Barbie Boys, Tomboys & Gender Rules in Childhood

I just gave a three-year-old boy a Barbie for his birthday, and it got me thinking about how girls have won the ability to wear jeans, have short hair, and “be sporty,” but boys still have to struggle to appear as masculine as possible.

When I was a little girl, I loved dressing up as princesses, warriors, police-women, and baseball stars. Girls of my generation, for the most part, are able to express themselves in whatever way they please, whether it be wearing nothing but pink, or insisting for a year that everyone call them “Fred,” because their real name is “too girly.” While it is definitely true, that adolescence brings numerous obstacles for girls, in terms of sexual identities, most little girls are free to be whomever they please.

Unfortunately this is still not the case for most young boys. When I was little, I had a friend who loved to paint his toenails, but as you can imagine, this was a short-lived hobby that died the day he wore sandals to pre-school. My three-year-old acquaintance who just had a birthday loves animals and wants to be a vet. Naturally, when he saw “Veterinarian Barbie” in the toy store he wanted it very badly. I was excited and happy that he was independent enough to want a Barbie, but I have to wonder how much longer he will be enamored of his toy after his friends see it. I frequently babysit and I have heard kids as little as one or two years old talk about something being “only for girls” or “a girl’s toy.” While a girl can own a baseball bat, GI Joe, or firefighter outfit, it is still unacceptable for a boy to own a doll.

When little girls “act like boys,” we call them “tom-boys.” When I was younger, I remember being familiar with the term “tom-boy,” because I had read it in books, but I never actually heard someone be called a “tom-boy” in a demeaning way. In fact, I think most girls my age thought “tom-boys” were pretty cool.

When little boys “act like girls,” we call them “sissies,” “pretty-boys,” “pussies,” or sometimes “gay.” As of now, there doesn’t seem to be a cool or socially accepted way for a boy to act or dress in a way we associate with girls.

I guess in some ways it evens out, since most teenage boys seem to have a lot fewer identity problems than teenage girls, and seem generally less insecure about their appearance, but I have to wonder if this is because they face more peer-pressure at a young age than girls do. We grow up believing we can do and be anything we want—a precedent that sets us up for disappointment come adolescence and judgmental teenage peers. Boys, on the other hand, seem to have to face this pressure earlier on, which might make them stronger once they do reach their teens.

I don’t know which is easier or better, and of course I wish we could continue being, wearing, and acting however we want for our entire lives without criticism and judgment from others.

I’ve always thought that if I’m a mother, I want my child to feel like he or she can be whoever they want; I’ve always assumed it would be harder to achieve this with a daughter. Now, I realize boys and girls face different pressures to fit gender specific roles at different points in their lives.

My generation has obviously come a long way from my mother’s (when most girls wanted to be secretaries, schoolteachers, or moms), so maybe my son’s generation will embrace his painted toenails. Until then…stay strong, Barbie boys!

Comments
One Response to “Barbie Boys, Tomboys & Gender Rules in Childhood”
  1. Anita says:

    Some boys play with dolls today although they may not be girl dolls. It’s interesting that dads take delight in dressing in their kid’s princess props (tiara, rings, etc) for a goof, but they would probably frown upon their sons doing that. On the other hand, my 4-year-old grandson was visiting his 7 and 9 year-old girl cousins and they dressed him like a diva complete with a feather boa, he looked great, but I will admit the photo took me by surprise. I’m delighted when I see fathers taking care of their kids; I’m sure my father never did that, the whole issue of gender identity seems to be in flux at the moment. We’ll see how things shake out in the years to come.

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Fiona Lowenstein

My name is Fiona Lowenstein, and I am a high school student. I started Barbara's Angels in 2008 when I was fourteen. My interest in politics was first sparked during the Bush vs. Gore election in 2000. My site is devoted to educating girls my age about politics, women's issues, and feminism with the hope that my generation will bring a new wave of female leaders!

About Barbara

Barbara Seaman was a women's health writer, activist, mother, and grandmother. She wrote eight books and is remembered by many as a principal founder of the women's health movement. She died of lung cancer in February 2008.