Friday, April 15, 2011

J. Crew Ad Shows Boy with Pink Toenails, and Hell Breaks Loose

I've been following the perfervid reaction of the political and religious right to the recent J. Crew ad featuring a mother with her son's toenails painted pink with no little amusement.  And quite a bit of impatience.

I can't imagine this kind of manufactured outrage in response to an ad like this anywhere else in the developed world.  What it says about us Americans and our level of education regarding matters central to our daily lives, including gender, gender roles, sexuality, etc., is hardly flattering.  And what it says about our ongoing hysteria at the thought that "traditional" male roles we consider engraved in stone (and mandated by the bible) might be more negotiable (and more noxious, to all of us) than we realize is also pretty revealing.  Revealing about who and what we really value in our world.  And who really counts in our society.

Jon Stewart did an excellent job of sending up the manufactured outrage on his "Daily Show" this past Wednesday.  His response to the rantings of the right seems to me to raise the correct questions:

1. Why do some of us persistently want to blame women--mothers, in particular--for a perceived decline in masculinity that we imagine is undermining our cultural stability?  When Sarah Hoffman blogs about her pink boy (and here), and--more importantly--when she informs bewildered critics that she doesn't force her son to conform to their gender stereotypes, all hell breaks loose.  It's as if, single-handedly, Hoffman is taking the one thread most certain to unravel the whole skein of Western Christian culture and pulling that thread out of the skein, to the peril of all of us.

Precisely the same thing happened in the fall of 2010 when a blogger, Sarah, whose blog identifies her as "Nerdy Apple Blossom," permitted her son to wear a gender-bending Hallowe'en costume.  When she did so, various "Christian" mothers and assorted other "Christians" who logged onto her blog informed her, in all Christian kindness and humility, mind you, that she was wrong-headed and likely to be sending her son to hell--along with all the rest of us.  Since the stability of our culture depends on forcing little boys who might like to wear costumes with pink angel wings to don football jerseys and lay hold of baseball bats, instead.

2. And why do all those who are so (self-righteously) convinced that their version of gender roles should apply to the entire cosmos never seem to think about the disparity between how we treat mothers who "permit" their sons to wear pink and those who, without blinking an eye, allow their daughters to seize the baseball bats and sport the football jerseys?  We're really saying, aren't we, that the sole--the neuralgic--point to be considered in these mother-blaming narratives about child-rearing is what happens to little boys. About what happens to little boys when they're "permitted" to transgress the gender roles we want to impose on them.  Little girls either don't count very much, or their amusing attempts to turn themselves into little boys are to be winked at and encouraged, while boys desiring to act like girls need to be slapped down hard.

And why are we saying these things, I wonder?  And what do we intend to gain by seeking to punish mothers who do not enforce our gender stereotypes and to coerce the little boys of those mothers to act in a way that reassures us of the rightness of those stereotypes?

What are we saying about ourselves?  About the depth of our humanity?  The extent of our tolerance?  Our appreciation for diversity?

About our willingness to accept the wide-ranging differences in how people embody masculinity and femininity, across a whole spectrum of behaviors and choices that may or many not conform to our preconceived notions of what it means to be male or female?  And about the kind of society we want to build, as we confront the bewildering, enriching diversity of human behavior vis-a-vis gender roles everywhere in the world and over the course of history?

These are some of the questions this controversy and Stewart's hilarious send-up of the political and religious right evoke for me.  Somehow, I don't think the response of the religious and political right to this particular ad is designed to get us talking about those questions.

No comments: