Are we really still arguing about letting boys play with dolls?

The other day, I overheard a conversation between a teacher and a few students; they were “discussing” another teacher who apparently allowed her four or five year old son to wear dresses and play with dolls. I should be clearer: when I say “discuss,” I mean condemning. They tried to put on a little act and brush it off as just being “weird,” but their words dripped with scorn, and they didn’t try very hard to conceal their revulsion. Then again, neither did I. At them.

The teacher was actually one for whom I have enormous respect, but this was simply not one of his best moments. According to him, our school district only allows staff members to voice one opinion of such behaviors (complete acceptance, I assume), a fact which he thinks is unconstitutional and “un-American.” Needless to say, I disagree entirely. If the school district is forcing teachers and administrators to harbor tolerance for students breaking gender roles and social constructs, then good for them. They managed to do something beneficial for once. Good. I mean there are laws that deny people the right to oppress other people; that’s egalitarianism, and that’s American. Breaking social norms and not letting society dictate your acceptable behavior. That’s American.

As far as I’m concerned, the entire idea of gender roles is absolutely preposterous. All they do is tell people what they can and cannot do. Manly. Ladylike. Disgusting. Repulsive. Heinous. It’s defining the capacity and limiting the abilities and behaviors of an entire population based purely upon a biological predisposition. Sounds unfortunately reminiscent of Jim Crow, no? Yes, obviously the level of oppression is not equivalent, but it the same basis of inequality and utter infatuation with the idea that some physical feature defines capacity.

I especially concern myself with the ridiculous notion of what is “ladylike,” mainly because it is what most directly affects me. The entire concept that women must be prim and proper is ludicrous. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich best said, “Well behaved women seldom make history.” The idea, then, that women must constantly act in a dignified manner is simply another means of keeping women “in their place,” which, I suppose, is barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen making their darling- and apparently badly-behaved husbands a sandwich.

And men? They are forced to be constantly infatuated with their own sense of masculinity lest they lose it in a bout of softness that society deems too effeminate. They face—as women do—a constant barrage of idealized, Photoshopped celebrities from the media telling them what “real men” look like, and what they should aspire to be.

And what if they break it? If someone does something outside what is concerned socially acceptable for their gender, then what? Societal condemnation? Public censure? Our society is hypocritical if it says its members can be whoever they want to be, believe whatever they want, and act in any way they so choose, because it’s a “free country,” and then turns around and tells them they are inferior—that because they choose to blur the dictatorial lines between two groups they deserve the support of neither.

Consider the plights of African-Americans during the Jim Crow era who considered themselves worthy to associate with those outside their race and social class. Isn’t that systematic belittling the same as what that little boy faces because he acts outside the preconceived boundaries of his gender?

So, if the school district has to regulate what teachers let loose in front of their students, so be it. If this is the only way to stop this infection of iniquity and present at least one source of information that doesn’t belittle students for their refusal to abide by societal standards and one front offering solely unwavering acceptance, so be it. Soon, that little boy will succumb to the narrow-mindedness of our society anyway and grow up to perpetuate the idea that our sex defines our capacities. Let him live freely now, at least, and enjoy the bliss of childhood naivete when fear of public censure does not stifle him.

So. while those students scoffed sarcastically s they said, “Good parenting, Ms. ——,” I didn’t. That is good parenting. That’s being more concerned with who your child wants to be than who society thinks you child should be. That’s letting your child be happy, not just saying you hope he is, while preventing him from being so.

[Editor’s note: For younger readers who weren’t around to see it when it was originally created, here is a song from “Free to Be You and Me” that satirizes the boys-playing-with-dolls, gender-roles controversy from the 1970s. The voices are Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas.]