This is a guest contribution by a former student, April Reiter. Altered Focus welcomes well-written and thoughtful contributions on a wide range of topics. Contact Eric Nelson or Tim Hief if you are interested!
In early April, J.Crew sent a short add to subscribers highlighting some new clothing and accessories hand-picked by creative director Jenna Lyons. Besides products, the ad featured mother Lyons enjoying some quality time with her son, Beckett, painting his toenails neon pink. The caption read, “Lucky for me I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.”
A boy with toenail polish?
PINK toenail polish??
Are you gasping in shock yet? No?
If not, you’re in the minority. Or at least the media would have us believe: The brief but torrential storm following the release of this ad signaled that dichotomous gendering of toys and clothes is still a hotly debated topic in America. In the day’s following the ad’s release, most network commentators did at least a short bit on it, and scores of bloggers have weighed in as well. Some, like psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow saw it as contributing to the destruction of gender distinctions that are part of what “creates and sustains the human race.” Conservative columnist Erin Brown of the Media Research Center argued it was a slippery slope to widespread gender confusion. Ablow’s and Brown’s views, that childhood expressions of masculinity or femininity not distinct from one another are profound threats, was countered by Dr. Susan Bartell, who saw it as a place to take a stand in favor of gender fluidity. On CBS, she argued gender lines should be blurred, insisting that children’s “gender is going to emerge naturally. It has nothing to do with if we put pink nail polish on them.”
As a recent graduate, lessons from Gender and Women’s Studies classes were ringing in my ears: Worrying about a boy wearing pink toenail polish only reveals society’s inherent devaluation of the feminine. God forbid a boy risk losing his masculinity by wearing something commonly associated with girls! Besides, it’s unrealistic to force adult gender distinctions on young children. They are, after all, very different socially and psychologically from adults. As Professor Dr. Kathryn Stockton importantly argued in her book The Queer Child, we don’t have a good grasp of what children’s sexuality or gender is all about. To solve this ambiguity, adults often decide children are (and will remain) little heterosexuals … unless something goes “wrong.” We try to keep children firmly within arbitrary classifications (such as pink is for girls, blue is for boys) to make them grow up to fit adult classifications of our society. But this doesn’t always turn out to be the case, and it doesn’t make room for the different types of growth and changes in identity that children actually experience as they grow into adults. For this reason, Stockton argues, children are “queer” (meaning outside the norm of our hetero-normative expectations). Thinking of children as queer can help us understand the complexity of childhood and not be discouraged when Johnny or Sally don’t follow the “correct” path. Such flexibility makes room for children to explore and express themselves, and room for parents as well, both invaluable as children grow into adults and must make their own way in the world. As adults, we must remember that we often enforce arbitrary societal regulations about gender appropriateness. Children’s attitudes can sometimes reveal when these regulations are just plain silly.
This situation is but one example in an array of similar questions about gendered toys, activities, and clothing for children featured in the media. Speaking from observation and personal experience, girls have a much easier time participating in “boy” activities without as much pushback from adults or peers. I grew up loving activities that I’ve come to learn are traditionally associated with boys: gutting fresh-caught fish on a camping trip, exploring pixelated dungeons with my Super Nintendo, or sketching ornate blades and guns in art class. TV and film continue to host a variety of examples of “tom-boys” who are teased and not accepted, but in actuality such types don’t meet with nearly the intense ridicule and disapproval as their “girly” male counterparts nowadays. Whereas girls find a niche with the boys, or with girls who share their interests, boys are still labeled “gay” and “sissy.”
This being my background, my first response to the J.Crew media outcry was to marshal the troops and charge into action on the side of childhood queerness. I posted the original article on Facebook and waited for the comments from like-minded friends to come pouring in. One friend fulfilled my bloodlust heartily, calling any outcry against the pink polish “ridiculous” and demanding the J. Crew designers purposely paint all of the nails of all boys —and even the men!— in their ads just to drive the political point home. We’re so progressive, I thought, we can’t be wrong.
Famous last words, right?
When Blogger Nerdy Apple Bottom’s son “Boo” (both pseudonyms) wanted to dress up as Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween, she was apprehensive at first. Apple Bottom’s instinct to protect her child from ridicule and pain is understandable and realistic in a cruel, judgmental world. Nail polish or a Daphne wig isn’t a threat to anyone, but the ridicule, bullying, and possible violence it could spark certainly could be to both parent and child. Since I’m childless, I can’t fully appreciate the impulse to protect a child from such attacks, but I understand it. However, fear of violence shouldn’t stop thoughtful and concerned parents from supporting their children’s expression and exploration. After all, nothing will ever change if the norm keeps getting repeated and implicitly confirmed. Someone has to take a risky stand if we want to effect societal change.
Boo’s mother eventually agreed to let Boo wear his costume, which led her to stand alongside her son as he was inevitably teased and questioned. But it was not the children who were doing the teasing and questioning … it was the other mothers. Five-year-old Dyson Kilodavis also became blog fodder for adults and made multiple appearances on TV when his Seattleite mother published a book detailing his love of glittery frocks this year. And this is where the polish issues gets really tricky. These two examples and calls, like my friend’s clarion call for a no-compromise reaction to the polish, show how a child’s childish exploration of polish, dress, and costume can make him or her fodder of adults’ childish political arguments. After all, there’s a fine line between standing up for what you believe and making your kid the mascot of your political or social ideals. There’s a fine line between supporting your child’s choices because you believe in them, and exposing your child to ridicule and rejection from other children and other adults. These parents then run the risk of pushing their agendas on a child and obscuring the original goal of allowing for expression and exploration. Is it appropriate to involve children in political causes that might not be their own, ones they cannot possibly comprehend? I know I would have a hard time justifying it. Raising your child with “good” values, an inspired curiosity about the world and an open and critical mind is one thing, but subjecting them to physical and mental consequences bullying or making them the poster child for a decision they may change later is another.
In the case of Jenna Lyons and her J.Crew ad, I believe the image was at least in part a statement about the outdated, unrealistic black and white dichotomy between “feminine” and “masculine.” I applaud the risk J.Crew took, even if they deny seeing it that way. It is also a reflection of society’s increasing movement away from this strict dichotomy toward more fluid (and less angst-ridden) understanding of childhood. Only by discussing this more openly will we move away from any fear that such fluidity is dangerous. Adults should have these conversations with each other, not about, and at the expense of, each other’s children. One step in this direction would be to move away from assuming that all children, to be okay, must either be asexual or heterosexual. It is entirely possible that Jenna’s little boy is experimenting with his identity based on what he perceives from the world around him. Or, he might just love pink. Or, perhaps he likes spending time with his mom doing something she likes to do. Either way, he could grow up homosexual, heterosexual, or something that doesn’t fit a category. Either way, the polish should be OK.
We don’t have a clear idea of how raising children with greater gender fluidity will affect them, but we have a pretty clear idea of what our present assumptions create — an unrealistic, inaccurate, repressive, and harmful picture of children’s identity. Pink toenail polish won’t disintegrate the fabric of society, because society doesn’t depend on the assumptions that make it necessary to ridicule 5 year-olds and parents in the blogosphere or on national TV. We need to take away the assumptions, not the polish (or any toy for that matter). Changing our understanding of how children determine sexual identity may change how children look on the outside. But it also has the possibility to change how we understand ourselves, and to unite people across sexualities and genders to foster the creativity and expressiveness that children’s seemingly “queer” behavior involves. One’s genitals shouldn’t dictate what type of toy one is allowed to play with.