Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dolls are for Girls

When I was young a played mostly alone. Now, the boys didn’t want to play with me because I am girl and I was too asthmatic for sports. Every year when I was in elementary school we had physical fitness tests. I supposed they were attempting to asses our physical abilities for the sake of statistics, but I can’t say for sure. For one of the tests we were timed on how quickly we could run a mile. After the first two years I learned that I wasn’t going to get a good time so I might as well walk the whole thing and take the maximum time, I think it was thirteen minutes.

I didn’t want to play with the girls because I wasn’t at all interested in what they were doing. Dolls, house, patty-cake-type hand games, being catty even at a very young age, pretending to be a princess, none of that appealed to me. I remember as young as three or four I was playing with He-Man toys (I even named my kitten Cringer) and Transformers. I wanted to be He-Man for Halloween one year but my mom wouldn’t let me because I was a girl. Of course, I forgot all about it when she made my She-Ra costume. It looked authentic and she even teased my hair up like hers.

Why do I bring this up? I started a controversy today with two of my coworkers, K and A. Now mind you, it was more like friendly banter but I am very convicted regarding what I stated. I don’t recall how the conversation started but I mentioned that I was going to buy presents for two little boys whose shared birthday party my daughter and I would be attending next weekend. I said L was old enough now that I would let her pick out the gifts (with slight guidance) for her friends. She said she wanted to get Kyle, who will be turning four, a remote control car, and his brother Sean, who will be turning two, something with unicorns. But, I continued to explain, Kyle and Sean’s parents were of the type that boy’s shouldn’t be allowed to play with “girl’s” toys. For example, the mother had once mentioned that Kyle had requested a Dora The Explorer bicycle but she and her husband couldn’t bring themselves to buy it for him. Both of the coworkers I was speaking to agreed that they should not comply with his request and gave Dora’s cousin Diego as the alternative. I was immediately annoyed and this perplexed me for two reasons: 1) I don’t agree because I would buy it for my son (if I had one), and 2) Dora doesn’t engage in “girly” behavior. She explores the forest, climbs mountains, counts things, and solves riddles. There’s no fairly princess glamour or tea parties with fancy dresses. Fuel for the fire.

Keeping my irritation subdued, I listened as K went on about how her godson’s mother let him play with girl’s toys and K stopped letting him bring them to her house because he started acting “fruity.” I looked her right in the eyes and said “K, toys don’t make people gay.” She replied that he was acting it and she wasn’t having that in her house. I wanted to scream at her “so what if he was” but she’s my partner and you can’t afford to burn bridges in the corporate world.

After K walked away from my desk I went to the cubicle next door. Apparently I wasn’t done with the conversation. I asked A whether or not she thought boys should be allowed to play with toys normally targeted towards girls. She said they should not. I asked why and all she said was “because they’re for girls.” Oh, it was on.

Trying to keep the conversation at an intelligent level instead of it being reduced to a “you’re wrong…no, you’re wrong” argument, I chose my words carefully. I asked for specifics. Exactly which toys should boys not be allowed to play with. The main answer was dolls. Why, I asked, and the answer was “because they’re for girls.” I asked why dolls are considered girls toys. Is it just because they have always been perceived that way? Why were they given to girls to play with in the beginning? I’m thinking it was because woman used to be the sole caregivers for the children while men were the providers. Little girls were given dolls to play with to emulate what they would be doing when they grew up or to emulate what they’re mothers and grandmothers did. I told A that I knew she agreed that men should take on an equal roll in the care giving to their children and housework and the like. She agreed they should. I said “Well, then why should we stop them from doing it as children?” It teaches the responsibility, as MW agrees in his/her article “The Value of Playing With Dolls for Boys and Girls.” Again, the only answer was that dolls are for girls.

Both K and A stated there were no boy’s toys that are unacceptable for a girl to play with. I was even told it was because there is such a thing as a female tom-boy but there was no male counterpart such as a sally-girl.

While pregnant with my daughter I knew that I would try very hard to make sure she was exposed to all kinds of toys and all kinds of play. Even her clothes as an infant were varied, not all pink and lilac. Until her third birthday her toy box was equal parts cars and dress up jewelry. Twice a child older than her asked their parent or me why she was wearing a Spider-Man shirt when Spider-Man is for boys. My reply was simply “because she likes Spider-man.” When a little boy asked his mother I waited patiently to see what would come out of her mouth. I don’t think she knew we were within earshot. I was pleasantly surprised to hear her tell her son that anyone can like Spider-Man and explain that she herself has a Spider-Man hat.

Around her third birthday though, she was much more into dolls, princesses, and ponies, and she made it very clear her favorite color is pink. She does occasionally play with her cars and trains. Of course, I accept her for the little princess she is (I call her Princess Lunatic). I will just mention that in addition to the Barbies (I’m trying to be ok with this one. I will only buy her the ones that do not look like hoochies. Thankfully she wants the veterinarian Barbie) and mermaid dolls, she also wants a tool set for her birthday.


  1. I was also the tomboy. I burned my sister's dolls after brutal tortures. But I agree, there should be no sense of "gayness" to a toy. I am sorry, but when we do not want boys playing with dolls or kitchen sets when they're little, and expect them later on to know how to cook or take care of children...we cannot be upset when they do not do it right. I had play tools and worked on imaginary things beside my dad. Now, if my tire goes flat, or my oil needs changing...I do not need to wait and see if a man comes by to help me. But I will not deny my son something he wants for the sake of "girl toy/boy toy" that is idiotic. I played football on an organized boys team, my mom freaked saying I would become a lesbian. I didn't know what a lesbian was, but I played and wanted to keep playing, but here I am now, a straight, married woman, who still loves sports...and NOT girly things.

  2. I think that this is valid point. I think that it's more discriminatory though against boys playing with girl toys than girls playing with boy toys. For instance whenever girls wear mens clothing they are still perfectly accepted, some people may think it's a little off, but mostly it's fine. However if I guy were to walk around wearing a dress, society perceives him worse than it perceives the girl wearing baggy jeans and a t-shirt. Often I think it's good for children to be able to play with any toys because it helps them interact with more kinds and types of other children.

  3. This post rocks. My wife and are are trying to remain gender neutral as well, although Rowan is only 19 months, so she isn't really making these kinds of decisions yet. My wife is also anti-Barbie, especially the "hoochie" ones (as you put it), so that might be an issue down the road. She's caved on Disney, but I don't think either of us are terribly pleased with the image of Barbie.

    And I really like your defense of Dora. Rowan's watching that show now, and I don't see anything traditionally feminine (or hoochie) about Dora at all. She is a smart, capable explorer and should be a role model for all young children.

    But I think we have to remember that gender expectations are amongst the strongest of cultural memes. Memes are just as influential (and often as invisible) as genes. They make us. When you challenge someone's cultural-memetic assumptions, you cannot expect rational answers. You are essentially asking them "why do you breathe oxygen." Memetic expectations, or to use the classical Marxist terminology, ideological beliefs, are hardwired into our brain. It takes a particularly committed disposition to critique ourselves and deconstruct these assumptions. (Again we're back to Corder's discussion of narratives--culturally, Americans have deeply ingrained narratives of what boys and girls should do).

  4. What Marailnot said is true. I wear boys shorts that i buy in the boys section of Target and always have. I have never been in trouble for it. However, in high school a male friend of mine was sent to in school suspension for wearing a skirt (of course he WAS doing it to see what the reaction would be and make a point).