Where are the dolls for boys? If you’ve tried to buy your son or nephew or grandson a doll in the past decade, you may have asked that question yourself. While dolls for boys may seem like a simple concept to some, for others, just hearing “doll” and “boy” in the same sentence evokes a visceral reaction, something along the lines of “only girls play with dolls.”
Thanks to their frustration with the lack of dolls available for their sons, two mamas are taking the matter into their own hands by starting doll lines specifically for boys. Long before American Girl’s first-ever boy doll came on the scene just last month (some might ask why on earth it took so long), Laurel Wider was conceptualizing her Wonder Crew line and Kristen Jarvis Johnson, her Boy Story line. And although their products differ, Wider’s and Johnson’s journeys are remarkably similar—they are stories of battling centuries-old stereotypes to bring nurturing to boys in a toy market that often glorifies aggression and toughness. While the history of dollmaking is a vast, complex one, these women are definitely making their marks and teaching empathy and promoting gender equality along the way. To get a better handle on this important, growing market, we talked to them both, as well as dug into the history of dolls themselves, below.
The Wonder Crew Story: “A few years ago my son actually came home from preschool with this message that boys aren’t supposed to cry,” says Wider, founder and CEO of Wonder Crew, a psychotherapist, and mama of a 6-year-old son. “At first, I was floored, and thought to myself, how did this happen? We brought him up in such a pro-feeling household. Then it dawned on me, that this is a pervasive thing that still exists, unfortunately, for so many boys and men [who are] still being programmed to be tough, to be self-reliant, and to not cry.”
As a therapist who works with boys and men, Wider says this holdback of feelings can lead to relationship problems and a multitude of other issues down the road, including anxiety, depression, and sometimes aggression. Indeed, strong relationships and the ability to connect emotionally are the keys to happiness, health, and even career success, according to the Grant Study, a longitudinal study published in 2012 that followed 268 undergraduate Harvard men for 75 years.
With this knowledge in mind, Wider sought to create an opportunity for boys to nurture and to express kindness and empathy. Not since Hasbro’s 1985 My Buddy doll (who remembers this commercial?) has there been a doll exclusively marketed to boys, says Wider. And since then, a greater divide has formed between “girl toys” and “boy toys.” “In this divide, I think boy toys got more aggressive and very different from the type of play we’re offering our girls,” she says. Although noting there’s value in both types of play, Wider felt there was such an imbalance between toys for girls and those for boys that something like Wonder Crew was needed. “We weren’t offering anything that was directed at boys saying, ‘Hey, it’s okay to have feelings, to empathize, to nurture, to want to care for somebody else.’”
In designing her dolls, she interviewed over 150 parents, kids, educators, toy industry experts, and psychologists, and learned, yes, boys are interested in playing with dolls and doll play teaches a wealth of social and emotional skills. Although her personal philosophy is that toys are not meant to be gender-specific, Wider thought it incredibly important to market Wonder Crew to boys in order to say, “Hey, this is for you.”
Wonder Crew unveiled its first doll, Will, in September 2015 after a successful Kickstarter campaign. Each Wonder Crew doll, or “action friend,” as Wider prefers to call the dolls, comes with matching child-sized accessories for imaginative play. “I like to say action friend, not action figure,” says Wider, “because action figures are typically looked up to by boys. And what are boys really admiring in action figures? For the most part, it’s all that unattainable strength and ability that’s kind of a disappointment when you look at it big picture-wise because you know you can’t be that, and we wouldn’t really want them to be.”
How Boy Story Came To Be: Creating an opportunity to nurture was also a driving force behind Boy Story, a line of 18-inch boy dolls developed by co-founders and sisters Kristen Jarvis Johnson and Katie Jarvis. A former lawyer and mama of two sons, ages 2 and 4, Johnson said she was frustrated by the lack of dolls available for her son: “I had the idea for Boy Story when I was pregnant with my second son, and I wanted to buy a doll for my first son, but it was incredibly frustrating.”
Without boy dolls on the market, asks Johnson, what message are we sending our boys? “I think we’re sending them the message that you’re not a nurturer, that’s the role of the woman,” she says. And this message harms girls, too—girls learn that dolls are part of their world and boys can’t be involved in that world. “That sends a crazy message to a girl,” says Johnson, explaining not only must girls grow up, compete with the boys, get equal pay, and excel in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) skills, but on top of all those responsibilities, they must care for the children since that’s the girl’s role, not the boy’s role.
So, Johnson and her sister set out to challenge these gender stereotypes, to counterbalance the imbalanced market, and to deliberately neutralize stereotypes behind doll play. They used Kickstarter to launch their company in April 2016 and have partnered with the UN Women’s HeForShe initiative. “We really wanted to send a message to kids—to all kids—that boys can play with dolls and that there are boy dolls and that they’re included as part of the market,” says Johnson.
“I think my dolls are important to establish the notion of gender equality firmly in the minds of developing children,” says Johnson, “because even though we all say we want equality, and even though women are out marching for equal pay and all this stuff, that’s not really the message that we, and especially the toy market, seem to be sending our kids.”
A Difficult Stereotype To Break. But challenging any stereotype, especially one as deeply rooted as doll play, is no easy task. Although she’s received a lot of positive feedback, Johnson has also stomached criticism. “I keep hearing the same complaints,” says Johnson, like “I would never let my boy play with a doll.”
Of course, negative feedback will come with challenging any status quo and trying to change a market. Unless the whole world is giving negative feedback to the point at which you’re not having any sales, says Johnson, it probably means you’re pushing the right buttons. “I try to feel like I’m doing the right thing when I get [negative] feedback and also I remind myself that’s not my buyer,” she says. But Johnson, who says her product is really boyish, admits even she was surprised by the strength of the stereotype. “I knew it was strong, but it’s sometimes overpoweringly strong,” she says, adding that some people cannot see past the “doll” label: “It’s funny because there’s such a stereotype that surrounds doll play that some people cannot see past the title or the label of a ‘doll’ and see, hey wait, this is actually a very boyish product you’re giving the child.”
Wider, too, says for many people there’s a stigma attached to playing with dolls, so much so that the word “doll” itself is a barrier. In fact, destigmatizing doll play for boys and getting retailers on board was one of the most difficult aspects of starting Wonder Crew. “There definitely were a lot of people who kind of felt like this is a niche market,” and that dolls for boys will never be mainstream, says Wider.
Why Girls Had Dolls In The First Place: That doll play—for girls—is mainstream today doesn’t mean that all girls play with dolls or even like to play with dolls. Historically, doll play served a practical purpose for American girls, pre-Civil War: to develop sewing skills. “Dolls, of which there were few [in antebellum America], served as training in everything but emotional development and expression,” writes Miriam Forman-Brunell, Ph.D., a professor of history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and co-director of Children and Youth in History, in her book, Made to Play House. “Daughters of the evolving middle class made cloth dolls to develop sewing skills that integrated leisure with instruction in domestic economy.”
Not until the late 19th century did organized doll play develop, where adults encouraged girls “to develop strong emotional bonds with their numerous dolls, to indulge in fantasy, and to display their elaborately dressed imported European dolls at such ritual occasions as tea parties and social calls,” writes Forman-Brunell, noting that many girls actually resisted doll play, preferring instead to play outdoors or go roller-skating.
Girls Were To Be Nurturing, Boys To Be Tough: Doll play reflected and embodied the ideals of the time, and during the Victorian era, distinct character traits were being ascribed to women and men. A woman’s place was in the private, domestic sphere, whereas a man’s place was in the public sphere with other men. Women were expected to be “gentle, nurturing, self-sacrificing, emotional, physically weak (but morally strong), pious, and pure,” but boys “were trained to be assertive and individualistic…unemotional, rational, protective, even tough,” writes Forman-Brunell. Traditional values about women’s roles in the 1920s would lead “American businessmen, who dominated the industry, to market cute and content baby dolls that promoted materialism, femininity, and domesticity,” according to Girlhood in America: An Encyclopedia.
Although American businessmen dominated the industry, some women dollmakers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries sought to reform traditional gender roles and promote doll play among girls and boys. A prominent child psychologist of the time, G. Stanley Hall, even proclaimed, “we are convinced that on the whole, more play with girl dolls by boys would tend to make them more sympathetic with girls as children if not more tender with their wives and with women later.” Martha Chase, for instance, designed character dolls of George Washington, Roger Williams, and other male historical figures for boys. And Rose O’Neill developed the famous Kewpies, originally cartoon characters designated as boys. The “affectionate Kewpies mothered the neglected and adopted the unwanted,” writes Forman-Brunell. That said, when the Kewpies were produced as dolls, they were recast as girls by male dollmakers, whose beliefs about gender differed from O’Neill’s. “In the end, Rose O’Neill’s radical conception of gender would be subsumed when businessmen often recast her androgynous boy as a bashful girl,” writes Forman-Brunell.
Reforming Doll Play: Clearly, so much history surrounds doll play, and the stereotype that dolls are for girls only is long ingrained. But that doesn’t mean the stereotype can’t be broken, and women—whether from the 20th century or the 21st century—are in the forefront of breaking that stereotype.
And retailers are listening. Target and Toys”R”Us now sell Wonder Crew. In fact, Target has placed Wonder Crew in all of its stores. And Boy Story recently debuted its dolls at the 2017 American International Toy Fair in New York. Adding to that is American Girl, whose first boy doll shows market relevance, according to Johnson: “The fact that American Girl, a company catered towards girls that has for many years said it will not make an 18” boy doll, has come around is an impressive sign that the toy market is ready for boy dolls.”
For Wider, that Wonder Crew has become part of the toy aisle means bringing relationships, nurturing, and empathy to boys. “The ability to connect emotionally benefits a person throughout life, and these skills are learned,” says Wider. “Want to decrease bullying? Teach and support kindness. Wonder Crew has been embraced nationwide because cultivating love and kindness just makes sense.”
And promoting empathy and providing nurturing opportunities for boys is key. “I think that we often forget about the boys,” says Wider. “We assume boys have the upper hand. And I just think that it’s such a mistake. I think that now people are realizing it, but that hasn’t always been the case. We need to elevate both boys and girls, just in different ways.”