Gender stereotyping has a tendency to feel like a poor relation to full-on, in-your-face misogyny. While it’s not ideal that Kinder Surprise eggs now come in pink and blue versions, or that girls now get their own, super-girlified versions of Jenga and Lego, just how much of a worry should this be? Aren’t there more serious issues to think about? And anyhow, is it really sexism or just habit, laziness or a bit of harmless fun? It’s annoying, yes, but is it all that bad?
Today I received the 2013 Oxfam Unwrapped catalogue and discovered that it, too, had fallen prey to crass gender stereotypes. You’d think that the gift of a working well or a fuel-efficient stove was pretty gender neutral, but apparently not. Such things can, with a little imagination, be split into “Gifts for the girls” and “Gifts for the guys”. While it’s harder for Oxfam than it is for most other companies (for whom men’s gifts = crap gadgets, women’s gifts = over-packaged toiletry sets), the company has nevertheless pulled it off. I’m irritated, yes, but I’m also slightly impressed.
Of course, my initial thought was “does it really have to be EVERYTHING?” (believe me, I really did think it in capitals). Looking at the “for the Girls” page, it’s frightening to think that someone, somewhere thought that basic healthcare in pregnancy and the education of girls — fundamental prerequisites for equality — now need to be sold as though they’re the right-on version of a Soap and Glory gift box. Is gender stereotyping now so all-powerful that we’re forced to exploit it, even to promote values that it undermines? Isn’t there a subtle circularity to all this? Shouldn’t we expect better of Oxfam? Perhaps, but then again, how else does one identify a market segment nowadays? “Gifts for the privileged and guilt-ridden” has less of a ring to it than “Gifts for the girls/guys”.
If this is marketing strategy that works, should charities stand back while profit-making multinationals reap the benefits ? Maybe it’s even more useful if you’re a charity as it makes you seem less sanctimonious. There’s a degree of (somewhat hackneyed) humour in deciding that the “Build a bog” toilet is the ideal present for the man in your life. As for the girly stuff, isn’t practical support for women a better gift than yet another beauty product disguised as personal empowerment? The heading said support has been given — Girl Power — might turn my stomach, but I’d rather spend £12 on that than on a Dove Be You Gift set (I’ve always assumed I have no choice about being me, with or without “Purely Pampering Shea Butter bodywash and body lotion”).
I recently saw a Dave Gorman sketch in which the comic compared presents (carefully chosen items you give to people you know) to gifts (stuff you give to people when you’ve no idea what they’d like). I wonder whether, in going for gender stereotyping, Oxfam’s merely pushing for the gift market. You might not think “oh, Uncle Bob really cares about stopping the spread of deadly diseases, I’ll give him a refugee camp toilet” but you might think “ha, Bob’s a bloke, he’ll laugh if I give him a bog”. Other sections of the catalogue (aimed, for instance, at “the teacher” or “the foodie”) have enabled me to make similar links myself. It could be that most teachers I know would most like a massive bottle of booze come the end of term but already I’m thinking “if I get them the ‘Educate a Child’ kit it’ll show I’ve remembered what job they do”. It makes something look personal even when it isn’t. Gender stereotyped presents offer this form of pseudo-personalisation at its most basic level (“Look! A pink Girl’s Night In rosé and chocolates set! Don’t think I didn’t notice you identify as female!”).
In broad terms, I think the rise of pink and blue, male and female versions of everything is limiting and damaging. Just getting the idea “I am fundamentally different because I am a boy / a girl” seriously affects aspirations, performance and how an individual relates to other people. I am in fact cross about the Kinder eggs (with the proviso that I’ve always thought the surprises were crap anyhow; it’s not as though something brilliant has been destroyed). But with Oxfam? I’m sort of defending it. For now. Until the rest of the world sorts its shit out, with or without the help of “for the guys” toilets.*
*That said, I might be female, but anyone is free to buy me a Christmas bog.**
** Or some booze and a comedy bottle opener.***
*** Ideally all three.