By Lisa Regula Meyer
I have to take a break from all the talk of Newtown, Connecticut, because frankly, it’s too depressing even for me to write about the topic at this point, and I’d wager that parents reading this either currently feel or have felt similarly. To focus on a bright spot in a lot of dark news, the makers of the Easy Bake Oven have responded to a video by a young girl asking them to make a gender-neutral version of the much-loved icon of childhood. This campaign grew out of the girl’s younger brother’s love of the Easy Bake Oven, and has sparked both debate and action by the manufacturer. Also this holiday season, a European company made waves by showing their toy catalog with reversed gender roles- a girl playing with a tool set and a boy in the kitchen. Slowly but surely, we’re making progress with presenting younger generations a less stereotyped view of humans. Of course, there’s still lots of work to do on that front, but progress is to be celebrated, that’s for sure.
For many families, the holidays are one bastion of gendered divisions of labor, though, and this may have to do with our collective nostalgia that seems heightened around large festivities. Obviously, this is not the case in same-sex, single parent, and non-parent families, but those non-traditional families also tend to be ignored or overlooked by much of the media at this time of the year. A meme making its way around Facebook at the moment sums up the gender divisions of the holidays quite nicely- “’Twas the night before Christmas and not a creature was stirring except for Mom who was busting her butt to make the day perfect.” How’s that for a big lump of heteronormative, sexist coal for your stocking?
My extended family is not known for their progressive attitudes, so there are no surprises when my grandmother insists that Dwight open the bottle of wine and start a fire, or that I clear the table and bring the cake, but I’ll admit that even within our household, we tend to fall into these gender traps more often than I like, with me working late hours to get the presents wrapped and making sure Ken has a handmade gift for each of the grandparents, while Dwight works extra hours outside of the home and samples all the burnt cookies. Luckily, Ken is an avid baker, and even helped a bit in the kitchen this year, so maybe the next generation will see even more change; until then, we work with what we have and what we know, right?
Think for yourself of the images of Christmas traditions, and then imagine those images with all the genders reversed. Mrs. Claus driving the sleigh and delivering gifts, while men everywhere don an apron to cook the Christmas goose. Men counting gifts, and budgeting for each child, and making perfect bows on all the packages, while women light fires and cut pine trees and hang lights outside. Some of those images are common already (says the official house fire-starter), but others may be more difficult to imagine for many people. Obviously, some will argue that this is by choice, and that gender roles merely are expressions of innate preferences in humans, and I’ll leave my response for those people to your imagination. Much of the academic discourse and research support the view that gender is socially constructed, so changing gender roles will take a change in social consciousness, and we can support that change by actively trying to bring those non-traditional images out into the public eye as much as possible.
There’s a good likelihood that much of the gendering of holiday season is at least in part due to the idea of republican motherhood. This idea, coming to the forefront first after our independence from Britain, says that women are the cultural carriers of a society. Women were responsible for teaching children what it meant to be good citizens, and how to identify as a particular nationality. In the young USA, a Scottish woman married to a German man would pass on her cultural values and identity to their children, so the children’s view of “how to be American” would be formed through a lens of Scottish bias. This would look very different than a Scottish man married to a German woman, and how their children might view Americanism. Similarly, the two views of Christmas and New Year’s would look very different in the two families. We can still see some of this trend today, as family traditions for the holiday are passed on through similar mechanisms.
Thankfully, we all have agency, and as we discuss the roles of individuals, and the rights and responsibilities of those individuals, we can work to find new ways that include the full spectrum of human experience in these very human shared experiences of holiday festivals. If we keep working to show the world who we are, they’ll eventually change the way they view us.