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What greetings cards tell us about society’s narrow view of women

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Olivia Gagan
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Greeting cards for women always represent the same holy trinity of achievement: engagement, marriage and motherhood. We deserve more

I send a lot of greetings cards. I’m not alone: as a nation, we spend £1.75 billion on them a year, with the majority of these being purchased by women.

So, greetings cards are a big, billion-pound industry. That means there must be incredible choice, creativity and variety available on the high street and online, right? Wrong. Go to Clinton’s, visit Moonpig, rifle through the racks at an independent gift shop… and you’ll be stepping into a world where women are identified primarily by pink, by LBDs, by shopping bags and stuck-on rhinestones. According to the card shop, we are all glitter-loving, cupcake-scoffing prosecco princesses, just waiting for gin o’clock.

I do like gin (Hendricks, please) and prosecco (if it’s really dry, and cold). I like cake (all cake) and shopping, preferably alone and in Liberty. But do I want to be defined by these things? Are these my most significant traits? No. 

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I like gin, prosecco and cake, but do I want to be defined by these things? No.

And that’s just the imagery. The messages on the cards are often even more reductive; the success of buying a card usually depends on what happened to inspire sending one. The problem is, only a handful of experiences are deemed worthy of the celebration and recognition that a card represents. Has your pal put a ring on it? There are a million cards for that. Heading to a wedding? There are metres of shop floor space dedicated to this life event. Baby on the way? You’ll find a means to (quite literally) say ‘you did it!’ in a lunchtime dash to the shops, no problem.

This is no bad thing in itself: I pop a card in the post for weddings, anniversaries, engagements, births and birthdays, because they are all wonderful, life-affirming events that deserve celebrating. They symbolise change, growth, joy, commitment and success. But there are great things that have happened in both my life and in the lives of the women I care about, that don’t fit into those categories. And I can’t find cards for them. 

My one year anniversary of self-employment is coming up, for instance. I’ll have survived the first, high-risk year of running a business alone, and I don’t think there’s a card for that. The same thing goes for the loved one who mentioned that she’d stayed clean and off drugs for, incredibly, a decade. Or the person who adopted after struggling with infertility. Or the friend who came out, after years of trying to do so.

None of these events are unusual or niche. They are the everyday successes, little wins, and major triumphs-after-disasters that can happen to most of us. We just don’t make enough cards for them.

There are some great exceptions – Etsy, for instance, is a hub for funny, thoughtful, indie card businesses. But the large-scale card industry cleaves to the same holy trinity of womanly achievement that Pride & Prejudice’s Mrs Bennet did in 1813: engagement, marriage and motherhood. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones was meant to be, in part, a Twentieth century satire on Austen, but the card industry went with a very literal reading of that Nineties everywoman archetype: self-deprecating, slightly sloshed, a bit crap at work, up for a laugh, but still essentially driven by a fevered hunt for a husband and a baby. The wine-chugging life and the soul of the party, but also the butt of the joke. 

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Why don’t we have cards for the everyday successes, little wins, and major triumphs-after-disasters that happen to most of us?

Sending and receiving a card might seem like a small thing, but it clearly matters to people; we wouldn’t send so many of them (the average person in the UK sends 33 cards a year) if they didn’t make us feel recognised and appreciated. Despite having more ways to communicate than ever, and despite everyone from friends and lovers and families to work colleagues being just a WhatsApp thread away, arriving home to find a card lying on the doormat still means something.

But hope is not lost; we might have a better range to choose from soon. Card sales are rising, and high street brands have responded by bringing out new products. John Lewis & Partners is launching its first in-house line of greetings cards next month. Being the bastion of middle-class, middle-England values and sensibilities that it is, I don’t know if the chain is going to push the envelope (sorry) too far. Still, I’m hopeful there will be some interesting designs in there, that offer something different when it comes to celebrating the wide field of good things that women can do. Or at least ones without Audrey Hepburn illustrations. 

Perhaps most greetings cards are jokey or twee or resort to clichés because it is hard to say what we really want to say. As a nation, we’re not known for big-upping non-traditional forms of success, or conversely, knowing how to talk to somebody who’s struggling. Online offering Punchy Cards launched this month for this very reason. You can buy cards with saccharine-free sentiments like ‘I’ve Wanted to Call You So Many Times’, ‘You Can Moan About It For As Long As You Need To,’ and ‘I Like You Way More Than I Should At This Stage.’ Tellingly, the people behind Punchy Cards are well versed in tricky matters of the heart and mind – they’re also the makers of Spill, an online counselling app.

I am all for emotional honesty, and I’d like the greetings card industry to offer a bit more of it, and a broader reflection of what success and society today look like. There are plenty of women who aren’t getting engaged, who aren’t having babies, who aren’t planning a wedding anniversary, but they are living and working hard and making great things happen. They deserve the visible, open celebration and acknowledgement that a decent card represents, too.

I’m only a year into my freelance writing business. I think I’ve found my plan B: if this journalism lark falls through, I’m starting a greetings card company. 

Images: Unsplash, Getty