Equity & Diversity

Why Can’t Boys Play With Dolls?

By Ross Brenneman — December 27, 2013 2 min read
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Boys will be boys, because society demands it.

A new article in the Los Angeles Times suggests that while women (and, by extension, girls) continue to find greater opportunity in business, home life, and generally expanding “traditional gender roles,” men stay stuck in a rut.

For example: According to May 2013 data, 51 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center that children were better off with a stay-at-home mom than a stay-at-home dad. The education field is still predominantly female: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women held 76 percent of all public school teaching positions in the 2007-08 school year.

Professions other than teaching have stagnated as well in gender diversity: Since the ‘90s, the Times writes, gender balances across many fields have stagnated: "[I]n the first decade of the millennium jobs stayed similarly segregated by gender—the first time since 1960 that gender integration in the workplace had slowed to a virtual halt.”

Troublesome Toys

Girls and boys come to understand gender fairly early. So early, in fact, that schools in Sweden are attempting to replace gender-specific pronouns like “him” and “her,” and don’t emphasize which kinds of toys children should play with, all in order to promote gender equity.

Indeed, toys seem to be a hot spot in the discussion of traditional gender roles. You may be comfortable with the idea of someone else giving your boy a doll to play with, but you’d be in the minority, according to the Times article. And little boys can often serve as enforcers of societal norms about what toys are OK to play with, taunting each other for alleged displays of femininity.

But why?

The problem may come from within. “While women have ‘come out’ to their families as people who want a life outside the home, men have not ‘come out’ at work as involved fathers,” an expert told the Times. Males have essentially driven a negative stereotype about sharing roles or interests with females.

It’s one thing to delve psychologically into why boys may be interested in things typically associated with girls, but it’s another to perpetuate a culture that ostracizes them for doing so; that leads to bullying for displays of the color pink or ownership of a Barbie.

The School’s Role

Let’s turn back to that early behavior, then. Maybe it’s the responsibility of boys to play dolls with each other in order to teach that it’s OK to play with dolls. Or to say, “So what if my Game Boy is fuchsia?”

Schools can be part of that discussion, not only by working to prevent teasing about play preferences, or punishing related bullying, but by encouraging activities that break down stereotypes.

A personal example: In senior year of high school, our school librarians, looking to do something fun, started a knitting circle. If you brought in yarn and needles during lunch hour, they’d teach you how to make a scarf. With most of my friends in the other lunch hour, I didn’t have much to do, so I joined the club. Yeah, real cool, right? Except that after a week, I found myself sitting next to the offensive tackle of our state-championship-winning football team.

I made that scarf. It felt pretty great, and I can say that on more than one occasion I’ve found a girl who’s impressed by it. My school, just trying to do something fun, taught me a new life skill and helped fight stereotyping, one stitch at a time.

And it didn’t even alter any chromosomes.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.