Gentleness and Gender

4267iSesame Street aired an episode that warmed the hearts of unbiblical egalitarians like me.  Baby Bear’s favorite toy is a baby doll, but he runs away embarrassed when Telly finds out.  Gordon has to explain that there’s no reason that certain toys have to be just for girls or just for boys, and Baby Bear returns to discover that Telly likes playing with the doll, too.

Naturally, when the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood found out about this (just a year and a half after it originally aired), they weren’t happy.  Shamer-in-chief Owen Strachan opines about what you’d expect:

I grew up watching Sesame Street. That was in an era when it was largely, like much of American culture, compatible with a basically traditional outlook on the world. In other words, you could predict as a Christian parent that many cultural outlets would support, in a general sense, a Protestant worldview. Boys were boys; girls were girls; right and wrong exists; authority figures are good; and so on…We’ve now transitioned culturally to an era in which the basic foundations of the Protestant worldview are under assault…Boys can play with dolls; there’s no reason they can’t do exactly what girls do.

The progressive Christian blogosphere has already responded seriously and less seriously to the basic points, so I won’t reiterate them here, except to note the absurd post-hoc nature of Strachan’s defense of his clumsily legalistic position.  Only girls should play with dolls because dolls are girls’ toys.  Dolls are girls’ toys because only girls play with dolls.  It would be okay for a boy to play with a cute, cuddly toy animal; in fact, Strachan adds a note to clarify this:

update: not a stuffed animal or a toy figurine, but a little girl’s baby doll, complete with a bottle

So what is it about a human figurine that makes it so unassailably for girls?  Strachan’s predictable tirade about how modern culture is launching a war on traditional roles and how Sesame Street was way better when he was a kid* doesn’t even try to explain.  He goes on to rehash the Culture for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s basic arguments about how men and women are different.  But there’s nothing about, specifically, dolls**.  And dolls are a particularly curious case.  Baby Bear is pretending to be a father.  Strachan, head of an organization devoted to promoting “traditional families,” is at least nominally a strong proponent of fathers; why would he object to a boy learning to feed and burp a baby?

4267dThe idea that, although both men and women should rear children, only girls are allowed to practice leads into what really struck me about the episode: Gentleness.  Baby Bear kisses and cuddles his doll, and he gets upset when Telly plays roughly with it.  Strachan, of course, would say this is girl’s play.  I suspect he’d actually be less upset if Baby Bear stole his sister’s doll and played violently with it.  Boys will be boys, after all, and according to Strachan, “it is right and good to train them in masculine, not feminine, ways.”

But, setting aside the inherent problem of gendered behavior, why should gentleness be only a female virtue?  From a Biblical perspective, of course gentleness is a universal.  Jesus says “I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29).  Paul refers to “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:1) and urges his readers to “let your gentle spirit be known to all men” (Philippians 4:5).  And, of course, gentleness is a Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23).

4267aFrom the perspective of simple logic, it doesn’t make any more sense.  I don’t want to come down against roughhousing altogether and say that kids should always play gently (kids have a lot of energy), but it’s disturbing to think of one gender being taught that gentle behavior is actually wrong and that rough or even violent behavior is the only appropriate way to act, regardless of the situation.  Are there times when punching someone is the only sensible course of action?  Maybe.  But there are many more situations where gentleness is called for.  Boys who are taught that this isn’t an option are going to struggle as friends, as husbands, and of course as fathers.

It’s a good thing that today’s boys will have Baby Bear as an example.

There’s a secondary message that I hope children will also pick up on: Whether it’s a favorite toy, book, movie, whatever, don’t be ashamed of the things you like.

*The latter position is common all along the political spectrum, and I’ve got to say, guys, get over it.  Modern Sesame Street rocks.  Andy Samberg’s Conversation with Bert is frakkin’ hilarious.  Don’t forget to watch part 2.

**This inability to talk on-topic without just returning to generic talking points is typical of conservative Evangelical apologists.  You see it in pro-life crusaders who can’t discuss current events like healthcare without constantly steering the conversation back to “baby-killing” and in evolution deniers who somehow just repeat the same argument about baramins regardless of what you said.  To me, this demonstrates the difference between intellectualism and pseudo-intellectualism: The latter is just repeating what one has been told, so in a specific conversation, one has no ability to analyze a new situation and can only revert to the most applicable talking point.

Images from Muppet Wiki.

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