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.
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.
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.
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.
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.