Why Boys Really Need Boy Dolls
What American Girl missed in their boy toy launch.
Posted Feb 15, 2017
First things first: The new American Girl boy doll, Logan Everett, is cuuuuute. He has a great head of hair and cool clothes and looks like a neighborhood kid you’d hang out with. What’s not to love? My 6-year-old took one gander at Logan and jumped up and down clamoring for him. When you woke up this morning, Logan was on every major news outlet with American Girl backing him all the way.
As a gender studies scholar, I have a vested interest in not just adding to the free market, but adding something just—that doesn’t sell as well, strangely. American Girl won’t have to do a thing to make money on Logan. The less they say about him, the more he’ll sell. They’re normalizing the boy doll on a mass scale. Why complain? Because I can: American Girl is missing the chance to change masculinity, especially for young boys.
I know, I know, why would I expect a multinational conglomerate to feel social obligation? Odd, but I do. American Girl originally set out to change doll culture by providing girls with dolls that taught history with compelling role models in contrast to the image obsession of Barbie (Mattel now owns American Girl). I’ve even had students in gender studies classes argue that American Girl historical dolls are feminist. One student did “close readings” of American Girl Magazine to talk about its girl power equity messages. I think they couldn’t give up their childhood obsession with American Girl and needed to make it right, but I get it.
American Girl, when it first came on the market, felt different from other doll offerings—real girls facing real challenges in history. They were more racially and ethnically diverse with Addy Walker, Josefina Montoya, Kaya’aton’my, and Rebecca Rubin, among others (though they had and have work to do on race). American Girl included accessories for dolls with disabilities like a wheelchair and hearing aid. When you’re a little kid and want a doll to look and be like you, that is no small thing. The price point by contrast—not so small. My own daughter begged for and got Addy Walker, who was born in slavery. We talk openly about racism and slavery in our house; once she got Addy, we had different conversations about race through Addy. Addy’s presence made a difference. So when Logan showed up in my newsfeed today, I wanted more.
The reason American Girl is launching Logan: consumer demand. That’s the easy way out. Isn’t there a better reason? That’s externally driven rather than making a company statement: boys deserve a doll to play with.
American Girl notes about Logan in USA Today, "A boy character has been a top request from our fans for decades,'' says American Girl spokeswoman Stephanie Spanos. “We’re hopeful Logan will appeal to both girls and boys ... For boys, we know Logan can speak directly to them and give them something unique and special to call their own.''
Boys and families don’t have to abide by archaic gender roles that limit. Boys can learn skills of nurturing, empathy, and caretaking through doll play. Boys can play with dolls and not be called sissy, gay, and much worse. Instead, American Girl said nothing. They released a video of Logan playing with other American Girl girl dolls; they tell us that girls will want him, too. I would argue that Logan is actually pitched to girls and not boys at all. In other words, American Girl is playing it safe.
Studies indicate that gender roles get solidified all too early. In “Boys & Toys: Helping Healthy Boys Succeed,” I write about psychologist Judy Chen’s important work. Chen’s studies show that by age 5, boys are already performing their masculinity for external approval. Logan, as an 18-inch American Girl doll, is aimed at kids 6 and above—the recommended minimum age on the toy box says 8 years old. By the age of 8, boys who are playing with dolls have long since passed a normative “socially acceptable” age to do so. Heteronormative and hyper-masculine gender norms would say that boy doll playing should a) not have started in the first place and b) certainly be over by the age of 8. Parents have expressed concern to me on both counts—that their sons want to play with dolls and then want to play with them past a particular age. I talk them down from the ledge.
This is the homophobic stigma boys who play with dolls face. Yes, these are parents worried about gender role conformity, which they see as connected to sexual orientation—there is not necessarily a connection but myths persist. Many parents still think that playing with dolls will make their son gay, as if you can “make” someone gay and as if that were a bad thing. At a minimum, boys playing with dolls are considered a social oddity and discouraged; at the maximum, they are taunted, teased, even abused. A male friend of mine who played with a doll in his childhood said his dad buried the doll in the backyard so he would quit playing with it. The father thought it was—you guessed it—sissy and would make his son gay. Well, his son is gay and gender non-conforming. In spite of his dad’s doll burial, he dug up his doll in the backyard and kept playing. It’s a funny story now, but it was a traumatic story then. Dolls may seem unimportant, but they can play a major role in identity and family formation.
There have been several past attempts to put a male doll on the market. Now I’m talking about dolls beyond character ones like Buddy Lee used to sell Lee jeans. There were a handful of male Cabbage Patch Kids. And some adults remember their “My Buddy” who had great overalls. Only the commercial remains.
The boy doll I adore is one we helped launch at the Center I direct, the Cassandra Voss Center. So, yes I’m biased. His name is Wonder Crew Will, just out now at Target; there are four multiracial boy dolls in this line. The thing Wonder Crew CEO Laurel Wider gets right about Will is the mission of the company: Wider sets out explicitly to show how boys learn social-emotional skills through doll play, skills that make them whole boys who grow up to be whole men. As Wider notes in her Kickstarter video, “Wonder Crew crewmates gives boys the mainstream green light to express kindness, empathy and other characteristics that aren’t usually encouraged by their toys.” Wider continues, “Real strength and fun isn’t about toughness and weapons. It’s about friendship and creativity.”
The buzz phrase “toxic masculinity” has been in the news a lot and for good reason. Encouraging boys to break from hyper-masculine roles and urging them to alter, change, or not adhere to those roles at all is liberating not only for them but everyone around. As Rebecca Cohen states in The Good Men Project, “rigid ideas about what constitutes masculinity also have a significant negative impact on grown men.”
Be bolder, American Girl—tell us what boys gain through playing with a boy doll or any doll. Parents still feel the need to declare, "It’s OK my son plays with dolls.” When that stops being true, then we’ll know we’ve gotten somewhere.