I know I haven’t been around for quite some time and for that I apologise; I’m working on a big project at the mo which I’ll announce soon and in the mean time, Bells & Whistles has taken a bit of a back seat. But I encountered something the other day which made me frustrated enough to crack out the old feminist blog once more and here is the result: an open letter to Paperchase.
Let me first introduce myself as a long-standing fan of everything you do. When other high street stationery shops were lost in a sea of plain white notepads, you stuck out your neck and brought colour and whimsy to a fun-starved nation of office workers. Here, at last, we could indulge our love of gel pens and cutesy Japanese characters whilst maintaining a modicum of professionalism. Within your hallowed walls, we could find creative greetings cards, hand-made wrapping paper, stocking stuffers, last-minute presents, and a whole heap of deeply covetable crafting accoutrements.
Another reason I find Paperchase so enchanting is that – at least within the shop – you don’t discriminate. I don’t know whether or not it’s deliberate but I wholeheartedly appreciate the lack of distinction between ages and genders; plastic scissors are next to precision watercolour paints and the twee characters exist defiantly in all colours of the rainbow with no immediately obvious target audience. Nobody bats an eyelid when I approach the counter with a fistful of neon pipecleaners in one hand and hand-made gold-flecked tissue paper in the other. It’s wonderfully open-minded and for that, amongst other things, I love it.
But. Oh, but.
Last week I wandered into one of your stores and asked a shop assistant whether you sold colouring books. She replied “Is it for a boy or a girl?”
Now, most people think that we feminists skulk around actively looking for the slightest hint of misogyny, shrieking “patriarchy!” at every opportunity. But that’s not true. I don’t want to be offended. I don’t wish to live in a world constrained by insidious sexism and its ensuing complications. If such sadomasochism truly entertained me then I would spend my days perusing the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame or Cosmopolitan’s conflicted and inconsistent messages to their female readers with a self-loathing, righteously sickening sense of doom. But honestly, I don’t. I call out sexism when I see it but generally just mosey on through the world, slightly more attuned than my less-actively-feminist friends to such behaviour. I try not to let my hyper-awareness of this imbalanced world enter into my daily life and as such, when asking about colouring books in Paperchase, do not expect the shop assistant to enquire as to the gender of the recipient.
So, being unprepared, I had to hand no pithy comebacks, gentle chastisement, or patient education. Instead, taken by surprise, I stuttered “er, a girl?” To which she replied “I don’t think we have anything for girls at the moment. We’ve got some with dinosaurs and pirates but nothing a girl would like”.
Er. Oh. What?
Now, Paperchase, here’s the thing (although I should hope it’s pretty obvious, being that this is so uncharacteristic (I mean, this isn’t aimed at anyone in particular and it’s just lovely)). There is absolutely no need to gender colouring books. Unless for some very specific reason the pencil is required to be held by the child’s genitals – in which case we’ve got something considerably more sinister to worry about, or else colouring books have altered considerably in the last 20 years – then why, WHY, would you define them as being “for girls” or “for boys”? Why are you allowing yourselves to perpetuate this woefully outdated, highly questionable, subjective, unnecessary gender distinction?
And as for the follow-up assumption that no girl could possibly be interested in dinosaurs or pirates . . . seriously? I presume I’m imagining my childhood Captain Pugwash books. I guess only boys watched Pirates of the Caribbean. I suppose there are no female palaeontologists.
But I tell you what, Paperchase, this is where it gets far more serious than it might as first appear. Because if we are presenting girls with a book full of monochrome pictures of – god, I don’t know – flowers, teddy bears, home life, kittens, baking, knitting – then we are telling them that this is their future, to be coloured as they wish, so long as they don’t stray from the carefully-defined patriarchal lines that will invisibly govern their adult lives.
And meanwhile we are telling boys that they can be imaginative (pirates!), inquisitive (what sort of dinosaur is this?) but more importantly that this is their world to explore – no girls allowed. Simply having gendered toys for kids is bad enough. But shop assistants who outwardly announce that a girl won’t enjoy what’s designed “for boys” is verging on dangerous. By all means, have a variety of colouring books, but please, oh please, don’t label one as “for boys” and the other “for girls”. Don’t gender personal interests. Don’t tell a young kid what she or he can’t find interesting. What if I’d been an easily-led woman, reliant on your assistant’s professional opinion, and didn’t buy my niece, daughter, or sister that book of piratical pictures – despite my suspicion that she might actually really enjoy it – out of fear that her self-taught interest in this world was, not to put too fine a point on it . . . wrong? That she wasn’t approaching life as a little girl should; surrounded by bunny rabbits and cherry blossom?
Now if a little girl wanders into your store and heads straight for the hot pink, diamante-encrusted pens then I’m not judging. (And if a boy does the same, then I’m sure as hell not judging that either). It’s the telling that upsets me. “Boys, you like dinosaurs. Girls, you do not”. At such a young age! It starts here and it only gets worse. Ladybird know it limits kids. Even you have already spoken out on this very subject and promised not to do it again. So, seriously Paperchase, what gives? Are you only pandering on social media to popular requests and sneaking these things back in to make a quick buck? For such an outwardly open-minded brand, isn’t it your responsibility to expressly train your staff not to ask these sorts of questions, but instead embrace the limitless potential of the human imagination?
Oh, and by the way, it wasn’t for a girl or a boy. It was for me. Adult colouring books are a thing now. Even WHSmith worked that one out (which is where I went, in the end). Ironically enough they’re supposed to be relaxing, despite the outcome of this trip. So I’d better end this here and take myself off for a bit of therapeutic doodling. My adult book has birds, patterns, skulls, animals . . . all sorts. And no mention of it being for a specific gender, either. Funny that.
I do still love you, Paperchase, you and your inspired lunchboxes. Just . . . something to think about.
With hopeful best wishes,