iStockphoto/Salon

Reading Sarah Hoffman’s thoughtful piece in Salon about her pink-loving son, and as many of the comments as I could bear to read afterwards – there were many, of course – I was struck by the effect that this little boy, and this piece, have on so many people.

Clearly there are a lot of people, both on playgrounds and on the internet, who find unconventional gender behaviour extremely disturbing. So disturbing they have to prod the mother (or sometimes the child) into making them explain themselves. Why? What are they hoping to achieve? Are they trying to nudge mother and child back into line? Do they think the mother doesn’t know boys aren’t supposed to wear dresses? You have to wonder what those other mothers are really trying to accomplish, and whether they even know themselves. (Or why they can’t keep their damn opinions to themselves, but that’s another story.)

It’s interesting, as one of the commenters pointed out, that feminine boys are one of those groups it’s still more or less okay to mock. Tomboyish girls aren’t seen as such a problem these days (although you still hear a lot of unpleasant stuff about teenage girls and team sports – hotbeds of lesbianism, didn’t you know?) but boys who like dolls and dressing up have yet to be reclaimed by the culture. This is odd, because we’re getting our heads around gay men now; but there’s something about little boys who won’t conform to gender expectations which we still seem, as a culture, to find uniquely unsettling. Even those of us – like, apparently, Dr Phil – who think it’s OK to be gay as an adult can still be disturbed by little boys in dresses. And yes, you can argue that in a realpolitik way you should try and force your little boy to fit into gender stereotypes because the world is cruel to little boys who don’t fit in. But as someone who’s interested in gender, and also a parent, I have much more sympathy with those who would like to see us try and change the culture to fit our children, rather than change children to fit our culture.

Clearly one of the problems many people have with boys who like dressing as girls is that they might turn out to be gay, and there are still plenty of people who have a problem with that. (Can I state for the record that I am not one of them?) But I think what disturbs people more  about a very young boy who doesn’t act like a boy is that, when a child is too young for the question of sexual orientation to be really meaningful, what a child is expressing is gender identity in pure form. We are becoming more comfortable with a female gender identity taking many interests and many forms (Barbie Princesses notwithstanding) but that breadth simply does not exist for boys yet. Girls are allowed to like boys things these days without people thinking they’re aberrant, but for boys it’s still more or less 1952.

Incidentally, my suspicion about the apparent disconnect between it being OK to be gay on Dr Phil’s website, but not OK on TV to be a little boy who likes girl stuff, is that Dr Phil probably has a large team of people writing his material, and it may not necessarily add up to a single coherent viewpoint. But the thing that’s interesting about this topic is that people are not coherent about this stuff, which is why this particular little boy acts as such a flashpoint. And why we’re fortunate to have someone as cool-headed and thoughtful as his mother writing about their lives every day.

 

 

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