Every holiday season, service journalism stages a gender reveal party for the American consumer. These kinds of celebrations, when they’re held for fetuses, often have cutesy names that pit traditionally masculine objects against traditionally feminine ones: “Rifles or Ruffles,” “Footballs or Fairies,” “Staches or Lashes.” Holiday gift guides serve a similar function for adults. In the pages of lifestyle magazines and product review sites, it’s “Beer Caddy or Birchbox,” “Hot Sauce or Hair Dryer,” “Meat Thermometer or Meditation Mat.”
Most real people have aesthetic and gustatory interests that span these narrow, binary categories. Even the most basic, traditionally feminine woman enmeshed in a culture that enforces strict gender norms—the kind of woman, say, who would host a “Bows or Arrows” party for her forthcoming child—might like a nice beer, portable campfire, or T-bone steak. Her husband would probably enjoy a cozy blanket and eating breakfast in bed off a little wooden tray. The imaginary gift recipients evoked by “50 Stocking Stuffers for Dad” or “28 Gifts for the Woman in Your Life” are far less complex. In their world, womanhood is a prison of nice smells, kitchenware, and body adornments, while manhood is best performed in the woods, clad in leather, blind drunk.
My interest in the gender determinism of holiday gift guides was first piqued five or six years ago, when I was looking for a Christmas present for my dad. Every single roundup I consulted suggested I buy him whiskey stones. My dad fits most of the stereotypes of dad-focused gift guides: He likes golf and fishing, wears plaid shirts, and does all his cooking on the grill. But he drinks vodka, and he uses real ice. If even my very dadlike dad’s liquor tastes were too outré for these gift guides, their working definition of masculinity must be punishingly precise.
Ever since then, I’ve taken a kind of sick pleasure in the holiday tradition of trawling men’s gift guides, envisioning the cartoonish lumberjacks, finance bros, and Kevin James avatars whose homes (or, more likely, man caves) the recommended products might populate. They’re always ready to stab and slice, with their pocket knives, steak knives, and credit card–sized multitools that fit inside their monogrammed wallets. Their medicine cabinets overfloweth with tools for managing man hairs—beard conditioners, shaving creams, and electric razors, plus the dopp kits they came in. Anything that could be deemed feminine is doused in testosterone. Their bathroom-cleaning brushes attach to their drills; their bracelets are magnetic holders for screws and bolts. They never drink clear liquor, only bourbons, cognacs, ports, and the occasional bottle of red wine (opened with a countertop uncorker, decanted into a special aerating container, and sealed with a vacuum stopper). All liquids they consume are cold but never watered down; they appear to regard ice as a tool of some pink, bow-festooned devil. A male gift recipient’s beer is cooled by steel rods, his coffee by a HyperChiller, and his whiskey by—well, you know.
In addition to these old favorites, my 2018 men’s gift guide hate-reading sessions have turned up a few new trends in manhood. There are drink coasters on all the Hearst magazines’ lists—Esquire (Louis Vuitton, $765), Town & Country (leather, $30), and Good Housekeeping (recycled records, $18)—because even drinks chilled by alternative means attract condensation. Both Town & Country and Kim Kardashian, via E!, recommend Champagne sabers—because a fizzy, feminized beverage demands a counterbalancing show of aggression. And in the normal-object-made-gratuitously-masculine vein, there’s a leather-wrapped cooler at Goop, an NFL-themed barbecue set, and whiskey-flavored mixed nuts, plus this knife made from “fossilized mammoth tusk.”
The art treatments on these guides, usually collages of the endorsed products, function as impressionistic dreamscapes of idealized maleness—all matte black and wood grain and tawny hides, reveries of blades and flames and dead animals and permission, granted by alcohol, to act a fool. There’s nothing holiday- or gift-specific about these cornucopias, which could stand on their own as macho vision boards. But in an era that defines identities by what they choose to consume and seek to acquire, compiling a shopping list for an amorphous, anonymous member of a single gender is a good way to boil down the mythology around that gender to its undiluted essence.
So it stands to reason that holiday gift guides for women are similarly bound to a gendered archetype. Mashable recommends voice-activated home assistants for both men and women, but on the latter list the gadget is an Amazon Echo Look—a machine specifically designed to help women choose outfits and manage their wardrobes. Esquire’s list for women includes three mentions of alcohol: a wine club and two different bottles of rosé Champagne. Good Housekeeping thinks people of all genders can appreciate a good board game. For the men in your life, there’s Beeropoly. For the women, Monopoly with a Golden Girls theme.
Taken together, the two genders of gift guides make a profound statement about the differing degrees to which society enforces masculine norms versus feminine ones. It’s a lot easier to imagine women relishing products from the men’s lists than the other way around, both because masculinity has narrower, more zealously policed parameters and because manhood is often considered the norm from which feminine things divert. That’s why there’s a standard Cortana smart speaker for men and an Echo Look for women, regular Champagne for the boys and sparkling pink stuff for the girls.
Holiday gift guides are also a good example of how patriarchy hurts the very men it’s supposed to benefit. Multiple publications that I looked at for this story offered a single generic guide for men and a few more-specific ones for women, usually segmented by relationship (mom, grandmother, wife), age, or interests. Men, too, are multifarious and change over time! They deserve gift guides to match!
Our constricted conception of masculinity has propped up bad, chest-thumping gift ideas for far too long. No object makes the damage plainer than the whiskey stone. Ice can neutralize a ton of heat, since the heat it absorbs makes it melt into cold water that continues to cool the whiskey around it. Whiskey stones just get warm, returning the drink to room temperature in less than the time it takes to finish it. And Gear Patrol points out that pro whiskey tasters purposely water down their beverages, little by little, to savor the shifting flavors the liquor produces as it’s diluted. The men of the holiday gift guide will never experience such pleasure. They could be enjoying a variety of beverages, all at various appropriate temperatures and concentrations, opened with easy-to-use implements instead of swords. Instead, they’re stuck with one color on the liquor spectrum, sucking a warm glass filled with rocks.