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.


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

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The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.