Andrew Bowden goes searching for a Father’s Day gift that doesn’t involve socks, football, beer, DIY or Homer Simpson.
It’s Father’s Day some point in the 1980s. My sister and myself have got our dad a present between us. That morning my sis got up earlier than me and gave the present to my dad. I was annoyed when I found out – it was supposed to be from the both of us. In the end, to pacify my annoyance, my mum gave me a quid and I ended up buying a big bag of Revels and giving them to Dad in the car just after we’d bought them.
Nowadays my Dad doesn’t get a bag of Revels for Father’s Day. With my Dad being in Manchester, and me being in London, if it can’t fit in an envelope, he doesn’t tend to get it. Which is why for the last few years, it’s been Marks and Spencer’s gift vouchers then he can then spend it on something he wants.
Shopping for men.
The fact that I continually go for the cop-out answer to these occasions doesn’t stop me looking at what’s for sale, which is why I found myself in Marks And Spencer’s Father’s Day Shop the other weekend. To be honest, it looked extremely similar to the Christmas Shop, Easter Shop and any-other-occasion shop, containing such delights as the Simpsons branded pint mug, a travel clock, shower gel, socks, slippers and of course the M&S trouser tidy.
Yes Dad! No more having a wardrobe full of trousers for you! With this exciting gizmo you can put not one, not two, not three but four pairs of trousers on one beech affect coat hanger. Match with the M&S beech effect tie organiser for the ultimate in executive accessories.
It wasn’t much better down the road at Superdrug which was extolling the Father’s Day related virtues of the dreaded Lynx deodorant, razors and John Smiths Extra Smooth branded bubble bath in the shape of a beer can. As a product it sums up so much, that a man can only take a relaxing bubble bath if it he can open his can, with that satisfying ‘tsst’ sound effect, and pour it into the bath as if he was pouring into a glass. And if anyone sees the bubble bath container, he can simply pretend he’s having a beer whilst he’s enduring the drudgery of getting clean after a hard day down t’pit.
Top gifts for your man.
Elsewhere you’ll find such Father’s Daytastic delights as car cleaning kits, beer, golf-related stuff, bottled beer gift sets (complete with glass!) and Lynx deodorant. Indeed the same selection will hit you all year round in the mens gifts section of any store. Looking through in many shops, there’s several themes to what’s on offer:
- the old favourites of booze and chocolate. Of course it has to have an appropiatly macho link – bitter, whiskey, Toblerone etc.
- toiletries – as long as there is either a macho or cartoon based image related to the product.
- Task based gifts – gardening books, car cleaning sets, power tools and of course tie organisers.
With the obvious exception of booze and chocolate, there’s something unnervingly practical about this list.
Luxury? That’s not the male way.
The closest to luxury I saw was the John Smiths bubble bath. That one plastic can summed up mens toiletries very nicely – it has to look macho. Whilst your local branch of Boots will stock plenty of mens toiletries, the selection available always seems to have a macho edge to it with names like “Scrub It” face wash. And as for a gift for the creative or arty gentleman? Well the closest you can get is a pair of gardening gloves.
Despite the number of male chefs on screen (people like Ainsley Harriot and Jamie Oliver), there is still a firm feeling in many people that cooking is ‘womans work’. People like Lawrence Lewellyn-Bowen may have made interior design fashionable, there is still a strong subset of the male population who think all men should be like Handy Andy, standing outside with the Black and Decker workbench. And as for men using moisturiser! Just don’t even go there.
Are you gay?
It’s as if the whole concept of these areas is seen as an attack on masculinity – something to be scared and worried about, in case there’s some secret hypnotic effect that will suddenly turn you gay or (shudder) female. Embrace the ‘feminine’ side of yourself? Yeah! And pigs might fly first.
It’s an attitude that goes well beyond presents and into other areas of real life. In pubs and bars, real men drink real drinks from real glasses.
The selection of drinks themselves is carefully crafted to re-inforce the stereotype. It’s beer, vodka, whiskey et al. Malibu? Babycham? That’s not right. Indeed some people seem threatened by the sheer concept of ordering such drinks. It sounds a complete cliché (and indeed I once thought it was nothing but), but I can tell you from personal experience of working in a student bar, that some people will go to the bar, reel off a list of largers, bitters etc, and finish with the ultimate line “and a Malibu and Coke… It’s for my girlfriend!”
In every instance of that happening to me, I never knew why the person on the other side felt so threatened in buying the drink, that they had to explain to a complete stranger who it was for. I didn’t even care what they ordered. Notably the women ordering a pint of ale (for themselves or others) never felt the desire to explain their behaviour.
The size of the glass is also extremely important – the bigger it is, the better. “Oh I’ll just have a half” is a phrase that will at the very least get men a strange look, and could lead to mocking and being laughed at. When your drink finally arrives, you’ll probably find it’s a pint with a double Scotch on the rocks to go with it. For birthdays, no celebration is complete without the downing of the yard of ale. It shows how much of a man you are.
It’s an irony that wasn’t lost on us as I sat with two friends (one of each gender) in a Belgium themed bar, in London’s west end. For beer lovers like the three of us, it’s a heavenly place with a large range of bottled and draught beers from Belgium. The beers come served in branded glasses – almost every beer has one, in a variety of sizes and shapes. Some look like oversized wine glasses, others like elegant glass tumblers. What most of them share in common is the size.
In France and Belgium it’s normal to buy 25cl of a beer – just under half a pint. Yet despite the wide and varied range of beers available, there were still many who just looked plain uncomfortable without a pint glass. Despite having over a hundred beers in the place, one of the most popular orders was a pint of Stella. Simple, safe and definitly not threatening to someone’s masculinity.
Cards for the real man.
Even the humble greeting card is careful not to offend. It’s hard to find any male-orientated card that doesn’t include either beer, football, golf or a steam train coming out of a tunnel (ooh the symbolism!).
So difficult is it to find any card that meets the need, I generally miss out the ‘male relations’ section (even that name will send the fear of god into some people) and opt for the humour section. You can’t go wrong with Homer Simpson saying “Doh!” can you?
In recent years the female gender stereotype has been slowly but surely been breaking down – even down to the level of simply ordering a drink in a pub. It’s no longer unusual to see a woman with a pint glass, maybe with – gasp – a pint of bitter in it!
In contrast it seems that some men are shrinking into an ever stricter definition of what it means to be male – that even embracing something outside the strict rules of ‘being a man’ might see them grow breasts whilst their penis shrivels up and disappears.
But who creates these rules in the first place? Why should planning and designing a room be the role for the woman, and wielding the hammer action cordless drill be the role of the man? Why shouldn’t men experiment and be creative in the kitchen? And what’s wrong with a little indulgence in your life?
Shops do little more than reflect the attitudes of society. Their business is to sell things, and the easiest way is to target the stereotype as much as possible, to ensure you don’t end up with unsellable stock – gifts aimed at women are just as stereotyped as those for men. By following the rules, the shops won’t lose a penny. It’s not as if gifts that sit outside the boundaries aren’t for sale after all – they’re all out there, and with a little thought they can be found.
Of course there’s lots of men who have crossed this completely arbitary divide, and have no problems with doing so. But in many circles, the divide is not a line in the sand that can be walked over at any time – it’s more like a huge ravine that needs a large scale bridge building over it.
But it might happen and maybe down the line, we’ll hopefully be in a situation where stores feel able to offer more than a motorised tie rack and men will be able to order a half in the pub without even a second thought.