Toys Will Be Toys

The patriarchy, my potty training, and the culture war around toy guns

The Mandate Letter, by Jason Rogers, focuses on the evolving state of masculinity. Thanks for being here. If you were forwarded this email, get your own:

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My cousin loved his semi-automatic, GI-Joe-like toy gun. At five years old, Joey was twice my age. He was blonde and busy-bodied, a coiled spring of energy that seemed to propel him towards objects of interest in such a way that you worried for both his and the object’s safety. 

It was both his natural rambunctiousness and regular possession of contraband that quickly made him my idol. I only saw him a couple of times a year when my parents would drive us up to Sonoma from Los Angeles. During those much anticipated weekends, I would follow him around like a suckerfish, ready to sink my teeth into anything to prove that I, too, could be a shark.

We’d walk around in the wooded area near his house, pointing the gun at whatever drew our attention: rocks, people, squirrels. After the weekend, my mom thought my interest in the plastic weapon would wane. However, when she recently retold that story, her eyes widened, and she said, “let’s just say you wanted it bad.

But in my obsession, she saw an opportunity. I was entering the stage where diapers should no longer be necessary; however, my enthusiasm for giving up my Huggies was half-hearted. So, she offered me a deal. Upon completion of a whole week of potty training — no accidents! — I could have that toy gun.

Interestingly, once in my possession, the gun didn’t hold my attention for long, and it ended up in a closet along with other discarded toys. But the grooves in my brain were set. And, like many boys, that first plaything whet my appetite for various mediums of simulated savagery. 

Reading that, you might think, that’s a natural part of being a boy. However, with gun sales, murder rates, and mass shootings all on the rise, hearing my mom retell that story gave me pause. For years, hand-wringing parents have drawn the connection between objects of play and objects of violence. But what’s going on here? Are toy guns really that bad?

Toy Guys & Boyhood Masculinity

Over the next few years, I had a variety of unmemorable plastic shooters. Then, I got a Nintendo, which came with Duck Hunt and an oranged-barrelled number that felt like a natural extension of my hand. I distinctly remember standing close to the glowing screen, whispering “take that” under my breath each time I trained my sight on those ill-fated fowl and gave the trigger a forceful squeeze. 

Compared to the first-person shooter games that followed in its footsteps (e.g., Doom, Halo, etc.), Duck Hunt was incredibly tame. Still, I wondered how it might have affected my development, given its implicit lesson was that killing animals is fun. 

I’m not the only one concerned that these types of toys (and games) offer young boys the wrong messages about life. In an article for Parents magazine, early childhood professor Dr. Diane Levin said: “Many toys, shows, and video games convey the idea that violence is a de facto part of masculinity.” 

My first response to reading that was, “yes, obviously.” However, the more I thought about it, the more I began to question the moral panic invoked by those who make that case. 

Fast forward to age ten when I begged my parents to buy me a BB gun. When they finally obliged, I settled into a new routine of lining up my old action figures against the wall of my tree fort and pumping them full of so many BBs that eventually they would explode into tiny plastic bits. 

After a couple of weeks, I’d lodged so much steel in the exterior wood panels that, during certain hours of the day, they would sparkle in the sun. I certainly wasn’t pulling wings off of butterflies; however, viewed through a particular lens, this kind of behavior could appear pre-sociopathic. And yet, it doesn’t seem to have affected who I am today.

Michael Thompson, a psychologist and co-author of the book Raising Cain, has suggested that these kinds of activities can be “prosocial.” And engaging in violent role-play may allow kids to explore their primal urges in safe surroundings because it helps them understand what is real and what’s pretend.

This stands in direct contrast to the assertion that toy gunplay (or brutal video games) desensitizes boys to violence. And because many of the recent mass shootings have been perpetrated by young, white men, it can be tempting for some to confuse privilege for causation. 

A detailed study by the Rand Corporation reviewed various academic research and accounts of mass shootings over the past four decades to identify contributing factors. And, other than noting that being a man was a reliable predictor of a future mass shooter, they cited a lack of quality data and offered the institution equivalent of “I don’t know.” 

Here’s what I suspect is going on. For some (especially white audiences), it’s difficult to imagine what might cause white boys to become violent (v.s. poverty, systemic racism, etc., in black and brown communities). As a result, it’s easier to reach for simple explanations. Specifically, that past ownership of a toy gun (or exposure to violent media and video games) makes it more likely that they will want to unleash their pubescent fury on others with a real one.

It’s Occam’s razor in reverse. 

Toy Guys, Parenting & The NRA

To play with my beloved BB gun, I had to get my mom or dad to retrieve it from a secret place. I also was not allowed to leave our backyard, but I generally wasn’t observed. And, according to my parents, this kind of restrained freedom served as an essential vehicle through which they taught me the importance of safety and rules. 

I think this says a lot about how the energy parents bring to this arena makes all the difference. I also realize that it’s prototypically Millennial to overweight the influence parents have over their kids. However, in this instance, it does strike me as accurate. If my parents had outlawed my interest in armaments or hovered over me at every turn, it would have stoked my appetite for the forbidden. Conversely, if they would have lackadaisically said “whatever” to all of my juvenile pleas, that wouldn’t have been good either.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a boyhood-exclusive kind of thing. Parents can set strange examples for kids of any gender. I recently came across a Father’s Day Instagram post that sent a chill down my spine. It features the dad, his wife, and three young daughters posing in a series of what appear to be holiday photos over the years. Yet, in approximately half of those images, all five of them are armed to the teeth.

I don’t know this guy. And he could make the same argument about teaching his kids responsibility that my parents did. However, browsing the rest of his feed gives me the distinct impression that he is more interested in participating in a broader culture war around guns that rests on the All-American definition of what it means to be “free.”

For example, Mr. Gun Dad and his eldest daughter (who’s now 18 and is a budding gun influencer with 157K followers) posted a video that the NRA Instagram account picked up and re-shared. It features clips of the two shooting various firearms synced to the beat of a dub-step-meets-zombie-apocalyptic score.

The NRA caption praises gun dad (and all other pro-NRA dads) for refusing “to let their kids become victims” and gives him “an A+ at parenting!” The post cultivated over 50k likes and the kind of comments you’d expect from that audience: “Best kind of dad to have,” “Hope ill be a dad like that,” and “Stay armed America.”

What this points to is the degree to which the NRA and gun-control advocates have reached an impasse. Their long-standing feud has slipped into an argumentative black hole with such gravity that not even toy guns can escape. What I mean by that, specifically, is that gun protectionists use alleged attempts to limit access to toy weapons to assert their core defense against “infringements” on the second amendment: the slippery slope. 

The NRA’s website boasts numerous articles with titles like “Toy Guns ‘Bad’! Toy Grenades ‘Good’!?” and “Glimpse of Toy Gun in Student’s Home Prompts School Officials to Call out the Police.” Each uses phrases like "anti-gun hysteria” and “extremists” to frame efforts by school administrators or lawmakers to remove violent toys from certain situations as “insanity” and whip up the protective anger of their base.

Of course, those on the left use the same kinds of eye-catching headlines to draw attention and ire. What results is an effect that media scholars call “context collapse.” Charlie Warzel of Galaxy Brain (and formerly of the NY Times) described context collapse as occurring when “a piece of information intended for one audience finds its way to another — usually an uncharitable one — which then reads said information in the worst possible faith.”

In other words, continual misrepresentation perpetuates this cultural war. The reason this matters is that those who advocate for common-sense gun reform (I certainly do) are doing themselves a disservice taking on this topic. In other words, suggesting that boys shouldn’t have toy guns because it may make them violent is not only likely to be untrue but also plays right into the NRA’s hand. 

Toy Guns & Gender Norms

The lesser interrogated factor about toy guns is why they end up in the hands of so many boys in the first place. While many think the relationship between boys and toy guns is one way (boys inherently want toy guns), it may be more of a question of chicken and egg.

Decades of media and cultural mythology romanticizing guns undoubtedly have made the toy versions more attractive to boys. Combine that with toymakers’ aggressive efforts to market them primary to one gender, and you begin to see that the relationship is a little less clear. 

If we return to Dr. Diane Levin’s statement (“Many toys, shows, and video games convey the idea that violence is a de facto part of masculinity”), it’s important to note that the presenting problem might be in between the lines. The issue isn’t as much that toy guns teach boys that violent play is part of being masculine. It’s the lesson that violent play should form their sole interest to the exclusion of everything else

When all of a boy’s friends are doing one thing, it becomes tricky for him to break away and explore other interests. And so, instead of playing with a broad collection of toys that encourage all kinds of human qualities like caring, vulnerability, and creation, they are sucked into the boyhood vacuum of fixating on toy guns.

Part of their resistance lies in cultural conditioning. Boys are taught from an early age to behave in ways that prove they are “not feminine.” So other kinds of toys (dolls, baking kits, et al.) that are wrapped in feminine coding (flowery, serif fonts and an abundance of pink) are anathema to the role they’re expected to play. 

This is, in part, the reason that efforts to de-gender toys have picked up some steam. Back in 2015, Target abolished gender-based signage (including in toy sections). In 2019, Mattel created its first gender-neutral doll. Early this year, Mr. Potato Head announced it would drop the “Mr.” (Although after subsequent media attention, they clarified that it would only affect the parent company’s name, not the product in stores). 

However, according to Dr. Megan K. Maas, an Assistant Professor of Human Development at Michigan State, these efforts for inclusivity don’t go far enough. In a piece about toys for the academic site, The Conversation, she wrote: “Gender neutrality represents the absence of gender – not the tolerance of different gender expression. If we emphasize only the former, I believe femininity and the people who express it will remain devalued.”

That means that removing the pink and blue division from the marketplace may be beside the point. The focus should be on encouraging all kinds of kids to play with all kinds of toys. Boys can play with guns and dolls. Girls can play with dolls and guns. It’s not either-or. It’s both. 


Department of Links

  • Mad Men, Furious Women — Last week, an article published by a veteran strategist rocked the advertising industry world. In the piece, Zoe Scaman detailed the mysognytisic (and in some cases, straight-up illegal) treatment she’s (and various other women) have encountered over the years a various agencies. I spent five years working in various major advertising agencies in New York and London (where Scaman is based). And while I never caught wind of events as egregious as the ones she details, I’m sorry to say I’m not surprised. It’s a real issue and men in the industry need to do their part to hold their peers to account. — Substack

  • On Performance Anxiety — A couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of talking to Dr. Greg Brown about my experiences with performance anxiety over the years (both in sport and in the bedroom). If you're interested, you can listen to our conversation is on the Men’s Health Instagram channel, or read the write up on menshealth.com — Men’s Health

  • Isn’t it Bromantic — Last year, I wrote a piece for Men’s Health about starting a romance book club for men. That article was inspired by The Bromance Book Club, a novel by Lyssa Kay Adams about a group of professional athletes that read romance novels in secret to improve their relationships. The book turned in series (and many romance novels do), and Adams is back at it again with Isn’t It Bromantic? the fourth installation of the Bromance books. It comes out on Friday and I’m looking forward to diving in — Penguin Random House


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