Sometimes I lie awake at night and think about something one of my high school teachers once asked. I know this sounds ridiculous but I have not been able to forget it and it has been consuming me for over a decade now. It was a rhetorical question, and I never understood or found out the answer. Now I know what you’re going to say next – the purpose of rhetorical questions is to encourage critical thinking, not giving answers. But 15 years of critical thinking in the dark later, I still can’t figure out what it was all supposed to mean, and I feel that in order to move on with my life I need to deal with this question once and for all.
The question was asked by my sociology teacher, who was explaining the underlying gender roles we have in society. It was very interesting. But then, with no particular context, he ended the lesson by saying:
“And I want to leave you with a final thought on how we raise boys and girls differently – we give boys cars to play with, and we give girls dolls to play with – I mean, think about it. Which one is more realistic?
I’ll see you all next week.”
Although I was completely confused, I didn’t dare to say or ask anything because he said it with such confidence, like it was a really obvious, in-your-face kind of comment and only a stupid person would raise their hand and asking seemingly redundant questions.
But Sir, after years of tossing and turning in bed trying to understand your point, I want to put my questions out there.
Firstly, in terms of realism, both cars and dolls would score equally realistic (or unrealistic). Both are an imitation of a real thing, though perhaps in terms of size the ‘doll to real baby’ ratio is certainly more realistic than the ‘toy car to real car’. On the other hand, a toy car can drive around with the help of manual operation while a doll can’t do anything, unless you buy those fancy ones that have a button to cry and poop. But real babies, from what I’ve heard so far, don’t have buttons for that.
So maybe you didn’t mean realistic in the literal sense but perhaps you meant what is more ‘real’ in life, as in ‘responsibility’. One might argue that yes, babies are serious business and you could kill it without proper care, but imagine all the countless babies you could kill if you drove your car irresponsibly in a school zone. So the death toll would certainly be higher in the car scenario which might be why we ask little boys to start practising early on. In fact, you need to go to a special school and get a special licence for a car, whereas even the most unqualified and irresponsible people can make babies; indeed many babies are in fact the direct result of two unqualified and irresponsible people getting together.
Perhaps what you meant was that it was more gender role targeted, like pressuring little girls into mother roles while boys can play with their cars. Even in adult life cars can be used as a hobby or for sports, and we have yet to come up with hobbies or sports that involve racing babies or displaying babies at baby fairs or having baby magazines with reviews about the newest babies on the market.
Did you mean to teach me that dolls are more ‘adult-oriented’ or ‘mature’, that they take the fun out of childhood because while you’re still basically a baby yourself you’re already asked to look after a plastic baby to practise how to keep our species alive, while boys use cars to drive away from commitment? Is that what you meant?
I’m going to simply assume that this is what you meant. So of course we could simply swap, hand a girl a toy car and a boy a doll. And yes, years of playing with toy cars have resulted in girls driving nowadays, they even combined the two and drive their babies around town.
And we also gave dolls to boys, you know.
Usually a portable blow-up version they can put inside their car.
And sadly, sir, they didn’t bring paternal instincts to the fore, nor did they promote a new sense of commitment and responsibility. In fact, it resulted in rather disturbing outcomes.
Which is why we gave them back the toy cars.