April 13th, 2011

big hairy deal

On Gender Markers

There's been a little kerfuffle about some silly ad showing a mom with a little boy whose toenails have been painted pink. The ad is selling clothing, but it's the nail polish that's got people riled. Some see in this an attempt to feminize boys; others say boys should be able to like pink things, including toenails if they want.

Back when I was doing a lot of Emmaus Walks and Chrysalis Flights, the Upper Room went through an update of the entire program. This included renaming the behind-the-scenes helpers on the weekend. Previously, they had been known as Chas (pronounced "chaws"), nobody knows why. That was out. But they weren't really given a new, official name that could be used in daily reference to them. Some of our female leaders began referring to them as Agape Angels, which seemed to stick -- except the men and boys hated the term, when it was their turn to serve. Much nattering and gromishing could be heard in the background at team meetings. So, I suggested Agape Techs for the men and boys, which (at least for my tenure) seemed to solve the problem.

Some people keep trying to suggest that it is a matter of indifference how we dress little boys and girls or how we refer to them. This ignores the fact that gender norms are not completely malleable. Men of today don't dress like men of the 17th Century, nor do women; however, men and women usually like different things and find different ways of expressing their preferences. Children of both sexes will often try out the markers of the opposite sex (including nail polish) to see what that feels like, and that's healthy; on the other hand, adults (including grown-up companies selling products intended for children's use) should not impose on kids things that will make them uncomfortable.

What I'm saying is that there's all the difference in the world between following a trend and leading one. If, some day, kilts become all the fashion for un-Scottish boys and young men, then they will be seen as masculine adornment; trying to make boys wear skirts today would be heavy-handed and most of them would resent it. That doesn't mean they're little minions of the patriarchy who should be feminized, it just means that they are boys, not dress-up dolls to be made over into anything the dresser desires.

More on pink toenails.

More on that ad with the mom painting her son's toenails pink. As Rene Magritte would have said, "This is not a mom painting her son's toenails pink."

In every image presented to the viewer, there are at least three points of view to consider. First of all, there is the POV of the person(s) in the image. In this case, there is a beautiful young mother and her happy little boy. They seem to enjoy the pink toenails very much. Second, there is the POV of the viewer of the image. In this case, all of us bring our own prejudices and values to what we view. Most of us see what we want to see in such an image. Some of us get a little thrill of satisfaction at seeing a boy who likes polished pink toenails; others, a jolt of dismay at seeing a mom who likes boys with polished pink toenails.

But there is a third POV in the image, and that is the POV of the advertiser who commissioned it and employed the artist who created it. What does the advertiser want us to get from this? Advertisers want to sell products, in this case, clothing. What sets their clothing apart? Quality and style seem to be much of a muchness; there's not much here to differentiate this clothing from other manufacturers' wares. So, like McDonald's selling its fun ambience rather than its food (since its food is pretty bad, actually), or Bud Light selling expectations of a party rather than its taste (since its beer is bad, even as American macro-lagers go), this clothing manufacturer is selling a set of values. People who identify with those values will be motivated to buy these clothes rather than somebody else's clothes, but it can be argued that they aren't buying clothes so much as a set of values.

By the way, the POV of the advertiser subsumes the POV of the persons in the image. The woman and the boy in any given advertisement are probably NOT mother and son (though I gather they are, here). They may not always be as carefree and happy as you see them; it's their job to look that way, and they were chosen (and paid) for their ability to smile like that on command, over and over, until the photo shoot is done. So, rather than consider the connection between the people in the image that you imagine yourself in relation with, to understand the image you have to consider the connection between yourself and the advertiser. Who are these people? What are they selling (besides clothes)? What does it say about our society that they think these values will get people to buy those products? Is that a good thing? These are things worth thinking about.

As I've said before, I have no problem with boys getting their toenails painted, per se. It's part of growing up to check out gender markers before settling into a set of choices that fit one personally as well as make one comfortable in one's social setting. But when I see people rushing in to attack or defend what the people in the image are doing -- without asking what the advertiser who put the image together is doing -- I'm flummoxed.

Back when I was young, all my liberal friends prided themselves on being tough-minded and cynical. They saw through things. They questioned authority. They didn't trust big corporations (which the advertiser certainly is). But my younger liberal friends of today seem very different. Their innocent lack of sophistication continues to amaze me. Some manufacturer hires somebody to create an image to hook them, and they gulp down the lure uncritically. The conservatives who criticize the values in the image may not always be right, but at least they are aware that they are not alone with the beautiful mom and her happy son and their pink nail polish. There are others in the room, with other motives. Caveat emptor.