Are We Still Talking About Whether Boys Should Play with Dolls?

By Brian Gresko, for

Photo by Kristal O’Neal/Getty Images

As a little boy, my constant companion was Babydoll Baby. She had red lips and big eyes embroidered on a plush face, and little brown knots sewn into her head for hair. I’ll admit, looking back at her now, that she’s somewhat freaky looking, less a Cabbage Patch Kid and more a cheap, bootleg Raggedy Ann, one that perhaps had too much to drink. But I loved my Babydoll Baby, as I loved the small collection of teddy bears that I kept on my bed through childhood all the way into my young adulthood. I’d pretend to bathe her, and feed her, and generally take care of her the way my parents took care of me. When I played school, I was the teacher and she had a seat in the front of the class. At night, I curled up with her, until I eventually replaced her with a bear dressed as Robin Hood whom I called Murphy. For years, though, Babydoll Baby was my best friend.

I thought fondly about Babydoll Baby Monday, when the Facebook page for “Lizzy the Lezzy,” a web animation series about an out gay woman, shared a photo of a boy carrying a doll. The caption read: “So you let your son play with DOLLS? Aren’t you afraid he’ll turn out to be … A GOOD FATHER?”

I never thought about this before. Could my pretend caring for Babydoll Baby all those years ago have been practice for being the loving stay-at-home dad that I am today? Likely, yes. For a moment, I wished my Babydoll Baby hadn’t disappeared at some point over the years, so I could give her a hug and say thanks.

Sadly, not everyone feels as warmly about boys playing with dolls. Though Lizzy’s post was shared over 130,000 times, garnered close to 900,000 likes, and generated more comments than I care to count, a good number of the commenters said terrible, awful things about how only pansies play with dolls (real boys apparently play with trucks, tools, bikes, and guns) or about how playing with dolls will make boys “soft” or even homosexual. It’s troubling to me that in 2015 we’re still debating about whether or not boys can play with dolls. I mean, really, folks, what’s the big deal?

I believe that every child should have the right to safely engage in whatever imaginative play he or she wants to — whether that means little girls playing with action figures, or boys playing with Barbies. (Which I also did.) The word doll has come to have a gendered association, but it shouldn’t, because many boys do play with dolls, in the form of action figures. It’s just that action figures are typically used in games of war, while dolls are more domestic, and so the former are perceived as being for boys and the latter for girls. I think most anyone would agree that those roles do not match the reality of life in America today, where women can serve in the military and boys can be at-home dads, or work in preschools (my son had a wonderful male teacher over the summer, for example).

There has been some movement on this front, but mostly for girls. Before the holidays, the President participated in a toy sorting event for the Toys for Tots charity, where he put basketballs and T-ball equipment in a box for little girls. “I’m just trying to break down these gender stereotypes,” President Obama said.

That’s great. However, the President did not place any dolls in the boys’ box. That’s because, as I’ve written about before, gender stereotypes for boys are particularly rigid. A girl can aspire to play basketball professionally and see role models in the world of sports, from 13 year old Mo’Ne Davis, the Little Leaguer who pitched a no-hitter and landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, to any number of outstanding women Olympians. In the business world, there are female CEOs, while in politics a record number of women (still pathetically low, in my opinion) will be sworn into the 114th Congress. Girls can be tough, aggressive, and competitive. So why can’t boys be sensitive, nurturing, and empathetic?

It’s high time our little boys have the same freedom when it comes to expressing themselves. First, we need to keep in mind that their imaginative games may indeed be practice for the life ahead of them, and many men do work that requires taking care of people in the way that children take care of dolls. There are male chefs — Mario Batali and Jamie Oliver come straight to mind — some of whom, like Anthony Bourdain, are very macho in their attitude, while still having a sensitive palate and love of the craft. Many teachers and religious leaders are male, and we admire them, as we do doctors who are skilled in medicine but also care for their patients. There are male nurses and assistants for the elderly or mentally disabled. There is nothing un-masculine about wanting to take care of and nurture other people! These are very human values which men and women have held dear for centuries.

If we value gender equality in this country, then American culture needs to loosen up its ideas of what it means to be a boy. Yes, boys can play with dolls, and play dress up in women’s clothing. Just the other day my son wore a belly dancer silk scarf with his Darth Vader helmet! As long as they are not hurting anyone, our kids should have the freedom to play with and how they would like. As parents we have to lay a foundation of open-mindedness now, so that freedom, kindness, and equality have a rich soil in which to take root later in our children’s lives.


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