Doing our duty as over-indulgent grandparents, my wife Diane and I took our grandchildren to the American Girl Doll Place Cafe in downtown Chicago this summer. This Mecca for girls is more like a Vegas casino than a toy store. The lights are bright and there are no windows or clocks on the walls. They want to encourage you to lose track of time. All that were missing were the free cocktails.
With three sisters, our four year-old grandson, readily accepts that nearly everything in his environment is pink. However, we weren’t too sure how he would like spending so much time in a doll store. He’s a pretty tough little guy who spends much of his time playing aggressively with Spiderman and Batman toys or fist fighting with his older sister. To secure his interest before the trip, we offered to get him one of the boy American Girl dolls. This boy doll is part of a set of twins. He looked at one on-line and said he wanted it and that it looked just like him, which it sort of does. When the dolls arrived in the mail, he had no interest in the female twin, which went to one of his sisters, but he readily claimed the boy doll, naming him Mack (a nice macho name that please his father).
When we were seated at the American Girl Café there were fuchsia-colored bows used as napkin rings. The girls wore them on their wrists or made ponytails, while Oliver ended up wearing his as a bowtie. I donated mine to one of the girl’s dolls. The waitress also seated the kid’s dolls alongside them in special little seats that attached to the table. Then she set a tiny red plate and white mug in front of each doll. The doll seats, plates, and mugs were all conveniently on sale as you departed the store. We had a consultation at the doll hospital on the way out, but avoided the expensive doll hair salon.
Gender differences in toys have long been observed. A study by Purdue University psychologists Judith Blakemore and Renee Centers in 2005 had college students rate contemporary toys as masculine or feminine. Wrestling figures , GI Joes, and Spiderman action figures were all rated among the strongly masculine toys; while Barbie’s, Bratz, and American Girl dolls were categorized as strongly feminine. As you might expect girl’s toys were associated with physical attractiveness, nurturance, and domestic skills, while boy’s toys elicited violence, competition, excitement, and danger. It seems like it is these associations that really distinguish between a “doll” and an “action figure”.
Such gender differences are not limited to humans. A 2010 study found that young chimpanzees in the wild play in gender-specific ways, much like humans. Although both male and female chimps play with sticks, girl chimps carry sticks around like dolls, imitating their mothers caring for infants, according to Richard Wrangham of Harvard University. Male chimps do less stick carrying and are more likely to use their sticks as probes or weapons.
In 1967 Hasbro introduced the 21-inch “That Kid!” doll for boys, promoting it as ”your own kid brother”. He was described as a “freckle faced rascal!” . Complete with a sling shot, That Kid said smart-alecky things when you moved him. The “My Buddy” doll, made by Hasbro in 1985 had the stated intention of making a doll that could teach little boys about caring. It’s not clear whether either of these dolls ever caught on, despite the heavy television advertising. Ironically both of them are thought by some to be the inspiration for “Chucky”, the creepy evil doll from the movie Child’s Play.
Our daughter and son-in-law didn’t have a problem with us buying an American Girl boy doll for their son, but some parents and experts are strongly opposed to such things. Back in the 1980’s Mattell introduce, She-Ra: Princess of Power, as the long lost twin sister of the popular He-Man character. Our kids had all of these action figures, but the story circulated throughout the kindergarten that one father took all of his son’s She-ra figures and destroyed them, because he was worried that they were too feminine.
I don’t remember ever having a doll when I was a child, but Diane said that her brother Gary had one– a boy doll that he carried around and called little Gary.
On his website advice section, television psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw told a mother of a five-year-old boy that she should not let her son play with “girls’ toys”. The mother had asked for advice about her son, who liked Barbie dolls and dressing up in girls’ clothes. McGraw told her that it was not uncommon for little boys to be interested in girls’ toys and clothes and that such play was “not a precursor” to being gay. But he did advise her to direct him in an unconfusing way. McGraw said “Don’t buy him Barbie dolls or girls’ clothes. You don’t want to … support the confusion… Take the girl things away, and buy him boy toys.”
McGraw’s advice opened up a can of worms. Some parents and experts weighed in arguing that allowing cross gender play could only encourage gender confusion. The other side, however, saw such play as an opportunity to teach boys fathering skills that’s perhaps becoming important, as more men take an active role in caring for children.
Of course, there’s also the question as whether to prohibit girls from playing with tools or cars, because it might confuse their budding gender identity. Some experts suggest that allowing freedom in play, allows children to learn about both male and females roles and that this can help them have insight in relationships with the opposite sex.
Most authorities, however, do agree that play or specific toys do not determine future sexual preference, which seems to be outside the realm of the parental influence in any case.
Purdue psychologists Blakemore and Centers conclude that strongly gender-typed toys were less supportive of optimal physical, social, and mental development than neutral or moderately gender-typed toys.
As for Mack, I think his days are probably numbered. Our grandson doesn’t seem all that attached to him and is quite willing to sling him at any sister who crosses him.
Based on a column appearing in the Southern Indiana News Tribune