It’s easy to think society has “a long way to go” before solving its problems. But we’re just a paradigm shift away from where we tell ourselves we want to be. One simple step towards ending gender-based violence would be encouraging boys to play with dolls.
Now, this sounds too easy — it wouldn’t cost squillions in confusing campaign messaging; it wouldn’t cause endless debates among adults. It would just go to the root of the problem — socialisation.
I’m no expert but I understand that we learn things through role-playing. When a child picks a doll up, personalises it and relates to it, he unpacks how he really feels about the world he lives in. That’s probably therapeutic. He develops the inner emotional language he’ll need for that emotional intelligence thing everyone is getting excited about. Individuals with greater emotional intelligence are less likely to use violence in the face of emotional territories like rejection, pain, frustration and depression.
Little girls’ affinity for relationship is built up all the time. It’s assumed that boys don’t need or won’t want the same kind of exposure — kind of like it’s assumed that boys don’t cry or play with dolls. What if those are self-fulfilling prophecies? What if boys give off that vibe because they know they’re being policed for sissyness? They’re lauded for being aggressive and dominant and then, when they grow up, they’re expected to magically become these emotionally intelligent beings who know how to manage relationships and respect women.
How? When and where do men learn to cope with not being in total control (“real men are always in control”)? Boys are practically forced to bunk every class on how to be human, how to relate, but are expected to magically ace that matric exam when they grow up. Again, how?
Now I hope you’re already hearing the voices. “But they’ll be confused about their gender!”; “This is the gay agenda!”; “It’ll be a social fender-bender!” We need to unpack each of these reactions for the seed of the problem that’s coming home to roost – misogyny.
Why is it that society is generally more forgiving to girls who play sports (something considered masculine), while a minority in society is brutally unforgiving to athletic women? Why is it that society is not as forgiving to boys who play with dolls (considered feminine), while a minority in it is wholly forgiving to such individuals?
So no, we’re not scared of “gender confusion”; we’re anxious about depleting society’s masculinity quotient.
How do we respond when a woman wears men’s clothes? Again, the majority forgives it; some minorities don’t. How do we respond when a man wears a woman’s clothes? The reverse happens — the majority will seek to stamp out traces of femininity in him, while a forgiving minority will let it be. This all shows that we’ve been on the “gender confusion” theme park ride many times. Let’s call this what it is: society generally prefers what it thinks of as masculine, despises what it thinks of as feminine, and wants nice, clear lines saving the former from contamination by the latter while allowing the latter to seep back on the former. So there.
The other potential drawback is that dolls potentially make boys gay. Let’s assume this is the case. Say we put a doll in front of every boy’s parent and said, “If your son plays with this doll, he’s likely to become gay but he’s also likely to be emotionally intelligent.” We would find, in many instances, that the parent would want to decapitate, mutilate and burn that doll rather than risk having it turn his or her son into a “sissy” — and then we act all shocked, horrified, and outraged when those sons grow up to decapitate, mutilate and burn women.
“We are shocked, we are horrified and we are outraged!” many will say. Then let’s ditch our superstitions and let boys play with dolls. Oh, and if you think the imaginary gay agenda is scary, wait until you see society’s very real, very dangerous anti-woman agenda. The jury is still out on the nature-versus-nurture debate on many topics, but I put it to you that abusive men (“trash”, no?) are, to a large extent, being products of their environments.
Until apartheid ended, there was this myth that it could never end. The 1992 referendum appeared the greatest achievement ever at that time — like deep, immense progress. But not oppressing someone takes less effort than oppressing that person. This suggests that the pay-off (for the oppressor) exceeds the energy expended in doing the oppression. Sorry to sound cynical, but “This is progressive” starts to sound like, “We’ve found another way to get the result we wanted.”
It’s tempting to pretend society has some great and unfathomable distance to go before ending the war against women’s bodies. But that’s a damnable lie. It’s zero distance. Not raping someone takes less energy than rape does. Not killing someone takes less effort than leaving that person alive.
There is no great and unfathomable path to travel except the distance between our ears. The question, “What would it take to end femicide?” isn’t an honest one. We know what it would take — socialise boys differently! The real question here is, “Who is gaining what from femicide?”
This article was first published on Daily Maverick.