My son Felix is 5, and sometimes he wants to paint his nails. He also knows there is no such thing as girls’ toys (like dolls) or colors (like pink). He is aware, for as much a 5-year-old can be aware — by which I mean only somewhat — that gender is a cultural construct. There is a biological difference between men and women, yes. But otherwise? We’re all the same deep down, and the trappings we use to identify our gender are style choices.
I’ve made a point to raise him with this kind of worldview.
But my little boy is not alone. Perhaps inspired by celebrities embracing the term feminist, and even the most masculine of men openly discussing their sensitive, emotional sides, many young people seem to have a more fluid notion of the differences between “him” and “her.” Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s son Jaden, for example, has been known to do wear dresses. Not surprisingly, pictures of him in such outfits causes a stir in the media and online.
The 16-year-old already has a bit of a reputation. He’s been both ridiculed and celebrated for Twitter musings like “If Newborn Babies Could Speak They Would Be The Most Intelligent Beings on Planet Earth” and “If Everybody In The World Dropped Out Of School We Would Have A More Intelligent Society.” Some consider him a free-thinking, clear-eyed pop philosopher, others see a child given too much autonomy and freedom, especially in light of his parents’ discussing how they don’t believe in punishing their children.
Whatever your take, one thing seems clear: the young man is an original thinker. Smith captioned an Instagram image of himself in the dress with, “Went to TopShop To Buy Some Girl Clothes, I Mean ‘Clothes.’” Though GQ posted a photo of him cheesing it up on the streets, the Instagram shot comes across as more introspective, with Smith staring away from the camera into the distance, arms relaxed at his side, mid-stride; though perhaps he’s just being whimsical.
The point he’s making, though, is anything but. He’s pointing out society’s double-standard, that it’s OK for women to shop in the men’s section, while it’s not OK for men to shop for so-called women’s clothes. His post makes that criticism as effectively and succinctly as another controversial, social media savvy figure I admire: Kanye West.
West has also appeared in public wearing a leather skirt, during his Yeezus tour. Jared Leto, soon to star as the Joker in the movie Suicide Squad with Jaden’s father Will Smith, has also been known to sport a skirt too. And what’s the big deal, really? Women have been dressing in men’s clothes for decades.
In the 1930’s, German born singer and actress Marlene Dietrich cut a mean figure in a tux, a look Madonna (who gave a shout out to Dietrich in her hit “Vogue”) copied a couple of years ago. Katherine Hepburn rocked a pantsuit in the 40’s, while Diane Keaton rocked a tie in the 70’s for Annie Hall. When Beyoncé homaged the men of the Rat Pack in a suit and tie, she was equating her power and mastery of music and culture with their’s. So why shouldn’t men do the same by copying the style of the many powerful women of the world?
For some children, this issue goes beyond mere fashion. While it is perfectly normal for every child to go through a period in which they are interested in playing around with gender conventions, other kids really feel as if they were born in the wrong body. It may be easy to mock Brad and Angelina for allowing their child Shiloh, born a girl, to go by John and dress in boy’s clothes, but at heart they are sending their daughter the message that no matter who she is at heart — even if “she” is a “he” — they will love and accept her. I think that’s a beautiful thing, an attitude all parents should adopt.
Because the stakes for children who identify as transgender can be very high. Last week, for instance, another Californian 16-year-old — Taylor Alesana, born biologically male but identifying as female — committed suicide after being picked on by her classmates. Alesana was an active member of a transgender support group, and posted a series of videos online about makeup and her struggles as a transgender teen and bisexual. After a difficult time in middle school, Alesana’s family relocated last summer, and she began living her life as a girl. When high school began, however, she was bullied, particularly online, and cast out of peer groups. She spent the last few weeks of her life “back in the closet,” dressed once more as a boy.
So it is, I think, vitally important for parents to keep an open mind about gender.
My son, for example, is only curious about what it feels like to be a girl when he asks about painting his nails. Will I allow him to do it? Of course, though I stipulated that he must wait until school lets out in June.
I’ll also help him paint his nails, something I have more experience with than my wife, who has never in the 20 years that I’ve known her worn fingernail polish. I, on the other hand, went through a period in college where, like Jaden Smith, I enjoyed wearing dresses, and painted my nails too. I laid that aside when I moved to New York City, but will admit I sometimes miss it. On warm spring days, nothing feels more pleasant and freeing that walking in the sunshine with a loose skirt bouncing around your thighs! That’s a joy every person should experience, male and female alike.
I hope that it’s something my son will feel comfortable doing at some point, in a future where gender has some fluidity, and where transgender people feel accepted and safe.More On