J.Crew’s online catalog has a feature “Saturday With Jenna,” in which Jenna is shown painting the toes of her young son Beckett a bright neon pink. “Lucky for me I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.” This delightful tableaux of postmodern life is shown next to a striped shirt from J.Crew’s new “Wretched” collection.
The firestorm of pointless debate this triggered was so predictable J.Crew should have included it in their catalog as well. Arguments fall into three main categories: “emasculation and gender confusion of males” among the right-wing set, “separation of gender from sex/fluidity of gender identity” from the left-wing I-went-to-a-fancy-college-that-only-had-Division-3-sports-teams, and finally the “little kids are idiots/tempest in a teapot” crowd.
One interesting facet of all of these arguments is that none acknowledge the uniquely male aspect of the issue. Clothes that are traditionally male constitute a smaller set than clothes that are female. Women can wear men’s shirts, jeans, t-shirts, tactical gear, and they are still women. But they can also wear dresses, skirts, and the more conservative clothing as still code as woman (maybe a different notion of ‘woman’ but that’s besides the point.) It’s okay if women dress masculine. In other words, when women dress as men, it’s considered progressive and positive because masculinity is considered a positive trait, but when men dress as women, it’s negative, because femininity is and undesirable trait.
Many feminists interpret the mainstream reaction to this ad as evidence that mainstream society still ranks the feminine below the masculine, i.e. the mainstream still thinks girls dressing as boys and doing boy things is an upgrade for girls, whereas boys dressing as girls is a downgrade for boys. But that presumes that the ad is about the little boy. It isn’t.
The point of the ad is the mother. What the mother is doing and what she is reflecting and modelling relative to the mothers perusing the catalog.
This is a J.Crew catalog. The crappy striped shirt is $65. The sunglasses the boy is playing with on the catalog page are $450. J.Crew is talking to mommy through the images of Jenna (assuming that these are even real people).
In an editorial, Fox News resident psychiatrist, and Glenn Beck writing partner, Keith Ablow writes of the ad, “This is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity—homogenizing males and females when the outcome of such “psychological sterilization” is not known.”
Looking at the mother in that photo, I do not get the impression that she would ever “abandon all trappings” of anything, especially gender identity.
What mainstream conservative opinion gets wrong (and consequently where feminist criticism of this position is led astray) is that this is not an ad about what is acceptable for boys. It’s not an ad that reflects the loosening of values or cultural mores. This is an ad about what is acceptable for mothers to do with and to their children. What rules and boundaries they can set and even what the rules are for playing with those boundaries. And all this is specifically targeted to the the mothers who are prime targets for the $450 sunglasses on offer in the catalog.
When people obsess over looking right, having perfect hair, nails, clothes, interior decoration etc, that is the expression of the superego.
Look closely in the photo at how she leans in and smiles at the boy to such an extreme degree. Notice the asymmetry between the smile on her face and the one on his. She isn’t laughing with him. She’s trying to elicit a sympathetic smile from him. She’s trying to get him to laugh with her. This is fun. We are having fun now. She is teaching him that it’s fun and good when mommy dresses him up, tells him what to wear, tells him that painting toenails is silly, etc. She’s imprinting herself on/as his superego. The message she is sending the boy is not, “painting boys’ toenails is okay” the message she is sending the boy is “painting boys toenails is silly and funny because boys don’t paint their toenails only girls do so if boys do it they are being silly and trying to get people to laugh”. This rule will form part of the boys superego. Will he wear toenail polish casually as part of his style? No. Because toenail polish on boys is enforced in his mind as something silly. Will he dress in drag as a silly halloween costume? Yes.
Ablow has it precisely backwards when he writes “increasingly, this includes the truth that it is unwise to dress little girls like miniature adults.” Wrong. The ad is saying precisely that it is good and right for moms to obsess over their children’s dress and dictate what they wear. That has to be the message of the ad, because the ad is trying to sell extremely expensive children’s clothes to their mothers. Their mothers have to get the message that the obsessiveness that they apply to selecting their own dress is appropriate and right for their children. Otherwise, those mothers won’t be buying their kids’ clothes from the same place they buy their own.
See Also: J.Crew Ad Promotes Something That Some Call “Transgenderism”