Friday, August 03, 2007

Why do Gay Boys Play with Dolls?

I was at Walgreen's shopping for golden raisins for an experimental pork chop recipe when my morning took a sudden turn.

With a resume to revise, a file cabinet to organize and a student loan to consolidate, this was how I chose to spend the first hour of my day off.

On the left is Graduation Barbie 2007's "before" photo. On the right is her new look after a makeover courtesy of me. It's amazing what can be accomplished with a Sharpie, a ball-point pen and a pair of scissors.

When I was a child, my grandparents feared I'd grow up to be either gay or a (hetero)sexual pervert because my mother condoned my playing with Barbies. When my mother retells this story as a humorous anecdote, she emphasizes the seeming contradiction between these two fears, perhaps as a way of managing her anxieties regarding the former. But I wonder if my grandparents' concerns don't make a fucked-up kind of sense within the logic of our dominant culture. Whether pervert or fag, my doll play would leave me incorrectly gendered, as something other than the ideal male.

When children play with dolls, we often presume that they are engaging in some form of preparatory role-play, the actions taken by their dolls somehow shaping their own actions as adults. Of course if that were really the case, I'd be holding my romantic rivals captive in lockers, or poisoning my competitors for the 1991 Best Actress Oscar -- the sort of behavior engaged in by my own excessively soap-opera influenced Barbies.

Still, there is no question that dolls are discursively powerful. Discursive power functions through the meanings and ideologies attached to particular language and symbols. Dominant discourses constrain, direct and manage our conceptions of what is possible or true, knowable or known, deviant or normal. In the social construction of gender, dolls, like clothing, may represent a particularly seismic cultural fault-line, loaded with multiple meanings and contestations.

Conventional feminist wisdom -- or at least, the most broadly-known, most mainstream feminist wisdom -- sees Barbies as contemptibly patriarchal representations of ideal femininity, a way of teaching girls from a young age what they are expected to become. It is no coincidence that this ideal is White, blond, and engaged in a variety of middle-class-coded activities, and that it is marketed by a transnational corporation.

But what of the young Queer boy, for whom the Barbie doll is a forbidden and subversive pleasure? What about the finely-wrought feminist critiques of the gendering of toys, the important role doll-loving men of all sexual identities play in destabilizing and redefining dominant masculinity?

Is it possible that a symbol that for one community (communities) represents oppression may for another represent liberation?

It is these sort of slight experiential differences that sometimes lead marginalized communities to wrongfully believe that our fates are something other than intertwined. Here, Barbie emerges with yet another personality -- as an agent in the politics of "divide and conquer."

Although I'm not yet ready to reject Barbie's potentially Queer revolutionary potential, I do believe we must be willing to examine the ugly underbelly of certain gay fetishes for fierce femininity. Gay masculinity's relationship with women is fraught. Most of us are far too resistant to acknowledging or deconstructing our own misogyny.

When I was a student at Sarah Lawrence College, a friend of mine used to complain that she hated the way some gay boys treated their female friends like "playthings" instead of people. This was at the height of the Will and Grace-influenced early-2000's fag hag fad, when even I found myself flinging this offensive term about with a shameful casualness and frequency. Of the many problematic characteristics of "Will and Grace," one of the most upsetting was the way Will Truman's HRC-ready dignity was always purchased at the expense of the hapless and dysfunctional Grace.

One popular theory holds that the gay man's obsession with the diva comes from the projection of his own desires onto her body, where wanting men is less illicit. Related to this is the classic "The Red Shoes"-style triangle, in which two men play out their desire for one another through an objectified female proxy.

The same ferocity we prize in women we condemn amongst our own, in page after page of online personals posted by "athletic" and "masculine" men who are "looking for same." The old defense that our desires should be free from critical analysis needs to be called into question when it's used to justify the bashing of fellow fags for fagging faggier.

Of course I don't mean to say that playing with Barbies is always-already linked with gay misogyny or the transformation of real women into doll-like playthings. I'm merely noting that I ought not be entirely uncritical of my own fetish for Barbies, or attempt to pass it off as 100 percent subversive without a more thorough analysis.

In the meantime--

Isn't she hot!?


Emma G said...

I have only just started reading your blog here. The first thought I had was, wow you are still making over Barbies. I remeber long afternoons of beauty salon for Barbie. Second, I am amazed at how well you write. What is your major? you should think about writing. Am I like the millenth person who has said that and your tired of hearing that? if so sorry, but still its good.

Diego said...

Very well written. I am currently doing research on gay boys and dolls for my masters at New York University. This has been very helpful.
Here is my blog:

Valencia said...

Interesting to know.