The right sees red over pink

April 26, 2011

Derron Thweatt looks at what's behind the right's attack on a boy with pink nail polish.

CLOTHING RETAILER J. Crew sent out a promotional e-mail on April 5 that showed Jenna Lyons, president and creative director of the company, and her son Beckett sharing a loving moment.

What shouldn't have even been a news report has become a rallying cry for the right wing to reinforce gender roles--all because Lyons' son Beckett had neon pink nail polish on his toes. So instead of media outlets like ABC and CNN spending time covering the continuation of several years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq and the new war in Libya, the mainstream press gave hours of time to people who are transphobic and homophobic.

Dr. Keith Ablow, a columnist for who recently co-wrote a book with Glenn Beck, stated that the ad was "a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity." Albow went on to say, "Yeah, well it may be fun and games now, Jenna, but at least put some money aside for psychotherapy for the kid--and maybe a little for others who'll be affected by your 'innocent' pleasure."

J Crew's ad featuring Jenna and Beckett Lyons
J Crew's ad featuring Jenna and Beckett Lyons

Erin Brown from the right-wing Media Research Center Network said the ad was "blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children." Some have even accused the parents of children who choose to like something outside the normal gender constructs of abusing their children.

The reason that right-wingers take such issue with this ad is because they think that a boy who wears pink nail polish, or any nail polish, will somehow become magically gay, bisexual or transgender, which to them is wrong.

The fact is that gender is constructed and certain people--i.e., the ruling class--see adherence to gender constructs as essential for maintaining the status quo, and keeping people divided and unable to see their common interests.

The questions of "nature versus nurture" has been around for quite some time, and the right believes that if parents allow their sons to wear nail polish or their daughters to play with toy trucks, then they're nurturing their child to become LGBT. If or when a child comes out at some point in the future, right-wingers believes that parenting was at fault for their child's sexual orientation or gender change.

This nurture theory of sexuality is flawed at best since it doesn't account for the girls who liked nail polish and the standard gender-constructed things, and later came out as lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Or the boys who liked playing sports and played rough, and later came out as gay--such as Wayne Besen, the founder of Truth Wins Out, who was a high school basketball player.

Besen wrote an article recently on Huffington Post about grappling with homophobia, his sexuality, gender constructs and starting a petition on supporting the J. Crew e-mail blast.

Some have argued that if the ad featured a father and a daughter playing with a toy truck or a daughter dressed in sporting gear, this would most likely not be a discussion since girls dressing or imitating socially constructed male characteristics are more often celebrated.

But there are plenty of lesbian and bisexual girls and women whose experiences don't match up with this argument, and it takes away the key point we should be focusing on--defending people from transphobic and homophobic attacks.

Children are taught from a very early age that the sexual organs they are born with are intrinsically tied to gender characteristics, and they must only perform gender-constructed roles.

These roles specifically exclude people who are intersex because intersex people challenge the idea that there could only be two genders in society. People like Brown and Albow say that gender is fixed, and people must follow the rules of what is prescribed to different genders, however much gender conventions shift through time.

For instance, Franklin Delano Roosevelt wore clothes during his childhood that some would consider perverse for a male child today. When he was photographed at two-and-a-half years old, he wore a skirt and patent leather shoes, and had shoulder-length hair. According to a recent article "When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?" at the time that Roosevelt was a toddler, "boys wore dresses until age 6 or 7, also the time of their first haircut. Franklin's outfit was considered gender-neutral."

In the same article, Jo Paoletti, a professor and historian at the University of Maryland-College Park, describes a Ladies Home Journal article from 1918 that advised that boys should wear pink and girls should wear blue because "the reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl."

Paoletti discusses how the current gender constructed dress for children started in the 1940s--and then shifted during the women's liberation movement of the 1960s so that girls were dressed "more like boys and less like frilly little girls...they are going to have more options and feel freer to be active."

The backlash from the J. Crew e-mail blast shows that gender is something socially constructed--and that the current "rules" for what each gender wears can change due to people shifting their ideas. We must wholeheartedly defend any person from homophobia and transphobia so they can choose their dress in whatever way they see fit.

Sherry Wolf in her book Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation said it best: "Sexuality and gender are socially constructed and in order for human beings to achieve self-determination, we must transform the social order that narrows and pathologizes some kinds of human behavior."

We must call what the right wing is promoting what it is--old-fashioned bigotry. If we want to live in a society where youth don't feel that the last resort to bullying is suicide, we must start by defending kids' choice to wear whatever feels right for them. And ultimately, we have to end a system where people live in fear of expressing themselves in a healthy manner.

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