Dear Mattel. I know you are unpinking. But why did you leave out boys?

barbieIn the last two weeks, I received a link in my inbox from at least four different sources for the new Mattel ad for Barbies that “empowers girls to be anything they want to be”. I had, of course, seen it ample times on my Twitter and Facebook feeds by then, and smiled to myself.

The ad has been playing out in my house for a few years now. In just a few thousand forms. Except the chief protagonist is a boy. And he happens to be my child.

I did notice that the ad didn’t feature a single boy and that got me thinking more than its unpinking. Or its alleged attempt at turning Barbie into a feminist.

It is more happenstance than design, but our family of dolls now includes three Barbies, four Disney Princesses, four magiclip dolls, one mermaid and a few others (Re will be upset I don’t remember their names, but I don’t). I also learned fairly recently that Barbies and Princesses were two different breeds and mixing one for the other was sacrilege. In our home of course, they all play with dinosaurs and wear Playdoh dresses.

Together, and with a real cat thrown in every once in a while, as well as other toy animals, puppets and random toys, they have been part of several adventures that include (but are not limited to) extempore plays, concerts, various rescue operations that involve fire, building collapses, a vet’s clinic, a hospital, a warship, a shipwreck, a chef’s kitchen, a submarine, a traffic management situation, a construction site and several others.

When Re likes someone enough to want to include him/her in his universe, the first thing he tells them is that he likes playing with dolls and has ___ of them (again, I cannot be accurate about the number). This has not been choreographed by me or his father, but I guess after being mocked and ridiculed to some extent by his peers about his preferences of play, he has realized that he would rather be choosy about his friends and that they should have full information when they choose to be friends with him. We now have a select, but beautiful universe of friends that he would like to keep for life, although not all of them like playing with dolls; it’s just that they don’t judge him for doing so.

I was a little amused that people were celebrating Mattel for finally getting it right. One website actually said: “After 59 years, Mattel gets it right.” What are they getting right anyway? That girls have the power to be anything they want to be? But didn’t you already believe that? And if you didn’t, and it took a toy company to tell you that, I would worry more about you than the toy company.

All around, I see mothers frothing at the mouth when their girls go through the princess or Barbie phase, wondering what the hell went down when they had done their best to simulate conditions for this not to happen. When mothers who have been so conscious about the whole ‘no princess’ thing, yet discovered that their three-year old daughter obsessively wants everything to be pink and loves “tacky Disney Cinderella”. Mothers say it quite proudly when their daughters don’t like pink, or that they prefer green instead.

And oh, in case the ad got your hopes up, “Barbie won’t be turning into a feminist anytime soon,” warns Jessica Valenti in this Guardian piece.

Interestingly, the same mothers that are allergic to their girls veering towards girls stuff wouldn’t have minded if she had an obsession with robots for instance. Some blame it on schools and peer pressure. But why must it be the product of external pressure? Isn’t it possible that a girl might just really like princesses? Or pink?  I do get what “normative gendering” is all about; what I don’t get is pushing girls who love dolls towards building model planes or trains or some such. It seems to be some sort of denial of her female-hood.

Much like I didn’t see the point of pushing Re away from dolls either. And if you are the mother of a boy, you would know that the world is more accepting of a girl playing football than a boy playing with dolls.

Here’s the thing: What Mattel or Disney is selling you is just a structure. What you make of it is entirely your imagination. What about the immense value of role play with dolls in developing relational skills and empathy? I see those as priceless.

Removing boys from the context entirely and pretending they don’t exist is not helping at all. It is just genderization in an entirely different way. What I would be more concerned about is a child self-selecting out of anything on account of gender (whether it is toys, play, sport, ballet, science, math etc). The sooner we give up trying to control how their personalities SHOULD form, choreographing their likes and dislikes, the more fulfilling this parenting ride will be.

Not all girls who like princesses at age three grow up to be senseless bimbos, just as not all “tomboys” (although I detest that word) who love decapitating dolls grow up to be independent and strong.

The only reason there are “girl and boy toys” at all is because adults decided what girls and boys should be like, how they should act, and what they should play with. If we let the kids decide, I doubt the division would be so clear.

Perhaps it would be interesting to note the original intent of Barbie creator Ruth Handler, who wrote in her autobiography: “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

Sure, Barbies and princesses are way too skinny for my liking, but it is for you to decide if she is a role model for your body image. I don’t think any girl is unrealistic enough in today’s times to let her body image be affected by what a doll looks like. Just like it is unrealistic for us to want to date boys with six pack abs.

Toy shops and supermarkets categorize things as “boys”and “girls” so they find it easier to keep inventory. Would you find anything at all if you went shopping and the men’s and women’s stuff was all mixed up? Every girl’s parent who complains that all the interesting toys are in the boy’s section, well, who’s stopping you from shopping in the boys’ section? On the rare occasion that Re and I go shopping, we still get asked if it’s for a boy or a girl. I have learned to keep my calm and say we are just browsing thank you, and Re invariably goes to look in the girls section.

My point is, if you are constantly looking for subtext, you will always find it. As long as we let our children do their thing and keep those conversations open and going, we are fine.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 26th October, 2015)


6 thoughts on “Dear Mattel. I know you are unpinking. But why did you leave out boys?

  1. Lovely,
    My daughter is the exact opposite of Re.. she loves to shop in the boys section. Now (at 6 years) when she is in an all girls school she has decided to ‘allow’ Barbies in her life and sometimes dresses them up. However, with her group of select friends, its still tug of wars, and throwing each other off swings !!

  2. Similar to what you write – On a larger scale – on the TV show ( Master chef Junior ) “Innate biases are hard to beat “. Are we doing it consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously ? May be you have read it already ?

    Societal norms are built over the generations.
    Sudha Murty ( Infosys) had to “fight” to be the first women shop floor engineer. Even JRD Tata was biased . Interesting , how our brains get wired ? That is a different story for a different time.

    “responsibility ” was never considered to be the forte of women ” outside the home ! – that is our societies grew . But over period of time – the first female engineers, pilots, lawyers stepped on the turf and paved the way for others . BUT STILL “women do not take care of other women , as men do ! This was very clear during the financial melt down in financial companies in New York. Many women lost jobs, when most men went on to keep theirs. And these are very well accomplished. How many women would “genuinely ” mentor other women to step up more than herself ? Men do it all the time. They will mentor both men and women.

    What we learn in childhood remains PERIOD . Until we consciously beat it out of our system.

    You may wonder why did I bring up these issues ? And you bring up 2 points beautifully :

    1.”The only reason there are “girl and boy toys” at all is because adults decided what girls and boys should be like, how they should act, and what they should play with. If we let the kids decide, I doubt the division would be so clear.”

    Note the words used ” Adults DECIDED what girls and boys would be like ..”
    This society is controlled by the Adults . It is a decision that they take that make an impact in the society – an opinion in the media , verdict in the court / the jury – they are all adults.

    2. “Toy shops and supermarkets CATEGORIZE things as “boys”and “girls” so they find it easier to keep inventory. Would you find anything at all if you went shopping and the men’s and women’s stuff was all mixed up? Every girl’s parent who complains that all the interesting toys are in the boy’s section, well, who’s stopping you from shopping in the boys’ section?”

    Note the words used ” Toy shops and supermarkets CATEGORIZE ” . Again it is the adult who make this Categorization…soon becoming stereotypes. This gets transferred to the engineering labs at first where the boys would look down on girls that they won’t be able to get the product right – if it were a mechanical lab. Even if some boys wouldn’t , the peer pressure would get the boy to scumm to an opinion that the girls cannot get it right or if some boy wouldn’t give in to pressure , he will become the butt of jokes as somebody who is “hen pecked” or a “whoozy ” – It happens LARGE in organizations, both big and large and both men and women play it to their advantage.

    So now can we have a verdict ?
    There is a no right answer .

    3 ” If we are constantly looking for a subtext you will find it ”
    But it is the subtext that creates an issue / solves the problem .

    Thank You

  3. Lovely, lovely post. I was one of those moms who decried ‘No Barbies/princesses’ in our home. I ate my words when the kids turned three. Now, I have stopped buying them anything. Any toy that comes in is typically a gift and more often than not, their Barbie doll house boasts a menagerie of animals alongside dolls minus clothes. I look on, fascinated, as they play for hours on end.There is a lot to be said about imagination and make believe. If Barbies and Princesses are part of it, so what?

  4. I am grandmother age now with two adult children. From an earlier generation where we worked at two full time jobs ( my husband and I worked at the hospital in similar roles and then I worked full time at home :)) actually, that wasn’t funny and I am all for female empowerment and especially for equitable gender roles.

    We grew up with practically no toys except the ones we designed for ourselves with sticks and stones and paper and stuff. I spent much of my time with my boy cousin of a similar age and we played together a lot in our pre teens, whether it was keeping house, climbing trees, hopscotch or lagori or even bringing the cows home (yes, we were allowed to keep cows in Bangalore those days!) I don’t remember anybody ever telling us not to play at something because it was boys/girls play. We learnt to type, swim, cycle, drive. Being a good student, I got much higher education than my boy cousin ( this was my family, maybe not the norm those days, but I did have girl friends/cousins who were being raised like us. Being married suddenly brought shocking gender roles into my life!)

    I am not clear ( even to myself 🙂 what I am trying to say here, except that given the way we grew up, all this ‘working’ at reducing gender biases through artificial objects like dolls etc seems a bit of overkill for me..sorry 🙂

    I didn’t particularly try to create a gender unbiased environment for my sons ( I had no time for myself except to fall into bed for a few hours of sleep at night 🙂 I felt honored when my daughter in law told me that my son is respectful and fair with women. Perhaps just having empowered women in their lives helped mold their attitude. Perhaps the absence of conversations around them like women/men are so and such helped. Perhaps my firm decision that they should go to co-ed schools, so they could grow up playing naturally with girls as well as boys from the earliest age helped.

    My two bits 🙂

  5. I completely agree with you. I was taken aback when I first saw the Blue and Pink Kinder Joy eggs. Why can’t girls assemble a dump truck and boys play with a hula hoop girl? I really wish they didn’t have them. Children should define their toys, not the other way around.

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