The Vagenda Christmas gift guide - for those tired of clichés and stereotypes

Why not eschew the rhinestone-encrusted dusting pan or the "motoring boys' toy" in favour of something the recipient might actually like?

There was a time when all anyone wanted for Christmas was their two front teeth, but in the last twenty years, gift demands from the music world have undoubtedly accelerated. Mariah Carey famously wanted you (yes, YOU! Er, and you, and you, and you) something which sounds like quite an understated demand when put in the context of her pimptastic New York abode as seen by millions of awestruck viewers on MTV Cribs, but starts to seem like a big ask when you put the merely financial aside. Meanwhile, the Victoria’s Secret Angels have appeared in their annual yuletide advert, dressed in the requisite festive uniform of Santa hats and not much else, imploring the innocent shopper to give up their love and dignity for a glimpse of their stocking-clad body. This ends up with them making the kind of Christmas demands that, let’s face it, women who don’t look like Miranda Kerr in red lingerie (hello there! Pleased to meet you) would worry made them seem a little, well, needy ("tell me you want me", "delight me", "dazzle me"). Playing it cool they most certainly are not.  

Whatever’s on your Christmas list this year, it goes without saying that this whole business of gifting is worryingly fraught, whether you’re a taxpayer trying to avoid using Amazon in protest (incidentally, isn’t it wonderful how, in light of the mass boycott of Starbucks this year, there are barely any gingerbread latte Instagram shots being posted to Facebook by smug fucks?) or a feminist trying to avoid your goddaughter’s increasingly persistent demands for a Barbie. Everyone knows the festive season provides the perfect excuse to make everyone else aware of your personal principles – perhaps by buying you a goat for an African village or donating your present money to a homeless shelter. And while that might cause a fraction of disappointment on the face of the sister who expected a pair of GHDs, it remains a preferable alternative to the stress of trying to find that perfect gift to encapsulate the recipient’s personality, a quest which is almost always fruitless and inevitably ends with the ubiquitous panic-bought scented candle - something everyone knows is the Holy Grail of last resorts for the person you just don’t love enough.

Which is where the Christmas Gift Guide comes in. In recent years it has become something of a festive tradition, inhabiting as we do a hollow capitalistic society devoid of any real sentiment or genuine emotion. Every year, magazines and newspapers will step in to assist helpless and overwhelmed little you in your quest for seasonal stocking fillers, with a big dollop of help from the people representing all the products that need pushing in time for 25 December. OK, so none of these people have any knowledge of the inner workings of your sister-in-law’s personality, but they never let that stop them. Christmas gift guides have the answer to everything, mainly because they have the ‘helpful’ tendency of breaking down entirety of the human race into easy categories. Thus your dad, an agoraphobic introverted Luddite with allergies, becomes "the gardener", "the gadget lover", or "the foodie", and your mum gets "glamour puss", "fashionista", or "domestic goddess". Granted, both sexes are being subjected to serious gender affirmation here, and in a sense capitalism takes no prisoners, but more often not the hypothetical magazine bloke ends up with an iPad or something that opens booze while, (if you’re following the Independent gift guide at least) the lady gets a bloody kettle.

A kettle. For Christmas. Follow the signage in your local M&S, meanwhile, and, come the morning of Christmas Day, we the vaginally-possessed could be lucky enough to receive the kind of floral tat that even Cath Kidson rejected as too twee - or, failing that, a decorative plaque bearing the legend "Baking in Progress!". The Guardian has a ring with a fuzzy kitten attached for the lady in your life, and the Telegraph is chockablock with "motoring boys’ toys" and "gifts for the hostess" (while simultaneously going all self-parodic on us with a "worst Christmas gifts" guide as well.) But even these have nothing on the Tesco-recommended "whoopie pie maker". Just what a "whoopie pie" is remains shrouded in esoteric mystery, but we have it on good authority that it is to replace the cupcake as the Baked Good That Women Should Be Losing Their Shit Over come 2013, which is why we’ll be using the term to refer to our genitalia from now on.

If you’re pre-pubescent, the results of your parents paying heed to a present guide or the recommendations of a toy shop can be even more terrifying. Dolls will always be high on the agenda for little girls, and the Lottie doll is apparently set to overtake Barbie this year on "cool factor" - she doesn’t have an oversized rack that would crush her internal organs if she were alive, but she still wears pink while riding her pony on "super cute" outings. The majority of stores separate their wares by "girl" and "boy" toys, despite some excellent and successful campaigning this year to separate toys by function rather than by gender in some of the UK’s biggest retailers, and this often continues to mean "things that kill things" versus "things that simulate housework". Meanwhile, even literature isn’t safe, with sex-specific adventure books like The Dangerous Book for Boys ("building go-karts and electromagnets, identifying insects and spiders, and flying the world’s best paper aeroplanes") and The Daring Book for Girls  ("friendship bracelets, cats’ cradle, the perfect cartwheel [and] the eternal mystery of what boys are thinking") making a resurgence, big-time. 

Happily, some parents and kiddie marketers are biting back, with innovations like the Goldiebox - an interactive toy that aims to foster engineering skills in girls - quickly accelerating in popularity. Victories like these can make the battle to the counter on Christmas Eve all seem worth it in the end. And over at Vagenda Towers (not a real place yet, but set to be the only non-phallic building on the London skyline in years to come), we’ve got our own little Christmas list that we’re hoping Mrs Claus might be kind enough to fulfill. Top of the list, just before nuclear disarmament, has to be something small but bad to happen to the editorial team at UniLad (the site that "recommended" date rape because most sexual assault goes unreported.) Perhaps they become so heavily magnetised that every computer they touch explodes, which would be a fitting Christmas gift to the entire internet and probably society in general. Additionally, it would be just delightful if David Cameron was made to wear a dress and attend feminist book groups in Hebden Bridge for the rest of the year. And if the next Dr Who could turn out to be a time-travelling woman who liberally quotes Germaine Greer, that would just put the icing on the Christmas cake for both of us.

Ultimately, you can’t please ‘em all - and we doubt the BBC will really be slipping a line from The Female Eunuch into their yuletide Dr Who special - but it’s worth keeping your eye out for the worst examples of gender stereotyping while you trudge around Westfield this December. Because every step we move away from Barbie’s pink palace of patronising is a step towards taking everyone else seriously, regardless of sex. Turn your back on the Christmas gift guide this year and dare to relinquish the cliché that's even a fraction less innocuous than a tangerine in the bottom of your stocking. Because of all the traditions worth acknowledging this season, the rhinestone-encrusted dusting pan (seriously) definitely shouldn’t get a look in.

 

What could it be? Image: giftsgreat.com

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation