Ho, ho, ho. Not all men want beer-related gifts, you know. Photo: Pete Norton/Getty Images
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Secret santa sexism: why are we so keen to reinforce gender roles for adults at Christmas?

Some progress has been made in getting rid of toys marketed specifically at girls or boys, yet we’re still confronted with “For Him” and “For Her” in every Christmas catalogue that plops through the door.

Gender! (huh, yeah)

What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing… (sing to tune of “War” by Edwin Starr, repeat until patriarchy crumbles)

Do you like my new feminist anthem? I was rather proud of it, until I realised it’s not strictly true. Gender is good for several things, such as: putting people off learning German; maintaining the oppression of the subjugated sex class; workplace Secret Santa. Obviously, as a linguist and a feminist, I’m not exactly down with the first two. However, as far as I’m concerned, Secret Santa is where gender comes into its own.

The philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards notes that “while feminists must be committed to attacking all cultural distinctions which actually degrade women, the indiscriminate pursuit of an androgynous culture must involve the elimination of innocuous cultural differences as well, and with them the source of a great deal of pleasure to many people”. Basically, I think what she’s talking about is buying presents for colleagues you don’t know. Without gender, this would be an utter nightmare. Right now, even if you pick out the name of someone who sits miles (ie two desks) away, with whom you’ve never exchanged more than four words (“is this photocopier working?”), there’s no need to panic. Just note down whether this person is a he or a she and buy accordingly: Bayliss & Harding toiletries for the girls, something beer-related that isn’t actually beer for the boys (NB this also works for friends and relatives you don’t like).

Christmas is a time when adults have obvious reasons to treat each other as pronouns, nothing more: For Her (blank-faced woman who likes bubble bath and chocolate), For Him (blank-faced man who likes booze and crap jokes). We may, of course, reach a point when more pronouns are added to the list. Nonetheless, the idea of buying things for individuals because we know them and like them – or of just using our own goddam imaginations – seems terribly distant. In an increasingly individualistic society, labels are useful. Relationships take effort; sexism, meanwhile, can be outsourced to drop-down menus on websites. You can skip the whole laborious “what do women want?” rigmarole. The internet will tell you (Freud would have had a field day, although I suspect even he’d balk at “a silver glitter Cava shoe and a singing duck watering can”).

The campaign group Let Toys Be Toys recently launched a #shopoutsidethebox campaign, asking toy marketers to reject “pink for girls and blue for boys” advertising this Christmas. 6 December – a key Christmas shopping date – has been earmarked as a day on which to spread the word (you can sign up to “donate” a tweet or Facebook post here). There is, however, no equivalent campaign on behalf of adults. It seems we’re either beyond help or just not ready to let go of the reassurance that comes from buying an elderly uncle a t-shirt from Old Guys Rule (although I’m glad we finally have a shop that is, quite literally, the definition of patriarchy).

Of course, I’m curious as to how this might reinforce other gender roles at Christmas. Does receiving something pink and sparkly make you more resigned to peeling the potatoes and tending to the kids? Does getting a L’Oréal Men Expert The Action Hero gift set provide you with the extra manly strength required to SHOW THAT TURKEY WHO’S BOSS? Certainly, on a day when those closest to you have given you gifts which suggest you’re a walking stereotype, it seems rude not to play along (although receiving a Lynx gift set does not, I think, justify coming down to Christmas dinner in one of these). But at least we’re all in the same boat and besides, if the worst effect of gender was “it means you get crap Christmas presents”, we’d be laughing.

This year I am at least trying to do things differently, not just for my sons but for the adults around me. For instance, I’m trying to cross-stitch a map of Cheshire for a grown-up male relative. I don’t know if he wants a cross-stitched map of Cheshire. I just want to give him something that shows I’ve put in time and effort (and believe me, embroidering Jodrell Bank after a glass or two of mulled wine is no mean feat). I don’t want him to think I’ve just thought “male” and chucked any old thing his way. And so he’s getting Cheshire on a piece of cloth (I might throw in some beer mats, just in case).

Alas, my office Secret Santa isn’t being awarded the same degree of care and attention. As soon as I read the name I knew gender was the only option. I’m not proud but hey, it proves I’ve noticed at least one superficial thing about this person. I never thought I’d say it but sometimes, even sexism has its uses.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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How gendered are this year’s most popular Christmas present toys?

Meet the groups fighting back against the gendering of children’s toys over the festive season.

You’re a young girl. You go into WH Smith’s to pick out a colouring book for Christmas. You could buy the Girls’ World Doodling and Colouring Book, a "gorgeous gift for any girl". In this, the pictures range "from flowers, fans, feathers, to birds, buttons and butterflies". Or Colouring for Girls: Pretty Pictures to Colour and Complete, where you can colour in "beautiful birds, seashells, cupcakes, pretty patterns and lots more". The counterpart Boys’ Colouring Book has a range beyond buttons and feathers: "Planes, trains and automobiles – plus the odd alien spacecraft".

In the run-up to Christmas, this kind of gendered marketing is rife, particularly finding its way into the predominantly pink colour scheme of girls’ toys.

Take Amazon’s page "2016 Toys for Girls": a pink icecream trolly set, a pink light-up tablet, pink building blocks, pink and purple friendship bracelets and so on.

There are several groups taking action against the "pinkification" of children’s toys. One of these is Let Toys Be Toys, a group that targets large supermarkets with the aim of reducing the gendered marketing used on children’s goods.

The Let Toys Be Toys blog focuses on specific examples of targeted gendering within shops, catalgoues and online. A particularly revealing example of how prevalent this has become in recent years is in two pictures published from the Argos catalogue, one from the Seventies, and one from nowadays. The eye-wateringly pink page from now makes the 1970s page look dour by comparison. The lack of change over four decades of what kind of products are marketed at girls is equally striking:

Despite the efforts of campaign groups such as Let Toys Be Toys, the prevalence of gendering within the highest-rated children's gifts for 2016 is staggering.

Look no further than the Ultimate Christmas Gifts Guide from Toys R Us. One of the most immediately obvious examples is the way in which the pink/blue colour schemes are used to market identical products. This is repeated again and again:

This identical drawing board is uniquely packaged to the binary colour codes that are so common within children's toys stores.

The same applies with this keyboard, where the young girl and boy are pictured almost identically, save for the coordination of their clothes to the colour of their toys.

The message is a hugely limiting one: one that allows little movement away from the binary of pink/blue. The effects of this are longstanding. A recent poll from YouGov shows that "only a third of parents approve of boys playing with Barbies". The data goes on to explain that "while most parents approve of girls playing with toys marketed to boys, a minority of adults approve of the opposite".

Images like this were the inspiration behind Let Toys Be Toys, back in 2012. The campaign began on Mumsnet, the forum for parents, on a section called "AIBU", which stands for "Am I Being Unreasonable?". One parent posted the question: "Am I being unreasonable to think that the gendered way that children’s toys are marketed has got completely out of hand?" The heated discussion that followed led to a sub-section with the founding memebers of Let Toys Be Toys.

This aside, Let Toys Be Toys has made signifcant progess since it began. It targets large stores, focusing on gendered signage both in store and online. In their four years, they have campaigned for signs like "girls' toys" and "boys' toys" to be removed from retailers such as Boots, Debenhams, Morrisons, Toys R Us and TK Maxx. It is the go-to hashtag on Twitter for examples of the often shocking gendering of children’s toys.

"This is ostensibly about toys, but what we’re really talking about is gender stereotypes that shape our children’s worlds in an apparently very unassuming way," says Jess Day, a Let Toys Be Toys campaigner. "It seems very innocent, but actually what we’re doing is giving children very clear instructions about how to be a man and how to be a woman."

These clear instructions work beyond colour coordination: where girls are sold the image of the pink "girly girl", for instance. This is evident in children’s fancy dress costumes. Early Learning Centre’s (ELC) children’s fancy dress range imposes very rigid gender roles. To give examples from the current christmas range:


Credit: ELC

Again, the predominant colour sceme is pink. The roles offered are mainly fairies and princessess: generally make-believe.

“I found it really interesting that there were almost no ads showing girls doing anything," comments Day. "Physically they were very passive. The only physical activity we saw girls doing was dancing. They weren't really moving around much."


Image: ELC

By contrast, young boys are offered the possibility of pretending to be a firefighter, a policeman or a doctor, among other practical, professional roles.

This year's Toys R Us Christmas advert follows on from this, with girls mainly dressed as princesses, and boys dressed as knights and kings. Much like the pink/blue colour scheme that we see all over children's shops, these fancy dress costumes create an unnatural binary. They send out a message that restricts any kind of subversion of these two supposedly polar opposites.

What's more, the subtext is one that is deeply rooted in expectations, building up a picture where careers such as that of a policeman and fireman come more naturally to boys, who have been socialised into these roles from childhood through fancy dress costumes of this type. Instead, girls are later forced to learn that most of us aren't going to become princessess, and none of us fairies – and so the slow process begins to unlearn these expectations.

There are certainly groups who try to counteract this. Manufacturers such as the toy brand IamElemental aims to break down the gendered distinctions between boys' toys and girls' toys, by creating female action figures.

“We always say that we are not anti-doll or anti-princess, but that if you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story," says Julie Kershaw, a member of the organisation. "As the mom of two boys, I always say that it’s just as important to put a strong healthy female action figure in a boy’s hand as it is a girl’s”.

Like the campaigners behind Let Toys Be Toys, IamElemental sees children’s toys as the starting point.

“We want kids – both girls and boys  – to internalise these messages early and often,” says Kershaw. “While there are certainly biological differences between girls and boys, gender-specific toys are not a biologically dictated truth. Toys are not “for girls” or “for boys”  – toys are for play; for exploration and creative expression.”

This attitude is ingrained in a child’s early years. Only through reconfiguring the gender sterotypes of the toys we buy for our children can we begin to break down their expectations of how to behave in age. We challenge you this Christmas to avoid these highly gendered products. Below are our three favourite Christmas presents for children this year, for girls AND boys, as approved by Let Toys Be Toys:

Mini Table Tennis (£7.99)


From: The Little Toy Box

Djeco Intro to Origami - Animals (£3.99)

From: Rachel's Toy Shop

Seedling Make Your Own Dino Softie! - Dino(sew)or Kit (£5)


From: Gifts For Little Ones