This is what perhaps would have once been characterised as a ‘summer story’. An irate mother, annoyed with the ludicrous names attached to some of the ranges of boys’ and girls’ shoes in Clarks, vented her feelings on social media and the story was picked up by the media and went viral. Plenty of politicians agreed, with Nicola Sturgeon and Sarah Ludford tweeting on the issue, and even Jacob Rees Mogg weighing in to say that calling girls’ shoes ‘Dolly Babe’ is ‘just really silly’. The retailer has been accused of ‘everyday sexism’ for calling one of range of new girls’ shoes this name, while the boys’ equivalent is called ‘Leader.’ The story was then linked back to an item from last year, when another mother complained about the poor choice and flimsiness of shoes available for her daughter in Clarks, when compared to the sturdy and practical equivalent available for boys in the same shop.
This story is being misrepresented in some quarters as being a big fuss over nothing; a load of women (middle class and privileged, no doubt,) with nothing better to do getting annoyed because there are different shoes available for boys and girls. This isn’t the issue, and I’m not sure if the misrepresentation is just lazy thinking or mischievous reporting. Or deliberately baiting of feminists, which is a popular pastime in some circles. Or possibly all three; a Venn diagram of lazy thinkers, feminist baiters and mischievous journalists would, in fact, just be a circle. A circle of jerks. A jerkle.
Anyway. There are two issues at play here
• What sort of message is intended by calling girls’ shoes things like ‘Dolly Babe’ while boys’ shoes are called ‘Leader’? If no message is actually intended, why choose these particular names?
• Why are girls’ shoes flimsy and impractical, while boys’ shoes are tough and hardwearing?
You might also wonder
• When the fuck did childrens’ shoes having a name become a thing? And
• How will Clarks ever recover from the reputational damage of being called ‘really silly’ by Jacob Rees Mogg?
The first is, I believe, unconscious sexism. I bet whoever thought of these names doesn’t actually believe that girls should be encouraged to grow up thinking their prime function in life is to be cute and decorative, while boys should be taught to see themselves as bold trailblazers. But that’s the stereotype they are reinforcing, unconsciously or not, and it really wouldn’t hurt to think a little harder when coming up with this sort of spurious marketing bullshit. If it has to be a thing at all. If you don’t see what I mean, imagine how absurd it would be if this nonsensical nomenclature were to be reversed. How would it be if boys’ shoes were called ‘Cute Rascal’ while girls’ shoes were called ‘Boudica’? Let’s either call all childrens’ shoes cutsie names, or none of them.
The second is just as dumb. Girls are every bit as active as boys – this was true hundreds of years ago when I was small, and I can’t imagine much has changed in the intervening centuries. They like to run and skip and chase and play football and climb trees and play on swings and whoop and shout and make noise and have noisy, mucky outdoor fun, much the same as boys do. (OK, so I never was a small boy, but I did have the privilege of observing one at very close quarters, which included buying him shoes). Why don’t the shoes sold for girls allow for this? Or even keep their feet warm? It doesn’t seem a lot to ask in a shoe…
Of course, some girls like flimsy, impractical shoes. Some of us never grow out of that phase, and no one is saying they (we) shouldn’t be allowed to make that choice. Leaving aside how much of this may or may not be down to societal conditioning (fecking insidious patriarchy), the shoes should still be fit for purpose. If I can buy hardwearing, practical shoes which are still pretty (and I can), why can’t the average 9-year-old girl? Mind you, if they were called anything approaching ‘Dolly Babe’, I’d likely vomit copiously and continuously before throwing them through the shop window, rather than buy them…
When a story like this breaks, at some point someone will inevitably say ‘aren’t there more important things in the world to be worrying about?’ ‘haven’t these women heard of Syria?’ or words to that effect. As if we can only be concerned with one thing at a time, in some ordered and sanctioned linear way. As if the ‘small’ things don’t matter, and we have to wait for concerns to reach some preordained critical mass before we are allowed to get exercised by them. As if there is some kind of central committee which carefully considers all issues, then creates a timetable of when it is appropriate for each one to be addressed. Well, of course there are bigger things wrong with the world which need fixing, but that doesn’t mean that petty irritations like this are given a free pass. Perhaps if we paid more attention to the little issues, there would be fewer big issues. Big problems generally don’t spring fully formed into an unsuspecting world. Look where refusing to take Nigel Farage and Donald Trump seriously has got us, for example.
Nice shoes for kids which let them play and don’t burden them with outdated adult stereotypes. And an end the intolerance and hatred which is fuelling the rise of neo Nazi organisations on both sides of the Atlantic. There, see? I can write about one while being prepared to take to the streets to combat the other. Easy.