Why Boys Don’t Play with Dolls

Why Boys Don’t Play with Dolls August 3, 2011

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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