I’ve had a bit of a tense relationship with greeting cards. Ever since I wrote about how embedded and gendered the theme of drinking alcohol is in greeting cards back in December, I have kept a watchful eye on the industry. For my birthday in February, my friends bought me the tackiest drink pun cards imaginable (a gecko holding a fizzing bottle with the caption “pros-gecko” particularly stands out). Back when we could go out, I would find myself perusing the card sections of high street shops, chuckling to myself and wondering, Who is this calorie-counting, gin-themed card for?!
But it was only when public speaker and ‘mental health warrior’ Zoe Ellis tweeted a card she saw recently that I was reacquainted with the fact that greeting cards for women are not just a relic of a time when sexism, ageism and fat-phobia could be blatant. They could have a real impact on someone.
Can I have a card for gaining weight which saved my life please?
Why is this even a thing! We never know what someone is going through when they loose weight.
Eating disorders, cancer, depression, greif. Weight loss is not always ‘good’ how about, are you ok? Instead. pic.twitter.com/svXNrmiCw9
— BarefootRebel (@RebelBarefoot) September 9, 2020
The card, found under the ‘weight loss’ category in a card shop, reads “WEIGH TO GO!” in bold font on a blue and green background. Its simple message and neutral palette make it an ideal card in many ways: it’s generic enough to suit many tastes but has a specific enough message to capture a niche. It was that niche – and the fact that it is universally celebrated – that got to Zoe.
“I understand why people may want to congratulate others for losing weight, however we never know the full story,” Zoe told R29. “So many different things can cause someone to lose weight: eating disorders, depression and even cancer. Before congratulating weight loss we need to be asking, ‘Are you okay?’
“I was congratulated over and over again when I lost weight; little did people realise I had an eating disorder that damaged my heart, nearly killing me. The constant congratulations just cheered on that voice encouraging me to lose more, helping that voice make me believe my worth was all to do with my weight. Seeing this card brings back all those feelings.”
Speaking to Zoe about how weight loss seems universally celebrated reminded me of the many cards over the years that have aimed at humour or celebration and have, by many standards, fallen short. Take the two cards that went viral in 2017: one read “You’re the type of girl I’d buy flowers for” and came with a pink envelope, while a blue enveloped one read “You’re the kind of boy I’d make a sandwich for”. Or the Clintons card, also in 2017, which showed a bear with her legs splayed beneath a caption reading “After a few drinks, she’s up for pretty much anything!” More recently we’ve seen “A banana has 108 calories. A gin & tonic has 91 calories. Enough said.“; the 2018 card from US retailer Target which read “Baby Daddy“; and from 2014, the simpler “Happy Birthday You Old Slutbag“.
Whether cards are explicitly gendered or more neutral, like Zoe’s example, they act as a sharp distillation of the things we’re meant to care about: weight loss/fear of weight gain, gender roles, hatred of ageing and love of drinking. And while the pushback to the examples above suggests a growing resistance to the most misguided of these cards, the frequency with which they appear in mainstream retailers shows they’re still in print, if not in demand.
The greeting card industry is huge in the UK. The 2018 market report from the Greeting Card Association (GCA) shows that the UK public spent £1.7 billion on cards in 2017. GCA states that “no other country has such a tradition of card sending or card display in the home – the sending and receiving of cards is an important part of our culture.” You might assume that this is a habit retained by older generations but Amanda Fergusson, CEO of the GCA, says that millennials are actually a key demographic: “18 to 34-year-olds are buying more cards than a generation ago and that’s been tracked for more than two of the last four years.”
There are many theories as to why greeting cards are so significant in the UK. Cultures as ancient as the early Chinese and Egyptians exchanged cards but they are intertwined with British history in many ways – the first known Christmas card was published in 1843 and is attributed to Sir Henry Cole, the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Amanda thinks it could be to do with the national mood. “I have no research to back this up but I’ve always wondered if, as a nation, we send cards because we are not as emotionally expressive as some other nations. It’s a way that we communicate, because we tend to be more reserved.”
Importantly, too, it seems we turn to greeting cards in times of crisis. “Historically, greeting cards played such a part during World War One that during World War Two, the government declared them essential for the war effort and gave the Greeting Card Association responsibility for rationing paper,” Amanda tells R29. As such, greeting cards of all types have taken on greater significance during the pandemic. “We’ve seen a huge increase in those general on occasion cards, the ‘miss you, sending a hug, thinking of you’ cards.” The reasons for sending have also been far more sombre – there’s been a major increase in sympathy cards, as well as a significant lack in wedding cards. But it’s the sending of general, all-occasion cards that has been the most noticeable.
This is echoed by Vaishali Shah, the founder and creator of Ananya Cards and cultural consultancy business Culturally Minded. She points to the significance of a handwritten card in the current climate. “In this digital world, and especially during the pandemic when we have been so reliant on technology, receiving a handwritten greeting card is much more special than an email, text, social media message or e-card.”
The reality is that mainstream/high street greeting card retailers do perpetuate gender stereotypes.
Vaishali Shah, Founder of Ananya Cards
The importance that greeting cards – already a staple of UK life – have taken on this year has brought into sharper relief how many mainstream or high street card retailers are failing to live up to 2020 standards.
“The reality is that mainstream/high street greeting card retailers do perpetuate gender stereotypes,” says Vaishali. “There is often unnecessary gendering… Retailers need to review the imagery and wording used in the cards. Is it inclusive? Are there stereotypes on the role each gender plays, their work, the way they dress, their hobbies etc? Are cards and products continuing with pink for girls and blue for boys?”
Ahh yes the two sides of heterosexuality, commerce and toil pic.twitter.com/0mFnufFxEV
— Natasha Hodgson (@NatashaHodgson) April 5, 2019
These signs of gendering are part of a wider pattern of how women are framed in greeting cards, not only on the card itself but as buyer and recipient. As academic and feminist linguist Deborah Cameron lays out in her blog on the subject, the messaging embedded in greeting cards broadly falls into three categories, of which many cards on the high street will exhibit two or more.
The first category she points to is card designers’ use “of a set of ancient tropes about heterosexual relationships, which appear with monotonous regularity, particularly though not only on cards marking heterosexual milestones (engagements, weddings, anniversaries).” The second is that the card addresses the recipient and often also the buyer/sender as a gendered being. This can be blatant (as with sites and shops which divide cards into ‘male’ and ‘female’) but can also manifest in subtler ways. At every key point from birth onwards, the gender of the recipient is significant. As Deborah writes: “Even the saccharine verses in birthday cards for older relatives use clearly gender-differentiated language – grandma is sweet and kind, while grandad is funny or ‘brilliant’.”
As to the buyer/sender being a gendered being, the industry’s rule of thumb is that 85% of greeting cards are bought by women. Although Amanda believes that this statistic must have shifted in the last few years, she thinks it’s still largely true. “Statistically women are the people in the house that tend to be the card buyers. So they will tend to say, ‘Oh, it’s grandma’s birthday, children come on, let’s make her or buy her a card’. And actually, perhaps to the partner, ‘It’s your mother’s birthday’. I suppose they tend to be the diary keepers.” Women are also more likely, in Amanda’s eyes, to send a card to a friend to say they’re thinking of them.
This act of diary keeping and expressing emotional connection through greeting cards is a blatant form of emotional labour (as the term is now understood). It is assumed to be a woman’s job irrespective of whether she enjoys sending cards. It makes sense, then, that the cards would presume the sender’s gender – but it also reinforces that women should be the keepers of dates and feelings. This is in stark contrast to cards for men, which often substitute emotionality for something completely devoid of sentiment or, more often, crass humour, assuming this is what men want. According to a US study on the subject, this is because cards reflect the belief that an interest in the feminised act of sending greeting cards “can seem like discrediting behaviour for heterosexual masculinity” if it contains any trace of sentiment.
The third category which cards fall into, according to Deborah, is the use of humour on gendered cards: “A tendency to make use of the crassest imaginable stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Even if you’re looking for a same-sex wedding or civil partnership card you’ll find it hard to avoid gender stereotyping (though you will find rainbows instead of straight-up pink or blue).”
Joke cards of all sorts have long been a part of the greeting card tradition and can act as a form of social history, charting how attitudes change. Amanda tells R29: “When lockdown started, suddenly there were a lot of cards with people without toilet roll! [Cards] reflect their times, and obviously, humour does change and what’s acceptable changes.”
What’s interesting is that humour which would seem to many to be unacceptable now – riffs on sexist stereotypes or jokes about binge drinking – still proliferates in mainstream greeting cards irrespective of attitude shifts. Jana Starcevic, cofounder of the stationery company The Completist, says that most of the jokey cards she sees which aren’t from indie sellers continue to feel out of step. “The humour/jokes feel really obvious in a really old-school way. They rely on a notion that was relevant 20 years ago, so they feel like a bit of a time warp, and in my experience don’t really represent the kind of modern card buyer.”
Comedy writer Mollie Goodfellow says it’s understandable that you’d reach for stereotypes as a point of connection. “We all work really hard to make sure we’re like other people and that they ‘get’ us. We work from frames of reference and seeing parts of ourselves out in the world. It’s why people tag their friends in memes saying ‘you’ or ‘me’. It’s a way of having shared experiences with other people.”
If the greeting card is an attempt at a universal distillation of sentiment, it will inevitably reach for outdated shorthand for ‘men’ and ‘women’. So what does that say about our culture’s vision of women, of weight loss, of ageing?
This is why it’s so easy to fall into writing patterns. “I think the thing with stuff being relatable and working with stereotypes is that it gives you a kind of blueprint for building jokes,” Mollie continues. “That in a way can quickly become laziness, particularly if you’re reinforcing harmful stereotypes about a group of people or certain race. That’s where some of the difficulty comes in with some of the ‘you can’t say anything anymore’ crowd, who have always played on stereotypes. I think people are kind of over it now, it’s kind of overplayed.”
This all ties into the fundamental difficulty of writing something imbued with personal significance, emotions or humour but which appeals to a mass consumer audience. In the US, Hallmark calls this challenge the mission to capture “universal specificity“. This is why so many cards are so general in their messaging. “For example, you’d find balloons and imagery like that on birthday cards rather than people,” Amanda says, “because as soon as you put a person with blonde hair on it, then it’s not going to work for a person with dark hair or a person who’s Black.”
Which brings us full circle. If the greeting card is an attempt at a universal distillation of sentiment, it will inevitably reach for outdated shorthand for ‘men’ and ‘women’. So what does that say about our culture’s vision of women, of weight loss, of ageing? It simply reduces each of these damaging ideas to a digestible sentiment which is intended to have general appeal. These sentiments then become the de facto when they should be challenged.
In Vaishali’s view, there is no way that you could ever create something that will inherently work for everyone. “Mass audiences have a huge diversity of opinions, beliefs and cultural nuances, with a growing sensitivity towards their particular point of view. No matter how hard you try, you risk the chance to offend some people. There are many strongly felt opinions which are a polar opposite to others, so any message can be wrongly perceived and could potentially unleash a tsunami of dislikes or worse on social media within minutes, which could cost companies dearly.”
This is why the introduction of personalisation through digital printing, small batch runs and, crucially, the sheer volume of indie card makers and sellers is as much of a solution to gendered and stereotyped cards as directly challenging their damaging messaging. It’s only through the growth of niche cards as well as the constant interrogation of how cards may be replicating gender difference that a significant shift can happen. The tide has already begun to turn but it is only with more pressure and more support for independent makers that it can continue to do so.
In a year when our relationships have been splintered by a global pandemic and offers of thought, love and connection mean more than ever, many of us have become more introspective and thoughtful about who we want to connect with, and how. Greeting cards are the perfect medium for this. There will probably always be appetite and space for ‘edgy’ humour but it’s worth pushing for more and better choices where we can, encouraging the men in our lives to buy cards too and push for ones that actually reflect them, and supporting independent creators/buyers who get your humour. In doing so, perhaps cards can be what they should be: a thoughtful connection between people, not a haggard reminder of the stereotypes and gender norms we’re working to undo.
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