Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Handsome" in Pink?

When I was a teen, I spent one summer as a camp counselor at a local Jewish school.  If all the campers went home early, I was sometimes recruited to help out with the day care for preschoolers.  During one of these stints, a preschool teacher explained why one of the little three-year-old boys ran screaming away after a little girl offered him a pink toy.  Shaking her head, she said, “That’s Samuel. His favorite color was pink, but his father was so worried about what that might mean [insert meaningful look here] that he told Samuel that going near anything pink would make his penis fall off. Samuel’s been terrified of all things pink since then.”  We fell into a troubled silence as we contemplated the long-reaching effects of Samuel’s father’s fears, how he handled them, and what damage this had already done to Samuel, who was a loner and seemed quite anxious at all times. Granted, I’ve often seen this kind of fear in parents in my years of working with children, but never to this extreme, and although nearly twenty years have passed, I’ve never forgotten it.

Then last fall, I read an inspiring blog post by Nerdy Apple Bottom (NAB) that seemed to present the opposite side of this issue: her five year old son decided to dress as his favorite female character from Scooby Doo for Halloween and she fully supported it.  However, his choice to dress as “Daphne” didn’t go over as well with some of the mothers of his classmates.  The issue here is not a boy dressing as a female character: in fact, as NAB notes in her blog post, the whole point of Halloween is to dress up as something you are not; e.g. dressing as a ninja doesn’t mean your child is suddenly going to have martial arts skills, nor does anyone think that he/she will grow up to become an actual ninja. The problem isn’t even with how her son was received by his peers (high fives from some and no notice from others), but how his peers’ mothers reacted.  They tried to bully NAB and her son into following their rules about what is and isn’t acceptable.  They reasoned that this was the best thing to do because if their rules weren’t followed, the kids would make fun of NAB’s son.  Yet, that wasn’t actually happening. 

Although the reaction of the other mothers is appalling, I found it more worrisome that NAB’s son, even at his young age, was already aware that other kids might make fun of his choice, and was concerned about wearing the costume, even though he really, really wanted to.  What kind of world do we live in where a five year old preschooler has to worry about being made fun of by his peers?  I realize it’s part of human nature to make fun of those who deviate from our norms, but it’s not something our society should accept, promote, or ignore: it’s our job as adults to help kids learn how to interact in a civilized, polite way with others, and that includes telling them that making fun of others is simply not allowed, period. I learned this lesson long before preschool, but it was certainly reinforced there.  Worst of all is that this boy was attending a preschool associated with a Christian church.  If this preschool is teaching the values that Christ promoted, how would making fun of others be allowed?

The J.Crew ad that set off "Toemageddon 2011"
          As you can probably tell, I have some strong views about letting kids—especially boys—express themselves in whatever way works for them.  Watching this video on the Daily Show brought those views into play, yet again.  Jon Stewart noted that a recent advertisement for J. Crew, which featured an employee of the company, Jenna Lyons, and her son, Beckett, playing, had led to "Toemageddon 2011" on the major news networks. The issue? Jenna’s son likes pink, and in the ad, she has painted his toenails in his favorite color.  All of a sudden, everyone was discussing whether this could make her son become gay or transgendered, whether the ad was "blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children," and even suggesting that encouraging children to participate in activities outside heteronormative gender roles could lead to adults who have no interest in having or nurturing children.

As I watched Stewart’s segment, I couldn’t help but wonder why people feel so threatened by any challenge to the gender roles they cling to?  We have an undeniable need to separate the world into black and white dichotomies—it’s something I find myself falling into often—but that doesn’t mean that doing so serves us well. In fact, I can’t think of any time that dividing the world into two categories has ever been beneficial, although I could easily be overlooking something.  Overall, however, I think we’re able to function better as a society when we embrace and get to know our “gray areas” as they actually are.  Is it not better for us, as a society, that girls wear clothes that allow them to move and do not endanger their health, as the clothes of the past did?  Nonetheless, people of even seventy years ago would probably be appalled to see women wearing pants. I think, instead of giving in to our urge to compartmentalize the world, we must fight our instincts: we must admit that not everything fits into a category, and we must see how that can benefit us, rather that assume if it doesn’t fit, it’s either a threat or not worth our time.  I explored this issue at length in my blog post, Binary Categories, so I won’t say more about it here.

Instead, I’d like to focus on why we think it’s possible for the application of nail polish in a color we consider “girly” (even though it used to be considered a masculine color until the 1940s…) to make a boy gay or transgendered.  You cannot make someone gay or transgendered. Nor can you make a gay person straight or convince a trans person to happily live as the sex they weren’t meant to be. A gay person’s attractions are just as naturally occurring as a straight person’s: one never knows from where they arrive, and they are utterly outside of our control.  A dear friend of mine, S—who has a gay mother and sister—shared a story with me about her early dating life that illuminates this fact.  S had brought another female date home when her mother drew her aside to tell her that she should really stop trying. She knew S wasn’t gay, and told her that she would love her no matter what.  S was trying, very hard, to make herself gay, but it didn’t work.  She’s happily married to a man now.  Research shows the adopted children of gay parents are no more likely to be gay than those raised by straight parents.  You simply cannot “nurture” someone into being gay. 

Transgenderism is, likewise, not something you can be made to feel. Transgendered people truly suffer, feeling that they are trapped in a body that does not reflect their gender. A recent survey found that 41% of transgendered people in the United States have attempted to commit suicide. This is “more than 25 times the rate of the general population, which is 1.6 percent. And among trans people ages 18-44, the suicide attempt rate was 45 percent.”  Other studies I have read show that trans people who receive hormone therapy have a lower rate of suicide attempts, though it’s still greater than the general population.  After sex-reassignment surgery, the rate of suicide attempts for transgendered persons drops to the same as the general population. Those facts convinced me of the great need for support of our trans community.  Obviously, running ads in which a boy’s toenails are painted pink doesn’t do that, nor could it possibly be the intention of J. Crew.  While some pundits may consider a boy who follows heteronormative gender rules in all ways except for pink nail polish to be “transgendered,” they couldn’t be more wrong.  In addition to support, we obviously need to do a lot of education in order to help our fellow Americans understand the plight of our trans friends and neighbors.
This little guy enjoys getting his nails painted!

Our world has enough stress in it as it is, and our children grow up so much faster these days.  Can’t we reduce the pressure on them and let our kids play in whatever ways—and with whatever colors—make them happy?* 

*Like, for instance, the way this mother has…

No comments:

Post a Comment