In 1959 my parents, aka Santa Claus, gave me a baby doll for Christmas called Betsy Wetsy. I was an ecstatic five-year-old, and I kept her wrapped in her blanket until just a few years ago when I sold her for a couple bucks at a tag sale. Betsy Wetsy came with her own doll-sized baby bottle, and as you might infer from her name, she had one very special feature. She was a doll designed to simulate urination. Yes, Betsy Wetsy was designed to wet herself.
In the 1950s life was simple. There were only two genders, I was a girl, and girls became mothers. The Christmas I got Betsy Wetsy, my younger brother got a cowboy pistol and holster set. I’m sure my parents didn’t think about toys as templates for skills and behavior. They were just happy to be giving us toys like the ones we saw on TV between the Mickey Mouse Club and the Howdy Doody Show.
If toys are templates for developing skills and behavior, what was the lesson I was supposed to learn from Betsy Wetsy? I was only five years old, but I knew she wasn’t anatomically correct. The water in her baby bottle went in through a hole in her mouth and came out a hole in the side of her sweet little butt cheek. A potty-trained child knows that’s not real.
How many times did I fill that baby bottle with water and put it in her mouth only to have the water leak out onto her clothes, her blanket and my lap? I don’t remember, but I was a smart little kid. I’m sure it didn’t take me long to learn that if the bottle was empty, Betsy wouldn’t Wetsy on my dress. Was that the intended lesson? Don’t feed the baby and you won’t have to change its diapers. Probably not. This is where the logic of the learned behavior and the intended lesson of the toy were dissonant.
Now I wish I could have been in the room when the toy company’s Mad Men were talking about how to sell this new doll. Their pitch seems to have been that little girls should begin early to practice their mothering skills. In their minds the message of Betsy Wetsy was to be a good mommy. They didn’t say, Imagine having three of these at the same time, and doing laundry, and fixing dinner for your husband. But they didn’t have to. In that respect, Betsy Wetsy was quietly subversive.