Boys don’t play with dolls

When I was a little girl growing up in India, there were no Barbies. My prized possession was a sturdy doll whom I loved deeply, not just because she wore a pink dress and had pretty eyes with long lashes but also because that doll was the only toy I didn’t have to share with my brothers. 


Because boys didn’t play with dolls. 

Perhaps that’s why she remained pristine for many years, hidden away in a locked cupboard, only to be taken out on special days when I could play with her without interruption. Although I had no knowledge of money or my family’s financial status,I knew that my doll was special because she was expensive. All she did was close her eyes when I laid her down but I didn’t expect her to do much more than that. After all, she was just a doll – not my alter ego, not a role model, and certainly not a live person.

Barbie dolls make me uneasy

By the time my daughter was born in the USA, Barbie dolls were everywhere. Yet, for some reason, I didn’t buy any for my child. She didn’t particularly care for the sharp contours of the doll and preferred cuddly beanie babies instead. A cousin, who felt compelled to buy ‘girly’ things that she couldn’t buy for her son, gifted my daughter a Barbie on her birthday.

Barbie dolls made me uneasy. Was it her foreign coloring or her impossible dimensions? Something didn’t sit right with me as a Gen X woman who lived in the real world. 

When I moved from India to the US as a young bride, I hoped to inhabit a world in which patriarchy had been vanquished. I expected to encounter brave women who looked and behaved differently from the women I had known in India, the ones who deliberately walked a step behind the men regardless of their education, career, or status.

In America, women were doctors, astronauts, and scientists. But to my great disappointment, I found that these women were also expected to fix dinners, do laundry, drive their kids to school and bear more than their fair share of household responsibilities.  

In the workplace, I noticed that women colleagues were more stressed than their male counterparts, thanks in part to their unending responsibilities and incessant multitasking. Women bosses were not as cool as they pretended to be. They fretted over their outfits, body language, and decisions, not wanting to come across as pushy or harsh, or mushy. 

A Utopia where women rule

Fast forward to 2023 – My daughters recommended the Barbie movie. 

“Go watch it with a girlfriend,” they advised. 

And so I did. 

I loved it.

A big shift occurs when you witness a plausible world that is turned upside down. Imagine a pink Utopia, Barbieland, where women rule. In this enabling environment, women make decisions and run their world which, not surprisingly, works quite well. If the Kens seem a bit put off, well it’s their problem. How refreshing! 

The brilliant monologue by America Ferrera towards the end of the movie perfectly echoed my thoughts. It shed light on that uneasy feeling that had accompanied me all my life and had made me uncomfortable when trying to operate with agency in a skewed world finally had a name.

Cognitive dissonance!

When women tell their stories

Yet when I left the movie theater filled with girls and women dressed in pink I wondered why men were not filling up the seats for this movie? 

Were the majority of Barbie movie watchers women (while men more likely watched Oppenheimer that same week)? I don’t know the numbers but I think there’s a high probability that my hypothesis is correct. But why? 

Is it the same reason why many men dislike books by women authors? Because women are unnaturally preoccupied with domestic matters that hold no interest for men? 

In my own life, two books by British novelist Allison Pearson, I Don’t Know How She Does It and How Hard Can It Be, have been faithful representations of the everyday life of contemporary women all over the world. Women who work outside the house AND inside. The ones who earn a living, feed their family, nurture their children, maintain connections with extended family, and participate in their communities. 

The minutiae of women’s lives

However, I know for a fact that most men would not be able to get through these books because they focus on the minutiae of women’s lives, the daily drudgery that they believe is their lot while the men go about a life that has room for drinks, and time for get-togethers and games while completely ignoring the disproportionate burden it places on the women in their lives.

To be fair, most women may not be interested in sports or the stock market to the same extent as men but the difference between the two lies in the fact that while sports may appeal to a subset of the population, gender inequity impacts everyone.

If men and women are to truly understand what makes us unique and equally valuable, we must be able to first observe and acknowledge how our lives differ. 

Can a man follow a woman’s example?

In the workplace, women have followed the example set by men assuming that it is the only way to progress. Some have succeeded using this formula while others have given up. But men haven’t tried hard enough to see the world through a woman’s eyes (in the workplace and in the home), to understand how the motherhood penalty works or why constant multitasking that involves cooking, caregiving, and kinkeeping ruins both the physical and mental health of women. 

As depicted in the Barbie movie, dolls don’t determine what happens in real life. It’s real people who determine what the doll can or cannot do. Without getting men to read the books and watch the movies that highlight the unequal playing field and different wavelengths (if not planets) on which men and women operate, social transformation will remain a bookish or onscreen Utopia.

Photo by OPPO Find X5 Pro on Unsplash

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Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and a former resident of USA, who now lives in Singapore with her family. Ranjani Rao is the author of Rewriting My...