Gifts: factors of gendered roles and inequalities?

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Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

The notion of gift has a very positive connotation. Indeed, how could something you willingly give someone be considered harmful? This is what I will explore through a gendered lens. 

The term ‘gift’ was established in sociology as a social fact. It is defined as “a way of acting, feeling, or thinking external to an individual with the coercive power to control aspects of their life” (Open Education Sociology Dictionary). Marcel Mauss, affirmed that the gift is polysemous, i.e., it takes various meanings according to societies and situations (1925). He also believed that it can sometimes be mistaken for a donation, which he considered different. Because according to him, a gift is not free: it is a “triple obligation to give, to take, and to return the given things” (Papilloud, 2015: 139). 

This is very debatable. Lévi-Strauss, for example, asserted that the exchange of gifts is not an obligation but simply the demonstration of reciprocity (1969). However, none of these famous depictions of the gift show the reality of the inequalities in gift-giving practices and the harmful psychological consequences they can have. 

Marriage: Women as gifts 

The gift was defined from a masculine point of view. Its primary form was the gift of women for marriage to other families, as Mauss cited it as “stuff to be given away and repaid” (1925: 12), i.e. as gifts, in archaic societies. As Lévi-Strauss puts it in The Elementary Structures of Kinship, “the woman herself is nothing other than one of these gifts, the supreme gift among those that can only be obtained in the form of reciprocal gifts” (1969, 65). One might object to this, and argue that there is no reciprocity in this gift: the woman does not receive anything in return as she must perform domestic obligations. It is because “the relationship of reciprocity which is the basis of marriage is not established between men and women, but between men by means of women, who are merely the occasion of this relationship” (Lévi-Strauss, 1969: 116). Indeed, there is a reciprocity between men because the woman provides her husband’s family with services and sexual prestations and offloads her family from the ‘burden’ of nourishing her. 

This use of women as gifts “has permitted western men predominantly to assume dominance over women in their own culture” (Joy, 2013: 194). In addition, there is not only a problem with the use of women as gifts, but also an issue linked to the lack of recognition of the presents they themselves offer. 

The lack of recognition of women as gift-givers

Traditionally, women were grateful for material gifts because they had little wealth, given that they did not work. On the contrary, men felt less thankful as they were feeling obliged by the gift. This is partly because they felt as if they were put in a woman’s position, as if they were the receivers and therefore dependent on others. “Often when men received (especially from women) they denied that the gift was “any big deal”; perhaps it was simply what they “deserved” and could take for granted” (Markotic, 2013: 84). Therefore, there exists this problem of women being expected to give and not being even recognised for doing so. 

The philosophy of the gift developed by Jacques Derrida presents a problem that is truly linked to the lack of recognition of feminine gifts. Indeed, he thinks that “a true gift would presuppose a total absence of return” (Champetier, 2001: 15). The gifts that we can think of are the devotion of taking care of the children and the house without any monetary retribution. While it can be argued that this gift is returned by the husband who works and offers his wife the product of his effort, two responses must be considered. First, while men work a certain number of hours a day, stay-at-home mothers, for most of them, work all day long and even regularly during the night, therefore providing more effort than their male counterpart. Even if it was not valid, nowadays, the majority of women in developed societies bear both work and domestic duties, at least more of the latter than men on average. This second point is backed by data from a UCL study: women do around 16 hours of household chores a week whereas men perform about 6 hours of them (Barr, 2019). 

Therefore, in the paradigm of gift as a non-reciprocal action, the woman is “the victim par excellence” (Joy, 1999: 323 cited in Barker, 2013) because of the lack of recognition of her effort. And whenever it is recognised, Simone de Beauvoir affirms that it is not sufficient for reciprocity to be established because if it is a true gift there should be no expectation of return (Barker, 2013). This shows a real inequality in gift-giving between men and women. 

Derrida goes even further than this in affirming that the ideal gift is one that is forgotten. Even though she gives up herself by gifting her time and energy, the woman’s sacrifice is overlooked by the man. The woman thereby forgets what she has done, which destroys any hope for reciprocity (Markotic, 2013). 

These problems around women’s gifts are linked to the patriarchal society but should not be the only concern one has with gifts. Gendered gifts themselves, namely gifts and objects targeting individuals of a particular sex, are themselves problematic. 

Gendered toys and gifts: shaping children’s futures 

Gendered toys and gifts are shaping children’s futures in diverse ways because they have an impact on the early development of the individual and therefore have a long-lasting effect (Xionga, 2020). They restrict their competence: sex stereotypes tend to restrict children’s ability to be open and develop skills pertaining to activities that are not assigned to their gender (Bradbard et al., 1986). This is because these toys make children unconsciously interiorise societal expectations to act according to their genders. 

Moreover, the toys associated with femininity and masculinity develop different cognitive abilities. Construction games, assigned to boys, develop more mathematics and science related skills, while toys like dolls, associated with femininity, enhance verbal and linguistic skills (Pope, 2015). These toys also result in differences in boys and girls’ aspirations: dolls unconsciously get girls to value their family and household more. This, in turn, has consequences on the working life of men and women. Indeed, the “preferences regarding family, career, and job”(827), which are partly incorporated through childhood games, account for a part of the pay gap between men and women (Grove et al., 2010). These gendered toys also encourage extreme gendered behaviours, such as violence for boys and obsession with appearance for girls (Pope, 2015), which can be problematic in their adult life. 

Gendered toys thus reinforce gender inequalities and differences, making it tougher for people who ‘do not fit’ these categories to gain confidence and affirm their gender identity. Indeed, gendered gifts can be an expression of gender pressure on children who do not “conform”. As a result, they can cause serious distress among gender-atypical children (Perry et al., 2019). 

Additionally, even if gendered gifts and toys are influential on the development of children, they are also impactful at later life stages. 

Gendered gifts: a detrimental practice 

Gendered gifts, namely gifts which are chosen solely on the basis of the receiver’s sex, are also detrimental to teenagers and adults. They can indeed be perceived as an injunction telling people what society expects from them, regardless of their actual personality and identity. Apart from being a waste of money, this type of gift-giving can be harmful, especially from close family or friends, as it might be understood as a disregard of one’s identity. Moreover, the expression of such expectations can provoke anxiety among non-binary people, especially during critical periods of life, such as adolescence which is characterised by a shift in people’s expectations regarding gender attitudes (Sansfaçon et al., 2020). 

What solutions are there? 

I think the solutions are of two types: social activism and daily attention. 

The first type of solution involves lobbying and campaigning to get governments to act against women’s use as gifts and means of exchange, namely forced marriage. While this has already been widely achieved in many developed countries, there is still significant work to be done worldwide. This type of activism must also be used to get companies to stop marketing toys as gendered. 

Daily attention must also be brought to the presents we give. I know that we all tend to opt for easy solutions when we do not know what to offer. Why not choose something that is not narrowly linked with any gender (i.e. food or books), thereby diminishing social pressure on gender roles? 

And always bear in mind: one gift can have a significant impact! 

Sources 

Barker, Victoria, 2013. “De Beauvoir and the Myth of the Given”. Women and the Gift: Beyond the Given and All-Giving. Bloomington, Indiana University Press. 

Barr, Sabrina, 2019. “Women still do majority of household chores, study finds”, The Independent, [online] (Last updated 26 July 2019). Available at: 

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