Pink ScareWhat's behind the media panic about “princess boys"?

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 This is her first piece for Bitch.

This article was published in Red Issue #52 | Fall 2011
by Avital Norman Nathman
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Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer and fulltime feminist killjoy. Find her tweeting @TheMamafesto

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23 Comments Have Been Posted

"My Son is Gay"

The only thing I didn't like about Sarah Manley's post, and some proponents of the "princess boy" movement is the defense of a child's supposed sexuality ("My Son is Gay"). Many gay men have said that they partook in obvious gender-bending behaviour and interests, or have said that they knew they were gay from a young age, but just because a boy likes things society has deemed feminine, doesn't necessarily mean he is, or will be, gay. As a personal anecdote, my younger brother took every opportunity to paint his nails and wear my dresses he could, and is now a well-adjusted straight man. Sexual orientation is not the issue here, but is only a symptom of undue fear. By this I mean Manley is right in asserting acceptance of her child no matter his sexual orientation, but placing sexual orientation on a child because of his or her behaviour is premature. Like Avital says, what is at stake in encouraging "princess boys" and "batman girls" is allowing kids the full range of imagination and play, whether that means supporting their interests in toy trucks or frilly dresses, but without reading in sexuality.

I agree, as I pointed out

I wish more parents would

I wish more parents would read this, or at least feel inclined to look into raising their children in a way that is gender-neutral. It is exactly this imposed distinction when it comes to children's clothing, toys, and behaviour that leads children to believe that participating in something that is out of their zone is wrong. I love how this article points out that boy stuff/girl stuff isn't natural in children and is only enforced by parents. And it's so true that when it's little girls who dress up as boys or play with toy trucks, it becomes adorable, as if she's a better female because she's acting like a boy. I don't think gay is influenced by "nurture" anyway, and quite frankly, I find it disgusting and hurtful when parents say, "I don't want my daughter or son to be gay."

Insightful commentary

Thanks for this piece! I really enjoyed reading it and think my students will, too, which is why I'll include it in the readings for my "Gender Roles" university class. It's incredible how something as simple as a colour can carry so much meaning, or how items like nail polish automatically raise questions about someone's adherence to gender norms, or their sexual orientation. In any case, this is a good summary of those issues, so thanks!

Pink scare

Brava to Ms. Nathman, for so thoroughly documenting our recent, collective, societal angst over pink boys as being expressed through the media.

The source of the vitriol towards these young boys and their parents is, in my opinion, the profound discomfort we - the grown-ups - feel over the changing roles of men and women.

Men and women not raised with this kind of emotional freedom, who were raised with gender-biased conditioning, and who rely on their gender to dictate their behavior, and to predict the behaviors of others — they have no choice but to take offense at soft boys, and defend their rigid points of view. Their identities depend upon it.


With my business I talk about gender stereotypes and sexualization to parents all of the time. I have a large Parent Community and will be sharing this excellent article with them, and look forward to their responses. This is, I believe, the single best article I've read on the Pink Scare with our boys.

Awesome job, Avital!

I'm in the process of creating a boys resource page for the Pigtail Pals blog, and I will definitely be including this article.

The kid's name is Dyson? LOL.

The kid's name is Dyson? LOL.

Clothing and nail polish do

Clothing and nail polish do not make a woman a woman. Society has certain standards it places on the genders. Call them 'stereotypes' if you want to make them sound negative, but they are there. They always have been, since before Ancient Egypt, and they always will be there. Teaching children to 'eschew gender stereotypes' may sound noble and deep, but social rules and traditions are there, and kids need to learn them to function successfully.

First of all, I agree with

First of all, I agree with Danielle's comment, and yes, I did read the blog post (Boo makes an adorable Daphne). Even if you add the addendum "or not", you are sexualizing a child that isn't even in Kindergarten yet. A lot of people wear gender-bending clothing without being strictly (or even vaguely) homosexual. Not that there would be anything wrong with that if he turns out to be so, but that should probably wait for a time when the kid begins developing sexual hormones and forming crushes that are not based on who has the coolest toys.
Also, I have to add... what universe are the rest of the feminists living in? We don't live in a world where only boys would be ostracized for not conforming to gender roles. Any preschool girl dressed up in a batman costume with ripply biceps and overemphasized abs would be subject to ridicule, too. If not from the adults, then certainly from the other girls. This is not a symptom of the genderization of recent years, either. As a 20-something feminist, my tomboy school career was hell. Adults made decisions and comments, the girls were cliquish and cruel... and once puberty hit, the boys that had admired my tree-climbing skills and played baseball with me after school were suddenly either coy or harsh. Having spoken to other women my age, that was not an isolated incident, and it all occurred during the halcyon days of 80's and 90's gender equalization that this article seems to be reminiscing over.
Now, when I see a kid in a camo t-shirt, pink frilly skirt, with a ponytail, playing baseball and not softball....then, I'll feel like we're making real head-way on not forcing gender-identities onto our children.

Kids are not the problem

I love the article and the comments made toward the boys, "why do you carry a butterfly back pack?" "I like butterflies." Kids are not the problem. Why does you son paint his toenails? "He likes the color pink!" What is wrong with that? Kids are not the problem. He will be harassed because he wears a tiara and tu tu." No he isn't. Thanks for showing the mothers who have courage and let their children be free of social stereo typing.and bowing down to peer pressure.

Great insight! I just never

Great insight! I just never understood the problem with people dressing how they like, or choosing certain toys. I'm a lifelong tomboy and I have been urged to wear dresses, and in my own time do occasionally, but mostly my wardrobe choices have been accepted. Yes, I was teased sometimes, but kids can be cruel, they will tease others no matter what they wear, they'll target something. It is absurd that boys get more flack for being" non-gender normative". They're just colors!

Other kids aren't as accepting as you think

The truth is that kids start reinforcing gender roles at a surprisingly young age. A good friend's younger son is gender-nonconforming. This has been obvious to his parents since he could first reach for a toy or pull a princess dress out of a pile of costumes. During preschool, he would wear makeup and nail polish to school. We live in a very liberal neighborhood in downtown Toronto. The other parents were generally fine, but his teachers were critical of his gender expression, and many of the other kids were fairly vicious about it. It was possible for us to teach the kids to accept this young person's gender, but it did require teaching. This may be because kids were bombarded with gender-specific advertising and consumer goods, and developed a very rigid binary view of gender as a result, but it was definitely a major problem for my friend's son. To avoid being bullied, he ended up downplaying his gender when at school. It was hard to watch.

the fact that a girl want to

the fact that a girl want to use pants or play with toys of men does not make us less women. Also if men want to wear or play with things of women it does not mean that he is less men. You're all different, everyone is different, then the fact of different things we like does not mean that we rarr, or that we are not normal, every who has his point of view and thoughts and they should be respected, to be respected, you have to respect in order to respect you, You have to be happy as you are and you do not mind what others say in the end one is the owner of our own life. so be proud of who you are.

Maybe this is stating the

Maybe this is stating the obvious, the reason we people freak out when little boys dress as princesses and not when little girls dress as batman is that sexism is still alive and well in our culture. If we didn't still value males over females, this problem would disappear (and I'm guessing homophobia with it).

I hope all parents read this important article

I hope all parents read this important article ... in order to educate their children

what would be the thesis of

<p>what would be the thesis of this what excatly is the author aruging</p>

Gender issues aside, there

Gender issues aside, there _is_ a problem with teaching your child of any sex to be materialistic and to apply toxic chemicals to their body. Nail polish is a highly unnatural substance with known health risks for people of any age, and of course preschoolers are more vulnerable and may put painted fingers in their mouths.

As for the princess business in general, while I find it more harmful to girls because they're so bombarded with it, no child should be encouraged to idolize the idle rich aristocracy rather than people who work for a living. In the gender-stereotyped toy and clothing markets, boys are taught to look up to athletes, firefighters, police officers, doctors, etc. People who either entertain us through their talent and hard work or perform needed functions in society. Girls are bombarded with everything princess - as if society is intentionally teaching them to be lazy, not take responsibility for themselves, and wait for a man to rescue and control them. If boys or girls want more "feminine" interests, let it be nurses, teachers, social workers, or stay-at-home parents they look up to, not useless princesses that teach the exact opposite of the skills kids need to fend for themselves in the real world.

Historic boys in dressses

To the people who think that boys in dresses are a contemporary phenomenton:
The kid in the middle of this image is young Frederick of Prussia, later called "The Great". It was pretty normal around that time (18th century) to dress all the kids in dresses and sometimes even corsets! I guess we'd know if that turned a whole generation of aristocrats gay... (Ok so Frederick himself was probably gay, but not in the girlish, cross-dresser way, he just valued mens friendship over romantic love & marriage, and that got the people talking. He was actually a great man of war when he was young.).

rainbow babies

I believe it is the Asian/Indian tradition to dress boy babies in pink & girls in blue too, and in Poland. Where in the mid 20th C did these 2 colours suddenly become ‘babified’? Which clothing manufacturer decided they were gender-specific either way round? I'd like to research this.
If I had children I’d dress them in all colours of the rainbow like a joyful summer garden, until they were old enough to choose their own. Then - as long as their choice was warm enough, and not liable to put them in danger, I'd let them wear whatever they want.
And as for painting the nails, body adornment etc - look at nature! All the brightest and most exquisite birds are male.

I was browsing some sites

I was browsing some sites that may help my queries to have its corresponding answers. Having found this one here.Really great post, Thank you for sharing This knowledge.Excellently written article.
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I find it odd that no one

I find it odd that no one commented on the family here. Where is the father?
Or is this just a single mother doing as she pleases?

Change is Coming

First, I absolutely love this. Second, change towards raising children in a gender neutral home is not far off. It just needs more light like that shone here. My husband when we first met was blindly homophobic and strict in his belief on gender roles, our son was NOT going to do ballet or be in theater. Now, his best friend is gay and says we should let our son experiment everything and pick what he likes instead of what we think he should like. And he keeps growing in his understanding of everything and helps me grow as well. Our generation can be taught. I have seen so many change their views with ONE logical argument because previously all they had were shallow prejudices put on them by their parents. The more articles we have like this, the more positivity, the more knowledge put forth by projects like gender x, the better we can make the world for our children.

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