December 9, 2012
With the holiday season fast approaching, the war on boys (as well as on Christmas), is heating up, spurred by a recent decision of the Swedish government to encourage “gender equality” in a number of areas, including toys. In response to government pressure and changing Swedish cultural norms, TOP-TOY Group, a licensee of the Toys “R” Us brand, has published a gender-neutral toy catalog for the Christmas season in Sweden. The publication includes images of girls playing with toy guns and pictures of boys playing with toy blow-dryers.
As might be expected, the Americans, who have strong views about all matters Swedish, have taken up arms on the matter. The first major American opinion piece on the subject, You Can Give a Boy a Doll, but You Can’t Make Him Play With It
by Christina Hoff Sommers, appeared on the website of the Atlantic on December 6.
In her article, Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute whose book The War Against Boys caused its own stir some years ago, challenged what would appear on the face of it to be utopian silliness on the part of the Swedes. Sommers argues that innate differences between boys and girls, and hence the things that they like to play with, do exist. “They (boys and girls) are different, and nothing short of radical and sustained behavior modification could significantly change their elemental play preferences. Children, with few exceptions, are powerfully drawn to sex-stereotyped play,” she said. Addressing the troubling issue of how any society could enforce such a mandate, Sommers makes the point that “To succeed, the Swedish parents, teachers and authorities are going to have to police—incessantly—boys’ powerful attraction to large-group rough-and-tumble play and girls’ affinity for intimate theatrical play. “
For the first two days after it appeared the post was featured on the Atlantic‘s front page and more than 2200 readers “recommended” it. It has also been on the Atlantic‘s “Most Popular” list for two days.
The non-Swedish reaction to the Swedes’ move has been harsh and strong, on both sides of the issue. Just google “Swedish toys” for a taste. In the meantime, Sommers’ critique has garnered support from a number of conservative American commentators, including Andrew Sullivan, John Tierney @JohnTierneyNYT, Byron York @byronyork, Eli Lake @EliLake, Mark Perry @Mark_J_Perry and David Frum. Sullivan, while generally supportive of Sommer’s view, had his own unique personal perspective on the matter as a gay man: “..by showing that gender non-conformism is not abhorrent, and even part of the childhood landscape, a little bit of freedom opens up for some children, and a little less stigma. I’m ok with that.
“And the stigma does hurt. I remember my grandmother watching my younger brother run around the house with a toy truck at Christmas, while I was withdrawn and reading. “Well at least you have one normal son,” she told my mother, who was, as I recall, speechless. And a little part of my 8-year-old self-esteem shattered.”
I had a similar experience as a child. One Christmas I asked for a doll. My horrified mother instructed my father to buy me a chemistry set instead. Since even at that early age I had more interest in the arts than the sciences I had no clue what to do with that chemistry set, nor any interest in it. I cannot remember how it came to its demise, but to that it surely came. Undeterred, the next Christmas I asked for a kitchen set. This time my father, oddly enough, overruled my mother and bought me a kitchen set. I could not have been more delighted.
The issues of gender are long-standing and extraordinarily complex. These days they have been made even more so by changing definitions of what it means to be a man, or a woman. The roles of both men and women in heterosexual relationships are changing in ways that blur the lines between “masculine” and “feminine”. At the same time the very definition of marriage is changing rapidly as same sex unions are legalized. Then, there is the ever increasing issue of gay parenting.
What it means to be male or female is now up for grabs. That’s a bit chaotic, but in that chaos we need to listen to both and all sides of the debate about how best to rear our children. In the end we all have their best interests at heart, as well as the best interests of our society.
In the meantime, I say that if the Swedes don’t stop with this sort of silliness they’re going to jeopardize their OECD Better Life rankings . Those show the Swedes are ahead of us Americans in education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction and work/life balance. But all this nonsense. What is wrong with those people?
Dennis Barbour is a Co-Founder and the Executive Vice President at The Boys Initiative. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.