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Have Yourself a Gender Unbiased Christmas

One thing I can never quite fathom is the arrival of the 'man' store, only there for the holiday period, stuffed full of silver gadgets in blue boxes, joke books about farts and football, remote control helicopters and other such fodder deemed 'manly.'

I love Christmas. Twinkly lights and street performers, carol singers and mulled beverages, fa la la la la, la la la la la. Sign me up.

One thing I can never quite fathom is the arrival of the 'man' store, only there for the holiday period, stuffed full of silver gadgets in blue boxes, joke books about farts and football, remote control helicopters and other such fodder deemed 'manly.' The equivalent can be found in any department store: Pink boxes of eyeshadow, sparkly lip gloss, body wash and face masks, probably adorned with fairies and glitter. Recently, there's been a huge backlash against the limiting gender-biased toys and clothes for children. In fact, Toys R Us have recently announced that they will be removing gendered labels on toys. It makes me wonder why there isn't a similar objection to the branding of gender for adults when it comes to stocking fillers.

Of course, complaining about this sort of thing can be tricky. In countries like the UK, the 'big' stuff is often deemed pretty much dealt with. Women can vote, salaries are (mostly) equal and there isn't as much blatant discrimination in daily life. But it is in the little things, the tiny assumptions that shape and influence the way we respond and react to each other, that ultimately lead to the awful number of deaths from domestic violence, high male suicide rates, and low conviction rates for rape cases. While it seems incongruent, the arrival of the man store, and all the gender-limiting assumptions it represents, leads to these unpleasant outcomes.

Because the truth is, there isn't much biological difference at all. Recent research has finally put paid to the idea that there is any such thing as a 'male' and 'female' brain. We can finally ignore all the nonsense about women being better at multi-tasking, more nurturing, while men are more practical and better at Maths. The truth is, there just isn't that much difference in our neurological programming at birth. If we are different, it is because we are individuals, not because of the contents of our underwear.

I hear the cries of a thousand parents, shouting me down, telling me that their boy just naturally prefers cars, and always has, and their daughter has always liked dolls. What we underestimate is two things. Firstly, we assume that we treat girls and boys the same when they are tiny, which just isn't true. The fact that boys are louder is a learned response, it is deemed more acceptable for boys to display such activity, and suppress their emotions, while girls are labelled as 'naughty' if they exhibit the loud and boisterous behaviour that would be 'expected' in boys. The second, is just how much social conditioning young children pick up on, from the TV in their living room, to advertising, to the way their family treat them, gender reinforcing is everywhere.

I was staying with a friend last month, and she has a daughter and a son. Everywhere we went, the daughter received comments about her dress, her hair, her pretty shoes, what a 'good girl' she was when she sat quietly and did as she was told. The little boy was asked about his cars, his toys, what he was doing, and his shouts and running around was greeted with laughter and comments of 'he's such a boy.' Children behave in ways that will get them praise and attention, we just aren't that self aware when it comes to the behaviour we reward them with.

And oh, it is dangerous. Just as dangerous for boys as for girls. The little boy praised for his loud behaviour and criticised for showing emotion, might grow up to have a lot of suppressed anger, which could manifest itself in domestic abuse, rape, he might become a blithering politician who, rather than debating the real issues at stake in the country, makes a noise that can only be described as something between a walrus and a foghorn at fellow politicians in some hideous imitation of a gentrified boys club. The little girl is raised to think her appearance is the most important thing about her, that she must care for others but not give her opinion too strongly. She becomes a victim, a doormat, someone who doesn't even fight back when she is abused because somewhere, deep down, she feels like she deserves it.

It's great to see that changes are being made for children, to give them their own personal identity, allowing them to get whatever they like under the tree, but we should apply the same logic to adults. Just because we've been raised in a culture of fixed gender roles, doesn't mean we can't question the world around us, encourage our thinking and our actions to embrace a more accepting and inclusive mindset.

While it might seem like a tiny difference, this year, I won't be going into the 'man' shop. I'll buy a man something that allows him to pamper himself and look nice, because that's important for everyone. I'll buy a woman something that's practical, because she can use her hands and her skills too. The next little girl I speak to, I won't tell her that her hair or her clothes look pretty, nor will I rebuke her for showing dominating behaviour (she wouldn't be called 'bossy' if she were a boy). I will tell the little boy he looks nice in his clothes, and if something upsets him, I will encourage him to verbalise his feelings, cry, and be just as emotional as his female counterparts.

Sure, it might just be a shop, but the peaceful future of our species might just depend on it.

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