Saturday, February 23, 2013

Boys Playing with Dolls! Oh No!

The Center for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood  (CBMW) has come out this week against an episode on Sesame Street called Baby Bear's Baby Doll.  The episode summary reads as follows:

Baby Bear and Curly Bear are playing with dolls, and Telly comes by with his bulldozer. But Baby Bear's embarrassed to be playing with dolls, so he tells Telly that the doll is Curly's.

Playing with a bulldozer, action figures, and a ball all get too rough for Baby Bear, with his doll around and all. Finally, Baby Bear slips and says that the doll is his. Then he runs off, embarrassed.

Gordon explains there's no reason things have to be just for girls or just for boys, and playing with dolls is great practice for Baby Bear when he becomes a daddy. And just as Baby Bear is about to tell Telly the whole truth…he finds Telly playing with the doll!

(For a more detailed synopsis, see Muppet

CBMW sees something insidious in this.  As they put it:

This episode, “Baby Bear’s Baby Doll,” is subtly but directly overturning long-held conceptions of manhood and boyhood. Boys can play with dolls; there’s no reason they can’t do exactly what girls do.

The boundaries between the sexes are fluid. Behind this teaching is of course the view that there really aren’t what we call “gender roles” given us as a fact of our existence. Gender is a construct, to use academic language; it’s the differentiated vision of boys and girls our society has historically bought into, but there’s nothing fixed or unchanging behind it. We’re free in this modern and enlightened age to blur the boundaries, and to raise boys and girls in essentially the same ways, without specific training of any kind for distinct manhood or womanhood.

You can’t make this stuff up. We’re seeing our culture undo itself at the very foundations. [Emphasis added.]

"Undo itself at the very foundations"?  Really?  Is making sure boys do "boy" things and girls do "girl" things part of the essential framework of society?  And is playing with dolls really only a "girl" thing?  CBMW thinks so. According to the article:

I’m not encouraging you to spaz about “Baby Bear’s Baby Doll.” I don’t think the world is ending as a result of this episode. I actually think that this show is silly, and worth laughing at, because the God-encoded truth about sexuality and gender is obvious, and boys playing with dolls is foolish.

In other words, the Sesame Street episode in and of itself is not the problem, but encouraging little boys who want to play with dolls that this is ok, is teaching them foolishness and dangerously "blurring the boundaries."  Our society, according to CBMW, is trying hard to do this, but ultimately it won't work because it's hard-wired into boys not to do "girl" things.

 CBMW does have a point that boys and girls are different.'s article "You Can Give a Boy a Doll but You Can't Make Him Play With It" points out:

[B]oys and girls, on average, do not have identical interests, propensities, or needs. Twenty years ago, Hasbro, a major American toy manufacturing company, tested a playhouse it hoped to market to both boys and girls. It soon emerged that girls and boys did not interact with the structure in the same way. The girls dressed the dolls, kissed them, and played house. The boys catapulted the toy baby carriage from the roof. A Hasbro manager came up with a novel explanation: "Boys and girls are different."

They are different, and nothing short of radical and sustained behavior modification could significantly change their elemental play preferences. . . . The female preference for nurturing play and the male propensity for rough-and-tumble hold cross-culturally.

But in spite of this, it does seem that boys, especially very young boys, do like to play with baby dolls, and in a very nurturing way.  My own son, when he was two and three years old, would put a doll on his shoulders and carry it just as his own daddy carried him.  That my experience with him is not uncommon is testified to by moms and preschool teachers on Baby Center:

"As a pre-school teacher I can tell you boys play with dolls. Their parents may not know but they do when they are given free choice of playthings in a school/daycare setting."

"My son is almost two and has cuddled every stuffed animal in this house. He was always nurturing them and loving on them, so I decided to get him a cabbage patch kid that kind of resembled him. It is a male doll and he knows that is his "baby". He will ask for "Baby" when he has left him in another room. He will push his baby around the house in a stroller, wrap it in a baby blanket, and even put him to bed."

"I grew up with five older brothers and every one of them had a doll to play with at one time or another. As they get older their "doll" becomes an "action figure" and they use them to play cowboys or astronaut or soldier."

And of course, this last brings out another issue.  Even older boys in America have actually been playing with dolls for centuries.  There were tin soldiers as long ago as the eighteenth century.  There have been action figures since the late 1950s.  In the mid-1960s Johnny West and Jane West and a host of other male and female dolls were designed for brothers and sisters to be able to play with together. And of course the 1970s saw a surge in comic book and movie figures of all kinds. 

And though boys and girls are different in the way they play with these figures, the article also points out the similarities:

Nearly 30 years ago, Vivian Gussin Paley, a beloved kindergarten teacher at the Chicago Laboratory Schools and winner of a MacArthur "genius" award, published a classic book on children's play entitled Boys & Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner. Paley wondered if girls are missing out by not partaking in boys' superhero play, but her observations of the "doll corner" allayed her doubts. Girls, she learned, are interested in their own kind of domination. Boys' imaginative play involves a lot of conflict and imaginary violence; girls' play, on the other hand, seems to be much gentler and more peaceful. But as Paley looked more carefully, she noticed that the girls' fantasies were just as exciting and intense as the boys—though different. There were full of conflict, pesky characters and imaginary power struggles. "Mothers and princesses are as powerful as any superheroes the boys can devise."

This dovetails with my own memories of childhood play.  Our Barbie dolls didn't just go shopping and try on clothes; they drove around in their Malibu van and had adventures.  And we played with many other kinds of human figures, too.  In fact, if one were to focus on the similarities between boys' and girls' imaginative play, rather than always looking at the differences, I think it would be found that boys and girls have a lot in common. 

In any event, I doubt if CBMW has any problem with action figures, even though there was some anxiety about them being appropriate for boys in earlier decades. (I have heard from quite a number of older guys that when they were growing up, their fathers wouldn't let them play with the new action figures such as GI Joe, because they were dolls.  Here's an example that someone posted on an Internet forum).  But hardly anyone today minds boys playing with dolls, as long as they are "action figures."  

So maybe the problem CBMW is having is when little boys care for and nurture baby dolls.  Maybe boys shouldn't play-act infant and child care because unlike girls, boys are never going to grow up to take care of infants of their own.

Oh.  Wait a minute. . . 

Given CMBW's foundational stance that men should aspire to be fathers in order to reflect the very nature of God, it's odd that this group would be so against the idea of little boys playing daddy. What gender confusion, exactly, is supposed to be going on here?   Is it that CBMW doesn't believe boys should play-act in imitation of their daddies?  Or is it that CBMW doesn't believe daddies should hold their babies, diaper them, feed them, put them to bed?  Given its endorsement of a book on manliness that includes these skills as part of fatherhood:

Highlighting skills ranging from treating snake bites to changing diapers, the book argues that “manliness doesn’t need to be reinvented. The art of manliness just needs to be rediscovered”
[Emphasis added.]

-- it appears that this is not the case. 

In short, given CMBW's position that boys should learn to be good fathers, this insistence that permitting boys to play with dolls is part of the culture undoing itself at the very foundations, is self-contradictory even within their own mindset.

And then there's the fact that nowhere in the Bible is any of this actually addressed.  As Marg at a trackback on her New Life blog states:

[CBMW] emphasizes the difference between Adam and Eve when, according to Scripture, the first man actually emphasized the similarities, “The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” (Genesis 2:23.)

Everyone knows that men and women have some differences, but men and women share many more things in common.

There is actually nothing about play-care for a baby doll that contradicts what CBMW itself calls "specific training . . .for distinct manhood."  Except, of course, that traditionally in Western culture, infant care has been denigrated as "women's work," and thus beneath men-- and thus, traditionally, playing with dolls has been considered training for future mommies only, and never for future daddies.  CBMW has said it is against the denigration of women's traditional roles as being inferior to those of men-- but by insisting that a boy caring for a doll as a mother (and traditionally, not a father) cares for an infant is destructive to society, they are in fact supporting that whole mindset. 

What was it Jesus said about teaching instead of God's word, the traditions of men?  (Mark 7:7.)  Would Jesus tell men they shouldn't diaper and feed and comfort their infant sons and daughters-- He who said "Suffer the little children to come to Me"?  He who gave us the example of washing His disciples' feet?   Would He call it "unmanly" for a man to take care of a child's needs?  And if He wouldn't-- would He object to a little child, boy or girl, playacting at the same? 

Let me put my position in a nutshell.  I don't agree with CBMW on gender roles.  I'm an egalitarian.  I think God put daddies and mommies together in charge of their children, to help them grow into full adults.  Grown daddies don't get to be more adult than grown mommies through perpetual authority over the mommies and the kids together.  But as an egalitarian (despite what complementarians claim), I don't think mommies and daddies, boys and girls, are exactly the same, or that the differences shouldn't be celebrated.  However, it does mean I think we need to combat the mentality that a boy playing with a doll is somehow destructive to himself or society.

CMBW believes that the Sesame Street episode was silly.  But I think what's silly is believing that the foundations of society are going to crumble if we tell a little boy it's ok to put his baby-doll daughter to bed. 


Donald Johnson said...

Yes, it is obvious that CBMW is very confused about exactly what its message is and is trying hard to find a way to comment on life today.

The Blog bites better than the Bullet. said...

I don't class myself as either an egalitarian or complementarian but I would take your position to be the common sense one. Well written, thanks!

perfectnumber628 said...

Oh geez. I actually saw that post a couple days ago- about how "the gospel" is "boys shouldn't play with dolls." It's seriously the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard- and I was actually really angry, because if they think boys shouldn't play with dolls, then they also must think girls shouldn't study math and engineering- and NOBODY suggests that to me and gets away with it.

Anonymous said...

I dunno....I don't see this as being super inconsistent with other things CBMW has said. They may have endorsed a book that said changing diapers is a part of manhood, but there are TONS of statements from CBMW and all its advocates that say, more or less, women are wired for nurturing and men are not. Period.

So I don't see it as inconsistent at all that they don't think little boys should be interested in nurturing. After all, according to CBMW, a man should not be the one staying home with his children, or be the one expected to provide them with snuggles and nurturing. That's Mommy's job. Daddy earns a paycheck and keeps everyone's theology in line.

Sorry if I sound a little cynical. These guys just get under my skin! Maybe it's the fact that I had a loving dad who rocked me to sleep and cleaned up after me and was my caregiver. Y'know, all that sissy girl stuff that threatened our family order and whatnot.

Kristen said...

Anonymous, you're quite right. CBMW has said tons of other things that support the position they have taken on boys playing with dolls. But this is still inconsistent with the things they have said or endorsed in the links I have provided. I think Don, above, is quite right that the CBMW doesn't have a consistent message, and that they themselves may be confused between the several conflicting messages they do put forth. I agree that the "women nurture, men don't" is probably their loudest message-- but it is contradicted by other things they say.

And of course, it's inconsistent with the Bible itself-- in one of their own favorite verses about the husband being head of the wife, it says, "For no man yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church." The Greek word there is ektrephei, "to nurture." But even with just the English "nourish and cherish," they'd be hard pressed to make a case that Jesus doesn't nurture His church, or that this verse isn't saying husbands are to nurture their wives. So how can they say men aren't hard-wired to nurture?

None of it, when you dig down, actually makes any sense.

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

This dovetails with my own memories of childhood play. Our Barbie dolls didn't just go shopping and try on clothes; they drove around in their Malibu van and had adventures.

Just as back in the Eighties, the My Little Pony dolls of a certain little girl named Lauren Faust went on world-saving adventures against monsters and villains instead of an endless round of tea parties.

And when that same Lauren Faust re-booted My Little Pony for the Hub Network as an adult...

Anonymous said...

"I think Don, above, is quite right that the CBMW doesn't have a consistent message, and that they themselves may be confused between the several conflicting messages they do put forth"

Now, what's funny about that is that the second most common charge they and their supporters level at their critics is 'you're attacking a strawman!'. As long as they keep their message self-contradictory then they can conveniently say this about any and every attack. (the first most common charge being, of course, that their opponents' beliefs are unbiblical and they are on the slippery slope to heresy).

Tomoko said...

This is cool!