Don’t Box People in by Making a Gift of Gender Stereotyping

‘Tis the season to be gender-stereotyped. We may think it’s been a long struggle, but that at last the cause of equality is making some progress.

Belatedly, we are publicly addressing issues of power and imbalance between men and women. We are careful to use gender-neutral language. We don’t think in terms of boys’ careers and girls’ careers. We don’t assume that certain toys are suitable for girls and certain toys are suitable for boys. And then…

…the Christmas season starts (in about September) and gift catalogues, media chat, newspaper and magazine columns and displays in shops and stores conspire to return us to a world, which never really existed of course, in which maiden aunts sipped sweet sherry and rugged men wore pullovers, smoked pipes and drank beer out of tankards. (If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase maiden aunts, look it up — that’s what we used to say before the G word).

Gift World

It’s lovely to give and receive presents, and a little bit of direction in choosing can be helpful. But in the hyped-up atmosphere of the festive season, the lists of gift suggestions that we turn to for guidance can cause us to lose sight of the actual people whose presence in our lives we want to acknowledge in this tangible way.

The division of recipients into ‘For Him’, ‘For Her’, ‘For Mum, ‘For Dad’, ‘For Uncle/Aunt’ and so on reduce the complexities of human beings and human relationships to a set of broad stereotypes defined by their biological identity and biological links.

The suggestions for these categories create a world in which all men are curiously attracted to anything made of leather and like to see their initials stamped on everything they own, and in which all women are strangely addicted to chocolate and being ‘pampered’.

Role call

Faced with these offerings, our judgement falters and we lose sight of the complex, clever, thoughtful, difficult, delightful people who are our mums or dad or aunts or uncles.

As for ‘Gran or Grandad’, no matter their character or age, which may be in their 30s, the list of ideas for presents suggests they inhabit a world of lavender and slippers and rocking chairs. After all, once the role of grandparent has been created for you, you cease to be a sentient, individual being.

Of course ’twas ever thus, at least since the dawn of advertising. What we have done is swap one set of stereotypes for another.

In the 1950s, Christmas adverts suggested ironing boards and Hoovers as suitable presents for women, the same women who during the war had worked on the land and in munitions factories, driven ambulances, cracked codes at Bletchley Park.

Men were presented as being practical guys around the house, delighted recipients of drills and electric tools.

Under the influence

We know how and why it works, we’ve seen Mad Men, but understanding the mechanics of an industry doesn’t make us immune to its powerful influence.

It’s strange that a festival whose message is hope for humanity should cause us to lose sight of the very things which make us unique human beings. At this point in our history, we would benefit more than ever from seeing beyond stereotypes.

We would benefit from not sticking groups of people in boxes and slapping reductive labels on them. The best gift of all is the acknowledgement and recognition of a person’s true self. It’s worth lighting a Christmas candle to that.

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