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TASTE / TRENDS

Dolls and Guys

July 21, 1985|BEVIS HILLIER

Is it all right for little boys to play with dolls? Isn't there something slightly, er, sissy in a growing lad being allowed to cuddle a flaxen-haired effigy of a girl, instead of building rafts, fighting, shooting arrows and pulling the wings off flies? In the sentimental rubric "What Is a Boy?" there is nothing about playing with dolls.

The toy makers' answer to these questions has been to produce an ever-tougher range of male dolls for boys. These action men in combat gear brandish automatic weapons, knife each other in the gizzard, plummet from choppers--in fact they do just about everything macho and militaristic short of mounting a mortar assault on the refrigerator or dropping a doll- sized H-bomb on the rumpus room.

The latest manikin on the market is "My Buddy" by Hasbro. An advertisement shows a freckle-faced boy, about 4 or 5, in overalls and with his cap on back-to-front. On his knee, like a ventriloquist's dummy almost as large as himself, sits "My Buddy," an unprepossessing creature who also has overalls and freckles but has managed to get his cap on the right way round. With his big, goggling eyes, he is half winsome, half bruiser.

"Sometimes your little boy needs more than a truck or a book," the Hasbro ad says. "For those times, he'll want 'My Buddy' . . . a little boy's special friend. He's tough enough for rough play yet soft enough to cuddle at bedtime. 'My Buddy' is 23 inches high and comes complete with removable overalls, polo shirt, socks, sneakers and baseball cap. He can also wear infant clothing, size 3-6 months. I bet you know a little boy who would feel pretty special knowing his special friend was wearing his baby clothes." Oh, very very special, no doubt about it. As the poet Wordsworth so justly wrote:

Earth has not anything to show more fair Than My Buddy in my underwear.

But haven't the toy makers got it wrong? Wouldn't it make more sense for small boys to play with girl dolls, to acclimatize them to the female sex? That would be a natural sequel to coeducation. Admittedly, a boy in overalls clutching a doll with golden curls and frilly petticoats might appear incongruous. One cannot imagine a boy reciting the poem that a fairy sings in Charles Kingsley's "The Water Babies":

I once had a sweet little doll, dears, The prettiest doll in the world; Her cheeks were so red and so white, dears, And her hair was so charmingly curled . . . As you may recall, that insufferable doll got lost (and good riddance) but was found "terribly changed, dears," with her paint washed away, her hair curl-less and "her arm trodden off by the cows." Even Kingsley comments on that simpering doggerel: "What a silly song for a fairy to sing!"

The dilemma is comparable to that over an English toy, the golliwog, over which there has been much trouble. A golliwog is a black doll made of soft materials. It has American associations because the artist who first drew golliwogs (or, as she spelled it, golliwoggs ) to illustrate stories was Florence Upton, born in New York in 1873 (though her parents were English and she returned to England). The drawings were based upon a black doll that Upton was given in America when she was 5. From her designs, a doll was marketed. In recent years, golliwogs have been denounced in England as "racist," and Robertson Ltd., a jelly producer, has persistently been criticized for using a golliwog as its trademark. But it is at least arguable that the cuddling of black dolls by white children helps to instill the idea of racial harmony--and vice versa, of course; though, ironically, the complaint on this side of the Atlantic has tended to be that toy manufacturers do not make enough black dolls. (It was in response to such complaints that Mattel introduced a black Barbie doll in the late 1960s.)

But if the golliwog is "outlawed" in England, there is at least one kind of doll that has always been approved for boys: the teddy bear. He was named after the most ostentatiously virile of American Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt; after a hunting exploit in 1902, cartoonist Clifford Berryman showed Roosevelt refusing to shoot a small bear. The teddy is both cuddly and consoling. Sir John Betjeman, the late British Poet Laureate, hung on to his childhood teddy--"Archibald, my safe old bear"--all his life. And Evelyn Waugh pirated Betjeman's teddy for the teddy bear of Lord Sebastian Flyte in "Brideshead Revisited"--though the way Lord Sebastian turned out could hardly be considered an argument for encouraging undergraduates to consort with teddies. (I hear that some enterprising students at Oxford, England, have thought up an original souvenir for tourists: They dress them in academic gowns, hand them a big teddy bear and take their photograph in front of the "dreaming spires.")

There should be some happy mean between the cuddliness of the teddy bear and the armed-to-the-teeth ferocity of the action-man type of doll for boys. Maybe "My Buddy" is just that. And maybe he isn't.

The English writer Saki (H. H. Munro) wrote a short story called "The Toys of Peace." In it, a well-meaning pacifist gives his nephews, instead of tin soldiers and toy guns, a set of "peaceful" toys, including a model of a trash can, a miniature ballot-box and a lead figure of John Stuart Mill. The boys do not quite descend to hurling these namby-pamby objects at each other. But they turn the trash can into a fort, convert a figure of Robert Raikes (the founder of Sunday schools) into Louis XIV and wage bloody battle, with red ink as gore. So, however we may wring our hands at the unfortunate "role models" being presented and the militaristic mores being inculcated by the tough-guy dolls, we probably have to accept that boys will be boys, and that toys will be toys.

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