The Vagenda

Christmas Sexism

Christmas gift buying can be hard. Accepted. And not just because the whole nation is simultaneously trying to plunder the entire high street, but because, suddenly, you find yourself having to define your relationship to someone in the form of a purchaseable, physical object.* You are faced with the challenge of finding something personal, that demonstrates that you have the faintest idea who that person is, what they like, what is important to them. For some people, this comes very naturally, but for others, it’s a real struggle.
So in steps the Christmas Gift Guide. The idea behind this handy shopping aid is that it will categorise items into what would make a good gift for different groups of people, thus narrowing down your search a little, and allowing some ideas you may not have considered to be presented to you. So far, so incredibly helpful. The problem is, though, categorised as it so often is into ‘for him’ and ‘for her’, the Christmas Gift Guide is also a festive bastion of casual sexism. 
Take Marks and Spencers for example. Now, M&S is a shop I usually get along famously with. They do good, quality clothes for a wide variety of women and, unlike, say, Topshop, they have no pretensions that putting an outfit together should be a competitive bloodsport. If you go into their stores, you’ll probably also find that their Christmas section is pretty good. Their online gift guide, however, is dire.

It, like so many others, is based on the ‘for him’ ‘for her’ premise. Chose ‘for her’, and the site then takes you to a ‘for her’ site that offers three categories of ‘Lingerie’, ‘Beauty’ and ‘Cashmere’. The ‘for him’ section will take you to an equally bland section that also recommends ‘Cashmere’ alongside ‘Leather’ and ‘Boys Toys’. The Boys Toys section features the best stuff – all the non-gender specific things, that aren’t specifically feminine, and so must be for the boys. Stuff for the car, for example (which I’m classifying as gender neutral as a SHIT TONNE of women drive, it’s not just something men do for fun), desktop games, lamps, notebooks, trivia cards. Y’know, the good stuff. The fun stuff.

However, worst bit is probably the ‘Gift Finder’. This asks you to define your intended recipient by gender, relationship (are they your mum, brother, friend, etc), age and then one of 5 personality types. The personality types for men are as follows:

Dapper Dresser (so, basically, likes clothes and is under 50)
Perfect Gent (likes clothes and is over 50)
Big Kid (likes toys/gadgets)
Gastronomic Gourmet (likes food)
Great Explorer (likes travel)

The 5 categories for women are:
Fashionista (likes clothes)
Glamour Puss (likes clothes)
Accessory Addict (likes things that go with clothes)
Lingerie Lover (likes things that go under clothes)
Domestic Goddess (likes things for the home)

The problem with this is so glaringly, ‘let’s-point-and-laugh’ stereotypically sexist that I can’t really be bothered to dissect it too much. It’s the whole ‘women like shiny things/fashion’, ‘women want to look nice’, ‘women don’t want anything that’s not expressly related to being a woman’ etc etc etc – it’s all standard stuff and if you feel a bit left behind at this point then I’m guessing it’s your first visit to a feminist blog.

No, casual sexism is only one problem. The other problem is that it is deeply, deeply unhelpful. Because it offers to give you help finding that perfect gift for your loved one, but then effectively only provides two categories (home and clothes) for women, and leaves everything else to the guys in a generic ‘boys toys’ category that doesn’t help you search for anything else. There’s a bizarre paradox that we should be presenting personal gifts that express the fact that we know, and have thought, about a person, but in order to do it we have to forget everything we know about that person except what gender they belong to. ‘Oh, your mum is it, here, how about a Great British Bake Off cake tin? But she’s into orienteering, you say? No, that can’t be right’.

Last year, I got nearly all my present ideas from The Independent’s online gift guide. And d’you know why? Because it was categorised by interest. Gifts for gardeners, gifts for book lovers, gifts for foodies, etc. The fact is, our gender is only one tiny slice of our identities. I’m a woman, but I’m also a runner, a reader, a writer, an eater, a baker, a traveller (kind of), a stationery geek and a person who is becoming increasingly fascinated by the first manned space missions. My boyfriend is a man, but he’s also a cook, a musician, a reader, a gamer, a runner, a drinks connoisseur and a person who appreciates good kitchenware. 

But when large marketing campaigns such as Christmas sales appear, this fact is forgotten, because it is much easier to try and pretend that the population can be split into two camps and then you don’t need to design a marketing strategy to address too many different groups of people. It’s easier. John Lewis has made a better go of it by dividing into gender but then dividing into interest, so, sports, home, clothes, travel, books etc (maybe because the range they sell is much wider and this approach wouldn’t really work for M&S who pretty much just sell clothes and food). So, Dear Department Stores and anyone else who cares to tell us what to buy this Christmas – please get to know your customers, please get to know your target market. Please acknowledge that people are a bit more diverse than ‘the ones with and without the tits’ (I’d probably fall into the latter), and, please, Please, don’t try to take all the magic out of Christmas to the point where you’re encouraging people to think of their family members as 1950s, chocolate-box stereotypes.
*Obviously, not all gifts have to be purchaseable – you can always bypass this particular brand of stress, and make them.

Since I wrote this article, Marks and Spencers, the devious fiends, have changed three of the ‘personality types’ for the women, meaning us ladies can no longer be Accessory Addicts, Lingerie Lovers or Glamour Pussies. For alas, these have now been replaced with Cool Coordinator, Beauty Queen and Sleeping Beauty, which are basically new titles for the exact same categories. What’s a little bit disturbing is that ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is now the name for the lingerie section; fancy lingerie is good for a lot of things (or a few specific things), but sleeping isn’t one of them. It also means that if your dad or your brother is using the Gift Finder to find some pyjamas for you, they’re gonna see panties. 

One thought on “Christmas Sexism

  1. Love this. Last year I was looking for presents for my mother, who could never be described as an ardent feminist. I was in M&S, where even in-store the gifts had been divided into these categories. I realised that everything on the “For Him” side was entirely appropriate for her; she likes puzzles, fishing, reading, wine, all of which were covered. Meanwhile half the “For Her” section would have been great for my (straight) brother; hot water bottle, hot chocolate-making kit, lip balm etc. And I come from a pretty “standard” family as far as gender stereotypes are concerned . . .