Guns & Barbies

In a household that was open to just about everything else, Sally and I had one rule expressing our most deeply held values and limiting what could come into the house… no toy (or real) guns and no Barbie dolls, two icons of the patriarchal paradigm. I used to laugh that it would be a great name for a punk band… “Guns & Barbies”. Though we never insisted or even encouraged Eric & Emma to follow this rule in their own lives outside our house, we wanted to model for our kids having an ethical bottom-line that you stick to.

There continues to be a great deal of discussion, research and writing related to whether violent play and a fascination with guns is inherent or learned behavior for boys. I believe the later to be true, despite the abundance of cultural mythology and evidence presented to the contrary. Though a higher level of testosterone is a biological reality of male bodies, I strongly believe that playing with weapons and violent play is socially constructed.

The flip side of this patriarchal male violence thing is the cultural mythology that girls should aspire to be that impossibly beautiful and sexually alluring (without being too overtly sexually aggressive) female trophy that men will fight dragons and each other to possess, exemplified by the buxom and impossibly proportioned and chastely sexual Barbie doll.

My experience as a kid was that I wanted to play at and emulate the compelling characters and stories I saw in real life and particularly in the movies (on the big screen) and maybe to a lesser extent on television (the small screen). The movie screens of my childhood (as still today) were filled with what I call “Guys with Guns” movies, including westerns and war movies, and as I grew up the westerns giving way to secret agents and sci-fi heroes fighting evil aliens. These movies contained many great narratives of triumph over adversity and compelling characters who were either courageous, resourceful, or diabolically effective “bad guys”. All these scenarios and characters were grist for great imagination play in my basement and backyard with army men, Lincoln logs, plastic dinosaurs, toy guns and whatever else I cobbled together to create imaginary worlds where these dramas played out.

I strongly believe that boys in our society have to deal with the fact that so much of the mythology and stories of our culture involve men with guns, or (in earlier times) swords, bow and arrows, etc. That I think, rather than some innate urge, us young male types to want to play with facsimiles of weapons, feel the power of carrying, threatening and using these powerful mythological devices either for good or bad purpose. I find it ironic that modern movies are full of guys with guns, but rarely did I see a man using a gun in real life. (Of course I grew up in a liberal university town where hunting was not a very popular pastime.)

Yeah boys have all that testosterone coursing thru their veins, but that hormonal effect can be expressed just as easily with flamboyance as with violence. When my son Eric and daughter Emma used to get into sibling rivalry conflict with each other, it was Eric who would use words to insult (he was older of course and with age more word-wise) and Emma who would respond by slugging him.

My parents had no such proscription, and let me play with toy weapons and even bought me a few as holiday or birthday presents. I played with my toy soldiers with my brother or alone in my basement and played “army” with my peers and my toy guns in the park next door. My father had fought in Europe in World War II, told me lurid stories about his combat experiences, and I fantasized about being a soldier of some sort myself.

Interestingly, my parents’ ethical “line in the sand” was not over toy weapons but tackle football. My mother absolutely forbade me to play tackle football, even in a neighborhood pickup game. A shy mostly compliant kid, I begrudgingly respected that rule growing up, at least most of the time. The couple times I strayed and played neighborhood pickup games of something more than “touch football”, I recall painful collisions and being essentially run over by my larger, faster and very talented at football friend. I eventually concluded that despite the real affront to my personal sovereignty over my own life, I was probably better off avoiding the sport. I also didn’t really care for that orgy of violent contact that a group of boys can descend into.

So anyway, since a gift of a Barbie doll or related paraphernalia was a gift mainstay among Emma’s female peers and their parents, on our daughter’s birthday party invitations we were brazen enough to put “No Barbies please!”

One interesting gray area that prompted some negotiation was the tiny little weapons that came with some of the theme Lego sets. There were little ray-guns for the space Legos and spears, swords and bow and arrows for the castle and Robin Hood Lego sets. Eric, who was never completely comfortable with the weapons ban, seeing it as an infringement on his personal liberty (wasn’t it his home too?), and was always looking for the right “test case” to challenge the ban. After much discussion, we decided to grant a waiver for the tiny toy armaments, since it somehow seemed silly to proscribe a tiny little piece of plastic maybe only a half inch long in some cases. It became, I guess, the “exception that makes the rule”.

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