Raising boys who play with dolls


'Stereotyping Boys' by Chris JohnstonIt's every feminist's dream: a four-year-old girl standing in the pink-doused aisle of a toy store, issuing forth about the lack of choices for girls. 'Why do all the girls have to buy princesses and all the boys have to buy superheroes?' the girl, Riley, asks with exasperation of the man — presumably her father — who is filming her.

Riley is clearly displeased at the manner in which manufacturers and advertisers have attempted to pigeonhole little girls, but her outcry is gender-inclusive, for it acknowledges — after some hesitation — that girls are not the only losers in this great big marketing machine.

'Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses, some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses. So then why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different coloured stuff?'

'It's a good question, Riley,' her father answers.

A good question indeed, and a reminder that for every little girl who feels she is being forced to choose between a thousand shades of pink, there's a little boy hemmed in by society's expectations of what a boy should be.

No child — not even those raised as 'gender-free' — is ever entirely immune to the societal value and meaning that is attached to their sex: in the past, studies showed that babies dressed as girls received more smiles than those dressed as boys; that parents gave more positive non-verbal responses to their toddlers when they picked up 'gender appropriate' toys, and more negative responses when they picked up toys associated with the opposite sex; and that parents and schools employed imperceptibly prejudiced practices vis-á-vis boys and girls.

If these studies were to be replicated today, their findings would surely reflect our enlightened consciousness. But they might also find that while girls have become well-practised in articulating their distaste for the narrow stereotypes applied to them, there is conspicuous silence on the concomitant lack of choice for boys. Girls have been revolutionised by the feminist movement; boys have simply been encouraged to make way for girls.

'No-one ever tells him what to be, only what not to be,' says American filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt in his documentary The Smell of Burning Ants. 'Boys become boys in large part by not being girls. The ones who don't figure this out are the same ones who get beaten up.'

While girls are increasingly empowered by public discourse in what they do, who they are and how they assert themselves, the role of boys is too often defined in relation to the needs of girls — and the expectations of what a man should be — rather than their own individuality.

'Girls we love for what they are; young men for what they promise to be,' said Goethe.

And one aisle up from where Riley is railing against all that pink, shelves groan beneath hammers, trains and trucks, action men and Lego blocks, superheroes, cricket sets, science kits and waterguns. There are no dolls here, and certainly nothing pink. Boys' mode of play, it is implied, will be fast, mechanical and aggressive.

These shelves and the weight of societal influence under which they labour remind me of a friend whose husband refused to allow their sons to play with dolls, despite the fact that one of them gravitated towards girls' toys. His mother would bring him to my house so that he could play surreptitiously with ours; I recall the delight on his face as he pushed around a doll's pram and lovingly arranged soft toys about my sleeping baby's face.

But even parents who strive to circumvent gender stereotyping will find themselves thwarted along the way. Huffington Post blogger Amelia wrote recently of her son's declaration, at the age of seven, that he was gay. She and her husband told him they loved him; a relative told him girls had boyfriends and boys had girlfriends.

'I don't think this person was trying to hurt my kid; they were just telling him how their world worked. But even without malicious intent, it's not okay for anyone to tell my son that what he's feeling is wrong,' Amelia wrote.

Just as it wasn't okay for a family member to refuse to paint my toddler son's fingernails because 'boys don't wear nail polish'. I demurred forcefully, my son begged, pointing to his sister's bright red fingertips, and the family member finally agreed to dab some polish on each of my son's thumbnails.

The passage of time has not eased the expectation that he strictly adhere to the masculine stereotype: today, at 17, he wears his hair long and is resolutely oblivious to the glares of respectable types in shopping centres and the people who tell me with veiled contempt that I have not two but three 'beautiful daughters'.

Subjective socialisation is never a good thing, no matter the gender of the person involved. Women, in particular, would do well to use their growing influence for the betterment of both genders, because female empowerment will lose its value unless they take men on the journey with them.

They can effect such change by assuring the boys in their lives that they have the right to wear nail polish and play with dolls and cry in public if that is their wish, just as girls may dress like superheroes and wear their hair short and dream of one day fighting on the frontlines. 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a journalist and travel writer. 


Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, gender stereotyping



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Existing comments

Well done. It is not often that I am so encouraged to see women acknowledging the need for boys to regain a respected place in our culture - be it in whatever way the boy chooses. Boys are dying both literally and metaphorically before our eyes and no one will name it for what it is. There has been a deconstruction of what a man / boy / male is and no one has yet uttered the new (and respected) way for a men to be. We will keep losing our sons until that day.
graham patison | 10 April 2012

I love the quote from Goethe: 'Girls we love for what they are; young men for what they promise to be.' As a parent of both a girl and a boy I can honestly say that the unconscious approval/disapproval that Catherine writes about does sometimes escape my mouth and my parenting, inadvertently and subconsciously. Thankfully their mother is savvy enough to provide a foil for my occasional boofheadedness. As for boys playing with dolls and girls playing with (safe) projectile weapons, we have both instances at play in our home: the kids happily share their brother's/sister's toys and play act at gender roles. Civilisation has not stopped and our children's socialisation, maturation and personal growth have not come to a screaming halt. I would have thought we'd have gotten past this stereotypical approach to parenting by this stage.
Barry G | 10 April 2012

Of my four children, one is male. So, being heavily outnumbered, it was always going to be difficult for him not to be surrounded by dolls and other 'girly' paraphenalia. He's a studious type, reads a lot but also loves basketball and cricket. His mates are important to him and his girlfriend seems to adore him! I don't think any of the women in his life have ever tried to stereotype him - it would be less than respectful and we love him too much for that.
Pam | 10 April 2012

john frawley | 10 April 2012

Sad, stupid and sick!
Trent | 10 April 2012

Darwin looked at the survival of the most adapted The saddest issue in this article is that men failed to adapt to a more equitable journey for us all. Many were unable to negotiate change in the way the world worked and have ended up feeling deconstructed. Like the frog sitting in the pot of cold water that is beginning to heat up they ignored the change
GAJ | 11 April 2012

Thought-provoking. I appreciate men who are secure enough in themselves to break preconceived notions of masculinity, including participation in faith activities which is seen in some cultures as 'women's business'. Yet I bite my lip when I see my son become emotional, but not when I see my daughters ... Still, I am trying to shape them into whole and loving people, and parenting is all about the love.
Moira | 11 April 2012

This kind of thinking is what is destroying our culture by lowering standards and confusing children about their natural sex. That poor child who thought he was gay at age 7 should have been counseled and straightened out instead of encouraged in his emotional disorder from an underdeveloped gender identity. But no, he was encouraged by his own mother. That’s not parenting –that’s bowing to a current idea of political correctness.
George Blumel | 12 April 2012

The 'boys' stuff' at the toy store: cricket sets, blocks, trucks, science kits, etc just sounds so much more interesting than endless dolls. The boys' toys are about shaping a world, which I still believe boys are encouraged to do, far more than girls. Girls are still rewarded for being good and pretty, and boys still make the noise. Look at mixed boys and girls school playgrounds at lunchtime, and note who claims the most space. What do you do with a doll? They just sit there. I always hated dolls, and struggle to understand the attraction. But of course if a boy likes the stupid insipid things, I say let him knock himself out. (Or not, given they pose no physical danger.)
Penelope | 12 April 2012

Yes, I acknowledge that, to state the obvious, this is the World Wide Web, and,allthough being a devout and passionate progressive Christian(as opposed to conservative, with all due respect to those who subscribe to this site who are), I,like them, have strong issues regarding what I remember was termed in an article many years back, now, in "The Weekend Australian" magazine as "violent masculinity", and whilst I have one friend who, out of respect for whom, I'll keep anonymous, who is lesbian, and thus have, to an extent no problem with GLBT, I'm probably conservative when it comes to that, namely good role models for our kids. Or else we risk turning our kids into..................yeah, well, you know what I mean. As Trent said below "sad, stupid, and sick". Couldn't have put it better myself, buddy. Thought provoking article, though.
Phillip Smith | 12 April 2012

Very, very good Catherine. I was born in the 40s, my brother in the 50s, not long before my sisters were. As a child I loved playing with toy cars, motorbikes and truck things. I liked my dolls, but mainly because my darling Grandma had given them to me, and I loved her most of all. My brother at five once picked up a doll, and claimed it, because the poor little mite just wanted to play with his sisters. My parents were not impressed, and he was very hurt about it. You are quite right Catherine, women should use their growing influence for the betterment of both genders. This could also eventually lead to a positive impact in Third World and developing countries, where women are still very repressed.
Louw | 14 April 2012

Parents, both liberal and conservative, as well as the Dog in the Manger types like Trent and John Frawley who simply 'tut-tut' any expression that differs from theirs, show stop flattering themselves about the extent to which any particular type of upbringing will influence their child's sexuality. The more you pressure and try to force a square peg into a round hole, the more it will resist. And also being liberal and accepting of whatever will neither produce a liberal-minded child. Kids grow up as their own person in spite of their parents in many circumstances.
AURELIUS | 17 April 2012

I have a son who loves playing with "girl toys" I have no problem with this at all. I only wish more people would feel the same. Parents say they dont want there boys to get picked on so they teach their boys that they shouldnt play with girl toys!! I really wish they would understand that whilst they think they are protecting their on children they are possibly raising them to be those bullies thay are so afraid of. I love my son for everything he does and loves and i wouldn't change him for the world. Thankyou
Kelly | 05 May 2012

At playgroup we provide a range of toys and dress-ups. Every child can choose what they want to play with. One of our lovely little boys would arrive, spot the Dorothy the dinosaur costume, add a pink fairy skirt and tiara before setting off to find other toys to play with. Child counsellors tell me that if small boys are referred by their fathers it is almost always because their sons like to dress up in pink. However, there is something very natural about a small child wanting to imitate the person they love the most, their mother. All children should be exposed to a very wide range of toys and experiences and encouraged to discover themselves, whether it be girls playing in the dirt with trucks, or boys cooking with pretend kitchen equipment.
Eileen | 17 December 2012


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