Unless you’re a parent yourself, you probably haven’t had cause to think about the Early Learning Centre since you were about… ooh, six years old. But the iconic British children’s retailer has suddenly found itself at the centre of a heated debate about gender stereotyping – and it’s not backing down.
The ELC, as it is known, has been slammed for a recent online marketing campaign that presents girls and boys in an acutely gendered light.
In the email advertisement, which was picked up by gender-neutral toy campaign Let Toys Be Toys, three little girls are shown dressed up as Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and “Brianna the Ballerina”.
Their male counterparts, meanwhile, are depicted wearing traditionally ‘male’ costumes: Spiderman, a doctor, and a “Wise Wizard”.
More troubling that the costumes alone, however, is the fairy tale narrative ascribed to the young characters in the advertisement.
“Once upon a time,” reads the copy, “Belle and Cinderella [were] all ready to go to the ball when Spiderman flew in from out of nowhere!”
The wizard (who, lest we forget, is very very wise) tries to warn the girls that Spiderman is “super fast” – but to no avail. “Brianna the Ballerina had a tumble! Uh-oh!”
Fortunately for the hapless girls, “Danny the Doctor” was on hand to “save the day with his medical case”.
“It is very binary and we believe there are many ways for girls to play,” she said. “This email does not reflect how children actually play.”
Perryman said that Let Toys Be Toys had had “very pleasant and productive” meetings with some of the ELC’s major rivals, including Toys R Us and The Entertainer, to discuss how they can reduce stereotypes in their products.
The ELC, in contrast, has so far refused to meet with representatives from the campaign group, and has ignored all correspondence from them since 2013.
On Twitter, many people expressed their disappointment and frustration that gender stereotypes were still being promoted by children’s shops.
Perhaps sensing a social media firestorm brewing, the ELC released a statement insisting that the store features “both boys and girls playing with many different toys and dressing-up outfits” in their marketing material.
A spokesperson for the store said: “At Early Learning Centre our aim is to offer a wide enough range to appeal to the many different tastes and play interests of little ones.”
A quick look at the ELC’s website does reveal a photo of a little boy wearing a hairdresser’s belt and a girl photographed carrying a blue “explorer kit”. However, the vast majority of their dressing-up costumes are shown in a distinctly gendered light.
It’s important to push back against stereotypes like those shown in the ELC’s marketing campaign, because research has shown that children of both genders can be influenced by such ideas from a very young age.
Girls as young as six are often convinced that boys are more innately gifted or smart than them, according to one recent study published in the journal Science.
Other research indicates that children have developed very clear ideas about what jobs are ‘suitable’ for boys and girls by the time they reach late primary age – and these beliefs can be very difficult to shake later in life.
So come on, retailers. Let’s start seeing a few more girl doctors and superheroes, as well as some more male ballerinas and princes. It might just make the world a better place for everyone.
Images: ELC, iStock