…except when it comes to toys.
We spend a lot of time talking about the way the media portrays women—how images of svelte, scantily-clad models on New York City’s sky-high billboards affect us mere mortals below, for instance. The struggle with body image and beauty standards begins at a very young age for girls, often with toys like Barbie, the beautiful doll who stares mockingly up at everyone unfortunate enough to be made of something other than flawless plastic. But this comprises only a small part of the conversation. What about the ways that toys portray men? Recently, while cataloging The Strong’s collection of early-20th century dolls made by the A. Schoenhut Company, it occurred to me that, although we clearly separate “boy toys” from “girl toys,” both groups include male figures. The Schoenhut dolls, for instance, depict boys and girls. However, the dolls, traditionally a girl toy, present a very different image of masculinity than many boy toys.
Among the boy toys, G.I. Joe cuts a lean but muscular figure, comes clad in a sea of camouflage, and participates in only the most rugged and dangerous adventures. The soldier, who made his debut in the 1960s as a boy’s alternative to Barbie, comes well-equipped for all sorts of combat situations. Like Barbie, G.I. Joe has all the accessories he needs—though he comes with hand grenades and assault rifles rather than high heels and hairbrushes. Though his career took a beating when the Vietnam War raised parental concerns about toys that encourage violence, G.I. Joe coped well, turning instead to other masculine pursuits, such as hunting and the martial arts. If Barbie celebrates consumerism and feminine beauty, then G.I. Joe promotes an active and adventurous lifestyle for boys. Other boy toys portray masculinity in the same way. If G.I. Joe conveys the message that men should be aggressive and athletic, the sneering, muscle-bound He-Man action figure pile drives that message into the ground.
Looking at girl toys brings us to Barbie’s companion Ken. The ultimate boyfriend, Ken has G.I. Joe’s lean build but a wardrobe to rival Barbie’s. He doesn’t shy away from the color pink and has, on more than one occasion, appeared in a glistening, iridescent tuxedo—all the better to match his date’s outfit. He loves to dance and has dabbled in figure skating. Ken’s various titles attest to the fact that he is in touch with his feminine side and not afraid to show it: Jewel Secrets Ken, Masquerade Ken, Fashion Jeans Ken, and Dance Magic Ken, to name a few. It only takes a glance at the male Bratz dolls to see they possess the same large, expressive eyes, body type, and keen fashion sense as their female counterparts. Ken and G.I. Joe exist in two very different worlds, with two very different definitions of masculinity. Ken seems to step right out of a romantic comedy, with all the prerequisite charm and sensitivity, while G.I. Joe belongs to the grit and grime of an action flick. But apart from the likelihood that the two men would not find any activities to enjoy together, what does this contrast mean for the children who play with these toys?
The sociological concept of gender socialization offers some insight. According to the theory, gendered toys help children develop their identity as males or females and understand the societal norms attached to their gender. Often, boys will latch on to the rugged version of masculinity they see portrayed in their own toys and reject all things “girly” (think cooties), including Barbie and her beau. Adults tend to perpetuate this aversion by encouraging children to play exclusively with gender appropriate toys. Meanwhile, girls learn the rules of femininity from Barbie. But what do they learn from Ken? It seems to me that he might generate some unrealistic expectations about men and relationships, a set of expectations bolstered by Disney-style fairy tales and romantic comedies. Perhaps Ken’s portrayal of masculinity deepens the divide between genders by creating a distinctly softened, feminine masculinity that boys shun because it contrasts so starkly with the version presented in toys meant for boys. For my part, I hope there will come a day when girls and boys play with the same, gender-neutral toys that won’t urge them to conform to any one standard. But, just as I know better than to wait for a perfectly-coiffed, life-size Ken to salsa dance his way into my life, I’m not going to hold my breath.