One of the best gifts I ever got came from the Edmund Scientific catalog. It was a praying mantis egg sac. My brother and I put it in our terrarium and watched as 200 tiny praying mantises hatched and began mantising around. We didn't understand why their numbers were dwindling, until one day we came home to find the second-to-last mantis dangling out of the last one's mouth. We declared this mantis the winner and released him into the yard. Their bloody end notwithstanding, the mantises gave my brother and me weeks of fun, despite the fact that he was a boy and I was a girl. So imagine my chagrin to find that Edmund — and another bastion of knowledge, the British Library — are now dividing their gift recommendations by gender.
It's not that the girls' gifts all suck — the Fish School Training Kit, which was developed by "noted fish-training expert Dr. Dean Pomerleau" and promises to teach your fish to "limbo, slalom, fetch, play basketball, jump through hoops, and much more," sounds pretty sweet if it is not in fact an extended joke. But why do cool toys like the Galileo Gravitator Amazing Floating Planets or Pleo, the Robotic Lifelike Dinosaur (pictured below; warning: clicking the link will make someone named Caleb Chung talk to you about Pleo) appear only on the boys' list, while girls get toys like the Spa Science Kit, the Creative Cosmetics Kit, and Oggz, which are "relaxing," color-changing eggs?
And what do we make of the Femisapien (tagline: "Robots That Just Want To Have Fun"), whose name implies that girls, or at least girl robots, are actually of a different genus than boys?
It's not just the sciences that suffer from gift-guide gender stereotyping. For a donation, the British Library's Adopt A Book program will put your loved one's name in one of its books this Christmas. If your loved one is a man, the Library thinks he may enjoy The Life of Oliver Cromwell or From Russia with Love. Your lady friends will have to content themselves with the Family Cookery and Housekeeping Book or Meal Planning in Wartime.
Having asked my mom to get me lotion and perfume for Christmas, I can't advocate a boycott of traditionally girly gifts. But I can ask why companies would recommend non-gender-specific, cool toys and books for boys, and homemaking and cosmetic-themed items for girls and women. By all means, get your daughter or niece or sister a Creative Cosmetics Kit this season (except if you, like me, are too broke to buy a gift that costs $59.95). But don't tell me that Spa Science and meal planning are for girls, while dinosaurs and Oliver Cromwell are for boys. There's no reason women can't be into Oliver Cromwell — not least because he reportedly died of a UTI.