Why “Girls Love Dolls, Boys Love Cars” Arguments Are (Even) More Harmful Than You Think

Ah, Fox News – that bastion of anti-Obama criticism, hawkish war coverage, and…  lesbian wedding photos?

Yep.  In an article posted last week about how violation of men’s and women’s “natural” roles is tearing apart marriage, Fox News used a random wedding photo.  The problem?  Upon closer inspection, as SheWire pointed out, the photo actually featured these lovely hotties — a lesbian couple from Alaska.  (Predictably, Fox yanked the photo.)

This delightful mishap brought the less-than-delightful article to the attention of the lesbian community.  But the article itself is actually worth looking at and thinking about.  It encapsulates a whole bevy of misunderstandings about how gender works, what the goals of the feminist movement are, and how to interpret statistical evidence.

venker photo

The article in question was penned by Suzanne Venker, author of How to Choose a Husband: And Make Peace With Marriage.  The column’s central claim is that the feminist movement is responsible for the supposed “decline” of heterosexual marriage.  Because women have been “told” that they are equal to men, they pursue goals ultimately incompatible with their greater desire to have a family.  As Venker says in the video interview posted above that column, “Women have become overdeveloped in their masculine side…  because they have been groomed for a life in the marketplace, rather than a life at home.”

At their core, she writes, men and women are different. People with children “know [that] little girls love their dolls and boys just want to kick that ball.” Men and women are different creations, and as a matter of God-given biological determinism, they want different things. Venker then cites continuing gender inequality as proof that men and women are different: “Men and women may be capable of doing many of the same things, but that doesn’t mean they want to. That we don’t have more female CEOs or stay-at-home dads proves this in spades.”

So, let me get this straight: Gender inequality is proof of inborn gender differences? What a useful concept. Now we know why there are so few obese movie stars: obese people don’t want to be movie stars. And why there are so few out gay politicians: Gay people don’t want to be politicians. And why, proportionally, there are so few black partners at big law firms — black people have little desire to be partners at big law firms.

See how easy life can be if you just ignore social processes and assume that all human outcomes are solely a product of personal choice?

Venker posits that the whole notion of “equality” is problematic. She writes that “the problem with equality is that it implies two things are interchangeable – meaning one thing can be substituted for the other with no ramifications. That is what feminists would have us believe, and anyone who contradicts this dogma is branded sexist.”

I don’t know where she got this notion of equality, but it’s not one I’ve ever heard.  I’ve always thought equality meant two people had the same amount of value, the same opportunities, the same status, the same rights. I didn’t know it meant we could just swap one person, willy nilly, for another. I thought it meant that I, a youngish white lesbian, and Thomas Sowell, a straight black 80-something conservative, each got one vote, the same right to counsel, and the same chance to protest a government decision, in a public location. Under Venker’s logic, equality actually means that you could swap Sowell in virtually any circumstance “with no ramifications.” To this nonsense, I doubt either Sowell or I would agree — and I don’t think it would make us racist, sexist, or any other “-ist” (any more than I’d be bucking feminist notions of equality by giving my seat to an elderly woman on a bus).

Venker’s argument would make more sense if we lived in a world where men and women weren’t socialized differently — a place where little boys and little girls were treated the same, where parents-to-be weren’t gifted with different sets of toys based on the sex of their child, where there were equal numbers of male and female role models in every profession, where women’s “formal” clothing didn’t constitute teetering heels and displays of breasts and skin and where there wasn’t one collection of traits associated with masculinity and another, entirely different one associated with femininity. We do not live in that world. And because we do not, we are foolish to assume that anything we do is just a product of biology.

Of course we are influenced by our genes. (Heck, all the socialization in the world didn’t stop me from being a dyke.) But our genes merely set the stage.  We grow into a version of our selves based on how we are socialized. A little boy jumps around and he’s told, “You’ll make a great basketball player!” A little girl jumps around and she’s told, “You’ll make a great dancer!” From day one, we are mired in social experiences — and many of these social experiences are heavily, heavily gendered. It is not as simple as parents forcing little girls to wear dresses or making little boys play baseball. Each of us is born with a hundred different possible, valid versions of our “selves” inside, and the collection of possible selves is different for each person.  But which version we actually grow into is a complicated dance between predisposition and socialization (and I’d wager that socialization is doing a lot of the leading).

On one level, arguments like Venker’s are easily dismissed because they seem so patently sexist — it’s easy to chuckle at someone who thinks society is going to hell in a handbasket because we’re ignoring biological destiny. It’s also easy to roll our eyes at the (arguably, and perhaps even thoroughly absurd) notion that women are being “groomed for the marketplace” and have overdeveloped “masculine sides.”

But I think it’s more invidious than that. By misstating and oversimplifying the arguments of feminist and gender theorists, and by downplaying or ignoring the vastly different ways in which men and women are socialized, Venker becomes an apologist for material inequality. Why, after all, should we work harder to equalize opportunity if existing disparities prove intrinsic differences? If equal rights on paper make opportunities equal, then anyone who squawks and protests about inequality and a need to improve the world is just engaging in a silly, anachronistic waste of time.


 

This essay was originally posted at Butch Wonders and has been republished on Autostraddle with permission.

Butch has written 2 articles for us.

37 Comments

  1. She’d done obviously no research in that article as she’d gotten all upset about women no longer being rescued on sinking ships any longer (referencing the Costa Concordia which sank last year) and how no one gave a shit about saving women first, but last April Uppsala university came out with a very nice study about how no one ever gave a fuck about women on ships except for the Titanic which is apparently an anomaly in that fucks were given and woman and children were saved. The patriarchy really has fucks for men yo. You know like IFC;s box of no fucks to give like presents that help you.

  2. This whole article could be translated to “I DON’T KNOW HOW TO FORM MY OWN IDENTITY IF SOCIETY DOESN’T TELL MEEEEEEEEEEEE. ALL MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCES ARE RELEVANT TO EVERY PERSON ON THE PLANET”

  3. I physically felt a little nauseous after reading “overdeveloped in their masculine side”, even before getting knocked on the side of the head by the latter half of that quote. I feel like I naturally developed an EngGirl personality, which had nothing to do with a desire to be either masculine nor feminine. I do science for a living and work on my hobby car for the same reason that I love baking cupcakes and wearing lipstick – BECAUSE I AM ME not because I am any one (of the many) genders. (By the way Venk-turd, my favourite toy growing up was a model car which I had to steal from my brother because my mom would only give me dolls.

    Sorry… I know I’m preaching to the choir, but I just had to rant that out.

    Great coverage of the issue btw – loved this article.

  4. the “man” in the photo looks better in a tux than I ever could. good show lad. I wish there was a way to have the close minded people of the world understand outside of their comfort zone for just a little while. just so they could see through the eyes of those they are putting down sort-to-speak. there is a video on YouTube I saw dealing with a highschool that both official AND students were trying to push for separate proms. one for straights and one for gays. I boggled my mind how we could advance so much as a society and ten just as quickly go backwards to the “separate but equal” state of mind.

    • People that feel they are largely unaffected by these things (gender roles, etc) because /they/ seem to be living quite comfortably most certainly will not feel obligated to use their time or resources to help us- who are suffering- live in a better, brighter world. In fact, they will become annoyed and threatened that we’re trying to stir things up and lower their relative position by raising ours up. And that causes people like Venker to make anti-progressive counter-productive attempts to hold onto the past. It’s the story of every fight for equality.

    • I actually asked my mom for a Barbie as a kid because it seemed like everyone else had one, and she obligingly took me to the store so I could pick one out. I brought it home, took off all the packaging, stared at it blankly for a bit and then set it somewhere in my room and promptly forgot about it. I never saw it again that I can recall – I guess either I gave it away or managed to vaporize it through sheer apathy.

      Though once I did actually play with the neighbor girl’s Barbies, if by “play” you mean we faux-mummified one by sprinkling it with salt and Febreze (the directions said to use “scented oil” but we didn’t have any), wrapping it in toilet paper and masking tape, and burying it in a heavily decorated shoebox among the junk under her bed. Good times.

    • I was very lucky enough to have parents that encouraged me to be independent and free-thinking, and as far back as I can remember I always chose hotwheels cars over barbies. Neither of parents had a problem with it, and my dad actually used to say “when people ask if you like barbies tell them you like to tie them behind your bike and drag them around” lol.

      Every once in a blue moon when I was given a barbie, I did just that.

  5. I had a Steven doll (I think thats what they named him right? Cuz African-American Ken sounds damn long) when I was a kid..and I remember gnawing on him constantly. Looking back at that…I will have to admit how strange that was. At the same time, I later got into Anime and S Club 7 and unabashedly collected all the seven dolls and DBZ figurines…then while I was 12-13, I had a mild arrested development phase where I had my favorite box of action figures and made up stories with them while watching Toy Castle on treehouse. (Canadian’s kid’s show featuring the beautiful Edmonton (I believe) ballet)

    Daredevil was always the Strongman.

    But yeah. That was my piece.

  6. When the mishap with the photo became news I actually went to the article to see if Fox had already taken it down (they hadn’t which was a surprise in its self) and while I was there I decided to read the article.

    I think I got a quarter of the way through it before I decided I didn’t want to kill off anymore brain cells.

    Just…. arrrghhh. One of those things you read that make you want to smash your face against the keyboard.

  7. This is wonderful and I love it.
    It’s exactly the things I was feeling while reading the original article I just couldn’t articulate them as beautifully. Especially since the anger just kept growing and growing.

  8. When I was a little kid more than anything I wanted Lego, some matchbox cars and a BMX bike. My father refused all of these things because ‘that’s for boys’. Ass. I kept being given Barbies, until on fateful when my brother and I tried to melt them all on the BBQ, ruining the BBQ, and giving us both really bad headaches for the next few days from the fumes. After they stuck to giving me books, but I didn’t get Lego of my own until I could buy it myself.

    The other day, a guy at my work who always seemed to me like he might be a tad intolerant was showing me a picture of his kids, one of whom was wearing fairy wings and holding a wand with a glitter star, and twirling. Pointing at the picture, full of pride he said “…and this one’s our dancing boy. We’re starting him in proper classes this year.” A bit off topic, but I thought it was nice to hear.

  9. The whole “little girls love there dolls and little boys just want to kick a ball” comment was just hilarious to me. Me and my two younger brothers were all born in the period between 94 to 96 (my poor mother). When we were all little we would trade Christmas presents with one another. I had gotten a huge box filled with dress up clothe which I had traded with the elder of my two siblings for his football and a G.I Joe. Later I had given some books for the rest of these action figures. My mom has a picture of all three of us him in a Cinderella dress I was helping him with his make up and my other brother was watching t.v looking completely uninterested. Now were older and me and the youngest of our trio have come out the closet and she loves bringing up stories like these. She says she thought my brother who I would trade baby dolls and dresses with would be gay and he is the only straight one. It just proves that gender roles and stereotypes have nothing to do with raising children. I’m just happy my mother saw that and while maybe she had her own theories of how we would be when we were older she let us indulge in our own interests. The next Christmas I had gotten my own pair of shoulder pads and my brother got his own baby-doll and my other brother got an easy bake oven. Exactly what we had asked for.

  10. but what I want to know is why she is pursuing a career as an author and journalist when she should be at home being a wife and a mother? I mean, that’s just hypocritical.

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