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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Want your team to succeed? Try taking a step back

From the boardroom to the sports ground, managers need to step back for creativity to thrive.

Everyone is in favour of creativity, usually at the expense of creative people. The concept is in perpetual boom. Give us creative midfielders, creative leadership, creative solutions, creative energy. It’s with the “how” that the problems start – with extra meetings and meddling, over-analysis and prescriptiveness, whiteboards and flow charts. Professional systems rarely support the creativity that they allegedly seek. The creativity industry system is at odds with its stated goals.

The novel was an early casualty. Nothing makes me close a book more quickly and finally than the creeping realisation that the author is following a narrative map purchased on an American creative writing course. Life is too short for competent novels. The creativity industry pulls up the worst while dragging down the best.

Something similar happens inside professional sport, even though creativity is so obviously linked to performance and profit. Yet sport, especially English sport, has suffered from excessive managerialism. Perhaps guilt about English sport’s amateur legacy gave “professionalism” free rein, however pedestrian its form.

Here is sport’s problem with creativity: professional systems crave control, but creativity relies on escaping control. If an attacking player doesn’t know what he is going to do next, what chance does the defender have?

So when truly unexpected moments do happen, they take on a special lustre. This month, Olivier Giroud scored an unforgettable goal for Arsenal. Bearing down on the goal, he was already launched in mid-air when he realised that the cross was well behind him. With his body far ahead of his feet, Giroud clipped the ball to the top corner of the net with the outside of his left ankle – a so-called scorpion kick.

It was, in retrospect, the only option available to him. Football, for a moment, touched the arts – not only beautiful, but also complete. Nothing could have been added or taken away.

I once tried to compare the perfect cricket shot to Robert Frost’s celebrated description of writing a poem: “It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification . . . Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

A great goal, however, fits that poetic model better than a cricket shot. Cricket shots come in many aesthetic grades, but they are all intended as shots. A goal, on the other hand, is more than just a very good pass, only better. There is an act of transformation within the event.

Frost’s acknowledgment of luck (distinct here from fluke) neatly defuses the accusation. Saying that a great goal involved luck does not to diminish it. Many unearned factors must interact with the skill.

“But did he mean it?” some people have wondered about Giroud’s goal. That isn’t the point, either. There wasn’t time. Giroud had solved the problem – to make contact with the ball, however possible, directing it towards the goal – before he was fully conscious of it. That doesn’t make it an accident. The expertise of a striker, like that of a writer, is opportunistic. He puts himself in positions where his skills can become productive. It is a honed ability to be instinctive. “If I’d thought about it, I never would have done it,” as Bob Dylan sings on “Up to Me”, an out-take from Blood on the Tracks.

Pseudo-intellectual? Quite the reverse. There is nothing pretentious about recognising and protecting creativity in sport. Over-literal decoding is the greater threat: instinctive performance needs to be saved from team meetings, not from intellectuals.

Having described a creative goal as unplanned – indeed, impossible to plan – what can coaches do to help? They can get out of the way, that’s a good start. It is no coincidence that the teams of Arsène Wenger, who is sometimes criticised for being insufficiently prescriptive, score more than their fair share of wonder goals.

The opposite arrangement is bleak. A friend of mine, a fly-half in professional rugby union, retired from the game when his coaches told him exactly which decisions to make in the first six phases of every attacking move. In effect, they banned him from playing creatively; they wanted rugby by numbers.

Not everything can be rehearsed. One useful book for coaches scarcely mentions sport – Inside Conducting, by the conductor Christopher Seaman. “I’ve never had much sympathy for conductors who ‘program’ an orchestra at rehearsal,” Seaman writes, “and then just run the program during the performance. There is much more
to it than that.”

Dan Vettori, the rising star among cricket’s Twenty20 coaches, is rare for having the bravery to echo Seaman’s theory. He believes that cricketers are more likely to play well when they feel slightly underprepared. It’s a risk and a fine balance – but worth it.

As I explored here last month in the context of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, there is a danger of slotting players into false stereotypes and classifications. Giroud, for example, is slow. Slow yet athletic. That’s an unusual combination and partly explains why he is underrated.

We often think of pace as the central and definitive aspect of athleticism. But speed is just one component of total athletic ability (leave to one side footballing skill). Giroud has an outstanding vertical jump, power and great balance. Because he is big and slow, those athletic gifts are harder to spot.

Management systems overestimate both labels and top-down tactics. A braver policy, pragmatic as well as aesthetic, is to be less controlling: allow opportunity to collide with skill, directed by an open, expert and uncluttered mind. l

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge