Clothing ads don’t often make the news, but clothing ads that feature boys wearing nail polish are apparently an exception.
J.Crew’s new ad featuring a woman looking into the eyes of her smiling child is setting the news ablaze because the happy boy playing with his mother is wearing nail polish.
You can see the ad here: http://www.myfoxatlanta.com/dpps/entertainment/j.crew-ad-showing-boy-with-pink-nail-polish-sparks-debate-dpgonc-20110412-fc_12731866
Multiple sites have blogged about it, and Jon Stewart devoted an entire segment to the media frenzy. The main criticism of both blog-response posters and conservative news commentators was that the mother in the ad (who works for the company) and the ad itself had an agenda. Many said this was about being gay; many complained that this was about being “accepting of transgender children.”
Of course, there’s room to talk about all of the terms getting thrown around, about how not all of those terms are as interchangeable as people believe them to be, about how some straight men wear nail polish, and about the fluidity of gender identity in young children, but instead of talking about these issues in relation to an ad, let’s talk about a real little boy who wore nail polish once.
When my son was four years old, he spent the weekend with his older female cousin. Upon seeing her paint her nails, he requested that she do his as well. On neither of their parts was this an agenda, nor a statement of sex, gender, or sexuality. Maybe this was because my son wanted to be like his nearest cousin in age. Maybe they were bored.
Whatever it was, when he came home, he proudly displayed a coat of translucent yellow on his nails. If he hadn’t pointed it out, I might not have noticed—they just looked a little jaundiced.
I didn’t give it much thought; the next morning, he went off to preschool.
When I picked him up later that day, he was crying. In the car home, he told me that another boy, another four year old, in the company of others, had punched him in the face and called him a girl.
I didn’t know what to say.
I considered myself a feminist; I was in college taking courses in women’s studies. I was a supporter of gay rights. If I had to argue with an adult, I would know how to do so. If I had to comfort an adult, I would know how to do so.
But how was I to explain to my child how the world around us had made another child violently police gender normativity? Or that someone’s parent raised a preschooler who would react this way?
My son already didn’t like his preschool, but he went because it was what we could afford. The $15 a month discount I was offered by the owner for being in college was a great help. The owner perhaps felt sorry for me. Most of the parents in the daycare were young, single mothers like I was. But I was a little younger. And unlike the mothers who worked at the grocery store and the McDonald’s down the street, I didn’t technically have an income—just student loans.
Let me clarify that this was almost fifteen years ago, when gay marriage seemed a much further off dream than today. We were also in the South at the time, where all struggles for equality seem a little bit harder.
Even in our own family, gender norming was, well, the norm. While I was allowed to be a tomboy, when my son was born, my grandfather insisted that the infant be called “handsome” instead of “beautiful.” He didn’t get my joke in buying the baby a shirt that said, “If you think I’m handsome, you should see my grandfather.”
When he was a toddler, my son found an island Barbie among some of my old toys that my mother had unearthed. He looked into her brown eyes and at her long, dark hair and declared her “Mommy Doll.” My hair was only down to my waist, whereas hers met her calves, but it was the closest he was going to find.
My son didn’t so much play with Mommy Doll as want her near. That is, he didn’t dress her or comb her hair, but he carried her with him and slept with her at night. In fact, having Mommy Doll served useful to me as his requests to sleep with me decreased when he was able to use my smaller substitute.
My grandmother was horrified and expressed concern that Mommy Doll would make him “a gay.” Since I actually knew gay people, I knew that wasn’t how it worked. In fact, one of my gay friends consistently gave my son truck toys, insisting that they’d “worked” for him as a child.
One day, when my grandmother was caring for my son, Mommy Doll disappeared. She never would tell me what she did with the body.
Even though I was very liberal and progressive for this place and time, I had no other agenda for my son than to love him no matter what and to accept him no matter what.
Unless, of course, he became a bigot.
There seemed a small chance of that given my diverse group of friends, who all took turns babysitting at times so I could finish a paper or make it to a play rehearsal. We were all on various places on the gender spectrum. For example, I taught the boy show tunes, but I also taught him about cuss words, science fiction, and discipline.
And I tried to watch my language. Once, late in elementary school, his friend overheard me saying something like, “well, whomever you choose to spend your life with probably won’t appreciate you being such a picky eater.”
“Why does she say it that way?” the friend asked.
My son sighed. “In case I’m gay.”
But right then, I was in the car with a sobbing child. A child who’d been physically assaulted. A boy who’d been called a girl.
“Are you a girl?”
“Then why do you think he said that?”
“Because he’s mean.”
“And stupid,” I added, in a not so generous moment. “His parents have taught him something silly—that being a girl is about how you look, but we know better.”
I did not talk about the sexism (why is “girl” a bad name) or heteronormativity or Christian tendency to judge that predominates the South. Nor did I point out that because we were poor, we were in a predominantly black area, where homosexuality and gender transgression was somehow more taboo than in the predominantly white campus that was the other part of our world.
I did not say, because I was too angry to think it, that perhaps the young boy had learned to hit transgressors because maybe that’s how he had been disciplined when he failed to understand the gender rules that his parents had internalized.
“What do you want to do,” I asked the teary-eyed boy, who was still gasping a bit from his sobbing.
“I’ve been trying to wash it off all day!”
Finally, something I could solve—“I know how to take it off. We can do it right when we get home if you want.”
But then I remembered something.
“Didn’t Tessa do your toenails too?”
“Do you want to take the toenail polish off?”
My son thought hard.
“But they can’t see my toes in my shoes. Only you and I can see my toes.”
“Then we’ll keep it on the toes.”
My son learned about the magic of nail polish remover on his fingers as soon as we got home.
The tint on his toes remained for a time before fading away naturally and completely, as things like that tend to do.