Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Natural History: not just for boys!

Hat tip to Marianne for bringing this to my attention.

As a child I was lucky enough to grow up close enough to London's Natural History Museum to be regularly handed a Sainsburys carrier bag full of Capri Sun and small plastic cheeses, packed on a school bus and taken on trips to it. Once the car sickness and the lingering suspicion that Gareth had called me a rude word (even if I wasn't quite sure what it meant) had worn off it was always a thrilling experience.  Imagine if you will being a tiny child who not only thinks animals are THE BEST THING EVER but is slightly light headed from having been sick over Lara's pencil case on the journey in, walking into a building that looks like a fabulous fairytale castle to be greeted by a Diplodocus skeleton. I remember being awestruck by how thick the leg bones were, the sheer mass of these creatures I'd only seen in picture books suddenly becoming tangible, the blackened bones hinting at an age I can barely comprehend even now. It was magic.

Image from http://www.nhm.ac.uk/

It was also, as I was vaguely aware of even then, something that was supposed to be for boys. The books I'd first seen dinosaurs in, the Top Trumps dinosaur cards I played with, even my first microscope, were meant to be for my brother but were gradually appropriated, either stealthily or ocassionally with extreme violence.  But that was over two decades ago, and nowadays little girls are encouraged to have an interest in science and natural history right?

Unfortunately not.

The Natural History Museum has recently licensed Marks And Spencer to produce a range of children's clothes with its images of dinosaurs and insects on. They're pretty cool; I won't lie, if this T-shirt came in adult sizes I'd want one even if very few of the "bugs" on there are true bugs (I'm half-pedant, on my father's side).

Image from M&S 
Unfortunately I'm not just excluded from buying this on grounds of my age and theoretical maturity. The Natural History Museum range on the M&S website is marketed exclusively at boys. While there is of course nothing stopping anyone buying a boys' shirt for a girl or vice versa, segregating these t-shirts into gender categories not only means people browsing the M&S website for girls' clothes won't see them but also reinforces the subliminal message that dinosaurs and insects, that cool things that are fierce and messy, are for boys and not girls.

And quite franlkly that's just sad, that there's a whole fascinating area of the natural world that girls are slowly and steadily given the message isn't for them to experence. I've done a few public engagement events introducing children to insects, and one of the saddest realisations I've had doing this has been that there's not much difference in interest between boys and girls among primary school kids, but by secondary school the girls have learned that they're supposed to shriek and be disgusted and back away while the boys are still happy to investigate.

Image from Let Clothes Be Clothes

I'm not the only one annoyed about this. Let Clothes Be Clothes (the sister campaign of Let Toys Be Toys) has launched a petition to both M&S and the Natural History Museum, urging them to make this range available to children of all genders which I'd urge everyone reading this to sign. And to those who would argue that this is just an issue of "political correctness gone mad" and it's children themselves who exhibit these preferences, remember that it was a seven-year-old girl herself whose protests convinced the publishers of "The Baddest Book of Bugs for Boys" to change the title.

After all, probably the most famous dinosaur kids will encounter is herself female.


Anonymous said...

There are times when I think I was such a lucky child for not being fed this crap. I was bought a microscope and taken to the NHM and it never crossed my mind they weren't for me. And it kind of makes me downplay sexism that is there because 'it didn't happen to me'. But it's there. It was there then, and it's there now and there are probably a million other messages I absorbed that were not so positive.

Anonymous said...

The opposite problem exists for boys too. My son's favourite colour is pink. I can't stand it, but he loves it. However, unless I make him clothes, it's:
a) impossible to find clothes with pink marketed for boys (most time in high street shops you'll find a lot of blue in the "girls" section, but try finding a single thread of pink in the "boys") or
b) if you look at girls clothes as an option it's all hearts & flowers.... Literally hearts & flowers! My son is not a hearts & flowers type. He's a boy who likes cars, books, Pokemon, pink, Star Wars, cooking, Pirates, Lego etc. but if you look at kids clothes it says that it's only OK to like pink if you like the hearts & flowers stuff too.

I took one major fashion chain to task about this and they told me it's wasn't a gender based decision but apparently parent group research said there just wasn't the demand. I explained that I was de,a ding it. They still don't stock pink.

So yes, let's get rid of ALL this insane gender stereotyping of clothes and let kids be kids *grabs needles and starts furiously knitting a black & hot pink jumper*

Unknown said...

This is a fantastic summary - thank you so much for speaking out on this too. I have shared your blog on the Let Clothes be Clothes facebook page, and welcome any further comments on your experience and views.