Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner

The book is 'Boys and Girls. Superheroes in the Doll Corner.' by Vivian Gussin Paley.

Paley is a researcher and kinder garden teacher. The book is interesting. In comparison to its very short length and cheap price, weight for weight, it might be the most interesting book I have ever read. It's relaxed, discursive and never terse. There is no fat and no blathering. There are questions.

Like a lot of simple books it ends up being about everything, or at least, everything happening right now.

Paley recorded her classes and listened back to what she and the children said or did. The children she was teaching were five. I her words. "Kindergarden is a triumph of sexual self-stereotyping."

A year or so before the class, gender nearly didn't exist for the children. Now it has arrived, and with some force. Paley, and through her, the reader, gets to experience the children constructing large parts of their gender identity and it is fascinating.

Paley investigates the children, but because she is listening back to what she says and does as well as what they do, she also investigates herself investigating them. Her views on herself and her relation to the children are almost as interesting as her views on the children alone.

Unlike (what I baselessly assume to be) a great deal of sociological texts, the book has almost no theory and very little attachment to any. It feels clear with no attempt to jam the situations covered into any kind of intellectual superstructure. Much to its benefit.

It’s about the relationship of a female authority figure to male violence. Or more accurately, to violent male fantasy. The relationship between authority and free play. It’s about the nature of fantasy and what it does. It's about superhero’s and the home.

It would be of great interest to anyone who likes superheroes or D&D, with its roving bands of homeless killers. The book is a look at the primal drives and behaviours that from the core of that activity.

If I could I would quote the whole thing (it's not long) but here are just a few samples.


Both boys and girls avoid fantasy play that makes the distinction between heroes and villains irreversible, but in the boy's case, all characters behave as villains. "Cops and robbers" is in reality "robbers". Punishment is meted out to good people more often than to bad.

"Jails are supposed to be for bad people, Andrew," I comment one day. "You put the good people in jail."

"We're  not bad people. We're bad guys," he explains. "Good people have to go to jail or they can become bad guys."

"Do you mean if they become bad guys, they won't have to go to jail?"

"Right. But if they want to be good guys, they could put someone in jail, too."

"Oh. Then bad guys and good guys both have jails?"

"It depends who's the boss."

Good guy or bad guy, the aggressive tumble-and-wrestle of little boys is criticized by teachers from the first day of school. How can ideas that seem so good be considered bad so often?

Perhaps "good" means "bad" when fantasies are involved. It is good to think about powerful creatures and exciting to rehearse their pursuits. However, most adaptations in the classroom are quickly curtailed. A teacher may not use the word "bad," but the message is clear: Girls fantasies are more acceptable. When girls run and scream, the absence of ambush and crossfire soothes the teacher's ruffled senses. The children see girls as good and find it difficult to characterise boys.

Karen: Girls are nicer than boys.

Janie: Boys are bad. Some boys are.

Paul: Not bad. Pretend bad, like bad guys.

Karen: My brother is really bad.

Teacher: Aren't girls ever bad?

Paul: I don't think so. Not very much.

Teacher: Why not?

Paul: Because they like to colour so much. That's one thing I know. Boys have to practice running.

Karen: And they practice being silly.

Karen is correct. A certain kind of uninhibited play is identified by both sexes as boy's play.


Free play occurs in two distinct environments: active social play on one side, and sedentary play on the other. Though there is usually a small group of girls in the doll corner, the overall impression is girls to the right and boys to the left. As in an orthodox synagogue, where men and women are separated by partitions, an invisible curtain hangs between the art tables and the rest of the room.

The girls spend most of their free time with art materials, and the boys spend theirs in the block area. Sand and water, the only free-form materials used more by the boys, are used as an extension of block play - actively, competitively. The mixing and moulding of gooey substances, the application of colourful paints to multitextured surfaces - these quiet, comfortable pastimes are predominately female activities. Why should so many boys appear wary of "artistic" experiences?

Appearances are deceiving; the boys themselves may be fooled. Once involved. they enjoy artwork as much as do the girls. It is not a matter of aesthetics or skill. The obstacles are time and patience, theirs and mine.

The boys begin most play periods on the floor with things that go fast, make noise, or rise up high. Table activities are postponed for fear time will run out before they have played enough. If a free period lasts sufficiently long, the boys will drift over to the tables, ready to sit down and make something. The biggest problem may be that I seldom allow free play to extend to that point.

The customary notion that "real" school happens at a table is hard to dispel. The thoughtful management of materials, design, and people in the block area seldom receives the same respect as table "work."

Mary Ann: The boys don't like to work.

Teacher: they're making a huge train setup right now.

Mary Ann: That's not work. It's just playing.

Teacher: When do girls play?

Charlotte: In the doll corner.

Teacher: How about at the painting table?

Mary Ann: That's work. You could call it play sometimes but it's really called schoolwork.

Teacher: When is it work and when is it play?

Clarice: If you paint a real picture, it's work, but if you splatter or pour into an egg carton, then its play.

Charlotte: It's mostly work, because that's where the teacher tells you how to do stuff.

I put the question of work versus play to the boys, who echo the same views.

Teacher: The girls think the block area is for play and not for work. Is that what you think?

Jonathan: It is for play. But you could be a work person.

Teacher: If you're a work person, then what do you do in the blocks?

Andrew: Build very neatly and don't knock it down and don't play.

Teacher: How can you tell if you're working or playing?

Andrew: No Star Wars or superheroes. None of that stuff.

Paul: No shooting. And no robbers.

Jonathan: And no running.

Teacher: What else is work in this room?

Andrew: If you colour or put your name on a thing. On a paper.

Paul: It has to be work if you tell us to do something.

Teacher: How about stories? Your own stories. Is that work?

Andrew: No, because that could be Star Wars or Superman.


One day, as we watch the high school students on the outdoor track, it occurs to me we might have such a track in our classroom. This would not be for running games but rather for just plain running. I envision it being used freely during playtime in order to cut down on the frequent outbursts of chasing that occur during indoor play.

I tell the children my plan to tape a large oval track around the existing circle. A series of arrows will provide the first of two rules: one-way running and no pushing.

"Now," I say, finishing a roll of duct tape, "when you feel like running, no one will say 'Don't run." Run for a while on the track and then go back to your activity."

The children are pleased and I am certain I have solved the eternal problem of indoor running. On the first day, track behaviour is a model of decorum. Boys and girls run in equal numbers and without incident. By the second day two differences are apparent: There are fewer girls running and the boys act as if they are being chased. it is time for a third rule.

"People on the track do not chase each other," I warn. "They just run. If you need to pass someone, do it carefully. Hands off."

There is a lot of a agreeable nodding, and several voices blurt out, "I wasn't chasing. It was Andrew."

By the third day the four girls who still run on the track have made a game of counting laps. Charlotte tells us, "I did eight all-arounds." The others do less, but it is not a competition. As the girls grow more controlled, the boys are more excited. We add a fourth rule: no shooting fingers.

"What's going on boys? You never see the big boys shooting or grabbing on the track."

"We won't do it."

I watch their faces. They want to run in a serious manner, but the track is taking on a life of its own. By the fifth day many of the boys are on the track even before they remove their coats. They become armed superheroes the moment they see the track. Even worse, the arrows are having a hypnotic effect. Certain boys have difficulty leaving the track because they keep following the arrows.

"What's wrong Teddy? Why are you crying?"

"Jonathan is Dracula. He's chasing me."

"Just step off the track, Teddy."

"The arrows!" he sobs helplessly.


The children make changes in all the fairy tails now, though they want me to read the original version. Charlotte will be the smallest pig if all three pigs live together, without a chimney. Jonathan wants a chimney but a better armed pig. His light sabre is more dependable than a pot of boiling water. As always, the girls eliminate the violence, and the boys seek a stronger hero.


As I read Janie's story aloud, the actors run around inside the circle, pretending to hide and locking windows and doors. they scramble up the ladder to the police station, adding appropriate dialogue: "Help! I'm scared. Save me!" The audience sits in silent concentration; I too, am filled with admiration.

Could anything be more absurd? I ask myself. Am I content when the children pretend to pretend, but not when they are really pretending? Do I censure the doll-corner version and applaud its facsimile on stage?

Of course, theatre is more dependable than real life; conflict is at a minimum and all parties appear to be in control. Janie does not need to argue about who is the mother, the actors are given predictable roles in a familiar context, and I, the teacher, can, in good conscience, control physical exuberance. Script in hand, I can limit silliness by continuing the narrative, and stop the action by reading "The End."

While I ponder the convenience of theatre, I am struck by the obvious: Theatre is merely pretend play. The vital force that fuels the imagination comes from real play, not from the neatly packaged copy in my hand.

Janie's valentine family is born out of her excitement as a supervalentine. it was a deeply emotional experience for the girls. They combined male and female symbols - super and valentine - and celebrated their invention in a burst of joyful running.

What was my purpose in stopping them? Who was bothered by the loud voices and running? Those at the art table continued to paint, the players at the checkerboard concentrated on their next moves, and Teddy, dictating his third Star Wars story in two days, looked up only when I rushed over to talk to the girls. Am I the only one who finds merit in a quiet room?

The moment I close the door the room seems less noisy, even though the girls are now running around capturing bad valentines and putting them in jail. I notice a strange thing: The louder the girls, the quieter the boys. The noise level in the room remains the same.


My normal response, when robbers charge the doll corner, is to ignore the plot and remove the characters from the stage, thereby changing the subject from fantasy to recrimination.

"You boys cannot spoil the girl's play," I say. They reply, "We're robbers," But I dismiss this notion. "You can't be robbers," I tell them, implying that pretending to be robbers is as bad as really being robbers. Yet, a professional actor is not taken to be the villain he portrays; he is judged by his acting. Perhaps I can do more to promote this idea with the girls.

Teacher: I've been thinking about cops and robbers. Remember when girls complained that the boys were not being fair in the blocks and then the girls began to share more often? Well the girls are not being fair to the boys in the doll corner.

Andrew: I don't want to play in the doll corner.

Teacher: Sometimes you want to play cops and robber there.

Andrew: Oh, you mean that.

Charlotte: They can't right?

Teacher: So far that's out rule. Then the boys forget and there's a big fuss. But, after all, aren't they acting out a story the same way the girls do?

Mary Ann: They have to do theirs outside.

Teacher: But no-one tells you where to play Cinderella. When you build a Cinderella house in the blocks, the boys don't object.

Mary Ann: If we're in the blocks, they can go in the doll corner.

Teacher: They could, but when you're in the doll corner, you won't share the space.

Charlotte: You can't give part of a house.


In trying to sort out what is real from pretend, one looks through mirrors that see into other mirrors. I choose books that seem relevant, but it is the children who operate the mirrors and make the connections. Reflections of a recurrent dream are brought to life for the boys in the pages of 'The Boxcar Children', enabling them to band together with the girls, in girls' territory, without embarrassment or camouflage.

The girls experience a similar reincarnation several weeks later when I read Frank Baum's 'The Wizard of Oz', a story that is best known through the movie version. One can always tell when the film is presented on television, because suddenly Dorothy and the good witch Glenda appear in the doll corner. Now, however, as the children listen to the original story, another character takes hold of the girls. it is one that is a stranger to their play: the Wicked Witch of the West - Darth Vader with a broom.

Strong, masterful characters are not unknown to the girls, Mother being the best example. Princess Leia and Wonderwoman often join the boys, but a delecate balance is maintained. They fly in and out of boys play with the elusiveness of butterflies, fluttering back to the other girls the moment the boys pursue them too seriously. Furthermore these superwomen, entirely virtuous, are a little different from the good mother or sister in the doll corner.

The Wicked Witch of the West rules a band of winged monkeys who perform her evil deeds. A scene erupts on the playground during which  each girl is a powerful master and every boy a subservient robotlike monkey.

"Go over there and kill everyone in the sandbox!"
"Knock down the jungle gym!"

The Witches scream in unison as the hapless monkeys run back and forth carrying out their orders. The other children on the playground stop to watch the novel performance. Molly, a first grader, sits next to me on the bench.

"What is Charlotte playing?"
"The Wizard of Oz."
"Is she the Wizard?"
"I think the girls are wicked witches."
Oh. I get it. The boys are monkeys?"
"It seems that way. Do you want to play?"
"I just want to watch."
"Do you like the way they are playing?."
"Yeah, I like it. I'm going to play that with my brother when I get home."

Unless you are playing with your little brother at home, bad characters need reinforcements. None of the girls would be a wicked witch by herself. The boys have been teaching this lesson to girls for years: There cannot be too many superheroes once you leave the doll corner.

1 comment:

  1. "Am I the only one who finds merit in a quiet room?"

    This is the parent/teacher type's equivalent of the mirror phase of development.

    Holy shit Vivian you _are_ the only one who finds merit in a quiet room.