Peloton isn’t alone in making sexist gift gaffes. Even I once vouched for a pink beret

Hadley Freeman
Photograph: YuriF/Getty Images

So, I’d like to talk about Christmas gift guides, but first I’d like to talk about the Peloton advert, which was so bad it cost the company $1.5bn. Merry Christmas, Peloton!

I must confess, until this advert came crashing through the internet, I’d never actually heard of Peloton, which is probably due to my intolerance of exercise – a lifelong affliction. (As Will Ferrell says of sex addiction in Blades Of Glory, it’s a real condition, with doctors and medicine and everything.) Now, I have, and I’m pretty clear on what it is – a jazzy exercise bike – so in terms of raising awareness with me, the advert is flawless. In other matters, possibly less so.

In the ad, a very slim woman is given a Peloton for Christmas by a man who may be her husband, but seems more likely to be her jailer. For reasons no one can explain without references to Black Mirror, the woman then films herself for a year using her jazzy exercise bike. The next Christmas, she proudly shows the presumably extremely long cycling film to her jailer, in which she tearfully thanks him for changing her life. “A gift like no other,” Peloton tweeted, and indeed it is – the perfect gift for the brainwashed woman you keep in your basement.

People have criticised the ad for being sexist and yes, obviously it is. But I would urge these newly outraged people to look at gift suggestions – or “gift guides” to use the common parlance – in general, because they are always reliably, hilariously, appallingly sexist.

Now, I say “always”, but of course I mean “always, with the strong exceptions of the Guardian and Observer gift guides, which are paragons of equality, as you’d expect from these fine papers”. (Phew, job safe for another year.) But in the vast main, gift guides – in newspapers or magazines, in shops, in adverts – attempt to appeal to the entire human population, and that means relying on gender stereotypes. One of my first jobs was to compile a Christmas gift guide for a magazine and, looking back, I see that in my “gifts for her” section I included – and I swear I’m not making this up – a pink sequined beret and some bubble bath. The “gifts for him” section is absolutely perfect, should the him in your life be Ron Burgundy. A washbag made from reassuringly manly dark leather? A personalised shaving kit? Both will look marvellous among his many leather-bound books, in his apartment that smells of rich mahogany. Truly, gender is enough of a prison without chucking in a leather washbag to exacerbate the pain.

When you try to please everyone you end up pleasing no one. Do all women want a pink sequined beret? Do any? Because, if the current debates about gender identity have taught us anything, it’s surely that we are all wonderful unique unicorns who deserve more than offerings in pink or blue, literal or metaphorical.

Gift guides need to get more specific and reflect real people. And, no, suggestions of “what to get for your hipster boyfriend” (a £500 coffee grinder) or “your luxury-loving girlfriend” (Chanel bubble bath) do not count (actual examples from an actual magazine). I’m talking about people you actually know. So, putting into practice my career-spanning experience of gift guides, and my lifelong experience of knowing people, here is the ultimate list of what to get people for Christmas. (You’re welcome!)

• The person in your office who talks way too loudly on the phone: a bag of caramels. They’re tasty and will stop him talking for at least a few minutes.

• The person in your yoga class whom you hated for ages because she was so much better at yoga, until she talked to you one day after class and it turned out was really nice, and now every time you go to yoga you’re reminded of what a judgmental cow you are: a fancy yoga mat with a lotus flower painted on it. Then never go to yoga again. (Merry Christmas to you.)

• Your friend’s girlfriend, who has become an Instagram influencer: a full-size mirror. So good for extra narcissism, I mean selfies.

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• The local dry cleaner who once saw you using the other local dry cleaner, prompting you to make up some lie about how you were picking up your neighbour’s dry cleaning, even though he knew you were lying and you’ve now basically stopped dry cleaning your clothes in embarrassment: an absurdly nice cashmere scarf. (You really need to start cleaning your clothes again. Kill this problem with cashmere.)

• Your passive-aggressive friend from school who always starts her Facebook messages to you, “Hello, stranger!”: a scented candle. (Nothing – literally nothing – is more passive aggressive than a scented candle.)

• The woman in the park whose name you don’t know, and she doesn’t know yours, but you know everything about one another’s dogs: a card addressed “To my fellow dog lover!” and signed “The mad dog lady in the park!”

• The brainwashed woman you keep in your basement: a Peloton.