Hamleys campaign: Part 2 – reflections

// 24 December 2011

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A photograph of the entrance to some toilets. On the left is a blue lit door, and on the right a pink lit door. Each has a familiar male / female symbols on. This is a guest post by Dr Laura Nelson. It follows Part 1, published yesterday.

When Hamleys ditched its gender signs, the story blew up like a bomb going off.

It is now more than a week since the media whirlwind began, and a good time for me to reflect on the campaign. As media coverage continues to trickle out, gradually subsides, and morphs into other debates, I have been mulling over what happened. Why did it work so well? What can we learn for future campaigns?

The first point to note is the astonishing amount of media coverage. So much attention is unusual for a gender equality story. Feminism exists to expose invisible injustices, and, by its nature, feminism often goes unnoticed too.

The second point of interest is the huge amount of resistance and controversy this story created. People were intrigued, horrified and angry. They wanted to swear and rant. They thought I was mad – or a menace. Controversy sells. This no doubt explains the point above.

I am no stranger to resistance. I have been writing a political blog [http://delilah-mj.blogspot.com] for two years, and – like many other feminist bloggers – I have learned to brush off the trolls like flies on a hot day. Resistance means I have got to the people who matter.

Over the course of writing the blog and interacting with my readership, I have noticed the argument always seems to arrive at the same place. This is the crux: are men and women fundamentally (biologically) different in terms of cognitive (thinking and reasoning) abilities? If yes, sexism can be justified. If not, it can’t.

Many scientific studies have been carried out in this area. They are notoriously difficult to carry out and notoriously difficult to repeat. As yet, there is no scientific consensus that boys and girls are born with differences in aspirations and cognitive abilities, such as problem-solving. Conversely, environmental conditioning is much more likely to affect skill development.

The conditioning by children’s toys – and the segregation of toys in shops – is insidious. Gender stereotypes are highly influential and pervasive, and influence children’s and parents’ choices, aspirations and expectations. Instead of encouraging children to pursue activities according to their individual talents and interests, they encourage children to pursue a narrow range of activities, consistent with stereotypes we see in our society generally (women in passive, caring and homemaking roles; men in active, leading and aggressive roles).

Challenging the segregation of Hamleys toys is therefore at the heart of the nature-nurture issue, and pivotal in feminist debates. At the same time, the upholding of gender stereotypes, and beliefs that men and women, and boys and girls, should behave in certain ways, are strongly ingrained in our society. This means that the debate is always heated. The Hamleys story was loaded with gunpowder. It was a winning formula. When it blew up, the shots went everywhere.

There are other factors too. For a campaign to work, it has to be more than just a good idea.

The first essential factor is support. I learned that this is one of the most important aspects of a campaign; I could not have done what I did without a core of supporters and I am grateful to them. People who backed me up, retweeted, suggested ideas. Many other feminists who have written and campaigned on this issue and continue to make a difference. Friends who sent me messages and called me, during the media deluge, to check in.

The second is strategy. Timing is vital. Planning and communication are key. I will do even more of this next time. The skill is to put in place everything beforehand so it is ready to go off all at once – like putting a match to a dry pile of sticks. Whoosh.

Third, I have realised the importance of courage; of acting despite moments of doubt. In the few weeks before I wrote the letter, I was unsure whether to proceed. I felt the same as when I had once perched on the edge of a cliff, about to jump off with a hang glider. In the end, I reached the ground safely, and I had a brilliant view along the way.

I’m glad I did the campaign, and even more glad it worked and has opened up debate. I will have a content Christmas, knowing the presents children receive may be a little less restricted than they used to be.

[The image is a photograph of the entrance to some toilets. On the left is a blue lit door, and on the right a pink lit door. Each has a familiar male / female symbols on. It was taken by Michael Coghlan and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]

Comments From You

Shadow // Posted 25 December 2011 at 11:57 am

Challenging male supremacist system’s claims that women are from Venus and men are from Mars automatically creates widespread hysterical responses because the myth women and men are diametrically opposite is crucial to male maintenance of female oppression.

If women and men are indeed totally different creatures then this supposed ‘naturalness’ cannot be challenged or changed and indeed male supremacist system cannot be eliminated. That is why so many men and women too, were so angry that this campaign was challenging their beliefs women are different to men.

Male Supremacist system has maintained its hold over women for centuries because default human is supposedly male and it is men’s views; claims which are widely accepted as default human ones.

Then too the various factors you listed such as a support network; timing; having excellent planning etc. are what makes an effective campaign. First Wave Feminists swiftly learned how to organise and strategise and yet we continue to believe we are the first ones to create effective campaigns. We are not because these lessons continue to be lost and male supremacist system works overtime to eradicate this knowledge.

But at its core is the continued widespread belief the status quo is fine and any attempt at showing ‘The Emperor is not wearing any clothes’ causes widespread anger because men do not want these facts to be common knowledge.

Misogyny and male contempt for women and girls continues to be justified as evidenced by campaign calling for Hamleys to end their systemic labelling of ‘girl only toys’ and ‘boy only toys.’ It is political and that is what feminism is all about the naming of how male domination over women is a political system created by men to justify and maintain male domination over all women.

Well done for creating a very successful campaign and it wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t an excellent support network in place. Individual women do not represent a challenge to male dominated systems but women together can and do overturn male supremacist notions male is default human and his views are the supposed ‘facts and truths.’

Cycleboy // Posted 26 December 2011 at 10:09 pm

“are men and women fundamentally (biologically) different in terms of cognitive (thinking and reasoning) abilities? ”

At the risk of repeating myself (I made a similar point to Part 1 of the article), this question is an ignorant one. It is quite irrelevant, too. Even if we ignore the evidence of history (eg the idea that women would not be good doctors, yet, once they were allowed to, they proved to be just as good as the men) I don’t know of anyone who thinks ALL women and ALL men have distinctly binary characteristics. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence will concede that the behaviours of men and women form a fairly wide spectrum. Whether these two spectra intersect near the middle or just at the edges, it’s obvious that there will be a proportion of men and women whose characteristics could be described as being closer to the opposite sex. Therefore, whether the proportion of male engineers to female is 99-1 or 51-49 is completely irrelevant. I want to drive over a bridge that was designed by a COMPETENT engineer (doctor, nurse, pilot, whatever) and their sex is quite unimportant.

For this reason, marketing toys by sex and colour is as ridiculous as barring men or women (or people of colour!!) from certain professions.

Clodia // Posted 30 December 2011 at 5:07 pm

Well done on your successful campaign, proof that women acting together can challenge male complacency about their innate superiority. 3 or 4 years ago I tried writing a similar letter to the CEO of Woolworths, now defunct, because their toys were labelled by gender. The CEO wrote a vague, insulting and contemptous letter back basically saying “don’t be such a silly little woman” and so I went into my local branch with a black marker and trashed all their signs, writing “sexist stereotyping” across them. I am glad that “Woolies” has gone bankrupt and wrote and told the CEO that they deserved it for their antediluvian attitudes!

I worked in education for 34 years and studied gender & education as part of my MA; there is no real scientific evidence for gender differences in skills, aptitudes and aspirations. But i have seen, over years working in the urban north, so many girls’ aspirations depressed and narrowed by various aspects of stereotyping, starting with suitable toys and clothes, and progressing with examination successes and career aspirations. Even now, the political furore over the relative success of girls in exams at GCSE and A level is resulting in claims that such exams are being “dumbed down” ( because otherwise dumb girls wouldn’t outperform boys, would they??); and by a political push for a return to much narrower tests in which boys traditionally succeeded.

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