Yes, boys can play with dolls

Empowering: The new Barbie doll allows little girls to act out their dream jobs.

Empowering: The new Barbie doll allows little girls to act out their dream jobs.


In my work as a psychological researcher with a primary interest in masculinity, I am continually reminded that gender remains a key site of inequality. In order to better understand how gender operates in intimate relationships, I recently conducted a study in which I explored both children’s and parents’ ideas about gender, and sought to shed light on family practices that promote or challenge gender inequality.

It is undeniable that, in South Africa, enormous emotional and economic costs are incurred as a result of high rates of violence and HIV and Aids. Gender is a key determinant of violence, especially intimate-partner violence and rape, as well as the spread of HIV.

Men’s and boys’ enactment of “dominant”, “physically strong” and “high sexual active” masculinity and girls’ and women’s enactment of “submissive” and “soft” femininity have been linked to violence against women, children and other men, as well as unsafe sexual practices.

Young children are involved in constructing gender in particular, often problematic, ways. Research shows that primary school boys have been found to idealise physical strength and toughness, whereas girls have been found to idealise physical beauty. Boys have also been found to demean girls and boast of their sexual conquests in order to acquire status among their peers, whereas girls have been found to avoid speaking openly about their sexual desires for fear of being regarded as “bad”.

These concerning findings suggest that we need to examine how it is that children come to construct gender in problematic ways. Even more importantly, we need to help children reconstruct gender in more egalitarian ways, to disrupt practices of violence and sexual risk.

The family is the first place children learn about gender. In order to investigate this, I interviewed a number of children and parents from a range of different family structures and backgrounds in Cape Town.

The results suggest that the home is indeed an important space in which children learn about gender, with many children expressing similar views to those of their parents.

For example, eight-year-old Nomhle (not her real name), whose parents told me that they do not believe boys and girls should be treated differently, remarked in her interview that “boys can play with Barbie, girls can play with Batman”.

The latest advert for Barbie, the most popular doll ever made, is being lauded in the media for its empowering depiction of little girls. With the tag line “imagine the possibilities”, it introduces us to little girls acting out their dream jobs: a professor, a veterinarian, a businesswoman, a men’s football coach.

This suggests that girls can be anything they want to be. It’s a lovely idea, but the reality is that expectations around gender conformity and how little girls and boys should behave are far more rigid.

In more gender-egalitarian families, I found that a number of children engaged in nonconformist gender behaviour. There was a 10-year-old girl who played in an all-boys soccer team and a 13-year-old boy who liked to dress up and wear make-up. However, although these children and their parents said these nonconformist gender behaviours were acceptable and encouraged at home, outside of this context children appeared to avoid or be uncomfortable with behaving in this way.

So how do we help children to be different beyond the safety of their homes? We need to start by changing the messages that children receive about gender. As Nomhle’s comment suggests, children’s recreational materials such as toys, books and movies are one important way in which children receive messages about gender. Therefore, while the new Barbie advert is a step in the right direction we need to do more to challenge problematic constructions of masculinity and femininity.

A recent book by Craig Pomranz and Margaret Chamberlain titled Made by Raffi is a more comprehensive way of doing this. It tells the story of Raffi, a boy who feels different. He has long hair and doesn’t enjoy the rough and noisy games the other boys play.

One day Raffi discovers knitting. Although the other children tease him and Raffi struggles with feeling different, he continues to knit and in the end makes a magnificent cape for the school play, which sees him transformed into a hero.

This story highlights the power of gender norms in shaping children’s feelings about themselves, but also shows children and adults that resisting problematic notions of gender can be heroic.

This is a message we desperately need to amplify for young people. It is particularly significant in light of the social epidemics of violence and HIV which are driven by inegalitarian gender relations. These stories can help our children to be comfortable in their differences and disrupt harmful gender practices.

  Rebecca Helman is a research intern at the South African Medical Research Council



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