Why Boys Don’t Play with Dolls

I just came upon an excellent New York Times article,Hers: Why Boys Don’t Play with Dolls. I just had to share! I am reprinting it here, with the parts I found most important in bold. As the mother of a two year old daughter, I deal with these sorts of things all the time! Enjoy!


IT’S 28 YEARS SINCE THE founding of NOW, and boys still like trucks and girls still like dolls. Increasingly, we are told that the source of these robust preferences must lie outside society — in prenatal hormonal influences, brain chemistry, genes — and that feminism has reached its natural limits. What else could possibly explain the love of preschool girls for party dresses or the desire of toddler boys to own more guns than Mark from Michigan.

True, recent studies claim to show small cognitive differences between the sexes: he gets around by orienting himself in space, she does it by remembering landmarks. Time will tell if any deserve the hoopla with which each is invariably greeted, over the protests of the researchers themselves. But even if the results hold up (and the history of such research is not encouraging), we don’t need studies of sex-differentiated brain activity in reading, say, to understand why boys and girls still seem so unalike.

The feminist movement has done much for some women, and something for every woman, but it has hardly turned America into a playground free of sex roles. It hasn’t even got women to stop dieting or men to stop interrupting them.

Instead of looking at kids to “prove” that differences in behavior by sex are innate, we can look at the ways we raise kids as an index to how unfinished the feminist revolution really is, and how tentatively it is embraced even by adults who fully expect their daughters to enter previously male-dominated professions and their sons to change diapers.

I’m at a children’s birthday party. “I’m sorry,” one mom silently mouths to the mother of the birthday girl, who has just torn open her present — Tropical Splash Barbie. Now, you can love Barbie or you can hate Barbie, and there are feminists in both camps. But apologize for Barbie? Inflict Barbie, against your own convictions, on the child of a friend you know will be none too pleased?

Every mother in that room had spent years becoming a person who had to be taken seriously, not least by herself. Even the most attractive, I’m willing to bet, had suffered over her body’s failure to fit the impossible American ideal. Given all that, it seems crazy to transmit Barbie to the next generation. Yet to reject her is to say that what Barbie represents — being sexy, thin, stylish — is unimportant, which is obviously not true, and children know it’s not true.

Women’s looks matter terribly in this society, and so Barbie, however ambivalently, must be passed along. After all, there are worse toys. The Cut and Style Barbie styling head, for example, a grotesque object intended to encourage “hair play.” The grown-ups who give that probably apologize, too.

How happy would most parents be to have a child who flouted sex conventions? I know a lot of women, feminists, who complain in a comical, eyeball-rolling way about their sons’ passion for sports: the ruined weekends, obnoxious coaches, macho values. But they would not think of discouraging their sons from participating in this activity they find so foolish. Or do they? Their husbands are sports fans, too, and they like their husbands a lot.

Could it be that even sports-resistant moms see athletics as part of manliness? That if their sons wanted to spend the weekend writing up their diaries, or reading, or baking, they’d find it disturbing? Too antisocial? Too lonely? Too gay?

Theories of innate differences in behavior are appealing. They let parents off the hook — no small recommendation in a culture that holds moms, and sometimes even dads, responsible for their children’s every misstep on the road to bliss and success.

They allow grown-ups to take the path of least resistance to the dominant culture, which always requires less psychic effort, even if it means more actual work: just ask the working mother who comes home exhausted and nonetheless finds it easier to pick up her son’s socks than make him do it himself. They let families buy for their children, without too much guilt, the unbelievably sexist junk that the kids, who have been watching commercials since birth, understandably crave.

But the thing the theories do most of all is tell adults that the adult world — in which moms and dads still play by many of the old rules even as they question and fidget and chafe against them — is the way it’s supposed to be. A girl with a doll and a boy with a truck “explain” why men are from Mars and women are from Venus, why wives do housework and husbands just don’t understand.

The paradox is that the world of rigid and hierarchal sex roles evoked by determinist theories is already passing away. Three-year-olds may indeed insist that doctors are male and nurses female, even if their own mother is a physician. Six-year-olds know better. These days, something like half of all medical students are female, and male applications to nursing school are inching upward. When tomorrow’s 3-year-olds play doctor, who’s to say how they’ll assign the roles?

With sex roles, as in every area of life, people aspire to what is possible, and conform to what is necessary. But these are not fixed, especially today. Biological determinism may reassure some adults about their present, but it is feminism, the ideology of flexible and converging sex roles, that fits our children’s future. And the kids, somehow, know this.

That’s why, if you look carefully, you’ll find that for every kid who fits a stereotype, there’s another who’s breaking one down. Sometimes it’s the same kid — the boy who skateboards and takes cooking in his after-school program; the girl who collects stuffed animals and A-pluses in science.

Feminists are often accused of imposing their “agenda” on children. Isn’t that what adults always do, consciously and unconsciously? Kids aren’t born religious, or polite, or kind, or able to remember where they put their sneakers. Inculcating these behaviors, and the values behind them, is a tremendous amount of work, involving many adults. We don’t have a choice, really, about whether we should give our children messages about what it means to be male and female — they’re bombarded with them from morning till night.

The question, as always, is what do we want those messages to be?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09779444962182438901 Enigma

    Awesome Article!! :) I love it!

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    That last paragraph has so much win. It drives me nuts how feminists are always being accused of wanting to "indoctrinate" kids with their "agenda" as if kids aren't already being indoctrinated with gender messages that are serving some people's agenda every day! The mass media indoctrinates girls with the message that their self-worth is contained in their looks which are, by the way, never good enough. That way, they can always be counted upon to keep on coming back for more cosmetics, more miracle diet plans, more surgeries, more all kinds of things that are making some people very, very rich. If that's not an agenda, I don't know what is. And similar things can be said for boys. The paragraph about adults being disturbed by little boys doing "girl" things is also interesting because I think there's a lot of truth in that. I think even a lot of progressive-minded adults who have grown used to seeing adults go against gender norms would find it jarring to see small children do the same thing. Perhaps because, on some level, many of us believe that when adults flout gender, they are doing so as the result of a considered, conscious decision that has been influenced by movements like feminism, instead of simply acting on their natures. (Of course the idea that even the smallest children act purely on their "natures" is also highly problematic.) I think accepting that a little boy might like to play kitchen because that's what he likes, as opposed to accepting that an adult man cooks because he's been taught that that's what a modern, sensitive man does, might be the final frontier as far as accepting the socially constructed nature of gender roles.I'll be very interested to hear your reflections on raising your daughter as she gets older and becomes more communicative and aware. Being a feminist mom of a little girl in this world is certainly a challenge!

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Also…"True, recent studies claim to show small cognitive differences between the sexes: he gets around by orienting himself in space, she does it by remembering landmarks. Time will tell if any deserve the hoopla with which each is invariably greeted, over the protests of the researchers themselves."I'm glad the author points out that these kinds of results are dubious and highly over-hyped in popular media. But I do wish that she had also pointed out that, even if they do hold up, so what? They still tell us absolutely nothing about whether or not there are innate differences between the sexes. There are cognitive differences between men and women? Well, considering that it is widely accepted that our brains are not fully cooked when we're born, that they consider to develop in response to social stimuli as we grow, it would be pretty shocking if their weren't. Another misconception that we feminists are always having to fight is the idea that we dispute the fact that there are differences between the sexes. This is ridiculous. Yeah, okay, women ask for raises less, men are more aggressive about ascending the professional ladder. Women cry in public more, men fight in public more. Anyone who has walked out of her house knows these things. But these are not explanations, they are merely descriptions. What feminists are interested in is WHY these things are so. I am sick to death of anti-feminists cherry-picking some study that shows that (shocker!) men and women think and act differently and gloating over it as if such studies vindicate their views as opposed to merely describing the reality that feminists would like to change.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    PP – "Yeah, okay, women ask for raises less, men are more aggressive about ascending the professional ladder. Women cry in public more, men fight in public more. But these are not explanations, they are merely descriptions."YES! That conditioning is so pervasive. Girls are supposed to cry; boys aren't. Boys are supposed to be assertive; girls should be passive. It's a thousand little messages we receive as we grow, and they shape us.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14019113699488108374 jemand

    On the other hand, there *is* a role for hormones, I have read narratives by transpeople who stated that when having closer to average female hormones they were more likely to cry when feeling a similar level of pain.But there are differences of fact, and then there are differences in social judgments OF the fact.There is no reason that crying of itself must be coded as "weak" for example, even if physiologically women may be more likely to do it.(of course, the experience of trans people is really not a blinded study, either, and as these are adults, you can't rule out either inculturated differences having a big influence, or that there is something specific to switching one's hormones that would change these kinds of experiences. Plus, as far as I know, there hasn't even been a really study of this, just a few personal reports.)

  • Anonymous

    I have 2 kids, 1 boy and 1 girl. They both love all kinds of toys. They will go outside and dig in the dirt for worms, then come inside and play Barbies together. But it's evident that my girl prefers dolls and tutus while my boy prefers tools and cars. The question is, did I unconsciously push them towards those gender roles, or is that part of their DNA?

  • Anonymous

    It might not even be you, other-anon.Lots of people say things like "I did the whole gender neutral thing, but when they were three/four/five they started insisting on dolls and pink/trucks and blue, so gender is innate".And then you ask "Well, when did they start school?" and it's so funny, they started school when they were three or four or five! Just being in this *culture* pushes them towards how this culture says you should enact your gender, even if your parents are super conscientious about it.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    Sorry to comment on such an old post… I just want to reiterate, as others have said, that even if there are innate differences that push in this direction, that’s not a reason to abandon the idea of gender egalitarianism. In fact, as I’ve written on my blog, that’s actually a reason to work harder.

    I have this half-baked hypothesis, that if there were innate tendencies that correlated with externally visible phenotypes (gender, skin color, etc.), the effect of culture would be to exaggerate and reinforce those tendencies into unhealthy expectations in a sort of positive feedback loop. And because we already know with certainty that individual variation far outweighs any innate tendencies that might be correlated with gender (e.g. while men on average have significantly more upper body strength than women, it is plainly obvious that the strongest women is stronger than the weakest man; and in fact, a fairly strong woman is far stronger than even an average man: individual variation dominates even when the perceived trend is real), this means that in an environment where there are unhealthy expectations of a particular tendency, many individuals are going to be pressured in directions they don’t want.

    FWIW: My 3-year-old son did seem to show a preference for “boy-ish” type stuff (vehicles, stuff smashing and exploding, etc.) from a pretty early age, though it’s impossible to say whether it was innate or just very subtle cultural influences… but he also has dolls, which he plays with occasionally, and we just got him a short with a sparkly pink pony on it that he absolutely loves. At an absolute minimum, regardless of whether the fact that he spends a lot more time with his trains than his dolls is more reflective of nature or environment, we’d be doing him a terrible disservice if we tried to narrow his choices into a pre-defined gender role. It makes me sad to think that some parents wouldn’t have let him get the pony shirt just because it’s too girly.

    • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

      One of the worst things for me growing up was hearing from a Fundamentalist Conservative father that I had to “man up” every time I cried and every time I shared some kind of sensitivity. It’s pushing masculinity on me, destroying my sensitive self.

      Funny, now that I’m grown up the only “manning up” I’ve started to do is actually “womanning up.”