by Michele Yulo
I came across this picture the other day on Facebook from Explorations Early Learning's page. They had picked up the photo from Flickr and added their own text, "Real men play with dolls." I couldn't help wondering what others would think of this photo. Would they find it sweet and endearing? Or would they think this little boy has no business holding a doll much less feeding it?
Personally, my first thought was: What a sweet image. A young boy cradling a doll while giving it a bottle. It sparked a memory of the first time I saw my husband feed our infant daughter which was very emotional for me. Seeing a grown man hold a delicate, fragile, little being is a beautiful thing, but at the same time it can seem foreign precisely because we do not see little boys playing with dolls or taking on that kind of nurturing role in general. It's natural for women and girls to want to hold and feed a baby--that's what we say, right? Women were born to be mothers. Of course, that is a false assumption as well--just because women can give birth does not make them desire motherhood. And, unfortunately, we don't give males the benefit of taking on the role of caregiver until they have babies themselves. Then we expect them to jump right in with all of those necessary nurturing duties.
The picture also reminded me of a talk I gave at a local Atlanta charter school to a group of fourth grade girls. The school brought in a person each week who could offer something inspirational to their students. I was honored to be asked because a large part of what I do is helping to bring awareness to issues of gender especially with children. I am a firm believer that instilling compassion and tolerance in children from a young age can prevent future bullying and I knew I had an opportunity to do that with this group of girls.
After I explained to them what I did, spoke a little about Princess Free Zone and my book Super Tool Lula, I began a conversation with them about stereotyping. First I asked them if they knew what the word meant. A few tried to answer, but could only come up with some vague examples. I told them that stereotyping is when we describe a certain group of people in specific ways by making assumptions based on where a person comes from or how they look. "Essentially," I told them, "it is when we use the word all as in 'all boys play sports.'" I asked them if they were all the same because they were girls to which they nodded their heads in unison while saying, "No." They seemed to understand and agree that stereotyping was not a good thing.
Next I asked them if they thought it was okay for a boy to play with a doll. They said no. I asked them why. One girl raised her hand and said, "because dolls are for girls." I told her that was an example of stereoytping. Then I said to the group, "Let me ask you a question. Do boys grow up to be fathers?" They all said yes. I asked, "Do fathers hold their babies?" They all said yes. "Do fathers change diapers?" They all said yes. "Do fathers love their babies?" They were all looking at me now--slightly confused, definitely challenged. I then asked, "So why can't a boy play with a doll?"
The next day, the assistant principal emailed me to tell me that the girls were still talking about me and had been really affected by the discussion. I would have been happy to know that I had caused one girl to rethink gender roles.
The amazing playwright, performer, and activist Eve Ensler said: "I think the whole world has essentially been brought up not to be a girl. How do we bring up boys? What does it mean to be a boy? To be a boy really means not to be a girl. To be a man means not to be a girl. To be a woman means not to be a girl. To be strong means not to be a girl. To be a leader means not to be a girl. I actually think that being a girl is so powerful that we've had to train everyone not to be that. " Isn't this really at the core of allowing boys to play with a doll, for example? By constantly sending this message to boys that they should in no way resemble a girl, by not allowing them to show their nurturing side without denigrating their masculinity, by reminding them that being like a girl makes them less than, we are doing a great disservice to boys and men.
While Princess Free Zone primarily focuses on girls with regards to gender stereotyping, it is impossible to ignore how boys are affected by this social disease as well. In other words, in order to change the status quo on what it means to be a girl, we must also change how boys are pigeon-holed into often even stricter limitations of what it means to be male, and begin allowing them the full spectrum of being a human being. It is a two-way street. Only when both sexes can be free of these limitations will we have true change. So, go ahead, let your son play with a doll if he wants. He just might be a better man because of it.