In Defense of Genderless Toys

Around the time I discovered Barbie

Visiting home recently for a graduation, I was asked to swing through McDonald’s and pick up Happy Meals for two of the kids who didn’t want the catering. Not having been to a McDonald’s since about the time you could hear Alanis Morissette in constant radio rotation, I thought ordering a Happy Meal would be simple. I mean, what could possibly have changed? I found that there were some welcome additions: the choice of apple slices over fries. (Thanks, Michelle Obama!) But there was still one really antiquated holdover: the forced decision of girl toy or boy toy. When I asked about the difference, I was told that girls like Strawberry Shortcake and boys like Star Wars. In that instant, I was suddenly transported back to my Northern California grade school and the task of constantly having to explain why my Trapper Keeper had a Lisa Frank pony on it and not an Oakland A’s logo. Even more insistently though, I kept hearing my liberal mother’s voice echoing from the other room explaining to my father, “There are no such things as girl toys or boy toys, only toys that make you happy,” a sentence she would constantly defend throughout my childhood.

Let me just say upfront that I was never the most rough and tumble child. I was a fair willowy boy with straight sandy colored hair in his face and a penchant for creative distraction. One particular incident that my parents still bring up with an annoying regularity involves being benched from a T-Ball game after failing to catch the ball because I saw a cloud that looked like an elephant. Not that my parents went out of their way to toughen me up. Throughout my childhood, my wardrobe consisted entirely of alligator shirt polos and contrasting colored shorts, so that I constantly looked as if I was summering in Nantucket… not that 7-year-old me could have located or spelled that location. When the other boys would play dodge ball at recess, I would often bow out and sit on the steps of my conservative Catholic school reading The Babysitters Club book series and dreaming of a world in which boys became babysitters and had sleepovers. My kingdom for a pillow fight!

Happily, I was born at a time when the sexual ambiguousness of the 1980s had confused parents enough about the gender roles for their children to just feign ignorance if it got too complicated. When Boy George is on your radio and Pee Wee Herman is on your television, how do you dictate to your son what a man is supposed to be?

My first girl toy was innocent enough. It was one of those dolls that change characters depending on which side is up. Turn it one way and it was Little Red Ridding Hood. Turn her upside down, the skirt fell revealing the Big Bad Wolf dressed as Gramama. She entertained me for a time but it was difficult for the characters to interact. Then while shopping in our local Long’s Drugs one day, I discovered Barbie and suddenly everything changed. I had to have her. I had to live in her world.

My attempt to bring Barbie home with us was not subtle. I grabbed as many as my little arms could carry and dumped them all into our cart. When my mother asked me what was going on, I simply informed her that she could take them out of my allowance – a reasonable proposition in my opinion – but my mother had another idea. I could pick out one Barbie and one extra outfit as long as I let her explain it to my father first. Looking over the rows of different Barbies, I had no idea which one to chose. There was one in a white ballgown that temporarily caught my eye, but she seemed too formal. Next, I briefly considered one of the international Barbies, but who really wants their first Barbie dressed like a milkmaid? Eventually I decided on the Barbie from the Barbie and the Rockers collection. She was like a miniature MTV vixen. She even shook her pink tasseled wrist cuff if you pressed the right button! Mostly, I liked the idea that I could use this Barbie as leverage to gain the entire band. I mean how could my mom deny Barbie and myself access to some music-loving friends in neon outfits?

Eventually, Barbie started to overtake my room, so a second compromise was struck: I could only own as much Barbie paraphernalia as could fill a ten-gallon plastic crate. That might sound like a fair trade but you have to remember just how much stuff that bitch had. The Barbie Beauty Salon alone took up a good eighth of that space. So to make the most of my Barbie-going experience, I used to have Barbie play dates with my godmother’s daughter Katie. Our crates combined, we could enact very dramatic scenarios involving multiple costume changes and music cues played on the cream colored stereo in her bedroom. One of my favorite scenarios involved the divorce of Barbie and Ken after Ken’s affair with black Barbie. At the end of the scenario, Barbie changed into her pink and white businesswoman suit – with matching wide-brimmed hat natch – and packed up her tiny pink suitcase before saying goodbye to the Dream House. We then played Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ as Barbie drove away in her Corvette. Much to Barbie’s credit, she stayed strong and did not look at Ken once in the rearview mirror. This was all very unironic to us at the time, although looking back now the racial undertones do seem a particularly poetic Sirkian touch.

I recently had a brief stretch as a writer on the very short-lived CW drama The Beautiful Life and while on script, I couldn’t help thinking about my halcyon Barbie days with Katie in her split-level suburban home. Weren’t Mischa Barton and Elle McPherson literally just giant Barbie dolls? And weren’t the things I loved most about that writing gig the fact that I could dress them up in very pretty clothes and make them enact ridiculously obvious scenarios in an imaginary world of conspicuous consumption? In a way, playing with girl toys was the best training a boy could have had for that job, or any writing job really, because every weekend Katie and I would create an entire story using only the set pieces and costumes we owned and our imaginations. Isn’t that really the purpose of toys? To spark the imagination and foster creativity?… Now, I get paid to do the same thing on a daily basis and even have a Guild making sure I get snack time!

So when the McDonald’s attendant very pointedly asked a second time, “Girl toy or boy toy?” I defiantly responded the way my mother had proudly taught me, “There are no such things as girl toys or boy toys only what makes you happy,” quickly adding, “And isn’t this a Happy Meal?” There was silence at the end from the speaker and I think I expected applause or at least a triumphant nod when I arrived at the window to pay, but instead I overheard a conversation between the girl and her very tired sounding supervisor. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “He won’t tell me which toy he wants.” Her supervisor just sighed and said, “There’s a line. Just give him both.”

Driving away from that McDonald’s, I cued up ‘Fast Car’ on my iPod and savored my small triumph for equality. Next time, perhaps that McDonald’s worker would pause and think for a second before asking, “Girl toy or boy toy?” Every change starts somewhere, right?… And since I now had extra toys, I could totally keep one of those Strawberry Shortcake ones. I mean they are scented, after all!

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