Gender! (huh, yeah)
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing… (sing to tune of “War” by Edwin Starr, repeat until patriarchy crumbles)
Do you like my new feminist anthem? I was rather proud of it, until I realised it’s not strictly true. Gender is good for several things, such as: putting people off learning German; maintaining the oppression of the subjugated sex class; workplace Secret Santa. Obviously, as a linguist and a feminist, I’m not exactly down with the first two. However, as far as I’m concerned, Secret Santa is where gender comes into its own.
The philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards notes that “while feminists must be committed to attacking all cultural distinctions which actually degrade women, the indiscriminate pursuit of an androgynous culture must involve the elimination of innocuous cultural differences as well, and with them the source of a great deal of pleasure to many people”. Basically, I think what she’s talking about is buying presents for colleagues you don’t know. Without gender, this would be an utter nightmare. Right now, even if you pick out the name of someone who sits miles (ie two desks) away, with whom you’ve never exchanged more than four words (“is this photocopier working?”), there’s no need to panic. Just note down whether this person is a he or a she and buy accordingly: Bayliss & Harding toiletries for the girls, something beer-related that isn’t actually beer for the boys (NB this also works for friends and relatives you don’t like).
Christmas is a time when adults have obvious reasons to treat each other as pronouns, nothing more: For Her (blank-faced woman who likes bubble bath and chocolate), For Him (blank-faced man who likes booze and crap jokes). We may, of course, reach a point when more pronouns are added to the list. Nonetheless, the idea of buying things for individuals because we know them and like them – or of just using our own goddam imaginations – seems terribly distant. In an increasingly individualistic society, labels are useful. Relationships take effort; sexism, meanwhile, can be outsourced to drop-down menus on websites. You can skip the whole laborious “what do women want?” rigmarole. The internet will tell you (Freud would have had a field day, although I suspect even he’d balk at “a silver glitter Cava shoe and a singing duck watering can”).
The campaign group Let Toys Be Toys recently launched a #shopoutsidethebox campaign, asking toy marketers to reject “pink for girls and blue for boys” advertising this Christmas. 6 December – a key Christmas shopping date – has been earmarked as a day on which to spread the word (you can sign up to “donate” a tweet or Facebook post here). There is, however, no equivalent campaign on behalf of adults. It seems we’re either beyond help or just not ready to let go of the reassurance that comes from buying an elderly uncle a t-shirt from Old Guys Rule (although I’m glad we finally have a shop that is, quite literally, the definition of patriarchy).
Of course, I’m curious as to how this might reinforce other gender roles at Christmas. Does receiving something pink and sparkly make you more resigned to peeling the potatoes and tending to the kids? Does getting a L’Oréal Men Expert The Action Hero gift set provide you with the extra manly strength required to SHOW THAT TURKEY WHO’S BOSS? Certainly, on a day when those closest to you have given you gifts which suggest you’re a walking stereotype, it seems rude not to play along (although receiving a Lynx gift set does not, I think, justify coming down to Christmas dinner in one of these). But at least we’re all in the same boat and besides, if the worst effect of gender was “it means you get crap Christmas presents”, we’d be laughing.
This year I am at least trying to do things differently, not just for my sons but for the adults around me. For instance, I’m trying to cross-stitch a map of Cheshire for a grown-up male relative. I don’t know if he wants a cross-stitched map of Cheshire. I just want to give him something that shows I’ve put in time and effort (and believe me, embroidering Jodrell Bank after a glass or two of mulled wine is no mean feat). I don’t want him to think I’ve just thought “male” and chucked any old thing his way. And so he’s getting Cheshire on a piece of cloth (I might throw in some beer mats, just in case).
Alas, my office Secret Santa isn’t being awarded the same degree of care and attention. As soon as I read the name I knew gender was the only option. I’m not proud but hey, it proves I’ve noticed at least one superficial thing about this person. I never thought I’d say it but sometimes, even sexism has its uses.