Barbie’s still not for boys


CBC News Viewpoint | Jan. 1, 2004 | More from Georgie Binks

Georgie Binks I remember when my son was nearly a year old. He was gumming away on a cloth doll Santa had brought him while one of my daughter’s five-year-old friends sat watching him, puzzled.

“Is he a boy or a girl?” she queried.

“He’s a boy,” I answered. “He has a doll because it will teach him how to be a daddy when he grows up.”

She looked at him horrified. “He’s going to be a daddy?”

Ah, the politically correct attempts of a new parent to stamp out sexism on the home front. Trucks for the girls, dolls for the boys. I wonder how many of us did it back then, believing that soon little boys would be carrying dolls around without being laughed at and that their sisters could be building Lego.

If anyone had any illusions the world would be a different place in 2003, all you have to do is talk to the toy sellers. Kevin Groh, the manager of corporate communications for Wal-Mart Canada, says, “Although parents may buy a doll for a male child, or construction toys for a daughter, gender is still a major guiding principle in toy buying.” Groh explains if there’s any blur in gender lines it affects younger children, with toys like Winnie the Pooh, Caillou and Barney.

Jon Levy, the co-founder of Mastermind Educational in Toronto, agrees: “Parents are really trying, but they aren’t prepared to buy a dollhouse for a boy.” He says if they do buy a doll for a boy, it’s considered more of a comfort toy. There is also the androgynous world of animals. Franklin the Turtle is a boy and so is Arthur, but Levy jokes that Blue the Dog is just an animal.

Toy sellers like Groh and Levy agree if parents wanted to step out of the confines of the gender specific toys, they opted for educational items, the most popular being, the Leap Pad, an electronic toy, (which also came in pink this year, boosting sales, says Levy).

One of the things that keeps people from buying their boys dolls is a fear of confusing them about their sexual identity, says Elaine Blakemore, an associate professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, who is writing a book on gender development.

“Parents are less concerned about toys that focus on housekeeping or nurturing. They are more concerned about makeup, dress-up in dresses, pretending to be a girl, Barbies.” Blakemore says yes, there are some boys who want to be girls, which is very rare, and they suffer from gender identity disorder. She says “Those children do grow up to be gay males, but most gay males weren’t playing with Barbies when they were little.”

As well, Blakemore says, “People have homophobia about sons in childhood in a way they do not about daughters. They don’t get homophobia about their daughters until they’re adolescents.” She further explains parents tolerate girls playing with boys toys more because, “The female is still less valued than males, and if girls do something masculine, they are doing the high status thing, but if boys do the feminine, they are aspiring down, and it makes us cringe.”

Strangely enough, though, it seems that toy manufacturers – who by way of their advertising have created much of the stigma attached to girl and boy toys – have now come up with a couple of new toys that break down some barriers.

Pink Lego was sold when my daughter was little but Jon Levy remembers, “It was a big flop. Changing the colour of Lego bricks was not going to inspire a girl to build more than she would have with her brothers’ black and white ones.”

However, Mattel (with its girls and boys divisions) came up with “ello” this year, a colourful building toy for girls, and Levy says, “People buying for girls went wild for it. For years, we have known we have girls that like to construct things, but there has never been a construction product that has been successful for girls. This was an item we couldn’t keep our hands off, it was so smart.”

Another manufacturer, Maxim, came up with essentially a boy’s dollhouse, in the form of a treehouse. Levy explains, “The characters lived in the tree. The play pattern was getting the water, winching it up the tree, and people did not hesitate to buy it for their boys.”

In other words, instead of trying to sell boy toys to girls, and vice versa, manufacturers developed toys that allowed children to develop skills that presumably belonged to the other gender, without upsetting anyone.

I remember when my kids were young, other parents saying, “I’d buy my son a doll, but he won’t play with it.” This seemed weird when they had never purchased their sons even one doll. But researchers say children, even very young ones, are cognizant of girls and boys toys.

American researcher Carol Martin has found that when an unfamiliar toy is labelled for their sex ("this is a toy that lots of boys like") children are more likely to play with it than if the toy is labelled for the other sex.

Blakemore says “children’s attitudes are not terribly influenced by what their parents do, but terribly influenced by the media and the world of toys, with whom they have lots of experience before they are two to three years of age.”

Does it all make a difference in how kids turn out? Blakemore knows of no studies to show boys who play with dolls become better dads, but she did do a study in 1998 to see if parents’ attitudes made a difference in how nurturing children were towards baby. Parents’ attitudes made no difference to girls, but boys of more liberal parents were more nurturing than boys of traditional parents.

Let’s face it, Batman and Barbie are both dolls (maybe 10 years from now they’ll be dating), whatever people may imagine. Blakemore says it’s what the kids do with them that makes the difference. “Action figures are not dolls that you diaper and feed, nor are they dolls that you dress up and do their hair.”

No, they're dolls that shoot each other. My question is whether it's better to have them killing or doing each other's hair.


I really enjoyed this article on gender and the buying patterns of parents with regard to gender specific toys.


Ms. Binks acknowledges the nature of gender (male vs. female) as socially constructed. Cross culturally one would observe a diverse range of ideas about 'gender' and appropriate roles. Thus, if gender roles are not universal then they cannot be based on biological explanations of differences between the categories of male/female.


I disagree with some of the other comments made with regard to this article. I did not feel that Ms. Binks was "forcing males to be more female". Instead this article served to deconstruct our notion of gender as 'natural'.


Jennifer Pollock | Scarborough, Ontario

First off, I have to commend you on being such an open minded mother and allowing your son to play with dolls. When I was younger I always wanted to play with dolls because my baby sitter's children had so many and at that age anything was fun.


I enjoyed playing mostly with Lego and G.I. Joe, Transformers and all the usual boy toys but when I would ask my dad for a Barbie or Cabbage patch kid I would always get yelled at and couldn't understand why.


I saw them on commercials all the time as a child so why wouldn't I want what all the other kids had? I am gay but was never allowed to play with girls toys growing up so that didn't affect it at all.


Life gets more restricting as you grow older, the time of being a child should be filled with as much joy as possible, and there's no harm in letting a child play with a toy meant another gender.


No doubt the root is in homophobia which needs to be dealt with. Any parent that can't love their child unconditionally needs to learn to before they raise them with the lesson of ignorance that is the cause of pain for many individuals everywhere, from racism, to homophobia to sexism.


Thank you for writing this article and making current and future parents think of how to positively influence their child.


Aaron Crasto | Toronto

I enjoyed reading your article, but I also agree with the two letters below. Though I would have phrased the ideas in the second letter slightly differently, my feelings are similar.


In answer to their comments and your mentions of 'boy friendly' toys (tree house instead of house, action figures rather that dolls) I put forth the idea that my parents used in raising me and my brother.


Until we expressed a preference for a certain type of toy, we both received girl, boy, and gender neutral personality national toys, games and activities and lots of books. There were no war or war related toys or games. Our presonality, more than our gender determined what we got.


To illustrate: My brother loved playing with his stuffed toys (a girl thing) and I liked following Dad around fixing things (a boy thing). I love doing arts and crafts of all sorts (a girl thing) he plays computer and strategy games (a boy thing).


Neither of us like Barbie. We both love to read. We both played with lego (and still have it 20 years later).


Sara Gordon | Ontario

Little boys learn how to be dad's by watching how there father is a dad. If you want your son to grow up to be a great dad, marry a great dad.


If your son sees his father treating his mother with care and respect, and him and his siblings with love and leadership, most likely he'll treat his own wife and children the same. Great Dad's beget great dads. It has nothing to do with what toys they play with.


My children could play with what ever toys their brothers or sisters played with they were free to choose. The boys more often played with the Lego than the girls but it wasn't exclusive.


Boys brains are different then girls brains. I know people hate to admit that, but you can't argue with physiology. Little boys just don't make very good little girls, no matter what toys you introduce them to.


Paul Heglund | Consul, Saskatchewan

Have you ever thought that boys and men are simply different than girls and women?


You recognize the obvious, but you seem bent on the idea that men should be more like women, or that women simply know (everything) better than men.


The implied suggestion that seems to ring though your articles is that being a girl or a woman is simply better than being a boy or a man. Men do this, or men don't do that, or men should do this or that, etc.


Your first article was great, levelling with our daughters about 'billable' hours. To me, it generally commented on the difficulty of parenting and working.


Since then, I only get headaches when I read your work. When I go to the doctor next, I'll tell her I get headaches when I read your work. I wonder what she will say?


Michael Black | New Brunswick