Ever since the age of 2, when his hair first started growing in, my son Elijah has been mistaken for a girl. As he grew, so did his curls; they now frame his face and inch toward his shoulders, with every offer to trim them rebuffed. Elijah was 3 when he started painting his toenails; he had been watching me give myself pedicures, and decided that his toes needed some color as well. Now, at 4, he parades around his best friend's house wearing her frilliest purple dress while they play detailed and intense games of “Princess.”
Completely unwittingly, Elijah has been eschewing gender stereotypes almost his entire four years of life, and I couldn't be prouder. And he's not alone. Children have inadvertently been rejecting and blurring gender constructs ever since there have been children, but for the past few years, media coverage of young boys donning princess gear and painting their nails has been on the upswing—for better or worse.
For Sarah Manley, whose nom de blog is Nerdy Apple Bottom, the Internet seemed to explode the day after she wrote, on her personal blog, about her son dressing up as Scooby-Doo's Daphne for Halloween. In the post, Manley wrote in frustration about getting flak from some fellow parents after dropping off her costumed son, Boo, at school.
Two mothers went wide-eyed and made faces as if they smelled decomp. And I realize that my son is seeing the same thing I am. So I say, “Doesn't he look great?” And Mom A says in disgust, “Did he ask to be that?!” And then Mom C approaches. She had been in the main room, saw us walk in, and followed us down the hall to let me know her thoughts. And they were that I should never have “allowed” this and thank God it wasn't next year when he was in kindergarten since I would have had to put my foot down and “forbidden” [it].
Manley rightly observes, “If my daughter had dressed as Batman, no one would have thought twice about it. No one.” But the mothers of Boo's classmates (the kids themselves thought the Daphne costume was just great) weren't the only ones with strong reactions. Manley's post, titled “My Son Is Gay,” quickly went viral, and soon garnered more than 45,000 responses, running the gamut from supportive to vicious.
The positive responses commended Manley for not toeing what seems to be an increasingly rigid line between what's “boy” stuff and what's “girl” stuff. One commenter wrote, “The reason there are kids that will bully and make fun of a child for a nontraditional costume choice is because they have learned this behavior from adults like Moms A, B, and C. Thank you for supporting your child in his choices, and for helping him find the courage that day to get out of the car. You're teaching him that he shouldn't be ashamed of himself. It is other people who shame, taunt, and bully. It's those people that are placing their hang-ups on your son.”
The negative responses called out Manley, both for letting Boo dress as a female character, and for “exploiting” him via the blog post that followed. “I'm sorry to say it, but this kid is going to be ridiculed for this for a long time,” read one comment. “Whether you like it or not, anyone who has ever been a young boy will tell you that no matter your age, or the occasion, wearing a skirt & purse to school isn't something you live down easily. I wish it weren't so, but it is. What's sad is the kid knew this, and the mom refused to listen to him and put him in a situation that will most likely affect his self-confidence for a very long time.” Another commenter scoffed, “We can all hoot and holler for equality, but if you're willing to let your kid take that kind of heat so you can prove a point, then you are the coldest-hearted mother I know.”
Though she hadn't set out to spark such widespread discourse on gender stereotypes, Manley has come to feel pride in sharing Boo's story. More than a year later, she reflected on the post in an e-mail to me, stating, “I make mistakes every day, but that post was not one of them.”
“When I typed that post, I was angry and sad and indignant, but I wasn't thinking of the themes that could be applied to various parts of society. I didn't set out to be an activist. I feel life should have as level of a playing field as possible. I want my children, both male and female, to feel the same.”
Yet it's clear that, when it's festooned with tulle and tiaras, that “level playing field” makes some people anxious and outraged. Seattle mother Cheryl Kilodavis, author of the book My Princess Boy, was initially uncomfortable with her 5-year-old son's insistence on dressing up in sparkly pink dresses and tutus because she was concerned about bullying and ridicule. But, as she revealed in a Today show appearance, once she realized that her discomfort “was my issue, not Dyson's,” she embraced his love of frills and sparkles, and wrote My Princess Boy to create opportunities for dialogue between children and adults on the sticky subject of boys who want to do “girl things.” Initially self-published, the book was soon snapped up by Simon & Schuster's Aladdin imprint, and has been an unqualified success.
Like Manley, Kilodavis has found that the reaction both to the book and to her son, Dyson, has been mostly positive. She notes that when she's confronted by somebody who makes a disdainful comment about Dyson's skirts and tiaras, she does her best to engage them in conversation; she has encountered,a mixture of reactions that mostly lean toward the positive. Yet, despite efforts to use her book as a teaching tool, Kilodavis can at times find herself frustrated. “I picked up Dyson from gymnastics and some parents spoke about his pink butterfly backpack,” she recalls. “A mother: 'What a shame that mom buys girls' stuff for her son.' A father: 'I'd never allow my boy to be anything but a boy.' Then the son asked Dyson, 'Where did you get that backpack? I like butterflies.' As Dyson answered, the father grabbed his boy [away]. Kids are not the problem.”
A common criticism from those who have trouble understanding the parents of boys like Dyson or Boo is that they're not letting “boys be boys.” These observers seem to fear that allowing a preschool-age boy to wear a dress or play with a doll will have a disastrous effect on his future masculinity. “If a girl is playing hard and wanting to wear boy things, then it's kind of this macho thing, this tough thing, and we give pride to that,” notes Kilodavis. “[But] if a boy is a little sensitive, or what you might consider less strong, then all of a sudden it's a bad thing, and, you know, we've got to 'man him up' and change that.”
This point of view was amply demonstrated earlier this year, when clothing retailer J. Crew featured a photo in its spring catalog of company president and creative director Jenna Lyons painting her young son's toenails as part of a “Saturday with Jenna” promotion. There was no explanation, no disclaimer, only a sweet picture of a boy enjoying some free time with his mother and a bottle of hot pink polish. But to many people, the photo spoke volumes.
Bloggers, journalists, and TV personalities quickly added their voices to what Jon Stewart eventually called “Toemageddon” on an episode of The Daily Show. The loudest and most oppositional critique came via an editorial written by motivational speaker, Fox News columnist, and self-described “America's Psychiatrist” Keith Ablow, who opined that the photo was “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' is not known.”
Ablow believes that allowing young boys to dabble in nail polish will not only “plant the seeds of gender confusion,” but will also trigger a downward spiral in society, until gender becomes so convoluted that—gasp!—it might just cease to exist. He posits, “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 makes quite the leap in reasoning there, if indeed it can be called reasoning. (“Blind gender panic and homophobia” seems more accurate.) For me, the fact that my son plays “family” and lovingly cuddles his dolls (and paints his nails and dresses up on occasion) actually gives me hope that he will be a loving, caring, nurturing father. But beyond that, Ablow's fears seem not only irrational but ahistorical: The fact of a young boy wearing a dress, or a young girl refusing to wear one, is not a millennial phenomenon. The generation that grew up on Marlo Thomas and Friends singing “Free to Be… You and Me,” for instance, doesn't seem to have had any problem marching into combat, finding “true love” via reality television, getting married, having children, tweeting photos of their private parts to strangers, and living heteronormative, appropriately gendered lives.
So what has caused all these zealous responses, like Ablow's, to what don't seem like especially notable gender transgressions? Perhaps such responses are due in part to a gradual restriction of gender definitions, in mainstream society at least, that has occured over the last hundred years or so, coaxed along by both media and capitalism.
For instance, recent works ranging from Lynn Peril's 2002 book Pink Think to a 2011 Smithsonian article have cited historical sources establishing that the color pink was actually associated with boys until the early 20th century—it was a diminutive of the masculine reds favored in men's clothing. And Jeanne Maglaty, author of the Smithsonian piece, notes that children's clothing was gender-neutral until the mid-20th century. Boys and girls alike had wardrobes consisting of dresses until the end of the 1800s; it wasn't until the 1940s that manufacturers started dictating color options to differentiate boys' and girls' fashion.
Indeed, clothing manufacturers understood what toy manufacturers would soon latch onto as well: The more you individualize items based on gender, the more products parents will feel compelled to buy. Our increasingly consumerist culture has not let those companies down, and we've seen the gender divide in retail grow even more pronounced in the past few decades. There are no longer images of boys in advertisements for dolls, which you might have seen as recently as the 1980s, advertising products such as the My Buddy doll. Brick-and-mortar stores like Pottery Barn Kids, the Gap, and Gymboree have no problem drawing firm lines between “boy” and “girl” sections, often confining them to opposite sides of a central cash-register area. And it is difficult to find seemingly gender-neutral items—bikes, shoes, crib sheets, even diapers—that aren't tricked out with gender-specific colors, motifs, and characters. We have become so conditioned to the gender divide in retail that when a young child does express a taste that goes outside the prescribed norm, it is jarring in a way that it might not have been 10, 20, or 30 years ago.
And though critics like Ablow may be loud and brash, there are those responses to the J. Crew ad that remind us there is nothing wrong with a young boy painting his nails—or taking part in any other “girly” activity, for that matter. Patrons of the retailer voiced their support on its Facebook page, “liking” the photo and adding their own positive comments. In addition to writing a note or blog post championing J. Crew, many people exercised their consumer power by showing support via purchases, something the company certainly
Experts also weighed in on the situation, echoing those who suggested the ad was really a nonissue. Psychologist Susan Bartell, who appeared on CBS's Early Show in the wake of Toemageddon, shared the insight that “[Our kids'] gender is going to emerge naturally as part of who they are and has nothing to do with whether we put pink nail polish on them.”
Bartell's words remind me that allowing my son to express himself via his clothes or nails is not going to harm him. If anything, I can only hope that in the end it will make him stronger, as both Manley and Kilodavis wish for their boys. As I watch Elijah play with his fleet of cars, his nails painted a glittery purple, I'm confident that he will be able to see through the shades of pink, blue, and gray surrounding him in order to figure out who he is. And if he can have fun doing it, then all the better.
Avital Norman Nathman blogs at TheMamafesto.com. This is her first piece for Bitch.