Let Him Play With Dolls

Gender isn’t going anywhere, Rebecca Cohen writes, but that doesn’t mean we should keep forcing it on boys and men.


A few years ago I was spending time with my sister and her family, when something quite disturbing to my anti-sexist sensibilities occurred. It started when my 4-year-old niece began playing with the princess costume trunk she’d just received for her birthday. She was eager to show it off. As she entertained the whole family by parading around in ruffled pink skirts and sparkly tiaras, her little brother, then only two, attempted to join in. He picked up a sheer, shimmery purple garment and began to put it on. My brother-in-law’s reaction was immediate. “No!” he admonished. “That’s not for you!” My nephew’s disappointment was obvious. His dad quickly produced a boy’s dress-up set. “Here,” he told his son, “You can dress up in these.” The set contained a fireman outfit, a policeman outfit, and a doctor outfit. My nephew didn’t care for those. He wanted to do what his big sister was doing. But he was not allowed.

I know my brother-in-law meant no harm. But what he did was sexist.

Could you imagine if the reverse took place? Imagine a little girl trying to dress up as a police officer or doctor, and being told, “That’s not for you. You have to put on this princess outfit …” Actually, I’m sure that does happen sometimes. But I would be appalled to see a parent actively limiting the imaginative play of a girl like that. And it doesn’t suddenly become more acceptable when the genders are reversed.

Yet gender policing of boys goes on all the time, in the home, in the schoolyard, in the classroom, in the media. While girls are increasingly receiving the message that they should shrug off outdated gender expectations, boys are still heavily pressured to conform to a very specific, prescribed idea of masculinity. Undoubtedly, there are positive traits associated with masculinity: assertiveness, independence, ambition, competence. But the heavy pressure on boys to shape themselves in accordance with certain masculine ideals can also be confining, and very harmful.


We’ve all experienced or witnessed children on a playground teasing a boy for crying. The message that emotional expression is unacceptable in males is a pervasive and damaging one. I once saw a woman on the subway tell her five-year-old son, who was in tears, “Men don’t cry.” Her answer to her son’s emotional distress was, basically, to invalidate it. Crying is a natural emotional reaction that all people experience, yet boys and men are shamed for openly communicating their feelings. Then later in life they may be criticized for being uncommunicative. That’s what I call a no-win situation for the male sex.

Shame is perhaps the most popular tool society uses to socialize children into gender-appropriate behaviors. Boys are routinely teased and bullied for acting in ways that are considered to be un-manly. Boys who prefer not to participate in activities designated as “male” face ridicule and even physical violence.

Not only is this bullying emotionally and physically harmful, but it also restricts boys’ self-expression and their opportunities. On the one hand, girls are often encouraged (or at least not strongly discouraged) to explore traditional “boy” activities like sports, playing with building blocks or construction sets, camping, even hunting. Meanwhile, heavy social pressure prevents boys from participating in traditionally “girly” activities. Cooking and baking, arts and crafts, theater and fashion are largely considered un-masculine activities. Our culture actively steers boys away from them. Yet any of those interests could not only be fun for boys, but actually lead to a lucrative and creatively fulfilling career for a man. I wonder how many boys never discovered their talent for, say, baking pastries, because nobody ever thought to buy them an Easy Bake Oven when they were young.

Now, I can hear the objection already: My son doesn’t want an Easy Bake Oven. He’d scoff if I bought him that! But my point is that girls and boys aren’t born with the innate belief that cooking isn’t fun if you happen to have a penis. Powerful social pressures train us to associate specific attitudes, behaviors or activities with one gender or the other. And boys especially understand that nonconformity to gender expectations is unacceptable. We even have special words specifically for it: wimp, sissy, wussy, pansy, and others too vulgar to mention. So it’s no wonder that boys are eager to reject “girl” toys. They absorb these lessons from the people (and media) around them until prescribed gender roles have been completely internalized. The alternative is to risk consequences to their self-esteem, their status among their peers, and even their very safety.

Rigid ideas about what constitutes masculinity also have a significant negative impact on grown men. Gender stereotypes hold that women are the superior caregivers, that somehow men are less nurturing and compassionate than women. This sexist attitude is a tremendous insult to men, and it has a tangible negative impact on men’s lives. It puts fathers at a disadvantage in custody disputes. It means that few employers offer paid paternity leave, even though they do offer paid maternity leave. And when paternity leave is offered, men often don’t take the opportunity. How could staying at home to care for and bond with a newborn child be regarded as un-manly? Yet our culture still largely considers caring for your own baby to be a feminine role. The perception that men can’t be quality caregivers is partly responsible for the tremendous shortage of male nurses and teachers. I strongly believe the dearth of male teachers has a powerfully negative impact on the education of young boys.  Furthermore, in this recession, traditionally masculine jobs in sectors like manufacturing are on the decline, while the health care and education sectors are predicted to add jobs in the coming years. The lingering perception that men are not caring and nurturing prevents men from taking full advantage of the available employment opportunities in those traditionally female-dominated fields.

Sexism strongly pressures men to live up to an ideal of masculinity that is fundamentally outdated. In the classic gender role model, men are the wage earners, providing for their families. In fact I would even say this idea of being a good provider is essential to our culture’s notion of masculinity. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with being a good provider for your family—there’s scarcely a more admirable ambition. The problem is that, for men, the definition of “good provider” can be rather narrow. It means being a high wage earner. Men’s self-esteem, their sense of their own value, becomes tied too closely with their earning ability. Men who earn less than other men may feel inadequate. Men who earn less than their partners can often feel emasculated. Men who stay at home while their partners work are still stigmatized in our culture. In an economy with shrinking job opportunities in traditionally male professions, fewer men are able to provide for their families the way old-fashioned gender expectations have dictated that they should. Their other contributions—caring for children, managing the household, performing domestic duties traditionally assigned to women—are real and meaningful. Men who aren’t the family’s primary wage earner do still provide for their families. They may nevertheless feel that they’ve failed in that endeavor because of outdated and inflexible ideas about what constitutes masculinity.

It’s not surprising, then, that many men experience psychological stress due to their perception of their own failure to live up to gender norms. Ironically, it’s those very gender norms which prevent many men from seeking professional help for that psychological stress. One of the masculine traits which men are socialized into adopting is unfailing stoicism. Traditional masculinity requires men to be capable, independent problem-solvers. Dependence upon others is regarded as a feminine trait. Men are statistically more reluctant to seek needed healthcare help. They’re less likely to visit a doctor, and more likely to die of certain preventable diseases.  The rate of death by suicide among men is four times that of women, in part because men who are suffering psychologically are less inclined to seek professional help.

Pressure to adopt an image of masculine bravado also encourages sexual promiscuity, alcoholism, drunk driving, and a host of other dangerous risk-taking behaviors.


Our instinct might be to say: That’s just how men are. Men want to have lots of sex. They are risk-takers. They want to be strong and powerful. They have an impulse toward independence. That’s who they simply are, and it’s wrong to tell them not to be themselves.

The truth is, it’s not possible to know which gender-associated traits, if any, are innate. And it shouldn’t matter anyway. Psychologists have long recognized that when it comes to gender identity (the extent to which we identify with either masculine or feminine qualities), there is more variation within each gender group than there is between the two groups. We could probably pinpoint a set of characteristics and say that they are typical of boys. But it’s a short path from “typical” to “normal.” And it follows that boys who don’t fit the normal mode are therefore abnormal. They’re different, which means weird, and inevitably wrong. When we begin labeling attitudes and behaviors as “male” or “masculine,” we begin limiting who and what men and boys are allowed to be and do.

I’m not advocating the obliteration of gender altogether. That would be a pointless aim anyway. An academic might say that gender is a social construct, but that same person doesn’t wake up each morning and decide which gender to perform that day. However it happens, gender is deeply inscribed in our brains, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

At the same time, overly prescriptive ideas about gender restrict men and boys, limit their options and put undue psychological strain on them. As a society, we must not let preconceived notions about what gender should look like limit who we allow our boys and men to be.

—Photo Pink Sherbet Photography/Flickr

About Rebecca Cohen

Rebecca Cohen is a freelance writer from Berkeley, CA, a former New York City public school teacher and creator of the webcomic "The Adventures of Gyno-Star."


  1. This article rings true in so many ways. After watching the Superbowl last night and catching the Goldie Blox commercial I came back to this article again, thinking of how it seems every toy is labeled BOY or GIRL instead of just “3 year old”!

  2. Very well said. It amazes me sometimes how women can tune into men’s problems so well. I’m not a father, but I have a ton of nephews and nieces, and I’ve wondered myself about my nephews’ well being, should they not be steered toward “masculine” pursuits, not because I believe they should be discouraged, but because I’m afraid they’ll be hurt by a society that doesn’t understand anything but an accepted masculine vector of growth for boys. This is especially true for my littlest nephews with two moms, even though their moms are great parents. On the other hand, I’ve always felt good about my nieces exploring whatever; they still might get princess peer pressure, but feminism is alive and well and going nowhere soon. It’s interesting, the balance of change: we, as progressives, want to promote a better world by teaching and role modeling, and yet we and our children still have to survive in the present, where we sometimes have to protect ourselves from the pressures of a culture reluctant to change.

  3. Reading this was wonderful as it put the way I am feeling so eloquently into words.
    I am Mummy to four young boys and have never stopped them playing with ‘girl’s’ toys. One of my sons, in particular, absolutely loves anything considered ‘girly’. Whether it’s because he wants to assert himself as different from his brothers, a genuine liking of pink and sparkly things, a phase or whether he will in fact one day announce he’s gay or transgender, childhood is a time for exploring, learning and enjoying life.
    It’s also a great way to bond with my sons when we play with dolls, kitchen sets or make up as I can relate to those things more than diggers, action figures or guns. I love that they feel they can be whoever they want when they’re playing.
    Play should be seen as just that. A chance for children to use their imagination to explore the world safely.

    • I love everything you said. I have no doubt you’re an amazing mother and your children will grow up to be well-rounded, happy adults! Best wishes to you and your children!

  4. I am a husband..father..partner..son..provider..protector
    I reflect on a childhood that provided everything that you would
    think a child would need.. Love…encouragement..support.
    But one thing as a man now with a wife and son is that I wish I had the
    skills to communicate my feelings with the articulation and honesty
    that my family deserves. I have an emotional hole on my armour and
    40 years on I’m not sure how to patch it up, but sure as hell I’m here
    now to show my son that emotion, tenderness, empathy, forgiveness…
    are all the qualities of a strong and beautiful Human Being.
    Gender just doesn’t apply….

  5. Depending on the age let them dress up in the sparkley clothes . Nothing wrong with playing with dolls !
    Just keep an eye on it as they pass nursery age should have left the glitter/fairy behind . Playing with dolls is OK as might make a better Dad later in life !

  6. We wouldn’t want boys playing with dolls. They might grow up to be “gasp” fathers. 🙂

  7. “the problem is that, for men, the definition of “good provider” can be rather narrow. It means being a high wage earner. Men’s self-esteem, their sense of their own value, becomes tied too closely with their earning ability. ”
    -I would say this is a consequence of women mostly choosing wealthy men. They like to pretend that they do not – but it is the reality I am exposed to.

    • Lets take that further back to the relationships
      we have as fathers with our children, more so our
      daughters and the expectations and stereotypes of men
      that we help them to have.
      We as fathers and friends can teach them that genders are not
      specific to the responsibility we take on as parents and that
      putting a $ value on how you care and provide for your family is
      not the measuring stick for achieving a happy family.

    • I agree that SOME women chose certain men for wealth. It IS in our instinct to find those who can provide for future children. That being said, almost everyone I know married for love. I certainly did. I married while still in high school, my husband is not a major earner, we have four children. I work nights and we both are in college, again. He’s the SAH.

  8. One big issue for me is not just “gender specific behavior” but also a matter of appearance. Males are in most cases required to be clean cut with short hair and masculine clothing, mainly in the work place. Few people will have a problem if a woman wears her hair in a traditionally “male” style, she will have little to no trouble finding employment. whereas if a man has long hair in a traditionally “female” fashion, he will in most cases be forced to cut it and keep it short if he wishes to not be severely limited in his employment options. This is supposed to be a free country, yet we are forced to conform to “gender specific” roles and appearances.

  9. I was brought up with the freedom to explore toys with any gender bias. At 18 one of my favourite hobbies was to tinker around with my car. And long before my children were born I decided that they too would have the freedom to become whoever they want. And if my son wanted a doll to learn how to be a good dad then that is what he will have. My husband and I don’t follow social norms. I will decorate and garden, whereas my husband irons and does most of the cooking
    I now have a boy and a girl, 3 and almost 2. I have been surprised to find that despite the freedom to play with what they want, and the less than norm stereotypes from us the ‘gender stereotypes’ sneak in on a regular basis. My daughter took a toolset and placed the nuts on her fingers like rings (I don’t wear jewellery), my son will play with dolls, but he uses them to test slides he has built; my daughter will play with dolls like they are babies and give them cuddles.
    Watching my children has led me to think that there is something intrinsically different between boys and girls. Toys are only a small part of this issue, but essentially children aren’t born androgynous only to be manipulated into a gender by the environment that they live in. There is an innate difference between the sexes and boys will always be boys, and girls will be girls.

  10. So explain to me somthing…..

    Why is it that when we refer to dolls we refer to a girls toy?
    the definition of Doll is as follows:
    a small model of a human figure, often one of a baby or girl, used as a child’s toy.

    I guess my point is growing up I and most of American boys played with dolls. Would not a GI Joe be a doll, maybe a He-Man wouldn’t that be considered a doll.

    Look at the definition of action figure before you tell me these are different and not dolls…
    a doll representing a person or fictional character known for vigorous action, such as a soldier or superhero. The figure typically is posable, with jointed limbs.

    I don’t understand your argument when the boys of the world play with dolls already …

  11. Heres the thing. Mens want their sons to be men. Not a freaking princess. They want to watch their son grow up, play sports with their son, go hunting with their son. They dont want him to be a princess. Guys who have daughters treat their daughters like a princess typically. If that princess want to be a firefighter, a doctor, or wants to go shoot a deer then that man is typically more than happy to help his princess out. I dont know a single dad that wants his princess to sit in a kitchen all day or clean a house all day for some guy he most likely wishes he could put in a whole conveniantly dug in his backyard. Basically a mans little princess can be what ever she wants. A mans son better not be a freakin princess though.

  12. Brilliant article, I agree with it all

  13. I agree with this article. I feel like a lot of kids growing up seem sort of estranged from themselves, and lacking a sense of belonging and self acceptance. They seem somewhat of a self experiment. I have 2 boys now under 2. I walk down the isles of toysrus and target and it’s pretty obvious what “sextion” of the store is being suggested that you shop in for your little ones… Nearly all the girls toys are clad in pink. Who said girls like pink anyways? Not my fav color… It’s like I feel like I’m living in the 1950’s…. Not that boys can’t play with pink toys it just makes for an estranged feeling if they don’t see their fellow men following suit.

  14. I don’t understand why this can’t be a topic of interest and why some have to resort to the standard: “This isn’t a big enough problem to warrant a discussion.” Gender and gender stereotyping have a lot to do with this site’s mission…at least, from my understanding. How children are raised to understand specific gender roles is one contributing factor to how men and women ultimately see themselves in all aspects of their lives: work, family, friendships, relationships. If a boy is raised with a heavy-handed father or mother who does not think that crying is an option for boys, or that a boy shouldn’t play with a “girl” toy, it can become an issue later on. Conversely, if a girl is told all their lives that they are a princess who should look for her prince charming and everything will be great–the same is true. Offering children various play models is healthy and allows for greater freedom to be themselves and affords greater opportunities for boys and girls to play together. It doesn’t mean that anyone is forcing them to play with dolls (if a boy) or a truck (if a girl). It just means they are not punished either way for doing so. Thanks, Rebecca, for your article.

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    kurt: Mountain and molehill. I get the impression that the pressure to produde GMP-type stuff is so great that molehill inflation is the default position.
    “Let” a boy play with dolls. Sure. And if we don’t find a satisfactory number of boys playing with dolls, Something Must Be Done. “Let” is not adequate.
    I raised boy-girl twins and, in the flush of my youth, made some stupid errors. One was to provide both girl stuff and boy stuff to each of the kids. What a waste of time and money.
    One of my granddaughters is a princess. That’s how she has defined herself–just ask her–since she was about three. She’s four and a half now. One of the problems is that, while there are many princesses (dolls), there are not enough princes, but with sufficient diligence, we managed to get her a few.
    Last week, one of the princesses fell off a table. The princes formed a rope, one holding the ankles of the next, until they could rescue her. Why not princesses helping? “They’re not strong enough.” Kid’s mom is a jock, all state, full ride, multiple sports, barrel racer. But her boy cousins are huge, powerful and if anybody needed rescuing by the kindergarten brigade, it would be them…and she recognizes it.
    Sounds like she needs a little re-education, huh?

  16. Please stop telling me how to define myself and my role. Please stop telling me how to raise my children. From my perspective, this is just another in a long line of editorials telling me just how wrong I am, how screwed up my foundation is, how fundamentally inferior my way of being is.

    What I read here is 1700 words that can be summarized as “If only men were more like women, the world would be a better place.”

    I swore I would quit this…

    • John Kevin W. Desk says:

      “this is just another in a long line of editorials telling me just how wrong I am, how screwed up my foundation is, how fundamentally inferior my way of being is.”

      Well, how long have you been a Mets fan?

  17. This is a total non-issue, particularly in light of there being actual serious problems in the world. If a boys’ biggest problem is not having dressed up as a princess at 2 years old, he will just fine.

  18. DavidByron says:

    I can’t resist web comics.

  19. kittyarmy says:

    Thank you for this! Growing up, my brothers and I were lucky enough to have parents who didn’t restrict the “gender appropriateness” of our plays and toys. I was a tomboy who refused to wear dresses but still loved Hello Kitty stuff, my youngest brother on the other hand was fascinated with my mom’s high heeled shoes and enjoys putting on her sparkly brooches and accessories. No one ever said anything directly to us, but I know some “concerned” people did say something to my parents about the harms they were doing to their kids. One of them even told my mom I would grow up to be a lesbian if she didn’t discourage my masculine behavior (she told me about it when I was older). Guess what? None of us grew up confused or messed up. We were happy kids in a loving home who grew up to be happy adults. Our varied & unrestricted play contributed to our creativity and our understanding of prescribed gender roles, and it helped us buck them as we explore ourselves and our interests. And my heel-obsessed youngest brother? He is now a married civil engineer who enjoys gourmet cooking & building his own furniture. A hell of a guy!

    • I think you might be seeing this from a female privileged perspective. The very real threat of being beaten to death by the noble defenders of all things Manly or shock of having your very existence as a Man ridiculed by a women who’s seen you cry, is something that tends to get glossed over when ever women discuss the gendering of boys.

      It’s not fair to shoe horn one lone child in to a  Rosa Parks role. To fit some ideology that going to get them ostracized.   

      If ms Cohen cant protect her nephew 24 hours a day then  she should probably  mind her own business.

      • Were you able to write “female privileged perspective” with a straight face?

        Ms Cohen DID mind her own business (at least she tells of no action taken to scold or reprimand her brother-in-law, in fact she also admits he probably meant no harm). What I find funny is that you’d rather just take this ridicule and violence from “the noble defenders of all things Manly” rather than even think of change being possible.

        She used the kid to talk of a larger problem, one you seem to be aware of.

        • By privliged I mean that I might not be aware of your fears, your oppressors, your sociatal hurdles just as you might not know mines. Someone told me that ignorance is a Male Privledge, I reserve the right to hold Women to the same standerd.

          (Ofcourse my intention isn’t to downplay your tribulations)

          With that said, I personally don’t see a light at the end of this tunnel. There will always be a-holes enforcing a pecking order based on some messed up Darwinin crap. If you try and raise your Male child to be a political statment theN You’ld better be ready to home school. I don’t think he’ll ever be too fond of 4-8 years of Fist-2-Face bullying. I personally advocate that boys learn self defense so that they could learn about feminism and themselves from a position of empowerment.

          • Sometimes you don’t get a choice. Sometimes you get the effeminate kid who does not want to fight back and simply wonders why he can’t do what he enjoys. I think the point of this article isn’t to raise your kids to be any kind of statement but allowing your kids to grow without holding him to outdated standards.

            Yes, there always will be a-holes and a pecking order, but this defensive (and at the same time, aggressive) position harms more than it helps. The bullies are also being set to a standard of masculinity which they then try to impose on others. Fostering a culture in which children are allowed to be as masculine or feminine as they naturally are will not solve all the problems, there probably will still be bullying after that, but it will at least give children more freedom to develop as people.

  20. Some related thoughts here:

    I would like to think I would let my son (if I had one) play with whatever safe toys he wanted to. Because, even if deep down I secretly hoped he would prefer the football to the Barbie, I’d be afraid to make too big a deal out of playing with dolls or easy-bake ovens. I wouldn’t want to make “girl toys” into some sort of taboo, which might make them into some sort of neurotic objects in his life.

    If it makes dads squeamish to see their sons play with dolls, would it make it easier to call them “action figures” instead? That’s probably how my dad dealt with seeing me buy clothes and accessories (er, I mean, “equipment”) for my GI Joes in the 1970’s.

    A man could make a VERY good living as an executive chef or fashion designer, enough to support you in your old age. Don’t be so quick to steer him away from the Easy-Bake or the purple dresses. Hell, he could grow up to create a really profitable girls’ toy company. My niece has an Easy-Bake oven, and I gotta tell you, that is a product in serious need of an upgrade. You never know where his play is going to lead him.

    • Thumbs up to all your related thoughts! “You never know where his play is going to lead him.” Love it. We learn so much about the world through play. My brother was happy to play with me and my stuffed animals and Barbies and Beanie Babies as a kid – just as I was happy to play with his Tonka trucks, dinosaurs (I LOVED dinosaurs as a little girl) and Hot Wheels. Most of our play involved crossover between our toy collections – like when we made my Barbie’s baby the pilot of his white plastic F-15 fighter jet. It made us very close friends as kids.

      Hmm, that’s something that hasn’t really entered the conversation – how playing with girls’ toys helps boys form friendships with girls, and vice versa, when they play together. Social play in a co-ed environment is one way of letting kids see both sides of gender, and participate in both sides as much or as little as they want.

      • That’s a really good point, and one that I hadn’t considered. Gender segregation among children is a big part of gender socialization, and we don’t often talk about the benefits children can receive from socializing and playing with friends of both genders. I have a suspicion that kids self-segregate a little less than they used to, but I don’t know if my personal observations reflect an actual trend or not.

      • And, if I wanted my son to introduce me to his supermodel friends some day, which object should he learn the most about — a dress or a gun? I’m thinking the dress.

        No reason a dad can’t be a horible stereotype AND let his son play with “girly” things…. : – )

  21. Nice piece. Thank you. I’m seeing it happen in my extended family-in-law. My husband’s brother is a mechanical engineer and his wife is a pharmacist, both high-earning fields. Last year when his engineering contract expired, they moved across the country and bought a fixer-upper in cash. They did the math and figured out that the best solution for them was for him to stay home with their one-year-old daughter while his wife worked, because she was able to earn more than he could, benefits included, enough to cover their expenses without the additional and considerable expense of daycare. So he’s a stay-at-home dad now. He’s lost a lot of weight from jogging with the baby in a stroller, and beyond the new-father fatigue, he appears quite satisfied with this solution.

    While his family is supportive of their decision, there is a lot of teasing and joking, especially from the older family members and especially from the men. Even my husband jokes, “Have you met my sister Joe?” Teasing is a common way of showing affection in that family, something I still struggle to accept, and I think teasing Joe is unnecessary and mean-spirited. I can’t change the views or behaviors of my in-laws, so I do what I can by not participating in the teasing myself. But my blood still boils for an instant every time they rib him for it. I hope my niece never has to hear family members trying to shame her father for staying at home.

  22. Fantastic article. I now know why I, a retired elementary school teacher, have never had any self esteem. No, I never wanted to dress up nor play with dolls, though I did love my puppets and marionettes. But I have always thought of myself as a full time caregiver, both in my job and at home. This led to a lack of respect, whether perceived or real, from the majority of my multitude of relatives. I came to accept my own insignificance. We now live in a world where women, more often than not, bring home the bacon. I guess it’s time I learn to fry it up in a pan. Again, this was an incredibly insightful piece.

  23. If boys genuinely want to play with dolls, sure, whatever.

    But most boys don’t want to play with dolls. And if they don’t want to, they shouldn’t be continuously encouraged by people with social or political agendas to do so. Leave them alone.

    Also, it is problematic that this article equates showing weakness or vulnerability with femininity. Men and boys shouldn’t be shamed for crying or whatnot, but such acts shouldn’t be construed as “showing his feminine side”. Sadness and vulnerability are natural human traits, not feminine. So is anger. Males need to stop being shamed for their natural expressions by men and women, traditionalists and feminists alike.

    • well said, forweg. i feel like the author took something small and made a mountain out of a molehill. LOTS of boys play with “dolls.” i, myself, would detach the heads of my sister’s barbies all the time. OR, they were the damsel in distress that my ninja turtles had to go save. yeah, the author is right, we gotta let kids play and do their thing, but there’s something that still rubs me wrong when a female writer goes off about the way males/boys/men are, because it’s all hearsay. so, maybe a little too preachy on something that she can never fully understand is where i kinda feel she falls on this issue.

    • Thanks for your comment, forweg. I think if you look back at what I wrote, you’ll see that nowhere did I advocate encouraging boys to play with dolls. Rather, I criticized the impulse to discourage boys from playing with traditionally “girly” toys. Boys and girls receive a lot of messages from a lot of different places — TV commercials, movies, peers, older siblings, adults in the community, their own parents, etc. — telling them what sorts of toys they are supposed to want to play with. Some of these messages are direct (as in the case of a TV commercial) and others are indirect (like watching an older sister play and following her example). My argument is simply that we should be more aware of the messages we’re sending and the limitations we’re placing on boys. All children should be allowed to play however they want.

      Also, the article does not equate weakness or vulnerability with femininity. I think that our culture definitely does associate those traits with femininity, but nowhere in the piece did I say anything about boys “showing their feminine side.” So when you say that “sadness and vulnerability are human traits, not feminine” you and I are in complete agreement. That’s why I wrote, “Crying is a natural emotional reaction that all people experience.” I strongly agree with you when you say that males should not be shamed for expressing their natural emotions. I think no person should ever be shamed for expressing what he or she honestly feels.

      • If they want to, sure, but I have yet to meet a young boy who wants to play with Barbies in a way that does not involve dismembering them, running them over with toy trains (my favorite when I was little!), or other similar acts. I’m sure they’re out there, but I’ve never met one.

        You say the whole “gender divide” thing exists strictly due to upbringing and social conditioning, but then why do young boys–at an age where it’s quite possible they’ve never even left the house, let alone been subjected to any kind of social conditioning–wrestle, play fight, etc. all the damn time, while far fewer girls engage in such behavior? (Not that I haven’t seen my share of wrestle-happy 3-year-old girls; do not underestimate them, they are STRONG.)

        Again, I’m sure these boys are out there, and they are certainly not in the wrong for liking “girly” things. But it’s much less common than you seem to think.

  24. John Sctoll says:

    We condition boys to take risks, and to provide for their families no matter what. And it is a good thing that we do. Becuase you can bet your bottom dollar that women aren’t going to be taking up the dirty jobs anytime soon. I constantly hear from friends that “women put their families first”. I usually ask them “Really, then how come Jane isn’t working right now”, which leads to “There just isn’t any jobs available”. Oh really, I know a construction company that is hiring road workers, if fact they are paying top dollar. This is usually met with “That is very physical work and jane might get hurt if she does that”. That’s right, she puts her family first unless of course there is danger involved then she will send her husband out to work the dangerous jobs just like most other wives.

    I have always found that saying funny that women are better at putting their families first , and perhaps they do, right up until there is some risk involved then “off to work you go dear husband”.

    • Wow. What decade do you live in? The person who shared this article with me is a strong, smart mother of two who spent many months training to be an electrician. She was the only woman; she graduated at the top of her class and was respected by both instructors and fellow classmates.

      She found NO ONE who would hire her or even take her on for more training.

      So before you make ridiculous generalizations like this, ESPECIALLY without experiencing these situations yourself, consider that the women probably aren’t the ones limiting their own options here. They want to work and are fully capable of doing so. It just doesn’t always turn out that way.

  25. I’m not convinced this is a large problem.

    When I was little, I was allowed to play with all the “girl stuff” I wanted to. I have memories of walking around in my mother’s high-heels before going to preschool for the day (I liked being instantly taller). I also remember playing with a doll and shopping cart at preschool (I was finally able to act out my fantasy of being able to ride in the shopping-cart proper, rather than the seat, while visiting the supermarket).

    However, I was also forbidden from owning a toy gun. For better or worse, my parents believed that violence, in all its forms, was always wrong and should not be a part of anything I played with. I could not own GI Joes, tanks, toy swords, etc. I could have squirt guns only if they looked completely unrealistic.

    The end result was rebellion and subversion on my part. Unable to get a “real” toy gun, I made them out of construction paper and play-doh. I became very interested in Legos not because I liked building things, but because the guise of building a “pirate ship” gave me access to a whole host of action figures with swords and firearms.

    The point is: when I was denied something that I wanted to play with, I played with it anyway. I found a way. Indeed, we all know that often we desire something more the more often we are denied it.

    So, if what is described in this article was truly a widespread problem that “many men struggle with to this day” why don’t we see more rebellion? Why aren’t little boys making construction-paper dolls to play with, or playing “dress up” with their GI Joes?

    I suspect the answer is that this problem is actually very narrow in scope, and overstated even in those cases where it can be confirmed.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      You grew up surrounded by images of men with guns, so you wanted a gun. I did too, but looking back on it I’m not sure that all that gender stereotyping was such a good thing.

      Maybe some of the boys you knew *did* want to make a doll, but were shamed out of doing it. I agree that parental pressure won’t necessarily prevent kids from doing what they want, but when that pressure comes from all of society its a bit stronger.

      • You are imputing experiences I did not have. Maybe I should be more specific, I don’t know.

        I was never allowed to watch violent cartoons growing up. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was off-limits until second grade, and even then only because I was invited to a themed birthday and felt silly for not knowing anything about it.

        You ASSUME where my desires come from. Are you really so unwilling to accept that in some people it might be innate?

    • So, if what is described in this article was truly a widespread problem that “many men struggle with to this day” why don’t we see more rebellion?

      Not many people rebel against the convention of their time. Women in the West now wear trousers, how many rebelled and wore them(as girls or women) before it was acceptable for women to wear them – not many.

      So, if what is described in this article was truly a widespread problem that “many women struggle with to this day” why don’t we see more rebellion?
      I suspect the answer is that this problem is actually very narrow in scope, and overstated even in those cases where it can be confirmed.

      I could imagine a victorian, an edwardian, a 1950s manTM saying exactly the same thing about women wanting to enter into the realm of the men of their time – youll notice that women are now free to do all (jobs, dress, behaviour etc) that once was considered the realm of men, ‘only for men’ by the victorian, the edwardian, the 1950s manTM. Whereas most men are not able to do the reverse.

      I say most men, as Im bi, so lolol i can wear what the hell i like. Im not trapped – IM FREE. Whether i just wear modern men’s clothing, or wear modern women’s clothing or even go ‘en femme’ – there’s always a man out there for me [i actually dont go en femme, however that is the term we male “crossdressers” use to describe men who make themselves up and dress themselves, to look as convincingly like the modern women beauty ideal as possible]. If i want sex, love and acceptance – it is in the arms of men, NOT of women (women who are attracted to men) that i know i will find it.

      Im attracted to men and to women, I am free.
      It is men who are ONLY attracted to women, who are trapped.
      Why isnt there a woman out there for you* straight guys, if you for example choose to wear whatever you like. Thats what you should be asking women who are attracted to men. Why are they not like us men and lesbians. Why isnt there a woman out there for you straight guys, if you choose to do what was and STILL is ‘only for women’. Where is the equality fellas.

      *even if youre not str8/ish Mike, Im still using the plural ‘you’

  26. Rebecca, fabulous and much-needed article. I remember once a few years back I was the headmistress of a private school in a very working class town. It was not what you typically imagine when you think of a private school. It was Preschool through Grade 8. One September the newspaper came out to do a story on my kids starting their first day of school. They popped into a Pre-K classroom and took a photo of kids pretending to be riding a school bus. They had taken chairs and put them in rows, and then gone to the dress-up trunk. One little boy in the “front seat” of the bus happened to be holding a pocketbook, which was barely visible in the otherwise cute-as-the-dickens photo. It landed on the front page of the paper. I immediately received a phone call from the irate father of that boy threatening to sue the school, and me personally, to the ends of the earth for “making his son a laughing stock in front of the entire town because he looked gay holding a pocketbook.” I was beside myself. THIS is what we must contend with in this society. That poor kid.

  27. Len Firewood says:

    Hi Rebecca – I’m a man pretty much an old one now (62) . I was one of millions who questioned all this stuff way back in the 60’s . Personally I did ALL my questioning without the input or supervision of academia – in any case I am not one for following the crowd and I can think for myself. I was in a gang as youngster (I am talking from about age 11 – 13) – I was in the gang mainly because the gang leaders dad had built his son this really cool treehouse so joining his gang was an easy way to get access to it. I do not like bully’s though and one day the gang leader (who I shall henceforth call “John”) jumped this local kid (for no other discernible reason apart from he wasn’t in our gang or any gang for that matter!). He had this kid pinned down on the ground with his knees over the kids arms and was beating on him – I told John to stop and leave him alone – John stood up suddenly and hit me in the face with his fists – so I fought back and put him down where he stayed like the coward he really was once his “authority” was put to the test. That action meant no more pleasant summers hanging out in the coolest treehouse in the neighborhood BUT I could sleep untroubled. It was “in the rules” that you just go along with your gang leader, During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 (I was 12 then) I ratted on a fellow pupil for disrupting a special class that our History teacher was trying to give us – he told us that today we were going to have a “special lesson” about “current affairs” i.e. that by 4pm that afternoon we could all be vapourised or worse in a nuclear holocaust. I was already acutely aware of the situation being somewhat precocious for my age (i.e. I read newspapers and watched the news etc). I honestly thought that I would not be alive that day come tea time – the Soviet nuclear missile carrying ships were still en route to Cuba at that time in defiance of Kennedy’s public ultimatum. The kid who was being disruptive angered ME let alone the teacher as quite frankly I was very frightened as to what might happen next. Anyway when the teacher demanded the disruptive pupil go and see the headmaster about his behaviour the kid stormed out of rthe classroom slamming the door (we then saw him from the classroom windows walking away from the school without having seen the head) . The teacher being fairly new to our class asked his name and I stood up and told him in front of the whole class. That was another “rule” that I had broken i.e. never snitch on your peers. The next day 35 classmates had a go at beating me up for my transgression – fortunately for me I discovered that it was only practically possible to be hit by no more that 5 fists at once and my beating didn’t last too long because my older cousin spotted what was going on (he went to the same school) and evcen thougn he was only a year or two older at most he managed to dispel them all (thanks for that Peter.) singlehandedly. Funny thing about my cousin Peter is that he was not a violent person then and never has been since yet he was brave as a lion when needs be. I never regretted snitching on that kid because that kid needed to learn some respect – the teacher was a good man who was genuinely trying to help those who were aware of the situation to deal with it psychologically. Play with dolls?? Nope never felt the urge but I cried once when after rescuing a little bird with a broken wing and after feeding it with nutrients via an eyedropper I awoke next day to find it cold and ead in the cosy little nest I had made for it. I cried again when my mother once gave all four kittens that our family cat had just recently given birth to to the milkman to be drowned in a bucket. In the 60’s I took many psychedelic drugs (as did millions of my peers in that era) and discovered aspects to the “self” and the “box” (i.e the mind) that made me feel I had already lived for a thousand years by the time I was a mere 19 yrs old. I know a few things and enough to know i still know little, but I do know it is outr HUMANITY that should be our focus and the rest will take care of itself – as the old centipede limerick has it:
    Said the centipede, “This is a bitch:
    You ask which leg I move after which?”
    The depth of this question
    Caused neural congestion;
    Stunned, immobile, he fell in a ditch.
    Being the eldest of five children – since my two parents died over 10 years ago I have become the family “patriarch” and I have two things to pass on – one is “never let hypocrisy stop you from giving good advice” and always think and do what sits right with YOU no matter what the crowd thinks or does. It can be a very tough world out there at times and yet I have still to meet a guy without a sensitive spot – some are better at hiding it than others but the main thing again to focus on is how to retain ones humanity and sense of dignity even when in adversity. Sad to say too many feminists treat women like children and sadder to say too many have started to behave that way – in the REAL world wom,en aren’t just “victims” (of men or anything else) and neither are men just “perpetrators” and what a gross abuse of children to teach them such filth! We come in two sexes only – gender is a variable that rides on top of that fact (even a so called hermaphrodite has the maximum characteristics of no more than TWO sexes), pre-natal exposure to hormones like testesterone and estrogen can tend to emphasise or de-emphasise the “usual” sexual characterists behaviourwise and there is nothing wrong about that because again the most important characteristics are humanity and self respect. (if you have no self respect yourself can you truly respect others?) . So no more divisive feminism nor masculinism for that matter – the only “ism” we need is humanism and only from that approach can true egalitarian values be promoted.

  28. I’ve always found it funny when women complain of their restrictive gender roles and state that as a man I’d have not a inkling of what that would be like……..

    The shame policing of boys/young men is a deeply entrenched in our culture…….where else can all that cannon fodder be found……


  1. […] being a father, I’ve become increasingly aware of what society thinks boys should enjoy.  This article, on the GoodMenProject.com was such an amazing thing to read; sometimes it’s […]

  2. […] or in ballet class, or in our classrooms, or within our own families (this is often referred to as gender policing). If you are not doing the persecuting, chances are you might be persecuted– so which side […]

Speak Your Mind