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.
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).
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.
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.