Why Boys Don’t Play with Dolls
This essay, first published in the New York Times Magazine in 1995, responds to studies emphasizing the biological causes of sex differences. To Pollitt, these studies are irrelevant: What counts is social conditioning.
A model of Cause and Effect in the service of Argument, “Why Boys Don’t Play with Dolls” also uses brief Narratives, Examples of children’s toys and parents’ attitudes, and Analysis and comparison of children’s and parents’ behaviors.
It’s twenty-eight years since the founding of NOW, and boys still like trucks and girls still like dolls. Increasingly, we are told that the source of these robust preferences must lie outside society—in prenatal hormonal influences, brain chemistry, genes—and that feminism has reached its natural limits. What else could possibly explain the love of preschool girls for party dresses or the desire of toddler boys own more guns than Mark from Michigan?
True, recent studies claim to show small cognitive differences between the sexes: He gets around by orienting himself in space; she does it by remembering landmarks. Time will tell if any deserve the hoopla with which each is invariably greeted, over the protests of the researchers themselves. But even if the results hold up (and the history of such research is not encouraging), we don’t need studies of sex differentiated brain activity in reading, say, to understand why boys and girls still seem so unalike.
The feminist movement has done much for some women, and something for every woman, but it has hardly turned America into a playground free of sex roles. It hasn’t even got women to stop dieting or men to stop interrupting them.
Instead of looking at kids to “prove” that differences in behavior by sex are innate, we can look at the ways we raise kids as an index to how unfinished the feminist revolution really is, and how tentatively it is embraced even by adults who fully expect their daughters to enter previously...