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Artillery Row

The progressive defence of stereotypes

How the feminist campaign against the gender binary was subverted

Around a decade ago, people opposed to the rise of gender stereotyping in children’s toys started sharing a flow chart. The title was “How to tell if a toy is for boys or girls: A Guide”. Beneath it was the question “do you operate the toy with your genitalia?”. If you answered yes, you were told “it is not for children”. A “no” received “it is for either boys or girls”.

Back then, it all seemed relatively straightforward. More and more parents were criticising the way in which toy companies were using sexism to sell more products. I wrote about this myself; some of the most organised resistance started on sites such as Mumsnet. For a while, it felt as though something positive might emerge — no more pink/blue binaries, but a world in which, to quote Mariane Grabrucker’s 1984 book There’s a Good Girl, we might see an end to “the selective perception of what a girl or boy does or is allowed to do”. 

It’s strange to think of it now, not least given how many of us who spoke loudest suddenly find ourselves smeared as “terfs” and gender essentialists by people who claimed to be on our side. To those who have now moved on to embracing gender ideology, the problem isn’t the way in which some toys are needlessly coded as “feminine”, others as “masculine” — at least not any more. That sort of feminism — the feminism of the bleeding obvious — is old hat. The new, more sophisticated reading of the problem is that a child’s genitalia does not indicate which toys — the masculine or the feminine ones — that child should like. On the other hand, the toys a child likes could well be an indicator of the body they ought to have, the puberty they ought to go through, the stereotypes they ought to embrace. 

Somewhat irritatingly for those who have got on board with this new way of thinking, it looks suspiciously like the same old sexism, only flipped around. Don’t change your masculine- or feminine-coded interests to match your sexed body! Change your sexed body to match your interests! (The boring, old-style feminist line having been “you don’t need to change anything at all”.) People will insist this isn’t what they’re actually saying. God, no! Where could you possibly have got that idea? They are insistent that the concept of gender identity — which is wholly reliant on gender stereotypes — is completely compatible with a feminism that rejects said stereotypes. It is, to put it mildly, a bit of a headfuck (which can easily be mistaken for something very clever, on the basis that it doesn’t make any sense at all). 

Nonetheless, perhaps some progress is being made. Last week it was announced that major retailers in California will be legally required to have gender-neutral toy aisles. Evan Low, who proposed the bill, has said it will “help children express themselves freely and without bias”. From a feminist perspective, this sounds great. Finally! Let’s start chipping away at all those messages girls receive about who and what they can be! Maybe one day we’ll even start on porn! Only there’s a catch. As the Hill reports, “stores which already have gender-focused toy areas won’t have to get rid of them but instead add a toy section that would apply to children of any gender”. 

Is it just me, or does that not sound a bit of a swizz? Instead of retailers simply being asked to stop labelling things according to stereotypes (which surely one could do without even moving anything around), they’re being told to create an area for “neutral” toys (whatever they are). If a shop goes to all the trouble of creating this new space, doesn’t this reinforce the idea that the “boys’” toys really are only for boys, and the “girls’” toys really are only for girls? If there is such a thing as a gender-neutral toy, isn’t that every toy? If not, what are the criteria for exclusion? If we’re not abolishing the concept of gendered toys entirely, what is the actual point?

Naturally, the new law has annoyed conservatives, who view it as an authoritarian imposition of “modern” thinking on gender. To be honest, there is a bit of me that wonders whether that was the whole idea. If the beliefs that your side has espoused require you to simultaneously smash gender stereotypes and validate the pornified, stereotype-ridden gender identities of Dylan Mulvaney and Andrea Long Chu, you are in a bit of a pickle. The only way to demonstrate your progressive credentials on the gender front is by trolling the opposition, who are as sexist as you, but in a different way. You can then point to their sexism — look! They don’t like our new toy aisle! How silly! — and use it to imply this means you can’t be sexist too.

Naturally you will still have the old-style feminists claiming that both of you are wrong, but really, who cares? The way the current culture war functions is by pretending that these feminists either don’t exist or that they’re really the other side in disguise. For the two main sides, a genuine interest in ensuring children grow up free from oppressive ideas about what it is to be a boy or a girl has gone out of the window. Neither is ideologically permitted to support that, so instead each takes pot shots at the other then treats this as evidence that they’re the ones putting children first. 

Self-styled “progressives” know what sexism is, but also know that they cannot commit to its abolition, at least not without ending up in exile alongside the terfs. A world without sexism would ruin everyone’s porn! It would tread on the toes of too many authentic, special selves! As Martha Nussbaum wrote in her 1999 take-down of Judith Butler, “the act of subversion is so riveting, so sexy, that it is a bad dream to think that the world will actually get better. What a bore equality is! No bondage, no delight”. No princess dresses marketed specifically at little girls, no glittery, Mulvaney-approved girlhood! The most “progressives” can engage in is a kind of social justice busywork: look as though you’re interested in abolishing stereotypes, but don’t actually get anything done (beyond annoying the other side). 

Ten years ago, I thought we would be in a different place by now. It turns out I was wrong to think that just because some people understand sexism — and might even want to see an end to it — they can’t be persuaded that other, shinier, higher-status causes matter more. 

I still think the flow chart is right. I just expected others who agreed with it to have more integrity.

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