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Girls Will Be Girls, and Boys: What We Can All Learn From the Jolie-Pitts

152112014Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, the firstborn of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, has been in the news for years now — and not just for being the child of two of the world’s most famous movie stars — but because she’s been talked about as being a girl who wants to be a boy.

In a 2008 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt shared an anecdote about how his daughter asked to be called John. “So, we’ve got to call her John,” he told Oprah, going on to explain how she wouldn’t respond if he called her Shiloh. “It’s just kind of stuff that’s cute to parents, and it’s probably really obnoxious to other people.”

Or, more than obnoxious. Because as every parent knows, the gender of a child is one of his or her earliest defining characteristics. If you have a boy, you’re likely to get blue blankets and items of clothing that feature pictures of firetrucks or sports equipment. If you have a girl, you’ll get pink things decorated with cupcakes, flowers, or tiaras. When the child enters school or daycare, they’ll be sent to the boys or girls bathroom based on their biology at birth, and there will be social pressures from both their peers and adults to conform to certain roles. Little boys play with blocks, conventional wisdom tells us, while girls enjoy dressing up. Gender is taken as something fixed in concrete, and when kids buck those stereotypes, outraged adults point fingers at the parent for being overly permissive, or worse.

That is exactly what happened with John Jolie-Pitt, when, two years after Brad Pitt’s interview, the tabloid Life & Style ran a nasty cover story asking “Why Is Angelina Turning Shiloh Into a Boy?” followed by “Shiloh Manipulated By Her Mom.” As these headlines suggest, the media coverage around the child focused mostly on Jolie, not Pitt, accusing her of being a bad mother for failing to restrict the child to feminine gender norms. Among Jolie’s faults? Allowing the girl to dress in boy’s clothing, sport a boy’s haircut, and continuing to refer to her as John. (The tabloid coverage was sparked by a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair in which Jolie said, “She thinks she’s one of the brothers.”)

Recently, at the premier of Angelina Jolie’s movie Unbroken, John appeared on the red carpet with her dad, and adopted brothers Pax and Maddox. All wore black suits, and John looked uncannily like a younger version of both her parents. As Bustle points out, the general response focused on how sharp the family looked, while outlets that did mention the child’s gender preference moved beyond “Jolie’s a bad mother” to “kids like John exist.”

The question for many people continues to be why they exist, and, if you’re a parent of a child who expresses a non-traditional gender preference, how do you deal with it? In this regard, our culture still has a ways to go. The Telegraph ran a piece on John in which a psychologist suggested the child may simply be acting out for attention because John is a middle child, or that John might be copying the style of the older Jolie-Pitt boys. The psychologist suggests that parents do nothing until the child reaches puberty, at which point they should consider that the child has “a serious gender identity issue” and might need hormonal treatment or gender reassignment surgery.

This psychoanalytic conclusion seems a bit of a stretch to me. And I feel deeply uncomfortable about the implication that this might mean anything about the child’s future sexuality. John, like many kids, is exploring gender, and is fortunate to have parents who accept those explorations. No one, not even John at this early point in life, knows if John is transgender. The public doesn’t even know if John goes by he, she, or a different pronoun. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that John is a healthy, happy child in a family that values freedom of expression. As The Advocate puts it:

Whether the young Jolie-Pitt will grow up to identify anywhere along a gender-nonconforming or LGBT spectrum is impossible to tell, but one thing is certain — having parents that embrace a child’s curiosity, independence, and self-direction is sure to make that young person’s life easier as they go through the fundamentally human process of discovering who they truly are.

I believe strongly that gender is a very fluid thing. There’s a biological aspect, yes. But so much of what we think of as masculine and feminine is simply style and preferences, and those are abstract — just ideas. They change over time. Not every American likes baseball, nor is every girl going to enjoy playing with dolls. Tight jeans used to be only for women, now men squeeze themselves into them too. Moreover, we are now hip to the fact that some people are born identifying as another gender, and medical science has advanced enough so that those people can become the gender they feel they really are inside. I think this is great.

And yes, I know, I’m the guy who met his wife while wearing a dress in college; the dad who has been at home with my son Felix while my wife is the primary breadwinner for our family. I’m also the one who does the majority of the cooking, cleaning, and shopping while my wife handles home repair and finances; I’m the dad with the boy who loves pink. I understand that a certain type of person might not value my take on gender because I operate so far outside of traditional gender norms that I come across as a crazy liberal, or someone who might be confused about his own gender. That’s not the case. I am very comfortable in my masculine image, so comfortable that I don’t feel like I need conform to anyone else’s idea of what a “man” is. Nor do I insist my son do the same.

I hope that, by setting a positive and very public example, Jolie and Pitt may inspire other parents to be more accepting of their children’s gender preferences, and allow the child to set the terms of his or her gender expression. Because the sad reality is, not every child has parents with such open hearts and minds, or the means to provide such a free lifestyle. Some schools demand that students conform to dress codes based on gender. And what about a child who is biologically female but identifies as male and so wants to use the boys bathroom?

We must also keep in mind that our culture gives more room to women and girls in this area, calling them “tomboys” or “a guy’s girl,” while we have much narrower definitions of masculinity. Boys wearing dresses raise alarms, and in 2011 J. Crew found itself embroiled in controversy when the company’s catalog featured a boy wearing pink nail polish. As I’ve written before, gender equality is an issue that affects both men and women.

As the move toward accepting John Jolie-Pitt’s style without condemnation of either the child or the parents shows, things are getting better for kids who want to challenge gender stereotypes, but we still have a long way to go. There are transgendered children out there right now stifling their desires to express themselves, or are facing discrimination at home, school, and in their communities. One day, I hope, all kids will have the freedom to decide for themselves if their gender feels right for them, and all families will accept that child’s decision with a warm embrace. But that’s going to mean we continue battling sexism in all its nasty forms.

Image source: Thinkstock

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