My three school aged children recently stayed with grandma for the week, and while there, she took them to the dollar store. Going to the dollar store is one of my kids’ favorite rituals (so popular that they practice it with both sets of grandparents); among other things, it is a pilgrimage that feeds their unending appetites for cheap plastic stuff. Although we actively discourage violent play with our children, have never purchased them violent toys, and talk consistently in our house about the danger of weapons, my sons’ favorite dollar store items are almost always plastic guns, grenades, and knives.
So it was little surprise when grandma texted me to tell me how, upon entering the store, my eight year old son had declared that he was interested in “anything that shoots, stabs, or farts.” After I recovered from that proud parenting moment, I began to consider Michael Kimmel’s observation that male violent play is not a matter of genetic destiny. As much as we may love to utter the following words to one another, this is not an inherently “boys will be boys” situation, for, as Kimmel and other gender scholars have amply shown, violent play is a phenomenon caused by specific cultural patterns and power arrangements rather than an inbred trait of boys.
Rather, what Kimmel demonstrates is that rates of male violence — and the popularity of gendered violence more generally — are positively correlated with the degree of traditional gender authoritarianism within a culture. In other words, the popularity of violence and violence-type imagery increases in circumstances where masculinity is seen as something not just starkly separate from femininity, but where men are seen as more authoritative than women. This data is closely akin to Bruce Lincoln’s observation that one telling sign of the volatility of a person or group’s authority is that they resort to physical force. That is, Lincoln notes, because authority is the mental effect of having granted someone power, being pushed to make power physical is, as such, the sign of the erosion of that effect. In physical force we thus find the response to the breaking point, the social seams, wherein arguments on the naturalization of power begin to falter.
If we keep in mind that virtually all people seek out avenues of social status and power, then it’s not difficult to consider the allure of a toy gun to a person without authority (such as a child, and particularly a child whose parents have made that thing relatively taboo). Regardless, it gives me pause to consider how few popular languages for my son’s gendered self-expression are readily recognizeable by others in the way a weapon is; weaponry (not to mention flatulence) is a very efficient way for his gender to become culturally legible.
It may seem on the surface that farting and killing are quite separate things, but if we imagine that the entire dollar store were laid out in a Venn diagram, both acts help to build an identity strategy carved out of rule defiance (for as we know, neither farting nor killing are generally considered socially appropriate). Of course, one might think, what does any of this matter, for it’s all in jest — it’s just child’s play! And yet it is interesting that, in navigating the gendered life of my older daughter, very rarely have the outlets of imaginitive play that have been offered to her in mainstream cultural settings tinkered with rule-breaking in ways that have been culturally commonplace for my sons. While none of my children have been consistently gender conforming, I cannot think of anything that even comes close for my daughter in the melange of “girl stuff” that is baby dolls, makeup (her dollar store go-to), dress up, and the like. In short, the subtle work of play reinforces the freedom/constraint double standard that is so intimately tied up with traditional gender roles.
For those of us intrigued with the dynamics of gender development, toys reveal several interesting things, not the least of which is the fact that children bear the imprint of our society precisely because society cannot survive without turning its most impressionable members into itself. Perhaps it is thus easier to see how even the most mundane and seemingly insigificant cultural practices ever so subtly inculcate and encourage attitudes, behaviors, and dispositions that create the patterns we willingly naturalize, if only because such naturalization hides both our own culpability and our own perceived helplessness.