Gay stuffOpinion

About a boy, and a doll

You’ve all already seen that little boy in the Barbie ad, right? Course you have, it’s been everywhere. But in case you haven’t, here it is:

The ad follows the standardised format for promoting a Barbie doll: booming backing track, children squealing in excitement at the sight of their perfect, plastic princess and, of course, a headache-inducing camera zoom in and out on Barbie’s latest garish fashion mishaps. But this ad doesn’t just feature little girls gazing in awe at their heroine, there’s a young boy in there too. A  real-life formative fashionista, complete with runway-ready hairdo and oh-so-now catchphrase about how “fierce” his Barbie is.

The advert isn’t quite the watershed moment we’ve all been waiting for – the Barbie doll is a limited-edition in association with fashion house Moschino, and the little boy is styled to look like the brand’s creative director Jeremy Scott, so it’s all very tongue in cheek.

But, honestly, what I wouldn’t have given to see a boy in an advert playing with a doll when I was that age.

It may come as zero surprise to learn I was a boy who liked to play with dolls. At playgroup, you couldn’t get me out of the Wendy house, apparently, and on the first day at primary school, I marched straight to the dressing up box at play-time and put on a skirt.

As a child you don’t realise the consequences of your actions or that one day you’ll be embarrassed by what you’ve done – like a really innocent version of being mortifyingly drunk and uninhibited – and nobody has taught you that you have to behave a certain way just because, so you screw it up.

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I’d never had a doll of my own – I had a lot of teddies and cars and books and games – and any time I found them freely available was a revelation. I would usually snatch an hour or two with them at my cousin’s, or with the girl next door.

I still recall how uneasy my predilection for dolls made most of my family. One of my earliest memories is being asked what I wanted for Christmas and being so desperate to say what I’d actually love most of all. Instead I said I didn’t know. “Well, you’ll have to tell us something or Santa won’t know what to bring!” was the answer.

I remember being really worried I wouldn’t get anything, but also nervous I’d be laughed at, so I checked, and double-checked and triple-checked I really could ask for anything I wanted.

“Yes, of course.”

So I did it. I asked for a doll. A First Love doll. And a pram as well, I think. I don’t remember the exact reaction, but it was gently explained to me I couldn’t have one of those, because they were for girls.

“But you said I could ask for anything. You asked what I really, really wanted.” I was heartbroken. So instead I asked for board games. Books. Pens.

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The older I got, the more ridiculously male or super-normal presents from relatives became: toy power drills, Transformers, trucks, bibles, FOOTBALLS. I simply didn’t know what to do with them. My bedroom felt like a stranger’s, like my toys were somebody else’s.

I wasn’t one for giving up, though, and finally a neighbour (who I would play Sindys with every day) took pity on me and gave me an old doll of hers. An ugly one, with matted hair and pen marks on her face (a clumsy attempt at makeup artistry, I assume) but she was mine! The reaction was not great. Genuine bewilderment, I think. There was nobody else in the family like me; this just wasn’t a thing.

Within a day or two, our dog somehow got hold of the doll and chewed it up, ruining it. I couldn’t understand how it had got into the dog’s jaws, and I was sad. I cried, but I understood. I wasn’t supposed to play with dolls. So it became a secret, something I’d do when I went to girls’ houses. Shameful.

Using my two Action Man dolls as a smokescreen, I would play dolls with girls, but I lived in permanent fear of being exposed; the girls I knew were fairweather allies. They may have been glad of the company to play with, but even they couldn’t understand why a boy would like dolls so, if the opportunity came to sell me out and embarrass me, they usually took it. Over and over again.

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For me, playing with dolls wasn’t just about dressing them up – I wanted to act out all the ideas in my head, scripts I’d never be able to polish but knew off by heart. My feverish imagination was desperate to see the stories I wrote in my little notepads come to life.

The risk wasn’t worth it, though, and I knew I’d never win. Eventually, Star Wars allowed me to transfer my love stories to outer space, starring a set of sassy female quadruplets (all different Princess Leia action figures), and then Lego came along and gave me the outlet I needed.

There was nothing ‘wrong’ with a boy playing with Lego, and I could build houses and shops and restaurants and a post office, usually undisturbed. Even then an attempt to masc things up wasn’t far away – I got the police station set two Christmases in a row. I had the last laugh though; I turned them into flats for all my fabulous single-girl Lego figures to live in.

Eventually, boys’ toys started to come my way less often, and I had books and writing and the aforementioned Lego as a distraction from the seemingly endless amazement I wasn’t sporty or into shooting at animals. I had to throw myself into things I still enjoyed but weren’t a ‘tell’, so I could be left alone. As long as I had my nose in a book, nobody could ask me why I wasn’t climbing trees or getting anyone pregnant.

I see now, however, that in a way everyone was saving me from myself. Life wasn’t a picnic as it was, growing up gay – and not even realising – in a fairly unforgiving town in Yorkshire, and I guess had I been allowed to run free, parading around like a princess, things would’ve been tougher still. Fierce was not a thing.

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The campaign against gender-labelling of toys has been a hot topic recently, and there’s been some progress, at least in moving away from the pinkification of girls’ toys and allowing them the freedom to play with what would traditionally called boys’ toys – your trucks, dinosaurs and spaceships and all that.

It’s an important fight, and we need it, but when it comes to the other side of the coin – little boys just dying to pick up a dolly or play house – it’s a harder sell. Not to mention that, in 2015, gender is not just about ‘boys and girls’. Everyone is finding their own way.

Am I gay because I played with dolls, or despite the fact I couldn’t? Would it really have made any difference? With traditionally masculine sports’ stars now beginning to come out, it looks like there’s no failsafe way to stop your little boy being gay. Not even a good old rugby ball can save him. Sorry ’bout it.

If you ask your son or nephew or little brother what he wants for Christmas and he says “a doll”, first ask him what colour hair it should have, because that is important, and then just buy him the bloody doll.

If you’d rather your child grew up sad, confused and ashamed, the doll really is not the problem here.

If they grow up to come out as gay or bi or trans or plain-old “no idea, let’s just see”, it’s not because you bought them a Barbie when they were 5. And even if it is, so what? Be happy for them and congratulate yourself on being such a wonderful influence.

Just buy the fucking doll. She’s fierce.

Image: It’s actually me, aged about 3 or 4. With a ball. Not a doll.

Note: My mum and dad are, and were, great and very accepting and shielded me from a lot of grotesque, homophobic bullshit from moronic third parties.

More like this:
The first crush is the deepest
My gay voice
How to reject an apology
Gay’s the word

24 Comments

  1. Holy fuck! A direct hit.

    ‘I felt he found my letters and read each one out loud.
    I prayed that he would finish, but he just kept right on…’

    Thank you for sharing

  2. just ordering a ever after doll (they are fabulous) for my 9 year old nephew ..all he is getting this birthday is dolls from everyone.
    Also he spent Saturday with my dad making a cardboard treehouse home for the dolls decorated in silver!
    I love him !
    Great article.

  3. I always love your writing, but this one hit home particularly hard. We’re only a year apart in age, and as we’ve already established, our formative years in Yorkshire left a lasting impression on both of us. Like you, I yearned to play with dolls, and the observation that it was about having a full set of male and female characters who could interact with one another, was particularly insightful. Star Wars and Lego were my release too, although I was lucky in that I had reasonable access to Sindy and Barbie via my sister. Of course, I still had to disguise my fascination with Barbie’s hot pink roadster (so much cooler than my clunky Action Man Jeep) and the external lift on the side of her dream house. It was much easier to make believe when mixing Barbie with my Action Men – an eight year old has a limited imagination when it comes to creating scenarios for a couple of ripped soldiers in their underwear. The fact that Barbie’s limbs were detachable also made for some gruesome car accident scenarios – something that concerned my parents far more than my willingness to play with my sister’s toys.

  4. I can relate to a lot of this! My childhood was spent reading books and growing up in Yorkshire too, but in the late ’80s/throughout the ’90s.

    My parents were mostly quite good about this. They never forced me to like anything I didn’t or to not like anything I did, they accepted that I liked playing with dolls and that I wasn’t interested in sport, but they did often mention it was unusual. I had a Rainbow Brite doll. I had a doll that given to me by I think one of those “friend of my family” ‘aunties’. The doll’s head fell off quickly, but I still kept it, usually casting her in a “ghost with head under her arm” role in the scripts I was acting out.

    I had some “boyish” toys too, robots, dinosaurs and so on. Me and brothers all went through a big Thomas the Tank Engine phase. My brothers and my sister had fairly typical tastes. My brothers liked football and cars, and my sister liked ballerina and princess dolls. I played with some of her toys, but then we all kind of shared (or maybe “borrowed” is a more accurate word) each other’s toys anyway.

    School was different though. I never dared play with dolls or even mention it there. I lied about what my favourite toys were. There was another boy who had a Ken doll, and he used to hang around with the girls who bought their Barbies to school. He turned out to be gay too.

    If there’s memory I have more than any other on this, it’s when I was at a girl’s birthday party and I “won” pass the parcel. It turned out to be a Sylvanian family badger in a dress. A boy laughed “Ha ha, he’s got a girl’s toy!”, a girl said “No, they’re for boys and girls!”. I think I said I didn’t mind it, but the dad of the girl who’s party it was took it off me and said “He’s getting something else”. I got a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles book instead. I was fine with what I got, but a little disappointed. I did want that toy, but couldn’t admit it. In that brief moment I had been planning to say “Well I didn’t choose it myself, I got it in pass the parcel, it would be rude to say I didn’t want it” if anyone ever asked why I had that toy.

  5. What a very lovely account. I see a lot of people relating. In my Latin Christian family everyone knew I was different and so I got playmobile sets and legs, as well as books. Don’t think anyone was particularly pleased but they did let me read this whole series about girls boarding school because it was at least Enid Blyton and I had read already the whole pack of the Famous Five.

    When I expressed the wish of having a doll, I got an action man. And then I think a He-Man. Those two boys did some naughty things so perhaps wasn’t for the best but did the trick for me and I moved on. In one of my moments of drama, I became Eva Peron and distributed all my toys to the poorer kids in the neighbourhood by throwing them out the window of our 4th floor apartment. Including those big boys.

    A few years back, in my late 30s, I bought myself a barbie. When I was moving, I felt compelled to lie to the movers and say it was a present for my niece. I guess I still need some growing up to do!

  6. Proud to say my elder son (now 22) had a baby doll (in a blue babygro from ELC) and buggy as a toddler, and his younger brother (20) had at least one Barbie as a birthday or Christmas pressie. Neither of them gay but both of them adorable.

  7. This could have turned into one of those glycerine-tears post but your acute unsentimental observations of life and people made it pack quite a punch. Yet, you made me feel for that small boy growing up in Yorkshire in the 1980s.
    In India, little girls before globalisation and Barbie, got guddas and gudiyas, meaning male and female dolls, for whom lavish wedding parties were organised. Through dolls’ weddings, little girls were taught to love weddings. I don’t remember any boy playing with the guddas even. Then, Barbie came to India and little girls forgot about weddings! Suddenly it was all about having a size-zero figure and being a beauty queen. Patriarchal commodification got glammed-up. Untouched by the western backlash, Barbie is still aspirational for most middle-class urban Indian little girls. It would be interesting to know how little Indian boys, straight and gay, think of Barbie.

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