A mother named Robby wrote to Dr. Phil worried about her 5-year-old son’s love of Barbie dolls and clothing for girls. (There’s some irony in a woman with a man’s name asking about gender-appropriate toys, don’t you think?) Dr. Phil responded via his website that her son’s behavior is “not unusual,” nor is it “a precursor to your son being gay.”
He then recommends that Robby direct her son “in an unconfusing way.” He says, “Don’t buy him Barbie dolls or girl’s clothes. You don’t want to do things that seem to support the confusion at this stage of the game. Take the girl things away, and buy him boy toys.”
Ugh. “Boy toys.” Just the sound of that makes me shiver. The folks at Queerty and The Frisky suggest that Dr. Phil is trying to prevent the boy in question from growing up to be gay by advising his mother to give him “gender-appropriate” toys. The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman thinks Dr. Phil is “delusional if he thinks parents can influence their child’s sexuality one way or the other.” I appreciate the sentiment wholeheartedly, but it looks like Dr. Phil isn’t trying to sway the boy’s eventual sexual orientation either way. In his response, the talk show host says Robby’s son will know if he’s gay “in time.”
Additionally, in another advice column, Dr. Phil responds to a mother concerned that her 22-year-old daughter may be rebelling by leading a “lesbian lifestyle” with the fact that “Homosexuality is not a learned behavior.” He tells her, “A sexual orientation is inherited; you are wired that way” and suggests this mother should support her daughter without judgement. So it seems that Dr. Phil is no homophobe. He does make it clear, however, that blurring gender roles makes him uncomfortable.
It might be interesting to see a sit down conversation between Dr. Phil and Cheryl Kilodavis, mother of the young man we’ve come to know as “Princess Boy.” I wonder what she’d have to say about Dr. Phil’s guns-for-boys and Barbies-for-girls advice. I concur with Wakeman, who writes, “the constructions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ exist, but I think…. the problem, fundamentally, is this idea that ‘girl toys’ and ‘boy toys’ exist.” It’s so disheartening to walk through the toy aisles of any major big-box retailer and see the bevy of pink-for-girls, camo-for-boys displays. (At least those seem to be the trends with toys as I’ve noticed them lately. Occasionally you’ll see pink camouflage on girls items – you know, so your tiny lady and her dolls/sports gear will blend in at a South Florida nightclub.)
And yet, I fall prey to gender-based marketing all the time. My daughter enjoys all manifestations of Princess culture, and many of her clothes are pink and purple. I make it a point to buy her blue and green clothing as well, and to offer her toys that boys might traditionally prefer, like stickerbooks about pirates and Matchbox cars. By giving her an array of choices, she’s free to indulge in girlie stuff – which she does – and “boy toys” as well. I’ve observed that pre-schoolers do like to play with gender-specific toys (even without being prompted to do so), but they’re often just as comfortable with non-traditional play. In my daughter’s class, it’s not uncommon to see boys and girls playing with the toy kitchen (a “girl” toy?) and cars/trucks (boy toys?), though you won’t as often see boys playing with Barbies or girls playing with guns. In fact, my daughter said to me the other day, “I don’t like guns. Guns are for boys.” Rather than go near the gender reference, I simply responded, “Yeah. I don’t like guns, either.” I mean, what girl does? Oh, right.