The Great Doll Debate: It's Not Important Why Boys Play With Dolls, Just Let Them Do It

Heather Jones finds society's constant need to justify boys playing with "girls toys" troubling.

In 1972, “William’s Doll” was published. It is the story of a young boy who wants a doll for his birthday, but faces opposition and teasing from his friends and family. He is told dolls are for girls, and that he is being a sissy, but he stands firm in his desire for a doll. Finally, Grandma, the voice of reason, tells everyone to stop being ignorant jerks, gets the kid a doll, and says if they don’t like it, they can bite her. (Okay, she may have said it more politely than that, but the point remains the same.) To persuade the family to allow our friend Bill to play with his doll, she says that it is good practice for when he is a father someday. We have come a long way since this ground-breaking story was written - indeed by 1985 when I fell in love with it as a child via “Free to Be...You and Me” I had no idea it was an issue in the first place, but the argument behind letting boys play with dolls remains the same.

Let boys play with Lego, it will prepare them for when they are bricklayers. Let boys play with action figures, it will prepare them for their defense of Gotham City. Let boys play with Transformers, it will prepare them for the robot revolution. We never hear these phrases because they are silly. If someone stopped us in the aisle while we were purchasing a toy that is considered universally acceptable for boys to play with and asked us why we were buying that toy, our answer would be, “because he likes it.” Yet when explaining why it is okay for boys to play with dolls, inevitably the subject comes back to preparing them to be fathers.

I loved dolls as a child. In fact, the reason I loved “William’s Doll” so much was because it had a doll in it. I was lucky that I grew up in a house where nothing was set by gender. We had Lego and trucks, my dad taught me how to woodwork and fish and play baseball, but dolls were my favourite. They were super fun...but they did not prepare me to be a mother. I didn’t play mother to my dolls. Typically, our version of 'house' involved one of two scenarios: Either we were operating an orphanage full of kids of varying ages, or our Barbies were some sort of alien race of tiny humans that we kept in the cat carrier to hide them from the government. I have yet to use these skills in my everyday parenting (though I have 2 cat carriers now, so feel free to come find me, tiny human aliens). We played with dolls because it was fun. If anything, it prepared me more for my time as an actor and a director than as a mother.

My sons have dolls. My oldest named his Beige Cedar Blossoms Jones (which is why I named our cats without his input) and proudly walked around town in his Green Lantern costume with his doll in a makeshift sling. Two groups of people stopped to coo over him: a mom and baby yoga class, and a cluster of construction workers. He thought nothing of it until he excitedly showed a man his new doll, and was met with, “That’s not your doll, is it? Dolls are for girls, you should be playing with Superman.” He was crestfallen and thoroughly confused. He played with Superman too, he didn’t realize they were supposed to be mutually exclusive.

Another time, he was at a restaurant with his grandparents and was offered the toy chest at the end of the meal. He chose pink barrettes (despite his buzz cut.) Noticing the look of disapproval from the waitress, my dad said, pointedly, “Those will look great on your Strawberry Shortcake!”

Every once in a while things like these happen and I am reminded that we still have a way to go before this ridiculous gendering of toys stops. We still need to argue against it. I am that annoying person on facebook commenting on toys marketed towards one gender or the other. I’m sure my class of grade 3s and 4s loved when one of them brought in a catalog and they got to hear my speech on why separating the toys into boy and girl categories was wrong. I know my sons love when I correct the TV. I am THAT person, but it is THAT important.

What I take issue with is the qualifications on why boys can play with these toys. In addition to the argument that boys should play with dolls to prepare them for fatherhood, there are the videos where a dad posts about buying his son a doll and not caring what the child’s sexuality is. While noble in idea, like the fatherhood clause, I think it still sends the wrong message. You should buy your son a doll if he wants one. You shouldn’t care about your son’s sexual orientation. These two things are not related. Your son wanting a doll simply means he likes dolls, just as your daughter wanting a Batman action figure simply means she likes Batman. Congratulating ourselves for buying our sons “girl toys” is problematic as well. There is a fine line between making it more mainstream, and calling attention to something that shouldn’t be a big deal or need congratulating.

It’s time to stop giving reasons for letting boys play with dolls and other toys that are considered feminine. It’s time to just start doing it without fanfare. If a child likes a toy, let them play with it. That is how we get over gendered toys, we stop making a big deal about which toys kids play with. Stop taking toys, turning them pink, and calling them “for girls.” Offer a variety of colours and let boys and girls choose which they like.

Categorize toys by what they are, not by who should play with them. When was the last time you saw someone with a viral video about letting a girl play with a truck? Hold marketers and toy makers accountable for pigeon-holing children of any gender. First and foremost, accept, “because they like it" as the only reason needed.

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