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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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad