Notice anything that stands out with this fancy dress display in Matalan?
I’ll start by saying I don’t have anything against Matalan – I actually really like some of their children’s clothes. Our local store also proved to be a cheap way to entertain Roma after she spent the best part of an hour playing in the toy area once noticing it when I was looking at said children’s clothes.
But as we were on the way out, I noticed something that stood out like a sore thumb – at least to my pop culture-loving, girl power-seeking eyes.
We started heading down one aisle when I caught a glimpse of the fancy dress section. Of course, given the fact we not long ago went to MCM Comic Con together for the third time, I thought I’d browse to see what other outfits they had for Roma to don.
Well, there were plenty of superhero choices on offer. Black Panther, not one but two Captain America suits, Iron Man, Spider-Man… Okay, so the boys were covered at least. What about the girls though? Well, first there was Spider-Girl – a costume Roma already has and wore to MCM. Then, well, nothing. Unless you count the princess dresses, of which there were many. In fact, aside from the Spider-Girl outfit, there was nothing but regal attire on offer for girls.
I have no objection to Roma’s desire to play with whatever she wants. Whether it’s a football she wants to dribble / grab and run with instead of kicking or her pram she wants to push along with dolly Bella sitting inside, it’s all good. As long as she’s using her imagination, having fun and/or being active then she’s free to crack on. I’m not going to snatch toys away and pigeonhole her to say you can only play with A or B – even though one older girl did exactly that when she objected to Roma’s use of a toy car.
So on the back of that, I don’t take any issue with Roma dressing like a princess. In fact, she recently said she felt like a princess when I slipped a new dress on her and that was an incredibly adorable moment. Similarly to the toy freedom, Roma – thanks to my expert guidance – has developed a love of superheroes in addition to princesses. So where she’ll happily watch Moana or Frozen, she’ll also put frequent requests in for DC Superhero Girls.
In the superhero world on the silver screen, women have been massively underserved. But DC changed the game with Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot in May 2017. DC has also released Supergirl on TV and more recently introduced Batwoman. Meanwhile, with 22 films now under its belt, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has only produced one film with a leading lady – Captain Marvel. And even then the film wasn’t released until March this year despite the fact the MCU was born in 2008.
But, the MCU did try to acknowledge this fact with a very memorable girl gang scene in Avengers: Endgame. It was bad ass, sure, but also had some people complaining. Asked how it came about by the Los Angeles Times, director Anthony Russo said: “Looking back on the entire road that the MCU has travelled, it just struck us how many amazing female characters have entered the [landscape]. I think it was really, for us, a moment of celebration and acknowledgment of the intensity and empowerment in that.”
I’ve embedded a discussion of the decision to run with the scene below. But just scroll past if you’re the only remaining person on the planet yet to see it and want to avoid potential spoilers.
So given that, the fact there have been such strides to empower women and girls alike, why is Matalan going down the stereotypical boys can be heroes and girls can look pretty route that’s massively outdated at this point? From both the point of view as a dad and a journalist, I was annoyed and got in contact with Matalan to find out where their head was at when putting the display together.
Firstly, I emailed customer services and asked:
I wonder if you can help? The other day I was shopping in Matalan to find clothes for my daughter. And when I looked at the fancy dress section I found there was a clear divide between what’s on offer for boys and what’s on offer for girls.
The girls had endless options for princess dresses, while boys had plenty of superhero costumes to choose from. There was just one solitary superhero costume for girls available – a Spider-Girl dress.
Given that there has been a demonstrable rise in female superheroes in recent years, why aren’t there any superhero options available for girls? The display seems to stick to the traditional theme of boys being strong, able to do anything and save the day while girls are there to be pretty princesses waiting for a prince, even though they’re capable of so much more.
I’m curious to know what Matalan’s thought process behind the display was and whether there’s any more light that can be shed on the matter?
When the reply finally came through, the spokesperson gave a rather vanilla response and said:
Thank you for contacting Matalan Customer Care,
Further to your email, I would like to apologize for any inconvenience this might have caused you. Please be advised that your comments were very much appreciated. I would like to assure you that your feedback will be passed to the appropriate department so further measures could be taken.
Listening to our customers is important to us, so any feedback regarding our services will always be welcome. Please accept our sincere apologies once again.
Thank your for getting in touch and I am here if you need any further assistance.
As you can see, that didn’t exactly answer my question so I sent a follow-up the same day to reiterate my query.
I appreciate the apology and the fact you’ll be passing this on. However, it’s more of an explanation I’m looking for. What’s the reasoning behind this form of store layout and clear-cut gender divide of the products?
Why aren’t there any superhero options available for girls? I’m curious to know what Matalan’s thought process behind the display was and whether there’s any more light that can be shed on the matter?
I finally received a second response this week.
Thank you for your email.
Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding, however the customer services department has been significantly impacted by higher than usual email volumes and unfortunately we have become backlogged. We appreciate your patience and understanding. I am sorry that you have been disappointed with the layout of the costume products within our childernswear range.
We are unable to explain why this decision has been made, I will however forward your comments to our team so that the layout of the products can be looked into.
I’m here if you require any further assistance.
Meh. As for the corporate response, which I had to send two follow-up emails for in order to get some acknowledgement, I received the following:
Your enquiry below was passed to us as PR agency for Matalan.
We don’t have a particular comment from the Company, however can assure you that your comments and concerns have been fed back to the relevant teams. For your background, the business remains aware that gendered clothing is a topical and important issue for the retail sector and this remains under consideration. Fitting Matalan’s mission to be a responsible modern family retailer, it is continually listening to customers, to ensure the proposition best suits their preferences and families’ needs.
So yeah, pretty impersonal and generic responses all around. But I was curious to know how other people felt about the situation of boys and girls clothing, which of course isn’t just limited to Matalan. Back in 2017 around the time The Last Jedi hit cinemas, one dad was left hollow after wanting to treat his Star Wars-loving daughter to a new tee in the Irish equivalent of Primark, Penneys. Essentially, he found that all the merch was in the boys’ section, which put his daughter off wanting to get a new top. “My daughter loves unicorns, fairies and Star Wars but she wouldn’t let me buy her a Star Wars T-shirt because the sign says they are just for boys,” father Paul told The Sun. “She’s six and feels these are rules she has to adhere to.”
The response to Paul’s concern from Penneys could be likened to the one I had from Matalan, as the retailer said: “Primark prides itself on offering a diverse range of products and styles to suit a variety of ages and tastes. We welcome customer feedback on all our products and we have been in touch with the customer concerned.”
Talking with my friend Steph, whose work you can find on her blog DivaMumSteph, she told me her daughter Ciara’s favourite thing of all is dinosaurs. Naturally, PAW Patrol followed on from the prehistoric beasts in close second alongside PJ Masks. “I challenge anyone to find me suitable female attire for Catboy or Marshall,” she says. “Maybe that’s because they are deemed male and I guess that’s ok.”
There’s a broader issue at play here though, beyond specific characters. “But why when I want to buy her a dinosaur T-shirt am I faced with a tiny little pink T-Rex with a pot belly and cartoon eyes, as opposed to the boys’ section which have readily available life-like dinosaur representations?” Steph asks. “All of course, in boyish colours.” Her call to action would be for these stores to open their eyes and take a look at the world around them. “If we want oppose the stereotype, available fashion for little kids would be a good place to start.”
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Someone else well-placed to know all about the stereotypical nature of children’s fashion is Jen, the founder of Not Just A Princess, which she launched to spread gender-positive messaging through clothing.
Speaking with me specifically about the Matalan display, Jen says: “The issue with this is it’s limiting to both genders. The subtle societal messages we are reinforcing are that boys should embrace characters that are brave and strong and should save the world, while girls should embrace characters that are pretty, sparkly and often need rescuing by a man.”
Jen goes on to commend the effort that has been made to a point but adds it’s nowhere near enough. “The Spider-Girl dress is an improvement as it sort of gives a bit of both,” she says, indicating the cocktail of both strong, heroic and sparkly. “And some princess characters have hero strength to them that leads to more ambition – Elsa for example.
That said, why not just have Spider-Man in the girls’ section too – does it need a sparkly skirt? And what about boys who might want to be a princess themselves?” On that theme, I previously heard from a friend whose son was called out by a stranger for playing with a doll.
So who’s to blame here for the lack of gender representation? “Is it Matalan’s fault? Maybe a bit,” opines Jen. “I also think we need to retell a lot of the stories out there and books and films need more female strong and brave superheroes where finding a man isn’t the main part of their story – see Wonder Woman or Moana for examples. Then we’ll have outfits, and playtime, to match the equal opportunities boys and girls deserve.”