It’s the elves…

Nuclear crises in Japan, ineffectual budget deals  in Washington, “shocking American idol eliminations”…and little boys with pink toenails.  What’s the world coming to?  To add to the inevitable rumpus around the controversial J.Crew ad featuring a mother painting her son’s toenails, J.Lo announced that she, too, has painted her son’s nails (blue, however).  Mercy! Hand me my smelling salts!

Any time people start fomenting against unconventional behavior, I find myself constitutionally sympathetic to the unconventional.  This may have something to do with my upbringing: homeschooled, in a dusty drafty 100-year-old farmhouse, sans running water, sans telephone, sans television, and with a whole room devoted to beans we were stockpiling in case of the apocalypse…sounds normal enough, these days, but in the materialistic Republican 80s it definitely marked us as weirdos.  Our thrift store clothes alone damned us.  Nowadays we would be considered “green” or “alternative.”  A short passage of time can be enough to allow for a reinterpretation of behavior.

I am one of those people who enjoys knocking away at artificial boundaries, unless they happen to be fun.  “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Robert Frost says….it’s a spirit of mischief, of freedom, or Pantagruelian playfulness.  It’s why we often love the archetypal Trickster Figure.

“…There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself…”

That being said, I would probably not paint my son’s toenails pink.  Not because there is anything essentially wrong with pink toenails on a boy or on a girl, but because a) I don’t like pink and b) I wouldn’t want him to be bullied.  Maybe in ten years painted toenails will be as normal for men as jeans now are for women, but the task of knocking down artificial distinctions between “appropriate” and “inappropriate” is not, in my opinion, one for kids.  If my husband decides to sport pink toenails,  I would heartily encourage him. He’s more than adequate to beat up anyone, short of Schwarzenegger, who should dare make fun of him.  I WOULD encourage him, I say…except that, knowing his tastes, if he showed up with sparkly toes I’d figure he’s been forcibly drugged by a gang of John Galliano minions or Mary Kay ladies wielding pink bazookas.

The reaction of traditionalists to the toenail-painting ad, however, is a study in hysterical logic. Erin Brown of the conservative Media Research Center called the ad “blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children.”

Psychiatrist Keith Ablow wrote in a colum for (naturally) Fox News: “This is 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’ [my word choice] is not known.”  He goes on to write:

“These folks are hostile to the gender distinctions that actually are part of the magnificent synergy that creates and sustains the human race. They respect their own creative notions a whole lot more than any creative Force in the universe.  I wonder what Jenna would think if her son wanted to celebrate his masculinity with a little playacting as a cowboy, with a gun? Would that bring the same smile of joy and pure love that we see on her face in the J. Crew advertisement? Or would that be where she might draw the line?”

Dr. Ablow makes only one lucid point in his entire article: that the mother painting her son’s toenails may be setting him up for psychological distress. But what is the source of such distress? Why, people like Dr. Ablow himself, who can’t tell the difference between real gender identity and its arbitrary cultural trappings.  If this kid gets picked on for having pink toenails, it will be by people who see pink toenails and think “essential absolute eternal sign of the universal Platonic ideal of the Feminine!  Oh, you naughty little transgendered child.”

Incidentally, Dr. Ablow, how would you feel if your DAUGHTER wanted to celebrate her femininity with a little playacting as a cowboy, with a gun? You’d just call her a “cowgirl” and think it as cute as can be.

As I was discussing with my class last night, in many respects women these days are more free than men. We are free to wear both dresses and trousers. We are free to dress up in jewels and heels, or to get out and grapple with the earth, ride wild horses, shoot guns. We can hug other women and compliment them on their appearance, without being labeled lesbians.  We can stay at home with our kids and cook meals, or we can go out and pursue careers, or do a bit of both.  We can get backrubs from other women.  This same sort of freedom has existed for men at other times (the Elizabethan era comes to mind – a man could ride a joust, but also deck himself out with rings and gold; he could write passionate sonnets to another man without it ever being thought that he wanted to go to bed with him).

Let’s go over a few trends or activities that have been, at some recent time or other, been categorized as specifically masculine or feminine.

1) Long hair – a sign of femininity?  Only in the Roman times, and from the Edwardian era to the sixties.  Take a look at this Rembrandt painting: the man and the woman have the same length of hair.

Rembrandt The Jewish Bride

Also, it was when Sampson cut his hair that he lost his manly strength.

2) Earrings.   Both men and women have traditionally sported earrings, off and on, in many cultures (Egyptian, Persian, Hebrew) throughout the centuries.  In the West, they were worn by men and women alike during the Greek and Roman periods, not worn much by anyone during the Middle Ages, and then resuscitated during the Renaissance.  It seems that as an acceptable male accessory it disappeared briefly from the fashion scene, between the 19th century and the late 20th century.  Incidentally, for much of the 20th century, in America, clip or screw-on earrings were preferred for women, over pierced ears (I used to have a few of my grandmother’s old screw-on earrings).

Portrait of a Young Man with an Earring

3) Trousers.  I know there are a few cranks these days who foment against women in jeans, but they are negligible (I always suspect them, anyway, of being closet pervs, since skirts are easier to lift, and more likely to blow up in a strong wind).  Did you know that during the Persian wars, the Greeks mocked their Eastern enemies as not being truly masculine…because the Persians wore trousers, which were supposedly effeminate?

4) Coffee. Yes, in the 17th century, women were forbidden to enter coffee houses.  For an amusingly vulgar read, check out the “Women’s Petition Against Coffee” – in which women complain that coffee was making their husbands impotent (N.B. I was recently informed that a lot of coffee houses were actually covers for brothels, and this is why men were coming home with no interest in satisfying their wives). Of course, coffee was considered a devilish and dangerous beverage, until Pope Clement VIII saw fit to “baptize” it.  Instead of listening to the hysterical rants of those who thought coffee was an Islamic plot to destroy Christendom, he actually checked it out to see what it was really like.  A good Catholic response.

5) Smoking cigars.  In spite of the Freudian suggestiveness (though we have the doctor’s own word that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”) cigar smoking has until very recently been regarded as specifically a masculine pleasure.  The women had to retire to the parlor, while the men enjoyed their port and cigars and indulged in interesting conversation. Back in the Nineties, before the cigar revolution, I fancied myself a sort of contemporary George Sand, and enjoyed smoking cigars outside the classroom building on my very conservative campus.  But then suddenly everyone was doing it, and Cigar Aficionado sported photos of actresses with cigars, so I gave it up as banal and expensive.  When I get old, though, I may take to a pipe.

George Sand

6) Riding astride (a horse, silly).  I am full of respect and admiration for those corseted Victorian ladies who rode their hunters over field and vale and ditch and hedge….SIDEWAYS.  I’ve been riding for 27 years, and I can only just manage to stay on at a trot, sitting in the sidesaddle position.  Presumably Lady Godiva, one of my heroines, rode sidesaddle, too…but that is understandable, as given the absence of clothes, a sideways position may have been more hygienic.  Anyway, thank God it is now totally acceptable for a woman to throw her trouser-clad leg over the back of a horse.

Just to keep gender identity and fashion in perspective, take a look at Louis 14, the “Sun King.”  High heels allow him to show off his manly legs.  Oh, and those luxuriant curls (a wig of course). Yes, he was decadent and depraved. The whole bloody French monarchy was.

The revolutionaries, a couple of generations later, sported a more natural, “masculine” look:


But keep in mind that they were the liberals; Louis was the conservative.
To return to Dr. Ablow:  I am not denying that there are indeed “gender distinctions that actually are part of the magnificent synergy that creates and sustains the human race.”  But since when has a set of pink toenails been a part of this or any other “magnificent synergy”?

If we are going to remain clear-sighted about the reality of distinctions in gender identity, this requires that we also remain clear-sighted about the permutations and cultural relativity of gender roles or fashions.  The only gender roles, in my view, that are set in essence, and not relative either to cultural context or the abilities of the individual are these: father and mother, husband and wife. These are rooted in a clear bodily and personal identity, not in the arbitrary fashions of a brief historic hiccup.

If my son wants to pretend he is nursing a baby, I will discourage him.  But if he wants to play “dress up” in a skirt, I will just help him put together a Spartan tunic.

I suppose some people, the kinds who think that derogatory words constitute an argument,  might say that in this case the “elves” that don’t love a wall are really just fairies.  But I think it’s elves.  It so often is.

Incidentally, I can think of one other reason why some walls are best left up, in some places: it gives those of us who like to shock and rebel something to rebel against.  If every law or social norm left in the world today were actually based on logic, reason, and the genuine Good, then we’d be left with nothing to knock our heads against, except for God. And that’s bound to give one a headache.


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About Rebecca Bratten Weiss

When I'm feeling optimistic about my life, I call myself a Renaissance woman; when I'm being realistic, though, I have to confess that I am no Pico della Mirandola girding my robes to debate the luminaries of the day, but rather an easily-distracted post-modern pro-life feminist environmentalist farmer and teacher, with too many theories and not enough discipline. Maybe that's okay, though: I've come to discover that academic rigor sometimes leaves no space for the kind of conversations in which philosophy really "happens." Or maybe this is just my excuse for preferring lively dialogue with friends over the drudgery of scholarship. Since I am busy raising a family and working several odd jobs, I don't have the time I need for genuine scholarship, anyway, but that doesn't mean philosophy takes a back seat or waits for me to get done with this phase of my life. Philosophy is at the heart of life. To be a thinking, questioning, valuing, doubting, believing, bodily creature - that's what it means to be human, after all. I have an eclectic religious background (Jewish, Evangelical Protestant, Catholic) - so, while I am now a practicing Roman Catholic I find myself more interested in building bridges of understanding with people from a variety of faith traditions, than in worrying about apologetics. I am fascinated by the different processes by which people try to figure it all out, this struggle called life. I am also fascinated by the ability of so many to ignore the struggle, to silence the conflicts of the human heart, whether by turning away from the "ultimate questions" - or by forcing overly easy answers to these questions. When it comes to matters of faith, I have moments of Nietzschean agnosticism, and moments of neo-classical Deism, and moments when I believe that beyond all the veils that lie across the faces of reality, there is a being who not only created the world and set things ticking, but also loves us. These moments of religious certainty are born not out of rationalism, nor any gifts of mystical insight, but just out of my stubborn existentialist refusal to think of a universe in which any person can live and die utterly unloved. That's why I have stuck it out with Christianity, fundamentally: the compelling image of a God who loved us so much he'd rather come down and walk among us in the mess and murk of human life and death than coerce us into perfection. If it weren't for this image of Jesus - if it were just the institution and the rituals and the apologetics and the authorities, I'd just say "to hell with it" and be a Zoroastrian.
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16 Responses to It’s the elves…

  1. Laura O'Brien says:

    Bravo, well presented perspective. 🙂

  2. ruth says:

    In my humble opinion this reactive logic is a result of someone who is not secure. And, it lacks an understanding of cultural and historical views toward gender.
    Recently, I was at a fund raiser and Salsa started playing, I grabbed a female friend’s hand and said ‘Dance with me’. I saw the look on her face was complete horror, even though she loves to dance. I just assured her in Latin Cultures women dance with each other all the time and it isn’t sexual. Once she knew that she was fine with it.
    So, unfortunately, our views on what is appropriate in regard to many things dealing with the body (gender, modesty…etc) seems to be a limitation that our immediate surrounds (the particular culture.) And once a person has been exposed to many cultures and many ideas in that regard what seems to be ‘true’ about what makes one masculine or feminine shifts into something that is ever changing. I know that sounds rather relativistic but I think that Masculine or Feminine is a state of ‘being’, and the trappings of it are ‘expressions’ evolving, changing interpretations of what that state of being is.

  3. ruth says:

    I meant to type “So, unfortunately, our views on what is appropriate in regard to many things dealing with the body (gender…modesty…etc) seems to be limited by our immediate surroundings (the particular culture.)
    See what happens to sentence structure while typing around children?

  4. Brilliant. Oh Rebecca, what a writer you are.

  5. Maggie says:

    I think I disagree to an extent, because I (of course) don’t think there’s anything wrong with *actually* being transgender, either. In fact, if the mother knows/suspects her son has a feminine identity (which many mothers of such children do, even at a young age), she may actually have a duty to create a zone within which he can safely explore it and to train him in resisiting bullies.

    But if she’s just trying to be trendy, forget it. That’s just tedious.

  6. KatSpin says:

    Wish I had manly legs.

  7. Rebecca says:

    The Sun King does have rather pretty legs, doesn’t he? I should try out those shoes.

  8. Rebecca says:

    Ruth, dance culture is definitely one that challenges restrictive ideas on gender identity. One of many things I love about the tango is that it allows for you to dance with a partner (or two) of either sex. Since it’s always telling a story, it’s good to be able to tell stories of many sorts.

  9. Rebecca says:

    Elizabeth, I think my issue with that is simply that children, while developing, go through so many different phases – and while I would certainly want to create an atmosphere of support so that this development is never stunted by bullying or prejudice, I would also be wary about assuming too quickly that one stage in development is necessarily conclusive, especially since so many traits that might mark one as “feminine” or “masculine” might be simply aspects of an individual personality. A child who bears certain traits that seem appropriate to the opposite sex might find him/herself encouraged to see him/herself as transgender, when really (s)he has an unconventional character. I really do believe that an integration of body and mind is desirable, and so I would always want to encourage anyone to be at home in his/her body as much as possible.

    However, I would be interested in talking to parents of transgendered children, to find out how they experienced this – what were the signs, how were they interpreted, etc. One thing that is really important to me in discussing issues of sex and gender is to hear first-hand accounts of experiences with different phenomena, because I don’t want to fall into the trap of making sweeping assumptions based on definitions I’ve already formed.

    I agree about training kids to resist bullies…physically and emotionally.

  10. Very well presented and thought provoking. And here are a few of mine (oops):

    Does the little boy want to imitate Mommy as a fun thing or is Mommy placing her wishes on the little boy? One is perfectly normal, the other, well, just selfish. I tried on my mom’s make-up several times…when she found out I was accused of being a ‘homo’, when actually I was making myself up as a clown and having a great laugh. Had Mommy looked at me lovingly and proceeded to give me a do-over, I’d have equally been dismayed and pissed! 😦

    I do agree with most aspects of your thoughts, especially the brilliance of rebelliousness and the need for The Trickster into the mundane life of conformity. Girls are more free to express (supposedly) masculine aspects of their personality. Debbie’s sister asked her, in 1971, if I was gay because I baked carrot cakes for my friends Christmas gifts…of course I had hair half-way down my back, as well. Gee, I was doing what I did well…I also saw everything poetically (OH MY GAWD!) and musically and mystically…I still do, when I’m thinkin’ right. As for my hair — I always thought that long hair makes a man look exceptionally masculine (perhaps a Sampson-complex) and had to fight (literally…and quite well!) for that style choice. Short hair was introduced as a warrior’s haircut to keep the other from grabbing your hair and lobbing off yer head…thus, my statement against the military-industrial-complex, as well as jus lookin’ goooood! And, nope, I never even wanted to kiss a bread grizzled face (or a shaved one)…I had some other clever images, but will refrain.

    My thought though, which was not discussed is that this picture is not a family portrait, but an advertisement. Meant, by psychological consultants, to evoke certain emotions from a certain subset of people to cut loose some of their savings. In disagreement with our dear Freud, I believe that most human action is guided for the acquisition of, first, power (unfortunately, sex may fit into this…very sadly!), then money. Nowadays, homosexual is ‘cute’ and ‘in’, politicians pander to it, as does the media. No one wants to hear about the “purple mafia”, who are a real and strong group of “bullies” within Hollywood, and force certain inclusions into percentages of movies and TV shows (I know, time to roll our eyes). Mr. Marshall McLuhan (sp?) was right: the media IS the main propaganda machine out there and define our thoughts and acceptances more than is known. And this is where it is totally hurtful for little pink-toed Johnny. In this case, it’s not even mommy being selfish, but some ad-man influencing the ‘unwashed(“stupid”) masses’ for $ and, perhaps, political or personal power. In most homes, Johnny does not have the security, love and encouragement of a home-schooled sanctuary (but, then how many of those are at the will of the parents as propaganda?), they are set in front of the Big Babysitter (TV and the public education propaganda-machine) and left to find one pure thought…oops, ‘we’ fucked up!…and get their knowledge from those who know very well how to influence our thoughts to gain power for themselves and their interests. While our children suffer.

    And Jesus wept.

  11. Rebecca says:

    Actually, in this case, it IS a real family scene – the mom is one of the higher ups at J.Crew, and that really is her little boy, and supposedly he really does like pink toenails. Of course, you are right… it is a little off-putting to see a “family photo” turned into a media hook. On the other hand, I’d better not talk too loudly, because I am totally guilty of using my kids’ cuteness to try to sell produce. (Dobbit: “buy my peas! buy my peas! Avila is going to be the best marketing tool ever, once she learns to talk a bit better).

  12. If he really does like pink toenails, all the power to him. Hell, in 1964, I painted flowers on my shoes and took some crap for it…but I still think it was fun.

    As for cute kids and sales, I also really dolled up my Granddaughter, Jade, to meet a girl I was interested in…blatant sales Tricksterism. And I would buy a bagful of produce at Avila’s insistence…heck, just by the pointing of a finger, as she does now!

  13. Amy says:

    I am being the mischievous elf and presenting some voices from those who would say the ad supports the notion of creating a safe environment for transgendered children. The second act of the episode of This American Life in the link below features the story, and voices, of transgendered parents and their children. I had never thought a bit about such things until I heard this story and now I think about it often.

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/374/somewhere-out-there

  14. Amy: I have not listened to the podcast yet, found that I could not listen to one story, but had to listen to all preceding, as all these subjects interest me, I will, in time (didn’t sleep last night, so I’m a bit impatient).

    I just wanted to state that a child needs his/her parents’ love and support, no matter if the child is ‘normal’ or out of the norm. Being a parent, especially, raising him alone from the age of 4 months until he married, I thought about such subjects as being transgendered and homosexual at times, even wondered, giving his extreme prejudice at certain ‘different’ individuals, if there wasn’t something fighting in there. I felt that were he somehow ‘different’ that I may be disappointed (life is hard enough for those who fit in, but really screwed for those who don’t), worried that it was somehow my fault in his upbringing (and do now, for some serious issues we have); but probably love him ‘more’ (if that’s possible, I’ve never known such love, prior), in an odd way — providing a safe haven of home and family and the support of a loving parent. I wouldn’t have encouraged him in his experimentations, as I believe that which Rebecca already stated about phases not determining a forming personality, encouragement would cement those queries in and be false to his/her personality, but now mine…manipulating; but would not have chastised or brought guilt for such behavior. I feel that way for my friends and family members (and, thus, all out there) who are different from the accepted norm. We are called to a life of love and it is our duty to live accordingly. I struggle with that as I have not learned to love those who purposefully set out to hurt others (rape, incest, greed, manipulation), but even then try to understand (and want to kill the fuckers anyhow :)), for the pain they have caused others. But I digress, as I often (er, always!) do. Most parents do not realize what a huge responsibility they have in their children. They are not our property to form in our likeness, but unique individuals who need our guidance and support. And, with all the mistakes we make along the way, most importantly, they need our love…no matter how their individual souls determine. This is very thought provoking and a great exercise for Lent, eh? Thank you, all. I know the pain of being ‘different’ of being a weirdo, I guess, I would much rather sit around discussing such things with anyone, than balls-on-the-couch yelling at a TV football game and expectin’ the wif to bring us beer an’ keep her mouf shut. I know what it’s like to not fit in and live a solitary life. I had not the support and love of family, not ever a hug or encouragement, never heard “I love you” (boo, hoo); but I did decide to life a life of love in spite of it (and have made oh so many mistakes along the way, then and now) and decided to purposefully change that chain of hatred (insanity?) passed through the generations. My son had a good childhood, I believe, and has a firm marriage and six beautiful kids that he adores (and are home-schooled). We may be estranged, but I am secure that there is love in his household and the family tree grows with love at its roots. Again, thank you all for the love displayed here, I, indeed, feel at home in Steubenville (how’s that for different? :)).

  15. Boldi Koenig says:

    A gold earring would pay for a good Christian funeral of a drowned sailor too.
    As for having something to rebel against: rebelling itself is always there, see Tango by Mrozek.

  16. Mary Slattery says:

    Oh my gosh Rebecca, what a writer you are!

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