Saturday, February 10, 2007

Child's Play

There’s something about memories. When we tug at one little string we suddenly find we have unwound a whole hidden skein that we didn’t know existed. My last entry, intended as toss-away nostalgia about toys, made me think more deeply about childhood play. Like Dolly Parton, I go wandering through the seasons of my youth once again.

In our society, child’s play is heavily gendered. Indeed, it seems that all of us have key memories about when we “learned” what was imagined proper to our biological sex. Young girls sometimes find their interests in trucks or building sets redirected to dolls or domestic toys. Adults tell boys who take an interest in dolls or cooking equipment that they should refocus their energies on sports or feats of engineering.

In truth, all children, regardless of their future adult-sexualities, usually experiment with different gender performances. Part of coming of age for everybody is trying out the different options available in society to see how they “fit.” Such play is not at all “predictive” of later sexual or gender identities. Perhaps, though, many (not all) who later claim an adult queer identity linger longer in this play.

From a lot of the gay men that I have known, stories about toys and play are often important moments in our autobiographies and how we later understood our adult queer identities. Many (not all) point to a moment when their parents repudiated their desire for a baby doll or a toy mixer as a defining incident in their life.

Because ideas about gender and sexuality are so intertwined in our society, those toy choices perhaps appeared doubly threatening. Or maybe because these parents already suspected their children might have queer desires, they became even more eager to police a strict gender dichotomy. In my own case, I can certainly say that it was true.

Yes, I am going to talk about Mego Wonder Woman again. Hey – You came to a blog where the author has chosen Wonder Woman as his personal avatar. What other topics do you think we are going to discuss? That twelve inches of plastic would be critically formative in my life at age five – and again at age nineteen.

As we know, my father greatly disliked the notion of boys playing with dolls. As a counter, he spent much of his time trying to force sporting activities on me. I hated (and still hate) almost all sports. In his mind, this lack of athletic inclination signaled a dangerous failure to adopt proper masculine traits.

My mother, in contrast, provided a loving refuge. While she didn’t ever contradict my father’s ambitions, she never really enforced his edicts either. In my young mind, the two parents represented polar opposites: safety and danger; compassion and severity; comfort and hurt.

As a result, I simply learned to avoid my father as much as possible – especially when he was drinking. He was always vigilantly watching for some type of effeminacy that he could crush out. Such was childhood.

Thinking about toys got me thinking about a particular night, though, that I hadn’t thought about in a very, very long time. While the story of my father relenting and buying my Mego Wonder Woman doll is now CoG lore, the story didn’t really end there. Sequels, after all, bring in the bigger net profits.

My parents took me along to various dinner parties. It wasn’t that unusual as their friends also had children. Most times, though, my parents’ friends had children who didn’t go to my school or weren’t quite the same age. Being on the shy side, I didn’t always bond and scamper off into a play zone. Besides, even when really young, I wanted to know what happened with the adults.

On this particular evening, we were at a house with people unknown to me. They had two daughters who appeared just a little too intrigued to have a boy in their house. Shortly after our arrival, the children were sent off to play while the adults gathered in the kitchen. I didn’t find the girls' proposed activities interesting (Doctor? Why would I want to pretend to be sick? Boring.), so I headed back to the real action. The house, I remember, had lots of macrame and dimly lit amber light fixtures. It also had an unusually wide hallway where I could settle and look into the kitchen unnoticed by the adults.

Our hostess engaged in some mindless chatter that filled the room. Somehow, the conversation turned to her daughters (I have no idea of their names) “The girls were just adamant about getting a Wonder Woman doll,” she said with a giggle, turning to my mother, “Have you seen those dolls? She looks just like the woman on t.v.” From my peculiar perch, I could see my mother briefly knit her brows and blush just slightly – It was barely recognizable as blushing. She then responded, “Um – No.”

She . . .lied.

It was just a split-second. Nothing profound had occurred to the other people in the kitchen. The hostess continued to babble, totally unaware that she had just been deceived. I lost interest in the rest of the conversation. My little brain puzzled out what I had just witnessed.

I had begged and pleaded for the Wonder Woman doll for months before the Christmas that I got her. Some of the most dramatic tantrums of my life had been orchestrated in order to obtain that doll. Trust me – There were times when I turned our living room into the stage of a Verdi opera as I lamented my sorrow of not having Wonder Woman.

After I got her for Christmas, I played with Wonder Woman all the time. My mother knew the Mego Wonder Woman doll well. Everybody in our house knew about Mego Wonder Woman. Yet, when asked directly about it, my mother lied.

Even at that age, we have an amazing ability to piece things together and analyze their meaning. The only reason that she would say that she didn’t know about the doll, I quickly deduced, was because she was embarrassed to admit that her son had one. My mother was embarrassed by me.

All of the forced sports and chiding by my father could not have been more heartbreaking to me than that single, seemingly inconsequential, moment from my mother. My father, in my mind, was discountable because he was simply mean to me most of the time that he was around. His brutality did little to make his vantage point seem worthwhile. I wanted, though, to please my mother. She didn’t act out of malice. She wasn’t looking to hurt or harass me – She didn’t even know I was privy to the conversation. Yet, she felt ashamed of me and my doll.

I might disappoint the anticipated direction of this tale. This night wasn’t a critical moment when I suddenly stopped playing with Mego Wonder Woman. Don’t conjure an image of a distraught queer youth who went home and burned all his girl-toys in an effort to claim his manhood. I liked Wonder Woman’s fully-rooted eyelashes too much to go for such theatrics.

Still, I think these smaller incidents tell us a lot more about how we come to understand gender and sexuality. I hadn’t thought about that dinner party in a very long time. Yet, it was a small pain hidden in the back of my mind that I did carry around with me.

In a thousand tiny and almost imperceptible ways, the young queer me was told that something just wasn’t quite right. Sure, there were the big and dramatic confrontations over sports. Yet, there are other ways that gender and sexuality is policed. Much of the time, it isn't even in a direct way.

Little boys who "act gay" are seen as needing to be “straightened out.” It is difficult for young queer boys not to see that they are different and to imagine that difference as a horrible secret. My preferences and interests couldn’t be discussed without embarrassment. They needed to be hidden and tucked away in the [toy] closet.

Even today, some people (including some gay men) expect me to be embarrassed about having played with dolls with I was a little boy. During much of my adolescence, I was. Mego Wonder Woman, in particular, was a secret that I intentionally kept from my teenage friends. Now, though, I think both my ownership of the doll and its many responses are informative. In the end, I simply liked playing with Wonder Woman.


tornwordo said...

Don't forget that she was doing the best she could there. As we all do at any given moment.

I was shocked when, after the hell that transpired coming out to mom, many years later she said, "I knew when you were 5, the way you were dancing around in your underwear one day." While I felt a surge of rage at what she had put me through, I also felt pity at the heartbreak she put herself through. And what our homophobic society put us both through.

Rick said...

I can relate oh so well. Interesting blog you got here.

Doug said...

The vividness of the memory speaks to how powerful that experience was.

It doesn't seem like humanity as a species is getting any better at raising children.

Love the label for the post, btw. ;)

Anonymous said...

"She didn’t act out of malice. She wasn’t looking to hurt or harass me – She didn’t even know I was privy to the conversation. Yet, she felt ashamed of me and my doll."

As a mom myself, I think your take on this is a bit harsh. Your mom was trying to shield you from the judgment of the outside world. Her lie was protective of you. Too bad that little boys playing with dolls warrant protection, but it's still reality.

GayProf said...

Torn: Yeah, I feel what you are putting down. I actually didn't intend this post to be an indictment of my mother. Parents, especially then, had many fears about their children turning out gay.

Rick: Hail, Amazon Sister!

Doug: It is funny that I hadn't thought about this memory in a really long time, yet it came back pretty clearly.

Anon: Fair enough. Part of it might have been based on a sense of protection (though was she really friends with somebody who would have mocked a five year old?). Still, even in presuming that a boy playing with dolls needed that protection there is an implicit assumption that the activity was not "normal." At the time, the young me certainly interpreted her response as "embarrassment."

As I mentioned to Torn, I wasn't really meaning to present my mother in a negative light exactly. I also know that it would cause my mother a great deal of grief to find that she had hurt my feelings. She would never have intentionally done so.

Still, I think it suggests how even those with the best intentions still get caught up in societal presumptions about gender and sexuality. Those presumptions, in turn, have an unexpected consequence for children who don't fit expectations.

Chad said...

I'm sorry you had that experience. It's sometimes the most seemingly minor incidents that have the biggest impact on our psyches.

I was fortunate that my choice of toys alligned with society's expectaions (my favorite toys by far were Transformers and nothing says masculinity like giant robots that transform into automobiles or weapons of death) but sports caused me grief. I'm still traumatized enough that I recently yelled at a would-be parent I know who said he'd force his kids into athletic activiies.

Roger Green said...

See, Anon., I don't think GP WAS harsh on his mom. He said what he felt, not that she was trying to make him feel that way, but how it was in his skin.

At some pouint, I shall relate, probably in my own blog, why this resonates so, in a racial context. I'd do it now, but it happened topday, and i need to ruminate a bit first.

BTW, I had a Johnny Seven OMA, One Man Army gun, and I ended up as a pacifist. What that has to do with anything, I don't know.

Maggie said...

That's a very powerful story, GayProf, and beautifully told.

The other day my friend told me that her 4-year-old son (who is, in every other way, "all boy" as the annoying saying goes) has a single favorite activity: putting on a Snow White costume dress and dancing around. She *loves* the fact that he does this, and I love her for loving it.

Tenured Radical said...

Well, I think Gay Prof's Mom could have done better. And this would be the Aunt who drove all over Connecticut looking for Barbie's mini-van when my nephew Extravaganza was four, and his joy at getting it is something I still remember. And his parents didn't flinch. OK, GP's Mom is older. But still.

Part of what I think is awful about someof this gender stuff is the investment in a kid's gender ID at such a young age -- of course, this would be the girl who wore toy six shooters and a cowboy hat everywhere for more than a year and insisted she was a boy. As it turned out, I wasn't a boy -- but I am a very boyish girl.

Great blog, Gay Prof.

Cooper said...

I can relate so much to this post. My grandfather was similar to your father in that he tried very hard to interest me in "masculine" activities like hockey and hunting. I learned very young to hide my prefered activities from him ... baking, helping to do the canning, playing with the cut-out dolls my Nana had secretly bought me which I kept in a box hidden under my bed.

I also saw my grandparents as defined opposites of each other ... Nana represented love and tenderness, happiness and security, whereas my grandfather evoked feelings of shame and fear, anxiety and stress.

You were such a cute kid.

Awesome post.

evilganome said...

While I was a serious toy truck kid, I was in every other sense a real sissy, and like you, loathe organized sports in general. My head was a baseball magnet and my ineptitude used to send my old man into an absolute fury. Your story really spoke to me, and brought up a lot of memories from my own childhood. Great story.

dykewife said...

somtimes the little things are those that hurt the most. sometimes it's an accumulation of large and small things. :(

when boy was a baby and young child he had toys of all sorts (having 3 nieces, yes, he had dolls) and he'd play with everything. however, his favourite toy was our remote control.

A.J. Chavez said...

Your obsession with Wonder Woman reminds me of Michael on "Queer as Folk"!

Rebekah said...

This gender identity thing: always an issue, even if one is not gay.

Dad was a former Marine, very into sports and athletics. My brother? Couldn't ride a bike until he was nine, at five I was in a higher swim class than he (he's three years older), and in high school was into Dungeons and Dragons and photography rather than football and cars.

The hell my father put him through is the reason they haven't spoken in over 15 years.

Me? I was the one begging for scuba lessons, begging to go camping, begging to have a newspaper route.

Nope. Not for girls, he said.

And what torn said is true, they do the best they can with what they have, even though it doesn't make it any easier on the offspring.

GayProf said...

Chad: I never had Transformers (though I hear there is more than meets the eye with those toys).

Still, I think that one of the reasons that I ended up with so much out of the Kenner Star Wars toy line was that those toys did conform much more to society's expectations. It was a wee bit of relief on my parents part perhaps.

ROG: One toy rule that my mother did make was that I was not allowed to have any toy guns of any type. It seemed like an inconsistent rule, though, because my Star Wars toy figures could have guns. Likewise, I could play with a toy rapier a la Zorro. No guns for me, though. I also ended up a pacifist.

I want to learn your recent toy story.

Maggie: I imagine the four-year old makes a pretty, pretty princess.

Cooper: My mother bought me some paper dolls once as well -- Archie and the Gang. I think because there were boy paper dolls, this made it seem okay somehow. It was worked for me, because it involved dressing and undressing men.

And you are right -- I was a cute child.

Evilganome: Hail, Amazon Sister. When playing softball, I always flinched when the ball came towards me. I didn't believe that the name adequately suited the density of the ball in question.

Dykewife: My family didn't have a remote control for our t.v. until I was in high school. I am just sayin'.

A.J. Chávez: I have no knowledge of this character since I never got around to watching the American version of Queer as Folk. I am assuming, though, that this was the best, most interesting character on the show. Otherwise, why else would you compare us?

Rebekah: Yeah, I totally don't think this is just a "queer" issue. One of the things that disturbed me a few years ago was that Toys R Us announced that they were going to "re-gender" their stores. In other words, they were going to make distinct zones for "boy toys" and "girl toys." This rigidness, it seems to me, leaves little comfortable space for anybody to explore themselves.

I also understand about the notion of cutting our parents some slack. In the 1970s, I doubt my mother had ever met an openly gay person (though she would later -- and it would change her ideas about things as well). I didn't mean this post to be an indictment of her. Rather, it was a moment when gender expectations became clearly apparent to me.

Dorian said...

My experience with gendered toys was almost the opposite of yours. My parents didn't mind me playing with baby dolls, as they assumed I was just imitating their behavior with my little sister. And they didn't mind me having girl dolls because they assumed I was curious about women.

My kicking and screaming fits were over He-Man, which they did NOT want me to have. Something about their son wanting to play with half-naked muscle men clued them in.

Andrey said...

I didn't have any "girl toys" and I played sports without difficulty with the other boys (well I did suck at baseball, thank god I live in Canada where it didn't really matter).

However I was into my stuffed animals way past the age of acceptability and my complete lack of interest in the world of professional sports were always strong points of difference between me and my friends (plus I used to skip to school in grade one and apparently that was really uncool).

When I was 8 or 9 though I had this reoccuring fantasy of getting my hands on this My Little Pony Carosel. Before I fell asleep I'd imagine getting it as a gift for my birthday from my Aunt, and of course having to tuck it away when my friends were over. But I thought of how wonderful it would be to take it out and play with it on my own in the basement. What was really strange was I was never into carosels or ponies, and I'm not even sure what I would do with it. My other toys all had weapons.

The excitment of my fantasy revolved entirely around owning the thing and it being my special secret. Eventually the fantasy went away and I went back to dreaming about video games. Someone please psychoanalyze that for me?

P.S. He-Man was so hot. And you can't get any more hypermasculine than that name...

vuboq said...

Maybe you should have referred to the Wonder Woman doll as a Wonder Woman Action Figure, like Big Jim, He-Man, and GI Joe.

Playing with action figures is *so* much more masculine.


Bill S. said...

My moment came when I was in elementary school, a decade before I realized that I was attracted to men. My mom was driving me somewhere, and I said to her, I have no idea why, that I should have been born a girl. As soon as I said that, she slapped me across the face. This was profoundly upsetting for me: I thought I wanted to be a girl because I wanted to be like her. I thought she should be glad: I felt betrayed. My dad, as much as I loved him, was too unpredictable and casually cruel, and, with me not being at all interested in sports, I didn't have anything in common with him. I thought my mom would understand.

I figured out years later that she was already afraid that I might be gay. Which, you know, turned out to be the case. But I didn't say it because I wanted to kiss boys: I just thought women were nicer and more interesting than men. My mom took my coming out much worse than my father. He shrugged it off, saying he always thought I might be, but it was OK. My mom went all Mommy Dearest on me when I told her. Now she calls me up and asks for fashion advice. Turns out I am the daughter she never had.

Getting back to the toy thing: when I was an adult, I went to Toys 'R' Us, and bought a replica of the original Barbie. It was like reclaiming something of my childhood, very liberating. I eventually cut off her pony tail, dressed her up in denim and leather (from an outfit intended for Ken), and suddenly I had myself Lesbian Barbie. Who knew that cutting off Barbie's hair was so much fun?

Steve said...

(OK. If this posts twice, it's Blogger that's fucked up - again.)

Once again, great post, GayProf. I was a Tonka Truck (!) kid, but turned out to be a big, girly homo. Go figure. I told my mom when I was 18 - my dad was told the news when I was in my 20's. They just ignored it. They figured that if they didn't acknowledge it, it couldn't be true. All that changed back in '01 (long story - and I posted about it in December) and they decided they weren't going to ignore it anymore. I'm fortunate in that my entire family is really OK with it... and, they love Chris to death. (So do I.)

Sarah said...

Yet, there are other ways that gender and sexuality is policed. Much of the time, it isn't even in a direct way.

I think this incident illustrates not only how your gender was policed, but also how your mother was influenced by that same web of expectation: She had a son, so why would she know about a doll?

All this talk about gendered play reminds me of one rainy afternoon when I was 10 or so, and my friend and I raided my mom's scrap bin, decked ourselves out in green bits of fabric, and pretended to be Robin Hood in my basement. (In our version, Maid Marian got to have a bow and arrow, too.)

Of course, we were also girly girls down to our toes--it was this same friend that I pooled my Barbies with and we staged the classic soap, "All My Barbies," on the front porch...

GayProf said...

Dorian: That's a version of the toy story that I have not heard. Your parents turned down requests for toys that were explicitly marketed to boys -- Huh. Did you preface your request for He-Man by noting how you wanted to run your fingers along his rippling abs?

Andrey: Someone please psychoanalyze that for me?

You secretly want to be a pretty, pretty princess. Feel better?

I am curious why you targeted your aunt as the gift giver. That's rather specific. I am not sure that I had a preference who gave me Mego Wonder Woman as long as I got one.

VUBOQ: See, I break with the standard conventions on the "action figure" terminology. If you can take the toy's clothes on and off, then it is a doll. If the clothes are part of the molded plastic, it is an "action figure." So, Big Jim is a "doll," but the 3 3/4 inch Star Wars figures were action figures.

Given one of Mego Wonder Woman's selling points was her multiple Diana Prince costumes, I don't think she qualifies as an action figure.

Bill S. Ugh -- I hate that she slapped you (Calling Discipline and Punish). I think that you are right, though, that many parents who "suspect" their children might be queer go to extremes to "prevent" it.

Steve: Yeah, my parents kinda zoned out about it -- until I brought somebody home. Then they lost their crap. As long as it was an abstraction, they didn't have to really deal with it. Eventually, though, they figured out that being queer can be great.

Sarah: Yes, I agree that my mother was both policing and was policed in this incident (She did have two daughters besides me, so she could have come up with a different lie about the doll).

Andrey said...

Whew I do feel better. A pretty, pretty princess it is then. As long as I get a magic wand or something it works for me.

My Aunt was just a plot device in the fantasy, I needed someone to give me the my little pony carosel without requesting it (because I couldn't actively seek out such a toy) and it sure as hell wasn't going to be my parents.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Once again, GayProf, you've touched a chord with your readers. I tried to remember any toy incidents to share, but I don't have any. I don't remember my parents trying to force me toward "appropriate" toys, nor toward "appropriate" behaviour. My mother didn't even flinch when, at age six or seven, I invented the character of Marge the hairdresser, complete with high heels, purse and skirt, and insisted on doing her hair. And yet I turned out a big ol' 'mo. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Toy trauma was a BIG part of my childhood too. I liked boy-boy toys fine, but I also really liked dolls and dressing them up and little furniture. I remember that my father got pissed off at me once when I was 13 b/c I enjoyed the little houses on my train set way more than the trains. This bothered him immensely. Ugly scene. There were lots of them as far back as I could remember. I too recall waiting for him to leave in the AM and wishing he would go away for good--and all because he was so freaked out that I was a fag even when I was 4--and right he was. The shame is that once he knew for sure and didn't have to worry about molding me anymore and could just "like" me without all of the pressure he felt as a father to make-a-man-outta-me, he has been great and the father he ought to have been all along. But I suppose most fathers are like that for one reason or another and it is in some ways as it should be.

For the sake of argument, maybe our parents did us a favor by encouraging us not to play with gender "inappropriate" objects because they knew the hurt it would cause us in the real world. How would we know that we might get our asses kicked if our parents didn't lay the groundwork? But then why did our parents give in and give us girly toys knowing that they themselves would use them against us sooner or later? Well, you are right that this has dredged up some very painful memories.


Larry said...

You know, to this day I wince when someone refers to an "action figure" as a "doll". I can't even let my wrist go limp without quickly straightening it out. All of that formative programming is very hard to override.

wayout said...

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful post. Candid and honest. Did I mention wonderful?

Not to deny how you felt, but I can hypothesize some other plausible explanations for your mother’s response. Perhaps she wasn’t embarrassed by your affinities at all but would be embarrassed by your father’s public objections. Maybe your mother was reluctant to admit that any of her children would fall prey to a pop culture media-contrived sales pitch or that she would willingly be an accomplice to it. Or, as someone noted, a protective mother who didn’t want her child’s business spread all over town, making what she felt would be a difficult road even more so. Just saying.

I imagine that until the nature/nurture debate is settled, some parents are going to feel guilty when their child turns out gay. In their minds, if only they had done or not done something, it may have turned out otherwise. Not necessarily better, but easier for their child.

I have a different perspective as I grew up in a household where sports were not encouraged by either parent. My father always embraced the cerebral over the physical, in career or pastime, and he viewed muscle sports as distasteful, brainless activities. In spite of his efforts and example, my younger brother grew up to be a rabid football fanatic. Oh, well.

A.J. Chavez said...

Well, your shameless self-aggrandizement aside, Michael did have the most depth out of all the queens on that show (but let's face it, the bar was not that high).

He had a very active imagination and owned a comic book shop.

I've never seen the British version, but I've heard it's not as good as the American one.

Andrey said...

"I've never seen the British version, but I've heard it's not as good as the American one."

You've been listening to the wrong people. The British version was a treat. Fun and fresh and enjoyable to watch.

The American one was maudlin and the characters moppy and one-dimensional. The only two likeable characters who weren't complete whiny bores were co-incidently (or perhaps not so co-incidently) played by actors who were actual homosexuals (characters Emmet and Ben played by Peter Paige and Robert Grant respectivley).

Okay, so I just hi-jacked the comment space (sorry I'm not working this week...) I'll just say that GayProf is kind of like Micheal from Queer as Folk if he had actual deapth and was a little more likeable and leave it at that.

GayProf said...

I'll just say that GayProf is kind of like Micheal from Queer as Folk if he had actual depth and was a little more likable and leave it at that.

Aw, man, I will try to be more likable and add some depth. ;)

Andrey said...

Damn syntax error. You know I meant if Michaeal was more likeable and had deapth he'd be equatable to GayProf right?

Novice said...

It's funny that these days we accept (and encourage) little girls to be athletic and assertive, and we're proud of them for being well rounded women. My sister has always been encouraged in her sports. Little boys still don't get equal treatment from society.

My 13 month old son loves his Groovy Girl. He drags her around the house by her legs. My husband's grandmother has voiced her dissaproval of that.

I just tell her I don't let him play with her hats or handbags...because they're choking hazards.

Anonymous said...

The only toy I remember being discouraged from playing with was a anatomically correct boy baby doll of my cousin's (this was by my grandma not a parent). But other than that I had toys for both genders. Barbie for example often hijacked the batmobile and went on spy missions with my brother's GI Joe. I also remember when I was about 7 making a set of tribble plushies. I credit most of this to my dad being a huge nerd and my mom being too exhausted by having 3 children within 3 years of each other to care what we played with as long as we weren't fighting each other. It was never a big issue for me or my sister that we played with "boy toys" but I do remember sometimes when my brother got picked on for doing the reverse. Like one year he had a Disney backpack that was too "girly" and he came home from school crying and demanding that he get a different one. I think that those experiences might have made him change how he presented himself at school, but as he still played spy Barbie with me and my sister at home I'm not sure how big an impact it had on him overall. I still don't know how much of an affect this had on our developments. My brother and sister are both in long term relationships with members of the opposite sex, while I'm too commitment phobic to stick with anyone of either gender.