Ben used to carry a purse, a purple, beaded, sparkly thing, with a long strap. He usually kept a little doll inside of it, Daphne from Scooby Doo or Tinkerbell. He loved Daphne so much. I ordered her from Ebay, and she arrived just in time to come with us for a weekend beach trip. I buried Ben in the sand, and I buried Daphne right beside him. They both smiled, sand in their hair, as I took their picture.
We didn’t let him take the purse everywhere. We never explicitly told him he couldn’t; we just redirected him, enticing him with something even more amazing to bring with him instead. I felt bad not letting him take it with him, but I didn’t want him to deal with the stares and awfulness of strangers. We did let him carry it whenever he wanted at our house or at the house of family members. But even family members say things sometimes. Surprising, terrible things.
When he was two, he really wanted a broom for Christmas (I swear.) So, I walked into Toys r’ Us, which I hadn’t visited since childhood, and discovered that there was still a visible divide between “girl toys” and “boy toys.” I knew where to look for the broom. On occasion, we’d let the kids get Happy Meals at McDonald’s. “Girl toy or boy toy?” they would ask at the drive-through (not thru) window. “The Hello Kitty watch,” I would snap, refusing to identify it by gender, hoping my son hadn’t heard what they said. Knowing that he had.
Up until he was about six, Ben regularly played with Barbies, a Strawberry Shortcake, mermaids, a dollhouse (which we still have). His favorite movie was Cinderella. His favorite colors were pink and purple. Still, I persuaded him to not take his Strawberry Shortcake to kindergarten for sharing. Because although I believe passionately that he should not be ashamed of doing so, I also know the cruel reality of a classroom, and I didn’t want to set him up for ridicule.
Ben’s predilection for “girl toys” gradually changed as he became more interested in comic books, Mario Brothers, Legos, and superheroes. Barbie now frequented the Batman lair. Mario slept in the doll house. His favorite color is now green. Eventually, the dolls receded to the bottom of the toy box, seemingly forgotten. When we moved last year, I found a pile of them, and asked Ben if he was ready to give them away to his baby cousin. He thought for a few seconds, and nodded. He was ready.
We kept two Barbies, named Peehead Sr. and Peehead Jr. Ryan tells the boys these insane and hilarious stories based on the dolls and figures they own, and the Peeheads, who are naked and maimed after years of play, are often featured in those stories.
A couple of days ago, Ben was playing with Peehead Jr. and said he would like to buy her some clothes. On the way to Target, he excitedly discussed outfit possibilities and thanked me profusely for taking him. But as we neared the parking lot, his demeanor changed. “I just feel a little embarrassed,” he said. I parked and turned around and looked him in his sweet little face and we talked about how there shouldn’t be a such thing as boy toys and girl toys, that kids can and should be able to play with any kind of toy they want. Ben seemed slightly reassured, but he’s not a dumb kid. He knows the difference between the ideal and reality. “Listen,” I told him. “In our home, you are safe to play with whatever you want to play with.” That seemed to work okay.
After perusing the options, he chose an assortment of rainy day Barbie clothes–the package included a rain coat, rain boots, a coffee mug, and two dresses. “This is perfect,” he said. “Because it’s raining outside.” He wanted to carry it at first, but I noticed as people walked by him, particularly one older boy with a skateboard balancing on his head, he would hide it behind his back. I offered to carry it for him, and he seemed relieved. “Ben,” I said. “If someone says something mean to you about those Barbie clothes, I will punch them.” I did not intend to say this, and I shouldn’t teach him to resolve problems with violence. But I was so angry that he had to feel ashamed of wanting something as innocuous as tiny rain-appropriate attire. He just laughed. I told him I didn’t mean it. But I think I did mean it. If a stranger made fun of my son in the throw pillow aisle at Target, I don’t actually know if I could stop myself from punching that stranger.
After buying it, we stopped at the “cafe” for a snack. The Target Cafe. Because I’m classy like that. He went to find us seats, and I watched him as I waited for our order. He slipped the box out of the bag and studied it, smiling. But when a family walked by outside, on the other side of the window, he threw it onto the table and covered it with his hands. The family didn’t notice. This was very difficult to watch.
Ben asked me what my favorite kind of Barbie was when I was a kid. I told him about this one Barbie I had, Perfume Pretty Barbie, that I received one year for my birthday. I didn’t tell him about how I pretended to be excited when I opened the present, how I maneuvered her arms and legs and wondered what the point was. I was not interested in Barbie, ever. I was interested in Thundercats and Transformers and tetherball and arm wrestling. I had neither an interest nor an inclination to be inside of the house, strapping infuriatingly delicate sandals onto plastic feet. But that, of course, was okay. I had the ability to move between “girl toys” and “boy toys” with fluidity, because the stigma wasn’t as great.
As I got older, however, girls stopped playing and began walking in groups, chattering about boys, and I wanted to play basketball, or softball, or whatever game was going. Eventually, both girls and boys began calling me a “dyke.” I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing, what every other girl was doing. And this apparently meant I wanted to have sex with other girls. There’s nothing wrong with having sex with other girls, of course. But one thing clearly doesn’t lead to the other.
On the way home, Ben spoke of the possibilities for Peehead Jr. “Maybe she can have a friend now that she has clothes…Maybe we can make her a closet…Did you know that her real name is Francisca?” I want to lock all of that sweetness inside some sort of bulletproof structure and protect him inside of it. But I can’t. I know that.
I don’t know whether Ben’s interest in Barbies means he will be gay. I suspect that’s why people punish their boys for even wanting a baby doll or a purse. Do they really believe that playing with a certain type of toy will somehow alter the genetic composition of their children? Why do ignorant bigots get to make my child feel badly just for being an open, loving, amazing person? What I do know is that Ben does not fit neatly inside of the box these people have created. And I never have either. And, to be honest, neither does anyone I know. What I do know is that we should abolish the terms “girl toys” and “boy toys.” These terms serve no purpose, except to limit and harm.