By Nik Shultz
Disclaimer: While I would consider myself to be a student of this subject, being trans and a Women and Gender Studies student, I don’t pretend to have all the answers or know the deep truth about human existence. I only ask that you put aside your doubts for a moment and trust that some of what I’m saying may hold weight, even if it disagrees with your beliefs. This is a short space, and a blog about dolls so I can’t go into depths on some subjects, but I encourage you to seek out more information if anything is confusing.
Last week I invited you to wonder how the toys kids are given to play with affect them growing up. And you don’t have to look very hard to see that kids are given different toys based on the gender they were assigned at birth. You have to look a little harder to understand how gendered toys create and perpetuate the binary gender system of our society.
Some psychologists have argued in favor of the idea that hormones naturally lead kids to favor either dolls or trucks. This might seem a little bit laughable in this day and age, but the idea of distinct differences between distinct biological sexes is widespread and largely accepted in western culture. However, upon examination, there is enough variety in hormone levels, chromosome combination, and expression of sex traits within those groups labeled male or female that the idea of two distinct sexes doesn’t necessarily hold up.
There is evidence to suggest that differing levels of hormones affect certain gendered characteristics, such as toy preference. But how much of that actually comes from those hormonal differences, and how much of it comes from the way we socialize people with those hormonal differences?
The debate about nature versus nurture is an age old debate, especially in queer theory. The infamous Doll Test from the 1940s, and its modern equivalents, have given us plenty of evidence to understand that by preschool age, children have racial biases that are pro-white and anti-black, regardless of the child’s race. And I hope that not many people would argue that as naturally occurring. Many of these studies also show a patriarchal gender bias at this young age. Is it so difficult to consider that the genders themselves may be learned along with the biases?
The biases are learned in a thousand tiny ways we are hardly aware of. Yes it sometimes is as explicit as a mother telling an assigned male child “No, that toy is for girls Timmy.” But there are unspoken social cues as well. Our brains are programed to learn how to be a person from the people modelling personhood, and gender, around us, at home, in school, on TV. Before we can even speak, we are witness to the differences in speech, body language, fashion, activities, and roles of different people around us, of different genders around us. And we grow up to model those subconsciously learned roles ourselves.
I grew up in what would largely be considered to be a progressive household. I attribute a large part of my feminism and more generally my sense of self-worth to the women who raised me, and the men who didn’t inhibit that progress. Even so, my brother and I didn’t have the same toys. I know our own personal interests did impact the toys we were given. But how much were those interests shaped by what we learned from the adults around us, and our peers at school? We had many shared “gender neutral” toys, but I had Barbies and he had Bionicles. I played with his Bionicles, but he never played with my Barbies, to my memory.
Feminism has made certain leaps in terms of what women are allowed: Wearing pants, playing sports, getting jobs. Young girls are generally given the space to explore more masculine roles, to be “tomboys,” but boys are rarely given that space. Femininity is still seen as lesser. While it is somewhat understandable and acceptable for people who have been ascribed femininity to strive for masculinity, the idea that anyone who has been granted masculinity would want to be a part of the subjugated class of gender.
Because gender is a set of roles that help people to understand their place in society. The role of woman as subservient to man. And the role of dolls and dress-up and games of house for girls. The role of action figures and rough-housing and games of jobs for boys. Even with toy companies attempting to make more options for both genders, the options are still gendered. What would happen if an entire generation of children weren’t given any rules about which toys were and weren’t for them? Would the entire system collapse?
Photo by Janet McKnight