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The Birthday Gift Conundrum

posted Aug 13, 2016, 4:12 AM by Kanika G   [ updated Aug 15, 2016, 7:35 AM ]
Should I be principled or practical?

When I was about 6, my best friend and I were opening her birthday gifts together. There was the usual assortment of colouring books, crayons, story books, and dolls and then the most peculiar gift: A G. I. Joe doll. We looked at each other puzzled and then checked to see who had given it to her. It was a gift from twin boys who we sometimes played with and who went to her school. My friend was very offended at getting such a thoughtless gift. Who would be mean or stupid enough to give a girl a G. I. Joe, ha?

Later we found out that their mom had been busy that day and given them the money to pick up a gift. The boys thought that a G. I Joe would be a splendid gift and bought it. My best friend decided to have her revenge by gifting them a Barbie doll for their next birthday. I don't remember if she ever followed through on the threat or not, but as kids we often talked about it as one of the awful things the twins did.

But the next couple decades saw us grow up in a society that was rapidly changing it's attitude to gender bias. How could girls and boys be given the same opportunities in later life if their tastes and exposure were  already defined for them in the form of toys in childhood?

When I became a mom, I was keen on raising my kids in a gender neutral way. I exposed my daughter to dolls, colours, Legos, kitchen sets, cars, books and tools. By now I had long stopped obsessing about the incident with the G. I. Joe. But it came to haunt me just a couple of weeks ago when I went shopping for a birthday gift for my daughter's school friend.

I told the shopkeeper that I was looking for a birthday gift appropriate for a 5 year old. He took out a set of glittering pink and white boxes including a quilt design kit, a jewellery design kit, a cupcake design kit and before I knew it, I was saying “Bhaiya, ladka ke liye chaiye, ladki ke liye nahi.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I was stunned to hear myself say them. What had happened to all that I had learned in the last 2 decades about avoiding gender bias? Had all my principles suddenly collapsed in that one moment?

Not really. But the truth remains that a significant number of people today are still gender biased in many ways. I have no idea if this particular kid was brought up to think that certain toys are for boys and certain toys are for girls or not. Probably not. But I could still remember my best friend's anger when she was given a G. I. Joe and that was probably what had prompted my unexpected response. Even after thinking about it I could not bring myself to buy the 'girly' stuff.I did not want the little boy to be devastated at being given a 'girly' birthday gift.

I rationalized that I had no idea what this particular boy liked. Just like he did not have to like 'manly' stuff, he also did not have to like 'girly' stuff. Statistically, though, it was more likely that he liked toys typically advertised for boys. Finally I ended up buying something gender neutral, an electronic piano. Music has no gender, right? Who knows? I never expected to have such a battle with my conscience buying a birthday gift for a 5 year old.

On the other hand, I recently read a post somewhere that said the Harry Potter series is really not feminist though it might seem to be on the surface of it and it went on to quote many instances of gender stereotyping or gender bias. That got me wondering why someone should expect the series to be feminist. It is not a writers job to be politically correct and write about feminist Utopia, just because she has made an effort to include strong female characters, is it? Isn't it important, even for a feminist book, to point out the status quo and may be suggest some promising avenues of change.

Someone once asked me why Tania only cooks with mama (Tania Makes Pancakes) and learns science from papa (Eureka) and how that is not promoting a gender stereotype. I replied "Tania also learns science (Tania Gets Spectacles) and riding a bike (Tania's New Bicycle) from mama and papa helps her make tea bags (Tania Has An Idea). Doing just the opposite of a gender stereotype, is being influenced by it too, and it does not make sense to fall in to that trap."

I guess I need to find a balance and not take a 5 year old kid's, birthday gift so seriously.