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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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.