Recently, images of J. Crew Creative Director Jenna Lyons painting her five-year-old son’s toenails pink kicked off a mini media frenzy. Fox News commentator Dr. Keith Ablow criticized Lyons and J. Crew for celebrating transgenderism in children and emphasizing how “our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity.” Looking over the coverage of this “gender debate,” several things pop out.
1) The J. Crew ad doesn’t worry credible experts. Pretending and role-taking are normal activities for young children. These activities help young minds develop and they can be a blast. In addition to pretending to be members of the opposite gender, kids also enjoy spending time as animals, plants, mythical figures, monsters, and robots. Where is the robot identity debate?
2) People are more upset when boys “do girl things” than when girls “do boy things.” When a woman wears men’s clothing, it is cute or stylish or ironic, but when a man wears women’s clothing, we judge his character and perhaps his sexuality, not his fashion sense. Similarly, men in “women’s” occupations are treated as oddities, while women in traditionally male roles are considered to be successful. Finally, traditionally feminine qualities, such as empathy and caring are traits that are not commonly associated with masculinity. In many ways, the absence of these traits defines “maniliness.”
3) Men find the J. Crew ad to be more threatening than women. Good Morning America aired footage of people responding to the J. Crew ad. The women that they interviewed didn’t appear to be bothered by the ad, but the men clearly felt threatened. This pattern was a common thread through most internet and television reporting related to the toenail painting ad.
Gender is a tricky topic. We’re all very sensitive to gender issues, but the cultural symbols associated with gender are artificial and flexible. For example, until the 1940s, pink was considered a masculine color and blue was a feminine color. My own feelings about the J. Crew ad, and overblown concerns about gender, can be best summarized by the performer P!NK when she said, “So What!?!”