What’s the opposite of a Troll? I reckon it’s an Emily…

IMG_0568

The ways in which strangers comment and connect online usually gets a bad rap. Perhaps because it’s so easy to take on another identity – or remain anonymous – in order to be vile to another person. A ‘troll’ used to be a goat eating creature that lived under a bridge in the minds of children. Sadly that monster has been usurped by an all too human counterpart.

But what of the wonderful instances of selfless acts of generosity and human kindness that also occur online? Well, here’s one for you.

"#WeWant Leia" by Yakface.com

I recently blogged about the Disney Store’s lack of Princess Leia products, and their absense of interest making any. As the dad of a Star Wars loving daughter, I hoped for some meaningful response from Disney, and there was a muted assurance that they will produce Leia merchandise in the future.

But the post also elicited this response from a lady called Emily:

“I don’t know if it would interest you, but I have a Leia doll and several of the Episode 1 Amidala dolls (all still in boxes because that’s how I was). It’s not the iconic Leia w/ buns, but they’re just sitting in storage and I’d be happy to dust them off and send them to you to share with your daughter. I may have some action figures but I think I gave those away already.”

Well yes, of course I was interested, so I followed up with Emily via email. The back and forth conversation basically went like this.

Me: I’m certainly interested, but how much do you want for them?

Emily:   Oh I don’t need anything in return. I know how it was growing up a girl in a Star Wars world, so I’ll gladly share what I have

Wow, that’s really generous. But hang on, there’s a problem – it’s not like I can just pop round and pick them up. We don’t live very near each other. In fact, we’re very far from each other. Emily lives in the US and we live in the UK. She replied:

Emily: I have no problem sending them across the ocean – they’re just collecting dust in storage right now and I’m happy to send them off to a better home.

Once again, wow.

Special international delivery

swtoysTrue to her word, some days later, we had a large package arrive in the post from America, which contained three boxed 12″ Queen Amidala dolls, a boxed 12″ Princess Leia doll, and a bonus item of a large Queen Amidala towel. It also came with the following handwritten note from Emily:

Simon,

I hope your daughter enjoys these dolls. I’m happy to share my love of Star Wars with your daughter and your family. Hopefully these will help fill the gap until some new official merchandise surfaces.

I only have one Leia doll, but Amidala/Padmé was marketed a fair bit, with her many dresses and hairstyles. Like many overzealous fans, I snapped up what I could, but already being in high school, I never played with them – just had them on a shelf in my Star Wars covered room until another interest came along and they got put into storage for 10 or so years. Now they can leave their boxes for some proper playtime.

Enjoy! And may the force be with you, always!

Sincerely,

Emily

Emily then signed off with these delightful Princess Leia illustrations.

Emily's Leia doodles

So it was with great relish – and Emily’s permission – that my daughter and I finally liberated these toys from the packaging they had been in for the best part of the past 15 years. It would be a sight to horrify many a Star Wars collector, but delight anyone who gains any happiness from the pure joy of a child.

My daugher loves these dolls. She is already swapping shoes and outfits between them. Ceremonial Leia looks pretty good wearing Padme’s large brown boots. ‘Royal Elegance Queen Amidala’s red shoes are a popular interchangeable item as well. There’s also some toddler hairstyling and tea parties happening.

“You never forget kids like Emily”

In 1999, the year that The Phantom Menace was out and Emily purchased all these dolls, another eagerly anticipated movie was released. Eerily, it features a young lady called Emily who parted company with her childhood playthings.

In Toy Story 2 we are introduced to Jessie, a once beloved doll who has been abandoned at a roadside when her ‘Emily’ outgrew her. In reality, perfectly normal behaviour, but in the story it was a source of great sadness and emotional trauma for Jessie, who mournfully states: “You never forget kids like Emily…but they forget you.”

Well, this real life Emily didn’t forget about her toys. They may not have been played with, but they were bought out of love (of Star Wars), and passed on for the same reason.

According to Buzz Lightyear “(a toy’s) life’s only worth living if you’re being loved by a kid”. Well thanks to their Emily these toys will be well loved by our kid. They are out of their boxes and never going back in!

The Emilys of the real world should be celebrated. She reached out to a father and daughter she has never met, with whom she had only had the briefest of online interaction with, and made the great effort to not just simply give us these toys she purchased, but to ship them across the world to us at her expense.

It also reminded me of the end of Toy Story 3, when…***SPOILERS*** …Andy hands over his childhood toys to the little girl family friend.

IMG_1855That brought a tear to my eye, and I have to admit, this did too.

So thank you Emily. As well as giving us these awesome dolls, you have also given me renewed optimism about the world I am raising my daughter in.

And Disney take note. There IS a girls market for Star Wars, and there always has been.

(Oh, while I immensely appreciate Emily’s generosity in giving these dolls to my daughter, at my insistence we have reimbursed Emily for the shipping. She also has a big credit in the favour bank)

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Do We Need to Stop Talking About Working Mothers?

Working mom, Working mum, working moms, working mothers, work life balance

‘Working Mom’ by Ran Zwigenberg. Photo used under CC license

Whenever there’s coverage of mothers in the workplace, it’s never long before the topic of how they cope with the competing needs of their children and their job comes up. What’s wrong with this? It’s a narrative that’s only ever applied to working mothers, and rarely – if ever – working fathers.

On the BBC series Inside the House of Commons this week, one of the featured MPs was a busy mum who juggles the demands of her job with the needs of her family. As the listings described the scenario: “Lib Dem MP Jenny Willott… seeks to balance new parenthood with politics.”

I am not denying Ms. Willott’s very real struggle between being a parent and an MP (and Deputy Chief Whip), but yet again, the search for this ‘balance’ was presented as an issue only for the working mother. While we did see the involvement of her partner, where was the male MP also struggling in the same way, having family dinners in his parliament office, dropping off his children at the House of Commons nursery, or leaving his crying child with an aide so he can dash off to the house for an important vote? Maybe he doesn’t exist. Maybe society’s expectations of working mothers are different from those of working fathers.

This was yet another example that feeds into the myth that when a mother is working, childcare is her responsibility. That the need for flexibility is the preserve of the working mother, not the father. That mothers struggle to maintain a work/life balance in a way that fathers don’t.

This week there was a report about the rising costs of childcare in the UK, which is indeed a big problem for parents. Yet I kept reading how this was an issue for working mothers or mothers returning to the workplace, never about fathers.

My wife has a full time job, and I freelance as well as being home with our daughter. In any discussions I enter into about work, the cost of childcare up at the top of the list when determining the feasibility of me taking on the job. The issues around flexible hours and an understanding that I may have to be absent when my child is sick are also important for my employer to know, because I am the primary caregiver to our daughter.

I don’t understand why are we always framing any discussion about childcare, flexible working, balancing the demands of home and work, with ‘Working Mothers’. These issues are not exclusive to mothers – they are parenting issues.

As a father, I find it depressing that people think dads don’t care this much about their children, that we too don’t lament the lost hours we could be spending with them when working. But as a parent of a daughter, I find the sexism of this prevailing attitude towards women in the workplace far more depressing.

It’s an attitude that is especially toxic when there are employers that would prefer not hire a mother, because they think that it’ll be too much hassle. It’s an attitude that fathers rarely encounter.

I am not seeking to diminish the emotional stress and logistical hassle of being a working mother. Despite not being a mother, I understand it completely.

I just think we need to stop talking about working mothers, and start talking about working parents instead. These are issues that affect us all and problems for us all to deal with.

What do you think about the way working mothers are perceived? Is being a working mother different than being a working father? Please get involved by commenting below, joining the conversation on the Facebook page, or on Twitter @manvspink.

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Valentine’s Day is for Lovers and Retailers, Not Parents and Children

Valentine's Day, Valentine's Day card, Valentine's Day cards, Valentine's Day children.

(Photo by Shana, used under CC license)

Can we just agree that a little girl giving her daddy a Valentine’s card is a bit creepy.

This week playgroups, preschools, and nurseries across the globe were having their usual themed crafts, which in all likelihood involved making Valentine’s Day cards. I didn’t think much of it. I figured these cards would be given to the parent who wasn’t there, from their partner that was.

Contrary to my assumption, at the playgroups I went to, many children (well, only girls) were being encouraged by mothers to make cards for their fathers. The thought of getting a Valentine’s Day card from my daughter makes my skin crawl.

Valentine’s Day is one of two things. It is either a cynical marketing opportunity to sell themed cards, chocolates, lingerie, and even ready meals (‘Give your Valentine a night off cooking with a special Macaroni Cheese’). Or it’s a day to celebrate love with your partner, a partner to be, or just a good old fashioned secret admirer.

Valentine’s Day is a time for lovers, and a time for retailers to exploit that love. It is not a time for parents and children to express their very different love for each other.

While there is an argument against children ‘celebrating’ Valentine’s Day, because it’s asking them to grow up too soon, it’s also true the role playing adult scenarios is an important part of our children’s development. The desire for a partner, who is more than a friend, is an important concept for them to understand. It’s how they came to be after all.

I also remember getting cards as a child from secret admirers who I still have no idea about. It almost remains my purest experience of the day. Who’s heart wouldn’t be sent aflutter with a note from a secret admirer? Valentine’s Day is a day for love, but romantic love, which is to say that heady, intoxicating combination of love and desire.

“Valentine’s Day is a time for lovers”

Remember the song Somethin’ Stupid? It’s a catchy duet about someone lamenting their missed opportunity of getting a date into bed by saying Somethin’ Stupid’ (Like I Love You). If you’re younger than me, perhaps you know the Robbie Williams & Nicole Kidman version. That was a fun rendition of a cute song.

However, it’s more famous for it’s frankly creepy version, which was a duet between Frank Sinatra and his daughter Nancy.

Have a listen.

It’s also fairly creepy when sung by Nancy Sinatra and her brother, Frank jr. Take a look.

It’s really NOT cute to have a father and daughter, or brother and sister, pretending to sing about a sexual attraction to each other. It’s gross. That’s why this song referred to as The Incest Song.

Let’s not teach our children that our love for them is the same as our love for our partners. It’s not better, not lesser. Just different. And they need to learn the difference.

What do you think about getting a Valentine’s Day card from your child? Cute? Or creepy? Please comment below, join the conversation on my Facebook page, or tweet me @manvspink.

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Labour’s Paternity Leave Policy: Is it even a step in the right direction?

Stay-at-home dad, bottle feeding, paternity leave,

Feeding my daughter during her first month

A Labour government will double paternity leave for dads from two to four weeks, and increase their weekly paternity pay to £260 – over £100 more than present. No doubt this move will be tagged as anti-business by Labour’s opponents. But is it as pro-family as it seems?

I was lucky that I spent the first 6 weeks home with my daughter. I can’t imagine not having spent that time with her, and I feel for other fathers who wanted the same but weren’t able to.

While this Labour policy may seem progressive, reflecting the reality that many fathers want to be at home with their newborn too, I feel what it’s really reinforcing is that after 4 weeks a man’s place is still at work while a woman’s is at home with the baby.

There are many reasons why fathers decide to become stay-at-home dads. In our case is was a combination of me really wanting to be home with our daughter; my wife’s desire to return to work and maintain her career; and a feeling that I might be better suited to being home all the time with an insatiable grub that lacks basic conversation skills. The fact that my wife also earned more than twice as much as me was not an obvious influence, but perhaps it made our decision easier.

What I think families need more than a simple increase in paternity pay and entitlement, is support to make these type of flexible decisions that are right for them, for there is no one size fits all way of parenting any more. While for some couples the mother being home full-time is what’s wanted, others (like us) would prefer have the dad home in those early years. Many couples would like to both be working as soon as possible. The financial hit would be harder on some rather than others, so that too would affect decisions.

Far more progressive is the Shared Parental Leave system that comes into force from April, where parents can share the majority of the mother’s 52 week leave entitlement between them, in theory letting the couple decide which one of them is to become the primary carer. One of the biggest stumbling blocks with this is that many women have generous maternity packages from their employer that are far in excess of the Statutory Shared Parental Pay of £138 per week.

I remain unconvinced about Labour’s proposal, though I am sure it will lead to more fathers taking time off to be with their newborn. The IPPR, who came up with these proposals, believe take up will increase from 55% to 70%. That sounds optimistic, but I guess we’ll see should we have a Labour government come May.

I believe that the level of pay is really a small part of the reason for the low numbers taking paternity leave. For parents who had no interest in the father being home, their feelings will remain unchanged. Many men feel that their employer would look unfavourably on them taking leave, that their job cannot be interrupted, or that it will hurt their career. They too will remain feeling the same way about paternity leave.

The policy seems rather outdated next to Shared Parental Leave in that it assumes the father will return to work after 4 weeks while the mother is home with the baby. If Labour really wanted to encourage more men to become stay-at-home dads, or women to become working mothers, then I think they should really be building upon the Shared Parental Leave system, perhaps finding a way for mums and dads to share an employers parental leave system.

So is Labour really trying to be progressive? I am reminded of the free childcare/early education for three year olds. The 15 hours of free childcare per week, notionally intended to encourage at-home parents back to work is now seen as more of a rebate to middle class families. They would be paying for the childcare at nurseries anyway but now get a term time fee reduction. I have a similar feeling about these proposals, that it’s intended to be a nice little financial present for those families who would have probably used paternity leave anyway.

This feels less about a policy helping families, than a headline to help persuade disaffected supporters to vote Labour in May. But at least a few more dads will get to spend time with their newborn like I did.

 

What do you think about these paternity leave proposals? Please get involved by commenting below, joining the conversation on the Facebook page, or on Twitter @manvspink.

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Ultimate Pasta Bake – The ‘Big Night’ Timpano recipe

The 'Big Night' Timpano, Timballo, the big night timbale, the big night timballo, baked pasta, big night, the big night timpano, the big night timpano recipe,

The ‘Big Night’ Timpano recipe is not your usual baked pasta dish

You’re a foodie and a film fan who’s seen Big Night. You were wowed by the Timpano. You’ve wanted to make it ever since but find the idea of recreating it daunting. Intimidating. Don’t be silly. It’s just a pasta bake. The ultimate pasta bake.

I had wanted to make this since I had seen the movie in the late 90’s. As my daughter’s 1st birthday was approaching, and intended as more of a party for adults, this seemed as special occasion as any to finally get round to making this.

Also known as a Timballo, this ‘Big Night’ Timpano recipe is based on a family recipe of co-star, co-writer, and co-director Stanley Tucci.

It is a dish that any foodie and/or film fan should make at least once in their life.

Everything you need is likely available from your local butcher, deli, or supermarket – except, the 14″ Timpano Bowl. It’s the best thing for baking this in. I had to order this enamel basin in from US Amazon, and it was perfect for this.

timpano recipe, big night movie menu, big night timpano recipe, timballoTake your time with this dish. To get it right, I would give yourself two days. Analyse the Timpano recipe. Spend a long afternoon shopping for ingredients. Make the sauce ahead of time. Prepare the eggs, cheese, and salami a day before. Early morning, boil the pasta and cool it ready for assembly. After baking let it rest. And rest. A good hour will allow this settle nicely and let the treasure trove of flavours be absorbed by pasta inside. But don’t leave it to rest in the kitchen. Have it on display to your guests. Let the anticipation build about what delights await inside. This is a dish that deserves to be eagerly anticipated, not least because of the effort you’ve put into it.

As this ‘Big Night’ Timpano was adapted from Tucci’s American recipe, I’ve attempted to update the imperial measurements with metric ones. Also, confession time – I used meatballs made by the butcher. If you want to be REALLY authentic, you can use Stanley Tucci’s meatball recipe.

So this is it – it’s the ultimate pasta bake: The ‘Big Night’ Timpano recipe…

RAGU
60 ml olive oil
450 g stewing beef, trimmed of fat and cut into pieces
450 g spareribs (pref. meaty shoulder ribs), trimmed of fatmand cut in half
Onion, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
20 ml red wine
170 g can tomato paste
2 x 1kg can plum tomatoes, sieved or blitzed in processor OR 2l passata (much easier!)
3 fresh basil leaves
1 tbsp chopped fresh oregano leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried

1. Warm olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Brown beef until coloured on all sides, about 10 minutes. Set aside in a bowl.

2. Add spareribs to pot and brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Remove and set aside in bowl with beef. (If your pot is big enough to hold all the meat in a single layer, it can be cooked at the same time.)

3. Stir onions and garlic into pot. Reduce heat to low and cook until onions begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in wine, scraping bottom of the pot clean. Add tomato paste. Pour 125ml cup warm water into tomato paste can to loosen any residual paste and then pour into pot. Cook to warm the paste through, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes along with additional 250ml warm water. Stir in basil and oregano. Cover with lid partially on and simmer about 30 minutes.

4. Return meat to pot, along with any juices that accumulated in bowl. Cover partially with lid and simmer, stirring frequently, until meat is very tender and tomatoes are cooked, about 2 hours. Warm water may be added to sauce, in 125ml portions, if it becomes too thick.

DOUGH:
450 gram 00 flour, more for dusting
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons olive oil, more for greasing bowl
Butter (for greasing bowl)

Timpano case ready for filling1. Mix flour, eggs, salt and olive oil in mixer bowl with a dough hook. Add 3 tbsp water and mix – add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until mixture comes together and forms a ball. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead to make sure it is well mixed, about 10 minutes. Set aside to rest for 5 minutes. (The dough may be made in advance and refrigerated overnight; return to room temperature before rolling out.)

2. Flatten dough on a lightly floured work surface. Dust top with flour and roll it out, dusting with flour and flipping the dough over from time to time, until it is about 1/16-inch thick and is the desired diameter. (To calculate the diameter for the dough round, add the diameter of the bottom of your timpano basin the diameter of the top of the pan and twice the height of the pan.) Grease the baking pan generously with butter and olive oil. Fold dough in half and then in half again, to form a triangle, and place in pan. Open dough and arrange it in the pan, gently pressing it against the bottom and the sides, draping extra dough over the sides. Set aside.

FILLING:
450 g thick Genoa salami pieces, cut into small squares
450 gram sharp provolone cheese,  evenly diced
12 hard-boiled eggs, shelled and quartered lengthwise, each quarter cut in half
450 gram small meatballs
1.8 l Ragu sauce (meat removed and reserved for another use)
1.4 kg ziti or similar pasta, cooked very al dente (about half the time recommended on the package)
2 tbsp olive oil
115 gram finely grated Pecorino Romano
6 large eggs, beaten

1. Heat oven to 180c. Have salami, provolone, hard-boiled eggs, meatballs and ragù sauce at room temperature. Stir 125ml water into sauce to thin it. Toss pasta with olive oil and allow to cool slightly before tossing with 500ml sauce.

Layering the Timpano IMG_5294 IMG_5295 Filled Timpano IMG_52972. Layering the filling: Distribute 4 generous cups of pasta on bottom of timpano. Top with 1 cup salami, 1 cup provolone, 3 eggs, 1 cup meatballs and 1/3 cup Romano cheese. Pour 2 cups sauce over ingredients. Repeat process to create additional layers until filling comes within 1 inch of the top of the pan, ending with 2 cups sauce. Pour beaten eggs over the filling.

3. Fold pasta dough over filling to seal completely. Trim away and discard any double layers of dough. Make sure timpano is tightly sealed. If you notice any small openings cut a piece of trimmed dough to fit over opening. Use a small amount of water to moisten these scraps of dough to ensure that a tight seal has been made.

3. Bake until lightly browned, about 1 hour. Cover with foil and continue baking until the timpano is cooked through and the dough is golden brown (and reaches an internal temperature of 120c), about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to rest for 30 or more minutes to allow timpano to cool and contract before attempting to remove from pan. The baked timpano should not stick to the pan. To test, gently shake pan to the left and then to the right. It should slightly spin in the pan. If any part is still attached, carefully detach with a knife.

The finished 'Big Night' Timpano4. To remove timpano from pan, place a baking sheet or thin cutting board that covers the entire diameter on the pan on top of the timpano. Grasp the baking sheet or cutting board and the rim of the pan firmly and invert timpano. Remove pan and allow timpano to cool for at least 30 minutes. Using a long, sharp knife, cut a circle about 8cm in diameter in the center of the timpano, making sure to cut all the way through to the bottom. Then slice timpano as you would a pie into individual portions, leaving the center circle as a support for the remaining pieces. The cut pieces should hold together, revealing the layers of filling you built up earlier.

Posted in Recipe | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Darth Vader defends my daughter’s right to be a girl

IMG_4088

‘Don’t take no sith from anyone’

It’s fancy dress week at my daughter’s preschool, because Halloween. So what should she go as? The question I should have asked my daughter was “What fancy dress would you like to wear?”. However, what we actually asked was “Would you like to wear your Darth Vader costume?” I just couldn’t let this opportunity to enlighten her peers slip by.

A local mum recently made a good point to me that I had never considered. Many of the children my two year old daughter goes to preschool with will be at the same primary school, in the same year, maybe even the same class. They may continue to be her closest peers until adulthood. The same goes for lots of the children we see at playgroup, at the local park, soft play, the library, or even just the high street. What these children think, how they perceive the world, how they treat my daughter, will have a massively influential impact on the woman she becomes.

Part of my approach to parenting is to constantly refer back to my memories of growing up, and use that to positively inform my approach. The fantastical worlds of comic books and Star Wars loom large in my childhood (and adulthood too). They fired my imagination, but perhaps more importantly provided both escapism and inspiration to make sense of the world in the darkest times of my youth.

I want my daughter to have access to all of this too. Luckily, superheroes and Star Wars are still very much in vogue.

It’s also fair to say that I’m not a fan of Disney Princesses, and pinkification in general. So as well as simply sharing my enthusiasm for Star Wars with my daughter (she has all my old toys), this is also about me offering her an alternative to girly girl culture before she heads into the school system, and peer group pressure becomes a driving force in her development.

So far, my daughter really enjoys this stuff. So do all the little girls who come over for playdates – they always love to play with our Star Wars and superhero toys.

However, it is very clear that to the likes of Hasbro and Disney (who own Marvel and Star Wars) these brands are just for boys. That’s another battle being fought by myself and others, but in the meantime, here in the trenches, our kids are forming opinions on what is and isn’t for boys or girls, based on the way these brands are marketed.

As she grows older, I worry my daughter might be singled out for displaying an interest in this geek stuff, simply because she’s a girl. I don’t want her to be perceived as ‘weird’ because she’s a geek. Perhaps even teased, ostracised, or bullied.

This mentality starts young. One time, a little boy saw me with my daughter, looked unsure, then asked me: “Is she a boy or a girl?”. When I confirmed ‘she’ was in fact a girl, he countered “Then why is she wearing a Spider-Man t-shirt?”. “Because she likes Spider-Man.” I replied. The boy’s older sister then chimed in, “Yeah, girls can like Spider-Man too y’know!”. The boy went away with a new concept to contemplate, while hopefully this exchange supported his sister’s seemingly healthy outlook on gender.

It also exists in adults who should know better. A friend who recently became a dad asked me ‘Why are you trying to make your daughter into a boy?’. Grasping for a calm answer, I replied ‘I’m not. There’s nothing inherently male about any of this stuff. I think whatever she wears are girl’s clothes, her toys are girl’s toys, her books are girl’s books. Because she’s a girl.’ After mulling it for a moment, he agreed with me. This had never occurred to him before, but now it makes sense.

My daughter & I get so many positive comments from parents when we’re out and about. I often then hear telling their son or daughter how cool my daughter looks. Perhaps we are influencing some parents too.

I am confident I am doing right by my daughter, that these things are a positive influence on her developing personality. But in order for her to not be socially excluded because of it, I also need her peers and their parents to accept girls can be just as engaged with these things as boys.

So I feel that each time she runs around with a cape, carries her cuddly Spidey to the playground, wears her beloved Batgirl dress yet again, or goes out dressed as Darth Vader, she is doing her part to challenge (some) people’s idea of what it is to be a girl.

My hope is that by the time she gets to school, and her attire will switch from geek chic to school uniform, her fellow pupils will be so used to the idea that girls can like this stuff too, that it won’t be weird at all.

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Dispatch From The Gender Frontline (I Went to Some Toy Shops)

Needing to kill an hour or so, I took a stroll around the Westfield London shopping centre this week. I naturally gravitated towards the toy shops, and I decided to amuse myself by indulging in a spot of gendered toys mystery shopping.

The first shop I went into was The Entertainer. They are a large independent toy retailer, and I have a particular soft spot for them as they began with one shop in my home town neighbour of Amersham, Bucks. But sentimentality aside, I had no idea what they were like as a toy shop these days.

I was pleasantly surprised and really impressed with the way they categorise their toys – eg. ‘Action & Adventure’, ‘Arts & Creative’, ‘Cars, trains, and planes’ etc – not by gender. This seemed like such progressive (and logical) way to sort toys, that doesn’t exclude on the basis of gender – at least in how product is grouped. Bravo Entertainer!

The Entertainer toy shop

The Entertainer toy shop

What I didn’t realise (until I tweeted about it) was that this came about because of a campaign by Let Toys Be Toys (we were living outside of UK when this happened). So bravo to them too. :)

I didn’t buy anything, but I will definitely be back to shop here, another branch, or online.

 

I was expecting the worst with the next shop I visited. I have written about the divisive way LEGO creates and markets its product before. The beloved Universal toy of my youth is no more. I have resigned myself to not buying any new LEGO, that in all likelihood my daughter will be playing with our ample hand-me-down supply throughout her childhood. So I went to the LEGO shop all prepared for their gendered marketing tricks.

But then I spotted this.

Lego Female Scientists set, Lego Female Scientists kit, Lego Female Scientists sold out, female scientist lego

Lego Female Scientists

 

Yes!

The female scientists minifigure set, that I had in my own little way campaigned so furiously for, that had finally been released only to be sold out everywhere… It was back! I stopped looking around the store, grabbed the set, and headed straight for the counter.

As I paid, I asked the staff about it. They told me they had only been delivered a small number of sets in the original release, and everyone in the company was surprised how popular it had been. The staff were keen to point out that they now have a much healthier stock of it. So if you’re thinking of buying some LEGO for your child (or you!), then I would strongly suggest that you get this one. I’m intending on saving it until Christmas day. Hopefully I can resist the urge to put it together it until then.

LEGO Research Institute 21110

My daughter’s LEGO Research Institute 21110

That’s all I can say about the LEGO shop. They could have had an entire wall of pink Friends sets, with a sparkling sign proclaiming ‘LEGO FOR GIRLS’, and I wouldn’t have noticed. That’s how chuffed I was to finally have this awesome set in my hands.

 

 

So it had been a really positive experience so far. My final stop was The Disney Store, which I entered with trepidation. I love Star Wars & Marvel (both acquired by Disney) as much as I do not love princess culture (pretty much created by Disney).

IMG_4015Given that Disney & gendered marketing to kids go together like the Empire & the Death Star, I tend to browse Disney’s virtual and actual aisles with frustration. This occasion was no exception.

Starting with Marvel, there was nothing in the store featuring a female character. No Black Widow in the Avengers line, no Gamora or Nebula in the Guardians of the Galaxy stuff, no additional female superheroes, nothing. *sigh

On to Star Wars.

There’s large section of the store devoted to movie merchandise, primarily the original trilogy. The lack of Leia merchandise was an early issue on this blog, so I was keen to see if things had improved at all. At first glance, it hadn’t. There was a prominent display featuring Han Solo, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and a Stormtrooper – but no Princess Leia.

IMG_4040I scanned the large selection of Star Wars stuff here, and eventually found a Leia. In fact I found a couple. They were each part of different play-sets figures. One set was Jabba’s palace, which of course means one thing – Slave Leia.

An eagle eyed fan on Twitter also spotted a Torryn Farr figure. Who is she? The blink and you’ll miss her Rebel Comms officer from The Empire Strikes Back. She may not be the most active character in the trilogy (she sits in a chair and relays orders), but I guess at least she’s a female Star Wars character figure.

That’s not all the Star Wars gear the shop has now though. There’s a big display of merchandise from the brand new TV show Star Wars Rebels. It’s early days for the show, but it has TWO major female characters that are prominently featured in the artwork of the toy display. So I was curious about what the the product would be like.

Product? What product?

IMG_4009IMG_4037

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s right. There was nothing, nothing, featuring either of the female characters of Sabine or Hera. Not an action figure, not a t-shirt, nothing. I asked a member of staff about this. She looked surprised, had a glance at the section, and then kind of shrugged “No, there’s nothing with any of the women”.

What’s a girl gotta do to get into the Star Wars line at the Disney Store? It seems even a pink skinny waisted Boba Fett with a boob plate can’t break the gendered marketing glass ceiling far, far away…

So in this flagship Disney Store, in one of the premier shopping centres in Britain, there were just three items including any female characters in the whole of their Marvel & Star Wars sections – nothing in Marvel, and Star Wars had a classic Princess Leia (as part of a set), Slave girl Leia (as part of a set), and an individual figure of a rebel who says “Stand by ion control…Fire!” and nothing else.

Apparently, Sabine & Hera will be included in the second wave of Star Wars Rebels figures being released by licensee Hasbro. Staff also told me “We’re going to get Princess Leia stuff soon. But they keep saying that”. They had no idea about female Marvel characters.

I didn’t buy anything, and I’m not planning on going back. I left the shop more frustrated than ever about the fact that The House Of Mouse now own Marvel & Star Wars.

I reflected that my previous positive toyshop experiences were both due to the willingness of brands/retailers to engage with feedback, listen to those seeking change, and take a good look at their offering. My negative experience was from a business that refuses to engage at all, seemingly convinced of its inherent right to marginalise women & girls, and from brands it didn’t even create, but acquired.

In conclusion: The Entertainer good, The Disney Store not good, and the LEGO shop? Well, they had me at female scientist minifigure set and was the only shop I spent money in.

So while this may have been an unscientific survey, in the end it was all about science.

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Playgroups: A Survival Guide for Dads

playgroups, dads, mums, moms, mothers, toddler, baby, survival guide,

My daughter at playgroup

“Do you all spend the whole time cackling about shoes and celebrities?”

That was an actual question I asked my wife about our antenatal group. Like most men, I hadn’t really spent much time around large groups of women, and when I had they were usually drinking lots of Pinot Grigio or watching Mamma Mia. Or both.

Well, they DIDN’T chat endlessly about Women’s Mag stuff, and they accepted me as a stay-at-home dad without batting an eyelid, comfortable to talk of cracked nipples and weaning strategies alongside the kind of stuff we all used to converse about a lot more before becoming parents.

Playgroups are an extension of these gatherings. However, when you’re the only man walking into a roomful of women & kids who know each other but not you, it’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed. Don’t be.

You will be told how brave you are for going to a playgroup with lots of mums. Don’t believe this for a second. You’re not being brave at all. You’re just a dad taking his child to a playgroup. Treat it as the most normal thing any parent would do, because it is. If you approach it this way others will too.

So dads – whether you’re at-home full-time or on temporary leave – don’t be shy and get out there. Here’s a few pointers to help you on your way.

Baby and toddler groups survival guide

1. Smile
No one wants to hang out with grumpy Graham in the corner. If you look like you don’t want to be there, you also look like you don’t want to talk to anyone – so they won’t bother. Smile, and people will smile back.

2. Children are a great conversation opener
“How old is your child?”, “How long have they been walking?”, “What a cool outfit”, etc. It’s very easy to start a conversation with women at a playgroup, by simply sharing facts & compliments about each other’s children. This also works in bars.

3. Be the engaged parent you are
To many, it’s still a novelty (even weird) to see a dad enjoying spending time with their child. In all likelihood, the mothers you want to know will recognise the same level of engagement that their partner has, or even wish they were more like you (no, really). Either way, they’ll like you all the more for it.

4. Offer to help out
Whether picking up a dropped toy, tidying up at the end of the session, or helping to run an actual group (as I do), helping out is a great way to endear yourself by showing again what an engaged parent you are.

5. Remember peoples names
I’m terrible at this, and it does really help to build a connection by demonstrating you’re interested in them enough to recall their name. Here’s a good playgroup hack: If you’ve forgotten, ask the child’s name, DO remember this, then look down the sign in book/sheet for that name and cross reference the parent’s name.

6. Bake something
Possibly sexist (sorry), but mums at one group still mention the batch of Anzac biscuits I brought to a group once. I didn’t even bake them – my wife did. It was the first time a lot of mothers actually talked to me, and they have done ever since.

7. You will think your singing voice sounds worse then everyone else’s. Probably because it is…
Most groups end with a sing-song. Your voice is (probably) lower than the mums & kids, so your singing will stand out. Don’t worry. This isn’t choir practice. If they do notice you, it’ll be for enthusiastically singing with your child, because it makes them happy. Which is cool.

8. Not all groups of mothers are a clique…
Don’t be intimidated. Just because there’s a group of women talking intently to each other in the corner, it doesn’t mean they’re an exclusionary clique. Stop basing your idea of female social structures on Mean Girls and Heathers.

9. …but mother cliques do exist.
Just like Mean Girls and Heathers, there are still exclusionary cliques around. If you encounter one, just walk on by. Don’t even assume it’s because you’re a dad – there are plenty of mothers who also feel excluded by these packs too. Be thankful – there are far more interesting people for you to get to know.

10. If you don’t like it, move along
It took me a few groups before I found ones I liked. Remember, it’s ok not to like them. Some groups were too religious, some classes too scripted, some full of mothers that just wouldn’t talk to me. Wherever you are, there are probably a bunch of groups to choose from, so shop around. Don’t be swayed by other people’s opinion – even your partner’s. Just because they found a group or class brilliant, doesn’t mean you have to. Find what works for you and your child.

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment