Thoughts on J. Crew’s Toemaggedon

Trigger warning for discussion of gendered and anti-trans violence.

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.

9 Comments

  1. I can’t read things like this without thinking of one of my friends from when I was very young. He was a very sensitive kid who was scared of things like fireworks and other loud noises. I remember being about three or four and going to a Halloween party at the public library. He didn’t wear a costume because he was embarrassed about wanting to go as Snow White. I have no idea what his parents said to him about it at the time. All I remember is that I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t wear the costume he wanted.

    • Yea, I can think of a few stories of male friends or relatives who weren’t allowed to do things because they were “girly.” I can’t help but think how many people have been prevented from doing something they could have been really good at – or just as importantly, could have gotten real joy and fulfillment out of – just because of the genitalia they were born with. It’s not only arbitrary and silly, it also doesn’t make any theological sense. If God makes each person unique and gives them their particular talents and interests for a reason, how does it make sense that God would also expect people to ignore or suppress whatever talents and interests don’t fit into a narrow, binary understanding of roles “appropriate” to one’s assigned gender? That just seems cruel and wasteful.

  2. I see this as another example of how negative the value our society places on femininity really is.

    It’s OK for a woman to be feminine, because she’s just a woman and of little value in the first place. And it’s OK if she wants to be a little masculine, masculinity is so great who wouldn’t want to be that way? But a man should never sink to such demeaning behaviors, and if he does we have to beat that idea right out of his head.

    If we truly valued (and by “we” I mean women too) femininity, this would be as big a deal as a little girl wearing overalls and a baseball hat.

  3. My husband just said: “When you live at the top of your little mountain and look down, all you see are slippery slopes. You can’t see the higher peaks all around you.”

    Good analogy for patriarchy. This isn’t an attack on masculinity, but it is an attack on patriarchal valuing of ‘masculinity’ above ‘femininity’.

    I have a hard time valuing feminine things. I have a little girl who loves princess things, dresses, and sparkly make-up. I find it hard to support her in that because I don’t value those things.

    • That is a great analogy. And exactly this: This isn’t an attack on masculinity, but it is an attack on patriarchal valuing of ‘masculinity’ above ‘femininity’.

      I have had a hard time with ‘femininity,’ too. Our toddler just started to talk about princess stuff and it did make me a little sad :p I think it can be fine to not value ‘feminine’ things personally as long as we’re careful not to devalue them for everyone or in general. It’s a tough line to walk, though, when everything in our culture teaches us to devalue anything primarily associated with women.

      Although I’ve found that the longer I’m away from my old church communities, the more I’m able to enjoy dressing up and domestic things, and the more I’m able to see how many ‘feminine’ things are really practical (like sewing) or just general essential skills (like being able to keep a household running) or even liberating (being able to grow your own food).

  4. There’s an historical angle that I think people sometimes miss. There has been over a century of activism and social agitation to broaden women’s roles and gender expression from the extremely oppressive modes of years past. There has been no analogous social movement for men and consequently, the breadth of socially acceptable roles and expression available to men/boys remains more limited to traditionally “masculine” modes.

    This isn’t surprising, as the group of people to agitate most forcefully for social change is naturally going to be the group in the position of lesser power. Hence, those who have agitated for change—women—have gained some ground in widening social approval for non-traditional roles and expression while those who have not agitated for change—men—remain mired in a socially restricted range of roles and expression. Of equal importance is the fact that men have collectively resisted social change that challenges sexism, as it represents a threat to their power and privilege. One mode of resistance takes the form of insisting upon maintaining a traditional range of “masculine” roles and expression.

    Therefore, after a century or more of social transformation around gender issues, you wind up with femininity and limited forms of masculinity being socially acceptable in women/girls while femininity in boys/men is still widely viewed as socially unacceptable. Hence, as a woman, I can eschew makeup and dresses and simultaneously choose to engage in traditionally male activities with some social resistance, but if a man decided to embrace feminine modes of dress and engage in traditionally female activities he’d literally be risking his life. Put another way, I can walk out to the street, don a pair of mechanic’s coveralls, and replace the alternator on my car with little interference from others. Many people might express curiosity but they would largely leave me be. However, a man would be risking his life if he was found pushing a baby carriage in the park while wearing heels and a dress.

    I think this really needs to change, but for this to happen, men are going to have to collectively step up to the plate and push for the change to take place. Since their greater position of power provides little motivation to do so, change remains quite glacial.

    • Great points. I do think there’s slowly growing awareness about it, specifically around bully culture and the way ideas about masculinity feed into that (not that only boys are bullies, by any means), and about the long-term harm done to men by the limited range of emotional expression that’s culturally acceptable for them. And probably more slowly, around sexual abuse of boys and male rape or abuse victims – I think a huge part of why there’s even more silence around male survivors than there is around survivors in general is due to the idea that “real” masculinity is dominant and impervious – therefore “real” men can’t be (admit to being) “victims.”

  5. You are so right- the few men who do risk their lives. Trans women especially.

    Sadly, it took me going shopping with a woman who used to be a man for me to not sneer at pretty shoes. I guess I figured that if she loved it, it was ok. If someone who had always been a woman loved it, it wasn’t good enough. I am so sexist and I hate it.

    • Well, male-assigned people , yes.

      That’s interesting re: shopping with your friend. I think a huge part of transmisogyny is anger at the way it subverts societal notions of masculinity as superior and femininity as inferior that even many people who think of themselves as feminist have deeply internalized. We can understand when a woman wants to do the same things and have the same rights as a man. That’s because she wants to have power and significance, obviously. But why would a “man” want to do the same things or be in the same role as a woman? Everything we associate femininity with is either devalued despite being incredibly important (childrearing and homemaking, e.g.) or seen as completely frivolous or irrational. Again, even a lot of prominent feminists buy into this, e.g., criticizing women who choose to stay at home, or women who enjoy doing domestic things as wasting their talents or being flighty. Of course when femininity is framed that way, it’s not going to make sense for a “man” to want to be “feminine” or female, and anyone who does is seen as particularly perverted.

      (some) women being able to do (some of the) the things men do is definitely progress. But there won’t be real gender equality until men can do the things women do, too.