the children’s party market and asks why shops seem to think boys and girls aren’t friends?

Screenshot of party delights website with separate sections for boys parties and girls partiesMy daughter’s fifth birthday party is in just two weeks and we are in search of a theme. Her invitations have gone out to both boys and girls, and planning a party to suit everyone is proving more time-consuming than I had expected. This is largely because shops seem keen to gender their party merchandise, with a very narrow view of what boys and girls will enjoy.

Choose pink or blue, princess or pirate

As I search for party accessories, I am frustrated by the pink/blue split insisted on by supermarkets and online stores. I feel pushed towards organising a party for boys or a party for girls.

Gender_parties_kitsThe message is clear: girls like pink and boys like blue and neither the colours nor the sexes should be mixed.

As well as colour-coding, retailers also sell boys and girls quite different character themes for their parties. Asda, for example, offers a range of popular motifs (albeit colour-coded) but if you want to get a job lot of matching stuff, you’ll need to opt for the princess pack in pink or the pirate one in blue and red.

Parents looking for an easy life are again ushered into one of two stereotyped routes.

Boys and girls like all kinds of fun

It seems to me that this gendering of parties fails to cater to mixed friendship groups like my daughter’s. When Let Toys Be Toys asked supporters about parties, they were quick to share examples that show that the party themes that children find interesting cut across the gender divide, despite the restricted way in which they are marketed.

Sarah shared some of her successful party themes, which have included “Space, Pirate, Lego, Airplane, Bowling & Tank.” Enjoyed, she writes, by both boys and girls.

Gender_parties_themes2On my local parenting network, Lee writes: “My boy has asked for a Frozen party” and Abi says that her daughter “loves all things princess and Frozen but has requested a pirate party this year.”

The party bag dilemma

It was the party bags, however, which generated the most heated online discussion. Anecdotes of picking up the ‘wrong’ bag abounded and it seemed that it was the expectations of the adults which were key, rather than the preferences of the child.

“My son picked up a fairy party bag at a mixed party recently”, shared Jen. “He didn’t even notice – he was much more interested in the contents. He was very pleased with the beads, as well as the sweeties”. Interestingly, although the child was unworried, the party organiser was very concerned about the mix-up.

Almut also saw a negative reaction from a parent: “Friends of my son were all happy with their candy necklaces”, she writes, but one father picking up his son asked: “Isn’t that rather for girls?”

Samantha had a similar experience: “For my daughter’s 5th party everyone got Spiderman bags, as he’s her favourite superhero. Some mums (of girls) complained.”

In protest at this gendering of play and parties, some parents are beginning their own mini-campaigns by altering their shopping habits. Meg tweeted using the hashtag #partybygender: “I wanted to shop online with daughter for party supplies but websites so sexist, did it alone in the end”, and one parent looking for a party venue, wrote: “I’m only booking one without boys/girls bags.” Others had some great suggestions about simple party bag options to suit everyone, such as joke books.

The toys our children enjoy playing with do not fit neatly into blue or pink categories. Making assumptions about what’s suitable for boys and girls may feel like a socially safe option, but gender simply isn’t a good guide to what a child will enjoy.

Jen tells the story of a mixed party her child recently attended: “My daughter was very put out to be given a ‘girls’ party bag at a party recently. The party itself was probably 50-50 boys and girls, with an animal theme. But the party bags were pink fairies or blue pirates. She loves pirates and we’ve talked before about it not being OK for people to assume she doesn’t because she’s a girl, so it was tricky to explain that, this time, it would be rude to ask to swap bags. “The boys and girls had played together so well all through, (it was a lovely party!) it seemed such a shame to say at the last minute, ‘but you can’t possibly like the same things!’”

The single sex party business

With so many themes being targeted at boys or girls, it becomes much harder to organise a mixed party. Businesses like partyprincess.co.uk and gorgeousgirlsparty.com are examples of this trend. These parties can seem to magnify the difference between children and their classmates of the ‘opposite’ sex.


So what should you do if your child wants to invite girls to his Spiderman party or boys to her Princess bash? At princessamy.net, the solution is simple: “Have you invited boys to your party? Then Princess Amy can bring along her best friend, Pirate Rob.” Whether this is a solution to the problem or simply more stereotyping, there is certainly evidence online of a growing trend for ‘Princess and Pirate’ parties and the like.

Little boys and girls enjoy playing together. Marketing party products as if they occupy different worlds seems out of step with what children really want.

Let children play together

The problem remains: marketing which puts gender first puts children off playing with the same toys and also from playing together.

The party market dictates that boys and girls attend different parties or be bought different gifts. For a busy parent like me, trying to plan a simple party for an eclectic bunch of five year olds, it’s a struggle to find the time and resources to fight it.

As a result, I am still no further in my party planning. The wonderful variety of children’s interests seems at odds with the pink and blue categories shops are offering. Are my children really square pegs for round holes?

So long as shops insist on a narrow idea of gender identity and an artificial segregation of playmates according to their sex, theming your party for a ‘child’ rather than a gender stereotype will never be a straightforward task.

Thankfully, there is at least one thing of which I’m certain: all our little guests like birthday cake.

Now, what colour should we ice it…?



  1. AP

    You say: ‘So long as shops insist on a narrow idea of gender identity and an artificial segregation of playmates according to their sex, theming your party for a ‘child’ rather than a gender stereotype will never be a straightforward task.’ However, the evidence you’re citing is that it is other parents who are enforcing gender roles. This begs the question of whether shops can actually force parents to engage in the gender-policing of their own (and other people’s?) children, or whether different kinds of campaigns are needed to address this problem. Is it the case that many adults just don’t think, and their unconscious sexism and homophobia are betrayed in their dealings with children in a way that they would perhaps be careful to avoid in adult contexts? Or is it a darker and more conscious desire to control their children’s identities: a viciousness in limiting girls – the same kind of spite about other women that sells women’s magazines – and a perverted pleasure in elevating their sons above girls’ things? This is something our culture has barely begun to address – the projection of anxieties about gender equality, socialisation, sexuality, the plasticity of the human brain, and much else, on to children.

    What is really needed is a systematic and nationwide education of parents, possibly through schools and nurseries, and ideally beginning in antenatal groups, when future parents should be encouraged to think very seriously about the way that they think about the gender of their baby and what effect it will have. Is this something that Let Toys Be Toys could lobby for, or are there other groups better suited. After all, those who think women must breastfeed are given a huge platform in antenatal groups, and rigid gendering of children is far more of a problem for children and the adults they’ll become than the relatively trivial issue of whether they had breastmilk or formula as babies.

    Whether parents are willing to take on ideas about gender socialisation, with all the need for constant self-awareness and challenging of social pressures, is, in my view, the acid test of whether they actually care about their children as human beings. I would like to see it presented in these stark terms far more often.

  2. How about Princesses and Princes for a Princess party with boys?

  3. AP

    Or a Republican party, which doesn’t involve negotiating outdated gender roles, trying to empower women who basically exist to fulfil the sexual/procreative demands of male royals, or glorifying the people who make the UK’s drastic levels of inequality seem glamorous to the unreflecting? I don’t remember anyone dressing up as princesses or having princess parties in the 1970s and 80s. Could there be some connection between nostalgia for monarchy and the way that the people who run our country would like everyone to turn on the poorest people in our society rather than critiquing and stopping the steady flow of our money into the pockets to the 1%? If you want to bring up sane, moral, and politically aware children, get them away from the mind-numbing nonsense that is royalty and throw them parties where they have adventures, challenge the status quo, chose their own roles… Why do they have to dress up, anyway? Why can’t they go in jeans and run around and play without worrying about their costumes?

  4. Monica

    I have never seen the need to spend so much money on paper plates and napkins and decorations like this…. you can always do a theme yourself and not have to spend so much money on the pre packaged stuff anyways.

  5. Tony

    I’m fed up with the endless “princess & pirate” parties with the copycat invitations, paper plates, decorations and party bags. So my daughter’s 4 1/2 birthday party (don’t ask!) is to be a pyjama party. We made the invitations in 10 minutes on the computer. Lunch will be in bright coloured boxes. Entertainment will be by Music Mike (not a princess in sight) and party bags will contain bath crayons, bath toys and flannels (continuing the bedtime theme). I predict a fun, gender neutral party and all it takes is a bit of imagination and being prepared to step outside the norm.

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