What would you do if you found your boy playing with a doll instead of a bulldozer?
This is the scandalous premise at the heart of a recent Sesame Street clip. As a guy who aspires to Biblical manhood, as a father of two sons, and as a regular viewer of Sesame Street, this debate falls right in the middle of my Venn Diagram of interests. So lets get right down to the nitty gritty details…
Last week, Owen Strachan, Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, wrote that a recent Sesame Street episode is an “assault” on our “Protestant worldview” and “is subtly but directly overturning long-held conceptions of manhood”. I looked up the offending Sesame Street clip and found this:
“Baby Bear and Curly Bear are playing with dolls, and Telly comes by with his bulldozer. But Baby Bear’s embarrassed to be playing with dolls, so he tells Telly that the doll is Curly’s… Then he runs off, embarrassed. Later, Gordon explains there’s no reason things have to be just for girls or just for boys, and playing with dolls is great practice for Baby Bear when he becomes a daddy.” (from SesameStreet.org)
Methinks the complementarian doth protest too much.
In this instance, Strachan’s self-proclaimed “gender battles” are more harmful and offensive than Baby Bear’s “disastrous teaching on sexuality and gender.” According to Owen, this Sesame Street moment is “unbiblical and socially disastrous… in open denial of sex roles and gender distinctions.” It is “social engineering” that is “harmful and offensive to God (and his people).” He states that “boys playing with dolls is foolish.” But come, let us reason together.
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
At the heart of Owen Strachan’s argument is the idea that Baby Bear’s actions are contrary to Biblical manhood and womanhood. I’ve read the Bible. And I agree with Owen that God created men and woman as equal but distinct, with unique strengths and callings. The problem is, “biblical” as Owen Strachan uses it, really means “Protestant America in the 1950’s according to Norman Rockwell” (my words, not his). The Bible never says “boys shouldn’t play with dolls.” That’s a cultural construct that Owen is projecting back onto the Bible.
You know what is Biblical? God says that He will comfort His people “as a mother comforts her child.” (see Isaiah 66:13) Jesus says that He longed to gather the children of Jerusalem “like a mother hen gathers her babies under her wings” (see Mathew 23:37). The Apostle Paul described himself as a mother in labor, struggling to give life to the church. (see Galatians 4:19).
The concept of gender differences is Biblical. What’s un-Biblical is the idea that caring for a baby is somehow not masculine. Which brings me to this:
Your “manly man” is more John Cena than Jesus.
There is, in some corners of American Christianity, a “manly man Jesus” movement. It carries with it this idea that Biblical manhood is all fists and blood and taking names. As Mark Driscoll famously said, “In Revelation, Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed….I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.” This is a very incomplete picture of masculinity. When boys are told that cage fighting is good and Godly and biblical but talking about feelings and crying and painting are not for real dudes, (Mark Driscoll’s words, not Owen Strachan’s) they’ll grow up to be warped, weak, incomplete men.
This is why boys, in Sesame Street and in real life, should play with dolls. Not because there’s no difference between boys and girls, but because boys and girls both need to learn to be gentle and caring and compassionate as well as strong and adventurous and brave.
A real man changes diapers.
When Baby Bear sits down for a heart-to-heart with Gordon, he learns that dolls aren’t just for girls. Gordon explains that there is no difference between men and women, that there is no God, and that life has no meaning. Wait, that’s not what happened at all, because that’s not what this episode is about. Gordon explains that it’s ok for boys to play with dolls because it’s good practice to be a daddy someday. And there is literally nothing more “Biblical” and “Gospel-centered” than the concept of a loving father (see: the entire Bible). If you want to be a good father, you’d better make sure you know how to change diapers and make a bottle and cook and clean and fold laundry. (It’ll help you be a better husband too. Trust me.)
Too many fathers have adopted a “manly-man” attitude that has left them unable to show compassion for their children, unable to wipe away their tears or change their diapers or say “I love you.” Too many husbands lay on their couch in full Homer Simpson mode expecting their wives to bring them a steady stream of beer and sandwiches. We don’t need anyone reinforcing this artificial manliness construct by arguing that “dolls are just for girls.” If it’s Godly for me to care for my kids, don’t say it’s ungodly for young boys to learn those same skills.
You’ve become the straw man.
This is why it matters, Owen. Because you and the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womenhood are in the midst of a very important conversation about how to live out our masculinity and femininity in the twenty-first century. But instead of approaching it as a conversation, you’ve defined it as a battle.Those on the other side of the issue from you sometimes accuse complementarians of wanting to revert to outdated patriarchal notions of gender roles. And when you write things like this, you validate their accusations.
Because this isn’t about “what the Bible says about masculinity”, it’s about your assumption that “dolls are for girls” and your assertion that anyone who disagrees is attacking our moral foundation. If you want to blog about that, about your opinion that we should raise our kids according to some rather arbitrary gender stereotypes, that’s your business. But you dragged the Gospel into it. You claimed that the Bible supported your assumption. And it doesn’t.
The Gospel is the most important thing, the most beautiful story ever told, our roadmap to find our way home. Don’t muddle it with this stuff.
This matters too much to get it wrong.
There’s a common assumption amongst many of my fellow Christians that everything we hold dear is under attack. We mourn the loss of “traditional American values” and circle the wagons tighter to protect ourselves from the evils of the culture. The problem is that we leave many of our brothers and sisters and friends and neighbors outside that circle, turning our attention inward to protect elements of our sub-culture that were never really Biblical in the first place. And when you do that, when you claim that the challenging of an arbitrary gender role is an assault on Biblical sexuality, you lose your credibility. Rather than speaking prophetically into the culture about things that matter, you’re wasting your breath on things that don’t. And soon, nobody’s listening.
Dolls aren’t just for girls, and trucks aren’t just for boys.
I cook and clean and wash laundry and tuck my two boys into bed at night. I’m doing my very best to raise my sons to good men. Sometimes they’ll stomp in the mud and play football and punch people in the face. Sometimes they’ll put on make-up and help cook and play house. Someday, with the help of God, they’ll grow up to be loving and caring and strong and brave fathers who can teach their own sons to do the same.
(But right now, we mostly watch a lot of Sesame Street.)
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