It appears that a boy’s love of pink has others seeing a different colour.
Originally, I had planned on discussing Bill C-389 in this column. That was until Julia Horel-O’Brien sent me a link to the reactions a J. Crew email mailer (aka advertisement) has garnered since being sent to customers on April 5th (the advert is now available on the J. Crew website under the feature Jenna’s picks).
The layout Saturday with Jenna showcases the company’s president and creative director Jenna Lyons and her five-year-old son Beckett spending time together and going “off duty in style”. In one image from the advert, a smiling Jenna is seen holding Beckett’s feet in her lap. Beckett, appearing to be having a laugh, is sporting painted toenails in a rather fetching neon pink colour. Under the headline “Quality Time”, Lyons is quoted: “Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.”
This mother-child bonding display, however, has enraged some individuals and groups who think the advertisement celebrates “gender-confused boys wanting to dress and act like girls” and promotes the exploitation of Beckett “behind the façade of liberal, transgendered identity politics.” At least, that is what media commentator Erin R. Brown of the socially conservative Media Research Center wrote on the group’s Culture and Media Institute website. Brown goes on to argue, “Not only is Beckett likely to change his favorite color as early as tomorrow, Jenna’s indulgence (or encouragement) could make life hard for the boy in the future.”
You are right in one aspect, Ms. Brown. Beckett is likely to change his favourite colour, as most children are to do in the process of exploring the world. That potential for change alone is unlikely to make life hard for Beckett. What will most liking cause difficulty for a boy who enjoys the colour pink is gender norms and the real fear some people have of transgressing them.
The idea that a mother spending time with her son is “blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children” is not only appalling in its condescension as to how “good” mothers behave, but also towards what is acceptable behaviour for little boys. At its root, this response is transphobic. What is transphobia? you might ask. Transphobia can be defined as the fear, loathing and discriminatory treatment of those individuals whose gender identity or expression (perceived or otherwise) do not match the one traditionally accorded to their birth assigned sex. In this case, our culture has dubbed the colour pink and the use of nail polish to be “feminine” and restricted to those born female. For boys to like or use such things is seen as a gross violation of accepted gender norms. Some individuals see this violation as the downfall of gender and all the wonderful things gender does for us in our culture (I type this last portion with some snark as there are various things gender does that are not wonderful).
Overall, childhood is a time of exploration - ideally, a time during which the adults in a child’s life provide love, encouragement and support. Those items that adults have dubbed as belonging to “girls” or “boys” should not restrict children’s exploration of who they are and who they might want to become. In this sense, I firmly believe that gender non-conformity does not equal gender-confusion or cause gender-dysphoria (the psychiatric term for extreme discontent with the sex one is born). That has been my personal experience.
My brother A is five years my junior. Prior to starting kindergarten, he mostly sported my hand-me-down clothing in an array of pink, red and purple colours – all my favourites! As my parents noted, my clothes were in good shape and they saw it as fiscally unnecessary to go out and buy new clothes in different colours when he would outgrow them in a few months. A and I also used to play with Barbies, dress up in my “ball gowns,” and secretly use my Mother’s makeup. There are even a few photos of us with my cousin holding a mock wedding; we all took turns being the groom, bride, and officiate. Such early experimentation with “feminine” coded items has not led A to experience any issues in his life. Engaging in activities and wearing clothing traditionally coded as “feminine” does not mean a male child is confused, or will grow up to be gay, transgender or transsexual (and it is our transphobic society that insists there is something wrong when people do identify as trans). That is the real fear and stigma that is driving such reactions against this advertisement.
Sadly, this reaction has not been limited to this particular image. We have also seen similar backlash against Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s 3-year-old daughter (Life and Style Weekly devoted an entire cover to the “issue”).
Overall, with the heightened fear that surrounds boys exploring “girlie” things, I wonder if the J Crew image would have caused the same amount of controversy if Lyon had a daughter and she was shown playing with a fire truck?
J. Crew has declined to provide a statement about the “controversy”.