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.