Thursday, April 14, 2011

Those gender rebels at J.Crew

You might have seen this:
J.Crew catalog feature showing mother with son, featuring pink nail polish on his toenails. Quote:Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.
The stir it's causing with the socially conservative parenting police is both predictable and amusing. And even though I'm perennially amused by the fears of this crowd, I'm never really sure that I completely understand them. What exactly is going to result from boys wearing toenail polish and girls playing with trucks?

According to Dr. Keith Ablow, it appears that the following things will result from any variation from the conventional parenting script that requires strict enforcement of properly gendered behavior:
  1. Years down the road, you'll have to spend a lot of money on "psychotherapy for the kid—and maybe a little for others who’ll be affected by your “innocent” pleasure."
  2. The result of this kind of play is "psychological sterilization."
  3. An assault on "genuine emotion and genuine relationships"
  4. "encouraging the choosing of gender identity, rather than suggesting our children become comfortable with the ones that they got at birth, can throw our species into real psychological turmoil"
  5. Behaving in any way outside the sex/gender binary system to which you have been assigned amounts to "masquerading through life" which we have to avoid or else "life will exact a psychological penalty"
  6. A further problem is that "girls show none of the reticence they once did to engage in early sexual relationships with boys"

  7. And finally we get to the real problems:

  8. "it will be a very big deal if it turns out that neither gender is very comfortable anymore nurturing children above all else
  9. and neither gender is motivated to rank creating a family above having great sex forever
  10. and neither gender is motivated to protect the nation by marching into combat against other men and risking their lives."
But I wonder about these things, and I think that Dr Keith's claims and the assumptions that they ride on tell us a lot more about his own fears and limitations and insecurities than about the world we actually live in.
  1. How do we know we'll have to spend a bunch of money on therapy for the girls who play with trucks and the boys who paint their toenails? Even if there was evidence that this was true, why is it true? If the real fear here is that the kids will turn out to be transgendered, then let's talk about that.
    First, it is true that trans people often have to engage in therapy - they need a diagnosis to get the meds they need. But why is that? Because of other social constructions such the DSM and western medical conventions. We have chosen as a culture to categorize gender dysphoria as a mental health issue. We have chosen to say that when a person's gender identity doesn't fix the box we put them in, the problem is with the individual, not the box itself.
    Second, if something as simple as wearing fingernail polish can derail your gender identity, why are there any trans people in the world at all? They all went through years and years of gendered socialization, and somehow it didn't work. And now they probably do need therapy, because they're traumatized by it all. There are countless incentives in our world to suck it up and perform the gender you were assigned to rather than transitioning. If, in the face of all that socializing and policing and bullying and belittling and incentivizing acceptable behavior, there are so many people still making the choice to transition, then the claim that wearing some nail polish or playing with the wrong toys is going to derail your gender identity just seems kind of weak.
  2. I'm struggling to figure out what "sterilization" even means here. Is this sterilization in the sense of reproductively incapacitated? That seems unlikely. I was a terrible tomboy, and caused no end of worry and stress to my mom with my unacceptably boyish ways, but I don't seem to have any problem reproducing, physically or psychologically. Ironically, all the really tomboyish girls I grew up with have kids now and seem to be well-adjusted parents. Then is this intended to be "sterile" in the "bacteria-free" or super-duper clean sense of the word? I'm not even sure what that means when the modifier "psychologically" is added in.
  3. So, those who don't strictly conform to the narrow gender boxes supplied by their culture are incapable of genuine emotions and relationships? By whose definition of "genuine?" It seems to me like there are a lot of non-gender-conforming folks out there who manage to forge and maintain lasting, fulfilling relationships. So I suspect that "genuine" here just means "looks like the kind of relationship that doesn't make me feel uncomfortable or insecure."
  4. Again, where's the proof for the predicted "psychological turmoil"? And I'm pretty sure most trans people will tell you that they didn't just blithely go out and "choose" a gender. And if they could, they most likely would have chosen one that was easier to live with. It doesn't appear to work like that, Dr. Keith.
  5. Why isn't behaving according to the gender scripts we've been taught a form of masquerading as well. A performance is a performance, right? So some people perform a different script than the one they were assigned to. This makes it a "masquerade?" Hm.
  6. This is one of my all-time favorites in the list of "fears and insecurities of the socially conservative." We all know that women are the gatekeepers to fun sexy times, right? Because really, we can't expect men and boys to take responsibility for their own sexuality, the poor dears. No, the only way they can possibly behave in a sexually responsible manner is to be surrounded by demure women who will exert a gentle but firm civilizing influence and "tame the beast" by constantly withholding sexual pleasure from them. Of course, this assumes both that these women have no sexual desires of their own, and that men are so weak as to be incapable of controlling their sexual appetites. And this seems like a rather unflattering view of men, don't you think Dr. Keith?
  7. And here we get to the real underlying fear. If men and women are no longer constrained to such narrow and constrictive roles, then OMG who will raise the babeez?!?! Who can be expected to put their projects and dreams and career on hold to selflessly care for the children and perform all the other unpaid domestic labor? In a less-gendered society, could some of this self-sacrifice possibly *gasp* fall to the men? Could they really be expected to give of themselves and risk the possible damage to their careers and nurture their own offspring? Why, it's unthinkable, I tell you!
  8. Wait, you can't have great sex and also create a family? What? I didn't realize you had to choose...
  9. I suppose it's true that you can't march off to war with neon pink nail polish on your toes. Except, maybe you can. And maybe we could try talking things out before going to war. And maybe if we didn't have to construct masculinity as a zero-sum competition, there would be less of a need for war. And maybe since there are in fact already women and gay men and trans folk of both genders fighting wars, this one doesn't really make much sense.
But putting all of these basic disagreements aside, Dr. Keith and I do agree on something. I don't really care for this ad either. In fact, I don't care for this type of advertising in general. This ad suggests that buying the right things will bring you closer to your kids. If you just have the right shit in your life, you'll bond with your kids and have fun times with them. And that's what I object to.

Aspirational marketing like this always carries the implicit message that if you want to be x kind of person, all you need to do is buy product y. Choosy moms choose Jif (because what could be better for you than peanut-flavored hydrogenated oil sweetened with high fructose corn syrup?). Trendy hip mothers buy stripy shirts and neon nail polish to paint on their boys' toes. I'd like to think that my relationship with my child is not dependent on material things. There's nothing I could buy that would make me be the kind of parent I want to be. And whenever I encounter marketing (every every every day) that suggests that I need to buy a product to be the kind of person I'm supposed to aspire to being, I feel insulted and manipulated. So Dr. Keith got it right. There is a problem here. It's just not the problems he identified.


  1. I really do think it's fear of the unknown and some really deep-seated insecurities in this type that prompts this kind of argument. I think the fear is that if gender roles loosen up, then the way they personally perform masculinity will be expected to change, and that seems scary.

  2. Maybe he's right in that, if gender expression is more open and flexible, maybe more trans people who would have suffered in silence will decide to transition. Which isn't a bad thing if you consider it from the less people suffering in silence angle, but is a bad thing if you believe that having trans people in the world is an intrinsicly bad thing.

  3. What do you mean when you say masculinity is a zero-sum competition? Say more about that.

  4. Ah, very interesting. Hm.

  5. diamondsforhorses4/16/2011

    Here's your problem with #5. People like this guy don't think that gender is a performance - it's inborn. So he's not going to agre with you on that.

  6. OK, but if it's really inborn, then no amount of toenail painting and wearing sundresses should be able to derail it, right? You can't escape biology...

  7. Anonymous5/04/2011

    The question isn't whether it is harmful for girls and boys to adopt the opposite role, but why feminists are so vehement on making them.

  8. That's interesting. Exactly how do feminists make boys and girls adopt the opposite roles?