Gadgets For Women: Technologically-Forward Gifts, Socially-Backwards Ethos

Is it possible for something to feel futuristic yet anti-feminist at the same time? Check out the Wired Store’s new holiday wish list online and you be the judge. At the Wired Store pop-up shop in Times Square, a fantastically futuristic display wasn’t just a feast for the eyes and senses, but a feast for feminists who take issue with gender-assigned gifts. Up front and center, marketed as gifts for the women in your life, were cutting-edge vacuums! State-of the art toilets! Save for the digital touch, you’d think the female-driven gifts were dusted right off the shelves of the 1950’s.

The Wired Store bills itself as the latest in innovation – yet the nature of some of the female-driven products speaks for itself. After all, a dressed-up digital vacuum, floor-washing robot and remote-controlled toilet-bidet are still just a vacuum, mop and toilet.  Why can’t we be digital goddesses without having to be domestic goddesses as well? Now husbands aren’t merely buying the un-romantic gift of domesticity; they’re buying a link to the future!  Now, the modern gal’s remote controlled-toilet no longer requires a scrubber and Clorox, but in what direction are we really moving here? If the world’s really supposed to end next year – do we really want to go out with this kind of bang, or rather go out with this flush?!

(Speaking of which, another suggestion for the woman in your life is the electronic cigarette starter kit. In truth, this is an awesome little gadget that will better serve women than those ubiquitous Virginia Slims ads.)

Even for a woman who doesn’t take herself – or feminism – particularly seriously, the tone and tenor of these female-driven items are very much a commentary on our society. At first blush, a Dyson vacuum that practically purrs might feel futuristic, but it’s anything but feminist.  These super-duper digital items might be new and shiny, but they transport us back 50 years for the worse. And just because they sprinkle the description of the $600 the DC41 Animal (above center) with buzzwords like “sleek” and “tight,” doesn’t mean it isn’t backwards.

Do the marketing gurus have any clue what makes women tick  Are they so lazy that they think they can simply recycle items ripped right out of the pages of a 50-year old magazine, add a digital component – and that makes it OK?

Wired’s It-Girl basket uses language like “it will make your life easier” echoing marketing jargon from the frozen dinner “revolution!”  The Dyson Animal may have an edgy name – but at the end of a day, they’re pushing a vacuum cleaner for a 21st century woman.

But the vacuum parade doesn’t stop there! Not to be outdone, there’s now a Vacuum Cleaning Robot (above left). In truth, there’s no inherent flaw about a futuristic vacuum. We know that Persian rug doesn’t come with a cleaning genie attachment, but where are the points for originality here? Why are these items still relegated to the realm of women? When these domestic items are so lopsidedly targeted to women, it quickly becomes less fascinating and a whole lot more offensive. When this all seems to belie a lingering assumption about gender roles, it becomes less about a vacuum and more a societal sentiment.

When my friend recently opened her birthday gift from her persnickety boyfriend and saw her starter kitchen set, she was horrified. He had dropped not-so-subtle hints about her culinary “deficiencies” before – and his overriding concerns about her ability to manage a home and implied domestic responsibilities — but the gift telegraphed his true expectations of her. To which I suggested she tell him, “Why don’t you just propose to your cleaning woman?”  If all his needs are so easily met by sparkling windows and a balanced meal every night, look no further than your local hired help!

These disparate incidents still have that same common denominator: that while no one would outwardly admit it, there’s still an unspoken, yet implied, assumption about the woman’s role. And that role has mostly remained unchanged, however many glass ceilings we bang our heads on.

Short of screaming, “Get in the kitchen, woman — and stay there!” these female-driven gifts have not evolved like the nature of guys’ gifts have over the years.  It’s pretty safe to say that we’ve evolved past the standard-issue tie as the go-to guy gift, so why is our mindset toward women so embarrassingly outdated? Men’s gifts now range from work to sports to leisure, with nary a vacuum cleaner, robo mop, or digital bidet to be found; and while the WIRED Store does suggest cool cameras, ear buds, and iPhone docs for the It Girl in your life, it also implies she’s be just as amped about to stay home and clean. 

Case in point: when I asked the Kohler sales rep who his target customer is, he suggested I buy the $6000 Numi toilet (above right) for the woman who has everything – except a remote control for her loo.