When charities use gender stereotyping: Oxfam Unwrapped

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.


8 thoughts on “When charities use gender stereotyping: Oxfam Unwrapped

  1. Hey, I’m a straight woman and I love bogs. They’re the most fascinating things….

    I keep hoping we’ll realize just how horrible all this gendering is, but I feel like it keeps getting *worse.* I guess I’ll continue to do my part by absolutely never-ever wearing pink.

  2. Brilliant post as ever, spot on. I love your point about the disguise of soap as female empowerment or self-realization.

    This time I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion (although I was for the covering up of lads’ mags, which would be an eg of the same argument: complicity in the name of progress is acceptable as a weapon of progress). Oxfam subverts its own subversion in gendering “gifts” for the giver. At one end of the distribution, it forges gender-equal progress; at the other the chain rots into stereotype and infantilism. Gender DIFFERENCE and its recognition can be crucial in self-realisation (as long as it is not essentialized/stereotyped). But differentiation is a luxury that comes after some form of equality has been won, and that cannot occur until basic health, hygiene and education are empowering communities NOT to oppress each other. To me it’s a shame that Oxfam shows contempt for the progress towards emancipation that the west HAS achieved by participating in gender stereotyping.

  3. The most depressing thing about gendering charity gifts is that it further entrenches the ‘their problem’ fallacy and limitations of empathy. Men are not expected to care about ‘women’s issues’ such as pre-natal care or the education of girls; that’s ‘their problem’. Since White man is The Universal we all care about male problems by default.

  4. Gender equality is a serious topic and we still have far to go but we will never get there when you focus on such a non-issue as this. (And you must realise this fact as you ask that very same question at the start of your post.) Women are facing very real, very serious issues around the world so why don’t you call attention to those instead of complaining about the fact that some products are marketed toward men or women? You know, those serious problems women face that organisations like Oxfam are doing something about? Let’s be honest, are you going to start complaining about age-ism when retailers suggest that a certain product might be best for a kid? No. Let’s worry about serious issues (lack of education, equal pay, equal opportunity, fulfillment of basic human rights) that women face before we start focusing on superfluous fluff like this.

      1. One would hope that would lead you to put things in perspective. It would just be nice to see more bloggers like you do a little less complaining and instead put your passion and talent towards issues that matter and are more worthy of discourse.

    1. Actually, this ISN’T a little issue. It is precisely this sort of gendering that serves as the cultural bulwark behind issues such as lower pay and legislation of our bodies.

      This IS a big deal.

  5. Let’s be thankful the girls weren’t presented with pink bog cleaning gear to keep his bog nice and fresh without nasty niffs.

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