Apparently this ad, depicting a J. Crew designer playing and laughing with her five year old son, is causing quite a bit of sturm and drang – all because the little boy’s toenails are painted pink. This, of course, is the end of the world, at least according to Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist writing for Fox News online:
It may be fun and games now, Jenna, but at least put some money aside for psychotherapy for the kid—and maybe a little for others who’ll be affected by your “innocent” pleasure.
This is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity—homogenizing males and females when the outcome of such “psychological sterilization” [my word choice] is not known….
If you have no problem with the J. Crew ad, how about one in which a little boy models a sundress? What could possibly be the problem with that?….
The fallout is already being seen. Increasingly, girls show none of the reticence they once did to engage in early sexual relationships with boys. That may be a good thing from the standpoint of gender equality, but it could be a bad thing since there is no longer the same typically “feminine” brake on such behavior. Girls beat up other girls on YouTube. Young men primp and preen until their abdomens are washboards and their hair is perfect. And while that may seem like no big deal, it will be a very big deal if it turns out that neither gender is very comfortable anymore nurturing children above all else, and neither gender is motivated to rank creating a family above having great sex forever and neither gender is motivated to protect the nation by marching into combat against other men and risking their lives.
Ablow has said elsewhere that this ad is an “attack on masculinity.” Good grief. Please, be a little more melodramatic, Dr. Ablow. I don’t think you laid it on quite thick enough. Please explain more about how nail polish on little boys is a threat to homeland security. Also it’s not fucked up at all to equate femininity with reticence to have sex, or to place sole responsibility to put the “brakes” on sexual contact on girls (you know, because obviously men are completely incapable of controlling themselves sexually).
On one level it’s hard to think of something insightful to say about this. It’s nail polish. On a child. It seems like it ought to be perfectly obvious that seeing any sort of controversy in it is utterly ridiculous (as Jon Stewart illustrates in his hilarious skewering of the reaction to this ad). But it’s not obvious for many people in American culture, perhaps most people. As absurd as that is, it doesn’t change the fact that the reaction to this ad reflects false and dangerous ideas about gender that need to be seriously challenged.
A lot of the responses defending this mom focus on the fact that her son is just a kid having fun. That’s true, but I think these responses miss the real issue, which is that gender expression at any age shouldn’t be constrained by arbitrary gender norms. There’s increasing awareness of the diversity of gender expression in young children, particularly little boys. Many parents are learning to accept “princess boys” and other gender non-comforming children as they are, and reaching out to their communities and other parents to encourage acceptance of these children.
These are wonderful and very welcome developments, but lately I’ve been wondering what happens when these kids – especially the boys – become teens and still display so-called gender inappropriate interests or expression. What happens if they become princess men? If they become men who like wearing dresses? We’re still a very long way from learning to accept stereotypically feminine behavior, appearance, or interests in men, or people we assume to be male. To the contrary, our narrow-minded, irrational expectations of gender conformity pose a real and potentially fatal danger to men and people assumed to be male whose gender expression is deemed insufficiently masculine.
We have all been socialized to respond to gender nonconformity with intense anger, disgust, and fear. We’re taught that conventional binary gender distinctions are inflexible, essential, and natural – taught them as absolute, inviolable dogma. This kind of fundamentalism about gender is easily turned to violence against people of all genders (especially trans women, trans* people in general, and “effeminate” men) who don’t fit into the rigid scripts we have been taught as gospel. People are assaulted every day, some fatally, because of these beliefs. For example, the numbers we have suggest that a trans woman is murdered every 1-3 days – and the real numbers are almost certainly much higher than that. There’s a worldwide epidemic of gendered violence that is directly related to the myths we believe about gender.
These beliefs are ridiculous, just as any other prejudice is ridiculous. There’s no reasonable explanation for why it’s so horribly wrong or damaging for a boy, or a man, to wear nail polish, or a sundress, or makeup, or anything else deemed “feminine.” But the fact that gender normativity is irrational doesn’t make it any less powerful, or dangerous. This is yet another way that patriarchy hurts people of all genders, including men.