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Guys and Dolls

Posted: 01/08/09 04:05 PM ET

Wearing a red hoodie with ATHLETICS in big, bold letters scrawled across the chest, seven year-old Connor Flynn chokes up on a metal bat over a T-Ball. He looks steadily at his target, heeding the axiom that's been pounded into every Little Leaguer's head: "Keep your eyes on the ball." Despite being 4-feet tall and skinny, he looks fierce. Not Christian Siriano fierce--but rather, I'm-going-to-obliterate-that-baseball-and-anything-that-gets-in-my-way fierce. Then, seconds later, whack! He hits a line drive that shaves a good inch off his parent's front lawn. Like his brother Patrick, who's four and already looks like an NFL hopeful, Connor is all-boy in every way. But that doesn't stop him from playing daddy to the seven "dolls" that crowd the couch in his parent's living room.

That's right, dolls. But not the kind you're thinking--rosy cheeks, long golden locks, pink, puffy dresses -- not those. These "dolls" are stuffed animals that kids adopt and nurture in an interactive online universe called WebKinz World. If you're a parent of anyone under eleven years old (or just plain conscious) you know all about the Kinz craze and how high they ranked on this year's Christmas lists.

Here's how it works: With a newly purchased WebKinz, boys and girls as young as three log onto WebKinz.com, register their pet with a secret code, adopt it and look after its "happiness, health and hunger." They even have to earn KinzCash by playing games (some of which are educational) to send their "babies" to school, the doctor, the gym, the grocery store, even the mall, where they lavish them with clothes and furniture for bedrooms they themselves decorate.

Two years ago, at the height of the WebKinz frenzy, critics were railing against the dangers of web addiction, the deterioration of real-life social interaction, the early indoctrination of consumer culture, and the gambling nature of some of the site's games. And although Jeannie Flynn, the boys' mother, is well aware of these possible consequences, like me, she sees something else in the WebKinz wonder: the plush pets provide a welcome lesson in responsibility and nurturing.

Recently, for example, Patrick's Panda was sick and needed medical care, but when he took him to the virtual doctor's office he didn't have enough funds to foot the hefty bill. "It was really sweet how worried about it he was," Jeannie explains. So his older brother, Connor, stepped up to the daddy plate by finding a way to make some quick KinzCash and paid for Panda's health expenses. Jeannie likes "the responsibility they learn by taking care of it, putting it to bed, getting it exercise and being aware of its feelings."

Tracy Crews, a full-time mom in Tampa, Florida, tells a similar story about her eight year-old son, Chase. Shortly after Chase got his first WebKinz, a Chihuahua named Pepper, the Crews family took their boat down to "party central Key West," where, Tracy says, they had to "go to this coffee shop every day to check on Pepper, to make sure he was fed and put to bed. I mean, here we are on vacation and we're checking on a WebKinz!" If any of his 23 WebKinzs fall below 95 percent on the site's health meter, Chase gets "completely distraught and has a fit." She emphasizes her son's vigilance in making "sure they are always well-fed and taken care of before he goes and plays games on the site." Like Jeannie, she thinks his Kinz family helps cultivate parental know-how and that they "get attached to WebKinz more than regular stuffed animals because they come alive on the screen --they're walking around, talking to you."

According to Nielsen Online, for the month of October alone, boys made up 36 percent of the site's visitors. (Girls made up 64) Even if it's not a fifty-fifty gender split -- I wouldn't be writing this story if it were --that boys represented 3,169,000 of 8,733,000 visitors is no small sum.

If the phenomenal success of WebKinz doesn't quite convince you that boys are responding to toys that tap into their fatherly instincts, consider a toy imported from Japan in 1997 called Tamagotchi. Like WebKinz, Tamagotchis are virtual pets in the form of egg-shaped digital devices that kids carry around with them, tending to their emotional and physical needs.

Japanese scholar, Anne Allison, explains that the first iteration of the toy was designed without a pause button to mimic what it would be like to travel with a real live pet or baby. Originally, Bandai, the toy's manufacturer, exclusively marketed Tamagotchis to girls, but the digital eggs were such a hit with boys, when the company re-launched in 2004, they tailored their ads to both sexes. Kids are required to play with it, feed it, train it, discipline it, put it to bed and clean its poop. And if they don't tend to it very well, it dies.

It may be the technological and game-playing aspects of Tamagotchis and WebKinzs that are the biggest draws for boys, but that they are expressing any interest in toys they tend like babies seems nothing short of a major social advancement: it's taken almost forty years to get to this point.

According to Ann Pleshette Murphy, Good Morning America's parenting expert, the social activism of the 70s spearheaded the original movement to gender-neutralize toys. In 1972, an album called Free to Be You and Me by Marlo Thomas and Friends illustrates the cultural attempt to loosen the lasso around traditional gender role expectations. One sing along in particular titled "William's Doll" shows how society tries to stamp out a little boy's desire for a doll by making fun of him: "A doooollll! A doooollll! William wants a doooollll!" Behind the drive to liberate boys and girls from gender restrictions is the belief that it would lead to greater equality between the sexes, gender difference being the justification for limiting women's rights.

In Murphy's view, the attempt failed because the division of labor in the family did not reflect the lived realities of most kids' lives. Pointing out that dads were not as involved in the 70s as they are today, she explains: "If a little boy is given a toy vacuum cleaner, broom or doll, but dad isn't doing the vacuuming, sweeping or diapering, the little boy gets a much stronger message about boy behavior from that than what's in his toy box."

Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington clarifies, however, that the concept of gender neutral toys is less fraught than one might think. "In the late 18th century and through most of the 19th century, both girls and boys were given hand-made 'rag dolls.' It was only around the early 20th century manufactured toys were explicitly marketed as girl or boy toys. So it's interesting that some parents still think that unless we keep doing this our boys won't grow up to be 'men.'"

Aside from My Buddy, the overalls clad, freckle-faced plaything that arrived in toy stores in 1985, and a handful of male Cabbage Patch Kids, I can't think of a single doll-like toy that was marketed to boys in the 80s, nor can I imagine one that would have even remotely piqued my brother's interest. He was all about G.I. Joe, Star Wars figurines, and Hot Rods, (which he regularly set on fire in the spirit of Dukes of Hazard.) But, these days, it seems, the cultural forces shaping our 21st century models of masculinity have changed.

Peggy Drexler, a professor of psychiatry at Cornell Weill Medical College and author of Raising Boys Without Men, believes that WebKinz reflect a combination of cultural shifts that have transformed the family structure, including an increase in single-parent, female-headed households, same-sex families, greater acceptance of gay culture, women's increased economic power, and stay-at-home dads. All of these factors have "sprung open the gender lock," she says, adding that "the WebKinz phenomenon as far as its commercial success with boys shows that it is accepted and supported by moms and dads." Anxiety around feminizing or gayifying boys has lessened significantly in the 21st century with the "web both reflecting and innovating" changing perceptions of gender.

Joshua Coleman, a senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families, echoes some of Drexler's points, but ultimately thinks that because the nurturing takes place online in private, little boys aren't risking their masculinity in the same way they'd be if they were strolling along the street with a baby carriage. Coontz, Coleman's colleague on the Council, agrees: "It sounds to me that someone has come up with a creative way to tap boys' interest -- whether it's biological or simply sociological--in technology to allow them to access their nurturing side, which boys have always had but have often not been allowed to express in ways that weren't coded female. It's a great step forward."

But not everyone sees these toys as great strides in the direction of social progress. Miranda Purves, a magazine editor in New York City, who has a three year-old son, has a cautionary, if not altogether cynical outlook on boys' interest in these playthings. In her view, the cultural impetus behind them is not to cultivate parental instincts so much as to indoctrinate boys into a culture of consumerism that has dominated the lives of women for generations: "It's great if WebKinzs or Tamagotchis are actually expanding the definitions of acceptable boyhood behavior to include caring for helpless creatures and preparing them for equal participation in parenthood, but my suspicion is that by encouraging boys to shop obsessively for useless gear and new clothes for their bears or online critters, they're being trained to be good little consumobots in the same way that women have been brainwashed to be."

Others argue that the attachments boys may develop to their WebKinz won't survive past prepubescents, and thus are not good benchmarks for measuring new developments in masculinity. When they become keenly aware of traditional expectations of manliness, in other words, they'll shun their dolls as passionately as they once embraced them.

But if the Flynn boys' masculinity is any indication of WebKinz's influence, we couldn't be heading in a better direction. Ever since October, when Jeannie gave birth to their baby brother, Gavin, they argue regularly over who gets to sleep with him, bathe him, hold him, and lavish him with kisses. That's nothing short of a few small steps for man, one giant leap for womankind.