Why did you steal my feminist pirates? An open letter to Egmont publishing

Dear Egmont Publishing and Peter Harris,

Today I bought The Night Pirates pop up book for my daughter. The pop ups are clever and unique and it is a work of art. But I am so disappointed. Because the story itself has been edited and my beloved feminist pirates have all but disappeared.

It is no secret that we are huge fans of The Night Pirates in this house, but we were reading a copy from the library and I wanted Mollie to have her own copy. The pop up book has just come out and I thought it would be a lovely present for her. It really is beautiful, but has lost a level of meaning in the editing

The original text tells of ‘rough tough little girl pirates with their own pirate ship’ who steal the front of Tom’s house to use as a disguise. It goes on to say ‘But what about Tom, could he join in?’ and then…

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And that is the bit, of all the book, that all the rough, tough little girl pirates in the making really need. And that is the bit that has been edited out for the pop up version.

I understand the need to abbreviate to allow extra space for the pop ups. (And they really are special.) But why remove what is, to me, the most important message of the book? A few days ago I sent you a message on twitter to thank you for restoring my feminist faith in children’s books.

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But now I feel as though you have taken it straight back again.

So, why has it been edited out of the pop up version? I’m genuinely interested to know. Was it purely to save space without breaking the plot? Was it a nineties feminist issue, ‘let’s not be seen to be demeaning the boys.’ Or did you just not think that those few lines were important enough?

They are important to me. They are important to my daughter. Without them it’s just a pretty pop up book about a quirky pirate ship. With them it becomes something positive and affirming for all the rough, tough little girls out there and, more importantly, for all the little girls who didn’t think they were allowed to be rough and tough.

Please, bring them back!

Preparing for the princesses

My ‘boys don’t do ballet’ post led to some really interesting discussions on twitter. This is clearly an issue that people feel strongly about and one that affects parents in many different ways. People have sent me links to brilliant articles and sites looking at gender (in)equality. These are particularly good, especially in view of the ballet issue. http://www.pinkstinks.org.uk/cgblog/10/25/What-about-boys-Part-1.html
http://raisingmyrainbow.com/

The discussion has been very timely for us as Mollie is going through a pink phase at the moment. It is partly inspired by her love of ballet and the associated pink tutu imagery but also incorporates princesses and fairies. As much as it pains us, my wife and I are letting her get on with it. Mainly because we are hoping that it will just be a phase and we don’t want to stop her exploring it. We feel comfortable that it isn’t taking over – she has asked for a pink princess doll and a fire engine for Christmas – and we believe in equality. We want her to learn that she can, and should, have access to everything.

There has been a lot of discussion on twitter recently about the gender division in children’s books. This blog made me think about Mollie’s reading habits. Creating Mollie’s virtual library has been insightful in this respect. The picture books that she has enjoyed are, on the whole, gender neutral. There doesn’t seem to be much gender stereotyping or discrimination and the books are often full of lively, intelligent, strong characters of both sexes.

Sadly Im starting to notice this change. Peppa Pig is where the gender programming seemed to begin. Clearly it’s not something you can shield children from entirely. Instead, we have aimed to balance it out as much as possible and show Mollie as diverse a selection of characters and roles as possible. The Charlie and Lola books were the perfect Peppa Pig antidote.

Mollie is only 3 so the majority of her books are still picture books and therefore less gendered. However, she is learning to read and is beginning to pick up early reader books. The difference is really obvious. The fairies and princesses seem to have taken over this age range and I can see the gendering of the covers is starting to work. So Mollie will choose a flaky fairy book at the library and I will grab The Night Pirates to offset it. (If you haven’t come across The Night Pirates, I highly recommend it. Ninja girls for the 3-5 age range. It’s a beautiful book, with no pink!) In this way I’m trying to balance out the stereotypical images of little pink girls who need rescuing.

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In the interest of fairness, I should say that I don’t always have to offset. I have found a lot of the ‘pink books’ she is picking up do have strong characters in them and don’t necessarily perpetuate the stereotypical role of girl as weaker/less. This has been an important thing for me to learn. Whilst I want to stay aware of what she is reading I also want to encourage her own choices. I don’t want to stop her reading pink princess books through the assumption that they will be bad. They are often very positive. This excellent blog from the children’s book publisher Nosy Crow, discusses this and explains the reasons for the gender skew in publishing. It highlights some very good points and has some great book recommendations.

Nosy Crow’s Kate has written a follow up to her previous post that gives a more personal perspective, describing her own experiences with gendered books. It makes me think that my wife and I are on the right track. That Mollie is on the right track.

So why was I worried about the pink phase and the princess books? Because gender inequality is everywhere and it provides negative role models for our children- boys and girls. But I’m a feminist. I want my daughter to be smart enough to know what she likes and wants for herself, to have access to everything and know that she should have access to everything. And that means that it’s my job to give her access to everything*. Even when that includes pink princesses and fairies.

I’m less worried now because I’ve realised that there are a lot of people out there who are creating positive images for our children. I’ve realised that the good stuff really is out there (please do recommend some in the comments box below) and that Mollie is smart enough to know what she likes and wants for herself. She won’t stand for any rubbish and she won’t be easily sucked in by all the sickly pink marketing. And she’ll always have The Night Pirates there to rescue her if she does.

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*Disclaimer: ‘everything’ is a big word. Obviously I’m going to exclude the extremes. She won’t have access to a Barbie doll and she won’t have access to a toy tank. But you know, princess dolls and fire engines, they’re in.

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Boys don’t do ballet

Mollie’s best friend is four and loves dancing and dressing up, and dreams of one day becoming Jessie J.
He is also a boy.

Last week he came to Mollie’s ballet lesson and loved it. He’d looked forward to it all week and was so excited. He picked it up straightaway and was entranced for the whole 45 minutes. Which is a long time for a four year old boy to be entranced by anything! After the lesson they happily replayed what they had learnt, galloping up and down our lounge and discussing next week’s dancing.

But today I’ve been told that he won’t be coming to ballet again. Because his dad isn’t happy with the idea of his son doing ballet and would rather he do street dancing, or something a bit more… you know, macho.

I feel terribly sad on many levels. I’m sad that Mollie won’t have her best friend to dance with. I’m sad that her friend won’t be able to learn something that he so obviously enjoyed and had a talent for. I’m sad that the teacher won’t have a boy in the class anymore. And I feel guilty for taking him last week and showing them what they will now miss out on. But most of all I’m sad that his dad thinks that ballet is too ‘girly’ for his son.

Yes, he likes to dance and dress up. But he also likes to explore and play on his bike and with his football and in muddy puddles. The dance is just one side of his character, and one that his mum has been very careful to nurture equally with the rest. She has done a wonderful job of letting him be himself and express himself in a way that he chooses. He is a happy, creative, confident little boy because of it.

So why does his dad feel the need to stop his ballet? Does he think that male dancers aren’t masculine? That ballet will make his son gay? Maybe he should watch a ballet lift and see how strong the male dancers need to be. And, Dad, stopping ballet lessons won’t stop your son being gay. If he’s going to be gay, he’s going to be gay. And squashing any signs of anything effeminate will only teach him that he needs to hide them from you.
And he’s only four!

But you’re right, probably better to stop the ballet and send him to a street dance class. Where maybe you’ll be lucky and the boys will learn to be macho and strong and the girls will get taught to be sexy and silent.
Good luck with that.

Love, not less

I am always saddened to hear motherhood referred to as a beautiful club that opens up previously unachievable levels of love.
It is not a contest. It is love. We shouldn’t measure it in these terms. ‘I love more than you love.’ ‘My love means more than your love.’ No. Love is personal and can’t be measured against itself.

So when Twitter started rumbling about the article in the Telegraph where Amanda Craig claims that motherhood gives you ‘a deeper understanding of human nature’, I read the article for myself. And then I got angry. There was the same old claim – ‘No matter what your experience of adult love, there is nothing as strong as the bond between a mother and a child.’ I had an emotional response to the article that was fed by my own experiences and of those of my friends. I had a bit of a rant on twitter, Stella Duffy wrote a very articulate response to the article and I congratulated her and let it go.

Except that I couldn’t. It bothered me for the rest of the day.

When my daughter was born I lost count of the number of people who exclaimed about the immense, overpowering love that I must be feeling. But I didn’t feel love. I felt broken and resentful and sad. And terribly, terribly guilty. And it was made so much worse by the huge expectation that a mother should love her child immeasurably and uncontrollably. It was also made so much better by my hugely supportive wife, and by close friends who were honest and open and admitted that they had felt the same way. It would come. It was okay.

And it did. But it was far from the uncontrollable passion held in such high regard. It was a gradual love, a learning of this new person in my life.

So, according to Craig, am I less of a mother? Less of a woman? Less able to experience human emotion? Less able to write about the human condition? Am I a bad parent because I wrote about needing my own thinking space during the summer holidays? Is my wife less able to understand human emotions because she isn’t the biological mother of our daughter? Or is she one of the chosen ones because her love for our daughter was so immediate and obvious and open?

Of course not. That’s what these horrible articles and this awful debate do. They make you feel less. And I am sick of feeling less.

I gave it some space and then read the article again. I was still angry. And confused. She seemed to be saying that as a mother you won’t be able to write properly because you won’t have the time or the energy, but if you are not a mother you won’t be able to write well enough because you won’t have a deep enough understanding of human emotion. So that leaves… men? Why must women always be categorised and challenged against their parental status? And why so often by other women?

I understand how lucky we are to have our daughter. Not that long ago two women would not have had that choice. A lot of women who want a child are not able to. We are lucky. But equally, I’m still a woman. Still a person. Still an individual. Not any more for being a mother and not any less.

Everyone writes from their experiences to some extent, but to say that you can’t write outside of them, and miss out on something essential if you don’t have children is ridiculous and really very sad. You don’t have to be a mother to experience motherhood. It’s all around us. And being a mother doesn’t have to define you or limit you. Everyone has something that gets in the way of their writing. Children, parents, work, illness. It’s called life. Virginia Wolf is set up as an example of the perfect woman writer. Childless of course. But her own mind got in the way of her writing. There is always something. Will always be something. The key is wanting it enough to find a space to make writing a part of your life. The key is knowing who you are and not allowing others to make you feel less.

Inspiring a generation

Mollie is in love!

With Miss Gabriella, one of the performers from the circus we visited last week. Since we watched Gabriella spin from the trapeze and somersault on the Russian bar, Mollie has been jumping around the house and spinning from everything that can be spun from. Including me. She has pranced about ‘being Gabriella’ and spent lots of time on her head with her bum in the air, trying to do a handstand.

But the real revelation came from the Circus Wonderland souvenir brochure. Miss Gabriella was an olympic gymnast in the Hungarian team. And, oh look, Mollie! The olympics is on the tv, in your lounge, every day! This has opened up a whole world of joy. No more early morning Fireman Sam. Now Mollie asks for the gymnastics every morning and has decided that, more than anything else in the world, she wants to be a ‘gymnasticer’ when she grows up. She has watched the gymnastics. A lot. And swimming, rowing, athletics, and tennis. She has a little flag that she waves while she cheers Team GB and jumps up and down, wearing her plastic medal with pride.

It’s a shame that Mollie isn’t old enough to have watched and understood the importance of the opening ceremony and last night’s successes. But if she has developed this level of passion from watching daytime events with a 3 year old’s understanding, think what the older children are learning. They are the children who will be Mollie’s role models at school, her future babysitters, mentors and friends. The Olympics really are inspiring a generation.

More than a generation. Mollie is inspired. I am inspired. Watching along with Twitter last night showed a whole timeline of inspiration. Twitter was a giant group hug, celebrating diversity and talent and hope for the future. We were all full of Olympic spirit. Team GB has given us positive role models who, rather than trying to be famous, are working hard to be the best in their chosen field. What a wonderful legacy to leave to our children. It’s not about what you look like, what size clothes you wear, how many people vote for you, who you love, where you come from or how much money your parents have. It’s about finding something you love and following your dream. And anyone, everyone, has the potential and ability to do that.

So we will continue to empower Mollie with as many experiences and skills as we can, start her with some gymnastic lessons, and see where she flies.

Not exclusive but inclusive

In the last ten years the fight for gay equality has come a long way. In 2004 we won the right to enter into a civil partnership. In 2009 we won the right to have our names on the birth certificates of our children and the legal parental responsibility rights that come with it.

Now we are fighting for equality in marriage.

I don’t believe that we are fighting for ‘gay marriage’. It sounds too exclusive, as if we need a special kind of marriage for gay people, a bit more pink and sparkly.

We don’t want to be exclusive, we want to be included.

We already have legal rights and responsibilities when we enter in to a commitment with each other and we use the terminology of a marriage. We have that in the form of civil partnerships. And it works for us. I already refer to myself as married and to Kerry as my wife. Our civil partnership was our wedding and we are in a marriage. What we are fighting for now is equality. Inclusion. Why should we be legally excluded from civil marriage? We deserve the same legal rights as others and we are campaigning to get them.

The author Shelley Harris has summed it up beautifully in her blog.* “The inequality which currently exists will be seen as barbaric, in the same way in which we now view male-only voting or Apartheid as barbaric.” She sees it for what it is, inequality. We don’t want to change marriage, or break it, we just want the right to take part.

Those who are voicing their disagreement and disgust are claiming that marriage is, and should remain, a union between man and woman. I understand their belief that religious weddings should remain between man and woman. Fine, great, as you were. But why civil weddings? We are not asking for the right to marry in a church, or any other religious establishment. We are asking for the equal right to a civil marriage by the state. No religion, no special circumstances or agendas. Just two people who love each other enough to make a legally binding commitment to each other, being legally allowed to make that commitment.

So to the dissenters, I hand you over to the chief executive of Stonewall, Ben Summerskill, ‘Our strong advice to anyone who disagrees with same-sex marriage is not to get married to someone of the same sex.’**

* http://www.shelleyharris.co.uk
**http://t.co/IsszWBA5 this website explodes the main myths surrounding the equal marriage campaign and also has a link to the petition to support it.