British footwear company Clarks has been exposed, not for the first time, as being openly sexist and discriminatory in its product range and branding. This time, the company has been called out for a dubbing a range of girls’ school shoes ‘Dolly Babe‘, while the boys’ equivalent range is called ‘Leader‘.

I am sure that many people would hope or believe that the reasons this is problematic are self-evident, and that the reasons it’s unacceptable are patently obvious. I certainly did at first, but now I’m starting to think again.

These shoes have sat, and continue to sit, both on shop shelves on and website pages. (Clarks claims to have pulled ‘Dolly Babe’ shoes, but ‘Leader’ shoes remain on sale and a quick Google search shows me that I could easily buy a pair of ‘Dolly Babe’ girls’ shoes right now from a selection of other websites like Amazon).

Parents have taken home shoeboxes with those names written on the sides. The woman who posted a complaint about the difference in quality between shoes for girls and shoes for boys on Clarks’ Facebook page last year attracted considerable trolling about the frivolity of her argument. A group of functioning adults have, in the recent past, sat in a meeting room in an office and nodded their heads in agreement that ‘Dolly Babe’ was a great piece of branding. I’m starting to wonder if we need to start spelling things out.

A doll is a small model of a human figure.

A dolly is a inanimate toy for children to play with.

A dolly is a term used informally to describe a young woman who is perceived to be sexy but unintelligent.

A babe is a physically attractive person.

A babe is a term used informally to describe or address a person you find sexually attractive.

Calling shoes for female children Dolly Babe is not merely silly. It’s not merely offensive or outdated or misguided. It is a double whammy of dehumanisation and sexualisation of children that is revolting.

Calling shoes for male children Leader is damaging too. Boxing all small boys into hyper-masculinity is as problematic as boxing all small girls into hyper-femininity. The dichotomy does as much of a disservice to our boys as it does to our girls.

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, described the situation as “almost beyond belief” in 2017.

According to the BBC, Clarks has removed the ‘Dolly Babe’ range from its website following “customer feedback” about the name. They said, “We are working hard to ensure our ranges reflect our gender-neutral ethos“, and “We apologise for any unintended offence caused“.

We read the articles, we tut and shake our heads and say, “isn’t that shocking. In 2017!”. We turn the page of our paper. And we wonder why change happens so painfully slowly. Yes, it’s a great step that this kind of gender discrimination is being called out on social media, and it’s great that it makes it into the newspapers, but it’s not enough anymore to be shocked, or offended, or incredulous.

At a moment like this, a company like Clarks has an incredible opportunity to push forward genuine change. To be real leaders themselves. What if, instead of stiffly saying that they are “sorry for any offence caused” and crossing their fingers that the British public will soon find something else to talk about, they came forward and said “there’s a real problem here with the gender biases we impose on 3 and 4 year old children, and the impact this has on society as a whole shouldn’t be underestimated”?

What if they were transparent and said, “we don’t have all the answers but we’re working hard to make sure that we are neither creating nor enforcing any discriminatory stereotypes through our products”? What if they used the media attention they’re receiving to be bold? What if they launched a new range, for all children, designed for running and jumping and keeping small toes dry?

So ok, I’ll admit, this is hardly a life-or-death situation. There is plenty else going on in the world today deserving of our attention, worry and brainpower. But the problems we face on a global scale require a generation of smart, strong, confident, thoughtful and inclusive young people to solve them. A generation split into Dolly Babes and Leaders from the age of 4 aren’t going to be up to that task. The branding of these school shoes matters, because the ideas we plant into children’s brains directly determine the kind of people they grow to be. And the kind of people who make up the world really, really matters.

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Category: Society
Tagged with: everyday sexism    feminism    gender bias    gender stereotypes    UK

Eleanor Gall


Eleanor is a writer, advocate and Editor-in-Chief of Girls' Globe. She's passionate about human rights and believes in the power of storytelling to create change. Eleanor has a MA in English Literature and her writing on rights, equality and justice has been published by national and international media outlets.

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