Enlightened Gift Giving

Yeah, yeah. I know.

Women have the vote. Women have jobs. Women have paid parental leave.

What more could we possibly want?

It’s a good thing you ask, because, here’s what I want: for Western cultural attitudes towards gender, which are so deeply engrained with sexism, to be weeded out of our society.

Let’s look, for instance, at gift-giving and the gendering of objects. The holiday season has quickly come to an end, so I ask you to reflect back on the gifts you chose for the children in your family. Perhaps you gave your niece a princess costume or a cookbook, and your nephew a superhero costume or a toy truck.

On face-value, these gifts seem innocent, but the long-term impacts are far more detrimental.

The majority of toys, clothes and books marketed to girls are, to put it simply, sexist. They reflect the gender roles that women have been forced to occupy historically.

Kitchen sets marketed solely to girls remind us of a not-too-distant time when women were forced to stay at home and become mothers, homemakers and wives. Dolls, celebrated for their vanity, reflect a society within which women are treated as objects.

Toys produced in 2017 echo the values of the 1950s. And we buy into it.

There’s nothing wrong with young women cooking, wearing make-up, or playing with dolls, but when girls are offered toys that offer them no alternative to these activities, children’s playtime becomes a stark precursor for life ahead in our patriarchal society. Children need a choice, because being told that they must fit in a certain mould to qualify as a woman is disempowering.

These practices also alienate young boys from liking toys that are seen as traditionally feminine, as when they do play with ‘girls toys’ they are seen as ‘soft’ – reinforcing a subconscious belief that women are weaker than men. And who primarily propagates this idea? Materialistic, capitalist corporations run by men in the West.

Journalist Laura Bates states that ‘young children are not always equipped, as most adults are, with the critical tools to analyse and probe information.’ We live in a materialistic society where we are defined by, and identify with, our possessions. Young children have very limited agency in what they buy and are given, so they are conditioned to like things that are stereotypically feminine or masculine. If a young girl is continuously given princess and fairy paraphernalia, and nothing else, what else does she know, and what real choice is she given to express her identity and realise her own interests?

This year for Christmas, I visited the website amightygirl.com to buy gifts for my young cousins. I wanted to make sure that I was sending positive messages about womanhood to my young female cousin, so bought her the children’s edition of Little Women and a Frida Kahlo colouring book. Women like Jo March and Kahlo set a positive example for young women – they broke down gender barriers and exceeded society’s expectation of them.

And what did I get for my young male cousin? A book called Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, because if young women have to learn about the history of men, then young men should learn about herstory. They must be aware of the inherent privilege that men – particularly those who are white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied and middle-class – have systematically received throughout history, and continue to receive today.
It is also important to recognise that products, and the way that they are advertised, are not only sexist, but are also blatantly void of People of Colour, LGBTIQ people, and their experiences. The construction and continuation of the single point of view is constant.

The long-term effects are evident, with a continuation of these gender roles extending throughout school, university and in the workplace. And it starts early.

Look at the current lack of women in STEM. A recent study published in the journal Science found that girls begin to doubt their intelligence at six years old. From a young age, women are told that we are better at ‘caring’ roles, that we shouldn’t be too ambitious, that we are subjected to subconscious bias, and that we endure systematic sexism. And it starts at a young age: from the moment a young girl is given a baby doll for her first birthday.

I’ll give you a challenge: As you watch television advertisements this week, identify traits that are stereotypically assigned to the women and men on the screen. How are products marketed different to these groups? Educate yourself about this bias. Call it out. Start the conversation.