Monday, August 13, 2012

Princess Parties Revisited

Yesterday, I read a New York Times article entitled "What's So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?" It seemed to connect with some of my recent posts on gender issues--and it reminded me of one of my posts from a year ago. So I thought I'd repost that earlier essay for those who may not have seen it then. Here it is:

Sometimes, the lives of ordinary, mild-mannered philosophers mirror the madness of media melodrama. Not long ago on this blog, I talked about one such case of media melodrama: The Fox-News Induced Toemageddon. And a few weeks back, as if to mock me for mocking Toemageddon's gravity, I came face to face with my own little variant of it.

I was grading term papers in the corner of a local restaurant when the controversy broke--in the form of a text message from my wife. Between spoonfuls of French onion soup I hissed out a fiercely eloquent diatribe—under my breath, of course, but I’m sure nearby patrons were nervously gauging the distance to the nearest exit.

The message started with the confession that my wife was so angry she “couldn’t see straight.” And then she told me why. The tale that emerged was one about judgment, and about my son—my beautiful, almost-eight-year-old son...who, it so happens, had worn a dress to his sister’s fifth birthday party the day before.

You see, my daughter had a “Princess” themed birthday party in the back room of a local ice cream place, and everyone was invited to come dressed as a princess. My son, a thespian to the core, wasn’t going to be left out. We did suggest the option of going as a prince, or in some other costume. "No," he replied. "I'm going as a princess."

(He then asked me to take him wig shopping. I refused.)

Just before we left for the party, my wife took him aside to point out that there were going to be a couple of older girls there, and some of them might laugh at him. This did not deter him. In addition to being a thespian, my son is a very savvy social operator in his own peer group. He knows how to face down seven-year-olds who have the temerity to question his party attire. And so, off we went with two princesses in the back of the minivan--one of them with a crew cut.

An older girl at the party did, in fact, laugh at him. He didn't care. And halfway through the party he shed the princess dress (which was "scratchy") in favor of the shorts and t-shirt he was wearing underneath. We all had fun, ate ice cream cake, opened presents, and went home. Best of all, I had an extended excuse to put off grading.

Now I'm not going to tell you who it was that questioned our parenting skills on the basis of this series of events, because it's none of your business (and few readers of this blog would know the relevant players anyway). But I do want to talk about the nature of the charges against us. They featured two ideas: first, that we were threatening our son's "healthy development" by allowing him to attend his sister's pre-K party in a dress; second, that we were setting him up for bullying.

Now let me be clear about something. My son is entirely comfortable in his own skin. In other words, he shows no signs of being transgendered in the sense of feeling like a female trapped in a male body. And while he doesn't slavishly conform to traditional gender roles (he's loved dance since the age of two, and he's as utterly indifferent to baseball as his father is), he far prefers Shrek to Sleeping Beauty. He delights in a good fart joke, and he can spend hours entertaining himself by combining baking soda and vinegar in a ziplock back, sealing it, and waiting for the explosion. On Sunday mornings, he neither wants to wear a dress to church nor envies his sister for being able to do so. He's a little boy, and he doesn't dream of being a little girl.

But he's also a performer, and dress-up is one of his favorite activities. Our daughter always dresses as a princess, but my son is more ecclectic. He'll dress as a vampire or pirate or dragon or witch, or as some kind of wierd clown-monster hybrid...or as a princess. Whatever strikes his fancy. He takes on a role and plays it to the hilt.

But if my son were transgendered, taking a hard line against wearing a dress wouldn't change that. Imposing strict gender role expectations on children whose native sexualities defy those gender roles is a recipe for suppression, for relationships based on pretense and fear of rejection rather than on honesty and trust. You might succeed in producing women-trapped-in-men's-bodies who pretend to be mountain men, out of the conviction that those close to them can't possibly love them for who they really are. You won't produce healthy, well-adjusted mountain men.

My theory is this: Attend to who your child is, and then support them in becoming the best example of that sort of person they can be. If your child is a budding mountain man, then by all means help him to become the best mountain man he can be. But if your child is a budding ballet dancer, trying to turn him into a mountain man is just a way of telling him that you don't love him. What you love is some human template he can only pretend to fill.

To put on a dress for his little sister's Princess party--well, that's part of who my son is. Casting off the dress halfway through the party--well, that's also part of who he is. For him, it was no big deal. A game he played for about an hour. But it would have been a big deal if (as some apparently think a good father would have done) I'd "put my foot down" and refused to allow him to wear a princess constume to a princess party where the invitation specifically encouraged the wearing of princess dresses. That would have driven home a message--a message about gender, about the rigidity of gender roles and the importance of enforcing them, even at the cost of stifling innocent childhood play. If he internalized that message, I think it would kill some beautiful part of who my son is.

But what about the specter of bullying? Let me say that I do worry about that with my son. He is, after all, small for his age. And brilliant. And he's a dancer. When he was two we watched the Tony awards as a family and he was transfixed by the dance numbers. He pointed excitedly at the screen and said, "Mommy! Daddy! I go there!" He begged to start dance lessons, and so my wife called around only to learn that the earliest they started children in dance was three. She told him as much. Close to a year later, on his third birthday, he suddenly announced, "I'm three now! Now I can start dance lessons!"

He's been dancing ever since. It hasn't always been easy, here in Oklahoma. He is, as of this moment, the only boy in his entire dance studio. A couple of years ago he almost quit, when he first became conscious of the gender-based judgments. (Once, a father and son were waiting in the lobby when he walked by in his leotard. The son said, "I didn't know boys danced." The father replied, harshly, "They don't!") But my son isn't immune to the benefits of being the only boy. And no, I'm not talking about the ones which will likely become obvious to him in a few years. I'm talking about the fact that he's a novelty, and so is more likely to get top billing. This year, his ballet class performed a number to music from the Peter Pan movie. Guess who was Peter Pan?

So I do worry about bullying. I find it horrible to think that my son might be targeted because of strict gender-role expectations that have no room for a boy doing what my son loves to do. And I find it especially pernicious that other children may become the agents of that intolerance, enforcing rigid gender dichotomies through peer teasing and bullying.

But if I were to prohibit my child from dancing, or from taking engaging in some playful bonding with his little sister on her birthday, out of fear of such teasing and bullying, the I would become the enforcer of the very social intolerance I oppose. By "putting my foot down," I'd only be bringing the bullying home.

If you are concerned about your child being the target of intolerance, because your child is unique in some special way, the solution is not to pre-emptively practice intolerance yourself out of fear that if you don't do it someone else will. The solution is to be your child's advocate in the face of intolerance. That is the kind of parenting that promotes healthy development.


  1. I absolutely love this post. I wrote a post about the NYtimes article a few days ago, but being a young person without children of my own, I definitely don't have this kind of insight.
    "Attend to who your child is, and then support them in becoming the best example of that sort of person they can be. If your child is a budding mountain man, then by all means help him to become the best mountain man he can be. But if your child is a budding ballet dancer, trying to turn him into a mountain man is just a way of telling him that you don't love him."
    so true..

  2. What on earth is the logic there? "You should bully your son yourself so other people don't get a chance to." Is that it?

    It doesn't make sense to me. I'm glad it doesn't make sense to you either.


  3. I'm so glad to have discovered this blog. What a wonderful piece this post is! I loved it. "Guess who was Peter Pan?" Love it! It sounds like a loving, healthy family has a reasonably healthy and loving Dad.
    (just kidding about the reasonably healthy part, but you are in an English department, right?)

    thank you