Present Day: Time to Rethink Gendered Gift-Giving

We question why, even in adulthood, we resort to stereotypes when stuck for Christmas gift ideas

Feature by Toby Sharpe | 08 Dec 2017

The holiday season is bloody tiring – it's dark outside at two in the afternoon, you're barraged by tinny festive choruses, and the British high street is dressed up like a dystopian Candyland from the start of October. Even if you’re not the one preparing a turkey dinner for 15 great-nephews, you’re probably sick of the season before it’s even really begun. The holidays often force you to travel across the country. There’s a ton of awkward small talk. Perhaps most upsettingly, you’re forced to spend hard-earned cash on presents that you know will end up gathering dust in someone’s shed.

Gift-giving is hard. You have to think for at least two minutes about whether your uncle Geoff is even going to be at Aunty Sheila’s this year (is he on a cruise with his new wife?), and then you throw down a ton of money that you could have spent on avocado toast and a Tinder Gold membership. It’s a lot of cash, and if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re in my generation: the first in recent history that’ll be poorer than its parents’. The urge to buy something affordable, though maybe pointless and plastic, makes sense. It’s easy to grab something tacky and sparkly for a niece and a water gun for your nephew – or perhaps just whatever’s on sale. The problem is, though, that this desire to cut down on mental effort leads one to make some reductive decisions based on gender norms.

Gendered gifts are easy to purchase. Society already gives you all the answers. Do you have a woman over 40 in your life? Buy her a candle. She’ll LOVE it. Do you have a man in your life? He’s probably a blithering idiot who can only express enthusiasm for cars, so buy him something vaguely vehicular. Like a spanner, or a wrench! Maybe something with Jeremy Clarkson on the cover. Young boy? Obviously: football. Young girl? Something pink and glittery which will decimate her parents’ home with its glimmering shrapnel. Perhaps you’re related to a millennial, to whom you can no longer relate because they’re now a social justice warrior with impeccable hair. Remind them of the prison that is patriarchy with a few outfits you’ve thrown together for them without considering their own taste in colours and styles. Chuck in some commentary about how sweet they’d look if they just tried a little harder.

Maybe you want to break free of this troubling paradigm and fight gender norms. You might want to buy your niece a spaceship, get a princess outfit for your grandson. However, attempting to escape this gender binary can be easier said than done, especially as retailers generally resist marketing products as potential gifts for people of all genders. Small steps are being made, though – John Lewis no longer labels kids’ clothing as specially for ‘boys’ or ‘girls’. Even so, most of the high street, especially when one’s shopping for children, is firmly divided between rose and cerulean, girl and boy, flower-fairy or football fanatic. It’s a mess.

Whenever you acknowledge this kind of problem, someone always retorts that some people genuinely enjoy gendered products. This, they think, is a hot take. One would think, listening to the loudest of these voices, that heteronormative society is under attack. It’s not. It’s a tricky balance, of course, because for some, finally being able to identify with ‘traditional’ gender roles can be empowering. For gay men, for example, being able to safely enjoy fitness culture can be profoundly empowering, after childhood years of exclusion from locker-room life. For many women, whose interest in femininity has been derided throughout their lives, engaging in make-up and fashion can feel like a reclamation of their own selfhood.

Even so, it's important we consider how certain people may feel when bought gender-normative gifts. If you’re a struggling gay kid, presents that remind you of a heteronormative world you’re excluded from can be suffocating. And if you’re beginning to realise your gender identity doesn’t match up with who your family sees you as being, then their pink or blue presents can feel like attacks.  Experiences are not universal, and what seems like fun to some can be subtly wounding for someone else.

We need to broaden the possibility of gifts and fun, rather than dictate what people should enjoy. Being mindful of the types of gifts we buy isn't denying people their gender, only giving people a chance to breathe beyond their own. If you’re a guy and you love football, more power to you. If you’re a woman who loves make-up, dope. The point remains that society requires an emotionally-engaged conversation. Don’t assume that your aunt necessarily craves lavender-scented everything, but, yes, if she does, indulge that yearning. If she implies she’d rather have a guide to monster truck repair, don’t buy her mango body butter.

Think about the message we might be sending to young people; how does it look to kids when the adults in their lives only ever receive gender-normative products? Ask your loved one what they want. Don’t just assume based on their gender or, indeed, the gender you perceive them to identify with. And perhaps you think that resorting to asking someone what they'd like ruins the magic of Christmas. But when you ponder all the presents that you may have ever been given, do you really think your family and friends truly telepathically knew what you wanted? Are you still using the novelty football phone someone gave you? Or that homebrewing kit?

If your loved ones articulate a want for something traditional, girly, masculine: that’s fine. If they don’t, then actually engage with the task of thinking of something new. There are, let’s not forget, a trillion gifts you could buy which aren’t obviously associated with one gender or another. And if you’re not comfortable with just asking someone what they’d like for Christmas, without even forcing a conversation about traditional gender roles, then maybe you’re not close enough to be buying them a present in the first place.