Thursday, December 03, 2009

Men and Escapism

I’m no child psychologist, but I do work in an office where an endless string of kids parade in and out, allowing me ample opportunity to observe behavior. We also have a big TV here playing cartoons half the day, which gives me a chance to glimpse commercials for children’s toys. I’m noticing a particular trend, which may be obvious but I’m only now really beginning to appreciate.

There is a difference between little boys and little girls. I have no idea how much this difference is actually biological or how much it is merely cultural. Like many “nature or nuture” issues, I suspect the answer is a complex combination of both. But look at the toys marketed to boys versus the toys marketed to girls. Yes, the boy-toys are in general related to conflict, war, and competition. And yes, the girl-toys are in general related to domestic, nurturing tasks. This says a lot about our perception of gender, of course, but I’m making a slightly different point today.

While both kinds of toys embrace the imagination of a child, they do so in very different ways. A girl might be encouraged to play with a dolly, taking care of her as though she were a real baby, even (with these new-fangled dolls) changing her diaper, burping her, and putting her down for naps. Or alternatively, she may care for a little pony, or accessorize Barbie with all the latest fashions. Meanwhile, the boys are pretending they are Jedi and beating each other up with plastic lightsabers.

In short, girls are encouraged to imagine they are adults in the real world, while boys are in a galaxy far, far away.

Now I always hesitate to make blanket statements about gender traits, but so many boys I know (myself included) have been strongly affected by this trend. We spend our entire childhoods inhabiting completely other systems of reality, so that when it comes to doing something relatively straightforward or dealing with real world complications, we’re utterly unreliable. It also might explain a bit why so many girls, to my amazement, are so freaking put together and practical.

Is this why the male fantasy since the days of Huckleberry Finn and even earlier has been… escape? Running off into the wildnerness where no ties will bind? Ben Folds sings:

“Started thinking ‘bout my old man
it seems that all men
want to get into a car and go
anywhere.”

Is this why I’m addicted to video games? Is this why I face an ever mounting anxiety when faced with real problems and would prefer to just slip off into the alternate world of a book, or a game, or a play, or a TV show, or a comic book, or whatever? Even sports represent an other-world, a place of concentration that distracts from the day-to-day realities of life. The men who throw themselves into memorizing football trivia and watching every game are doing the same thing as the guys who play World of Warcraft for hours or go to Star Trek conventions. But I’ve argued this before.

Sure, some women must feel this way too. And plenty of men I know have grown out of this. But I guess some of us never did. I hear people talking all the time about boys who never grow up. Our culture is flooded with 80’s nostalgia because of my generation refusing to let go of childhood. And one day twenty-somethings who are now only toddlers will speak with amused fascination and longing about the good old 2000’s.

Ben Folds again:

And everybody know
it sucks to grow up
but everybody does…

The years go on and
we’re still fighting it
we’re still fighting it