Friday, 14 May 2010

Boys save the world, girls get a manicure: naming and shaming David Lloyd York

Here's something I came across at my gym (David Lloyd York) earlier.
I had to shrink it down to fit it on the page, so here's a clearer version:

Now, I have issues with my gym in the first place. It sends out an unbelievable amount of messages enforcing the idea that thin = beautiful, thin = healthy, thin = morally good. But I tell myself that this should come as no surprise, this should be nothing more than we expect from a gym. After all, they directly profit from their customers' self-loathing and self-recrimination about their weight and appearance. Here, however, David Lloyd are actively pushing the most outdated and face-palmingly stereotypical ascriptive gender roles possible, and worse, they are pushing them on children - and as far as I can tell they are doing it for no particular reason.

Now, hopefully I don't need to explain why this is problematic. But I am going to spend a little time deconstructing how it is, by pulling out the different threads that feed into this offensive poster and examining them each more closely.

Value of the activity

Let's look again at how the invitation is extended to the boys. "We need you to save the world!" Now, any adult reading this poster knows that the two activities offered to the kids on the basis of their gender have no major difference in value. They're both means of keeping the children occupied for a while so that their parents can relax. David Lloyd doesn't really need little boys to save the world. But the activity they undertake is loaded with value by the advertisement. The boys are told, and are encouraged to pretend, that their playtime will save mankind. Pretty empowering stuff! Fed ideas like that, they might just grow up and go into the world believing not only that they can make a difference, they'll know that they're the right people to be making a difference.

Let's try and find some value assigned to the activities for the girls.


In contrast to the boys' section, there is nothing here to suggest that there's any reason, value or purpose in undertaking the task of being a princess. All we're told is that girls will love it! You hear that, girls? You. Will. Love. It. Now sit down and enjoy your pedicure, goddammit.

Focus on attractiveness

I'll just comment on this quickly, since it's so obvious. The activities appropriate to being a girl involve prettying oneself up - not for any particular reason, just because it's what girls do and it's what makes girls happy. Going back to the assessment of value, in so far as they are permitted to achieve something valuable (becoming a princess), the only way of achieving it is by heightening their physical attractiveness. Again, awesome message being sent out here to young children.

The boys, meanwhile, have no reason to believe their physical attractiveness will make a jot of difference as to whether they can become superheroes and save the world. Woah, it's just like being a grown up!

Nature of the activity

Here that classic old gender dichotomy of passive/active rears its head. Sexists throughout history have employed the idea that men carry the vitalising force of life, while women are mere vessels, to justify and underpin their ideas. So it should be no surprise that what boys are given to do involves actually doing something - flying leaps! karate chops! round house kicks! - and probably making a lot of noise and a lot of mess while doing it (which will of course all be forgiven, because, you know, boys will be boys). Meanwhile, as alluded to before, the girls are required to sit still and be demure and have things done to them. There shall be no running around: that might mess up your hair and make up.

Along similar lines, the boys are encouraged to exercise their skills of creativity by designing their own super hero outfits. At the end of the day, there will be something they can take home and keep, knowing that they made it and put something of themselves into it. The girls will each be presented with "their very own crown". Except it's only their own in so far as someone else is deigning to give it to them. Yay?

A final note here: traditional male gender roles are just as damaging to equality as female ones, primarily in the way they promote violence and aggression. Fittingly, these are endorsed equally here alongside the equality-damaging female gender norms - what the boys are actually doing is being taught to fight.

Approach to food

This point might seem petty, but anyone who has had a troubled relationship with food (which I expect will be the vast majority of women reading this, and relatively few men) ought to be able to appreciate why I bring it up. We're told "obviously saving the world is hard work, so the boys will have fresh fruit, crisps and drinks to sustain them." The high level of physical exertion the boys will have undertaken in their extremely valuable task demands that they be fed; they'll need food to replenish their energy after all that saving the world. This treats food as exactly what it is: a form of nourishment that we need to balance out the energy we expend.

Girls, on the other hand, will have "fresh fruit and crisps to nibble on". Not only does their form of activity not require any energy replenishment, they are only permitted to eat in a particular manner: in very small amounts, in a ladylike fashion. They're not to devour their crisps or wolf down their fresh fruit. They may nibble, and then they may collectively shame themselves about the calorie content of what they've just eaten - oh, sorry, passed into grown up world there for a second.

The gender complement

Has anyone else noticed how the two roles assigned to boys and girls here fit together perfectly? The boys will be super heroes, and the girls will be princesses - and we all know that the main ambition of a princess is to be rescued by a man. It's not just gender roles that are being taught here, but overtly heterosexual gender roles. The kids have to be reminded that the proper behaviour of boys and girls fits together perfectly and naturally! How else would they learn that the only right kind of partnership is that between a man and a woman? You know, other than from all the messages they receive every day from the media and society in general.

Now, you might think, perhaps I'm coming down too hard on David Lloyd. After all, what they aim to achieve is giving parents a break from the toils of childcare, and since that's primarily undertaken by mothers, this is kind of good for gender equality, right? And besides, there's always that gender-neutral option of a movie night at the bottom! If parents don't want their kids to grow up fitting strictly into the received notion of what men and women are supposed to be, or if their children are a little resistant to being superheroes or princesses, they can watch a movie. So there's really no need for all this fretting. Right?

I thought that at first too, but then I figured I should pay the gender-neutral option as much attention as I paid the other two, and having done so I'm not so sure whether it's a positive alternative. It's the option "for the kids who just want to chill out". In the boys' case, I assume, this means the kids who are too lazy to want to do flying leaps and round house kicks, or too apathetic or cynical to be duped into thinking these things will save the world. For girls, it's the only alternative to spending the evening primping yourself to achieve maximum physical beauty. So, if you're a girl who doesn't feel so great about the way she looks, maybe you'd rather "chill out" at the movie night.

I don't think it's a coincidence that "lazy" and "physically unattractive" both correlate to "fat" in our culture (and even more so in the culture of David Lloyd, as I mentioned at the very start). After all, look at how food is presented here - very different to both the sustenance model of boys' eating and the nibbling model of girls', what's on offer here is gorging oneself. "Endless amounts of popcorn and soft drinks" is rather different to the balanced combination of fruit and crisps offered elsewhere, and the fact that it's endless is presumably intended to appeal to the crowd of childhood overeaters. This isn't so much a gender-neutral alternative as it is an alternative for the boys who are too lazy or fat to be super heroes and the girls who are too ugly or fat to be princesses. What's implied is that you can't choose to opt out of ascriptive gender roles, you can only fail at living up to them. (Again, we recognise this in grown up life - remember how all feminists are ugly, hairy, alone and bitter?)

A final note - I mentioned at the outset that David Lloyd are pushing gender roles on children for no apparent reason; they don't have an obvious profit motive here, as they do when they try to convince their adult customers they are too fat. But it occurs to me that not only is it for no reason, it's also counterproductive to their own line of business. Anecdotal evidence suggests that at least half of David Lloyd York's clientèle are female. Telling a little girl that physical activity is only for boys, and what she ought to do is sit quietly and have her nails done, is hardly going to encourage her to grow up to be the kind of person who pays an extortionate amount of money to use a gym (which involves physical exertion, and getting sweaty, ew, and messing up her hair, omg!). Western society spent a lot of time thinking that women were too frail and delicate to participate in physical activity; I'd like to leave that in the past, and it would be in David Lloyd's best interests to do the same.

1 comment:

  1. Have you said anything to your gym about it? Because that is really quite offensive and not very well thought out on their part.