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Joanna Weiss

Shades of boyhood

Painted pink toenails unleash a media firestorm

(Istockphoto)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / April 17, 2011

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THIS MONTH, I committed a couple of parental sins involving the scourge of nail polish. As I was painting my daughter’s toenails pink — buying into the culture of girlishness — my 2-year-old son wandered in and announced that he wanted his toes painted, too. I splashed yellow polish on one big toe before he lost interest completely. But apparently, I was setting him up for a lifetime of gender confusion.

That was the point of last week’s pseudo-controversy over a J.Crew e-mail ad, which showed the company’s creative director at play with her towheaded young son. Their Saturday pastime, the ad suggests, is painting his toenails the color of a plastic lawn flamingo. “Lucky for me,’’ it reads, “I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.’’

You can imagine the chatter that ensued, most of which can be filed under People Need Things to Talk About During All of That TV News, cross-filed with Some People Make a Living by Telling Other People They’re Wrong. It’s unclear whether the nail polish or merely its color was the chief offender, but on FoxNews.com, Dr. Keith Ablow declared J.Crew “hostile to the gender distinctions that actually are part of the magnificent synergy that creates and sustains the human race.’’

That’s one nefarious goal for a clothing company — especially one that sells boys’ T-shirts with motorcycles on them. But Ablow is right that our culture is sending parents a lot of mixed messages about gender. Encouraging boys to do girl stuff is considered deeply dangerous. But indulging a girl in feminine stuff is often frowned upon, too.

Peggy Orenstein’s book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,’’ does some fierce hand-wringing over “girlie girl culture,’’ the combination of psychology and marketing that steers girls toward princess dresses, tea parties, and Barbie dolls. I felt the same ambivalence when my daughter was small, and dressed her exclusively in orange and brown until she figured out how to ask for pink. I also bought her a set of plastic dinosaurs. She pretended to change their diapers.

My son, meanwhile, plays happily with all of the cars she ignored, but I’ve never had mixed feelings over that. And when I’ve reached into the cupboard to grab him a plate, I’ve caught myself balking over pink ones, reaching instead for that red one with the truck.

Among parents who consider themselves enlightened, gay-friendly, and gender-neutralized, it’s a point of pride if your daughter likes to watch “Bob the Builder.’’ But those same parents feel a mild sense of shame if their sons want “Angelina Ballerina.’’ It’s disturbing when girls embrace every gender stereotype. It’s disturbing when boys don’t.

Some of this stems from the long, hard fight for girls’ equality in sports, science, and the workplace — the notion that, to prove they’re as worthy as boys, girls have to be less girlish. In our culture, femininity can still be a liability: A recent study from the University of Chicago found that female elementary school teachers pass along their math anxiety to girls.

But we also haven’t dropped the collective belief that masculinity equals strength, and that less masculinity equals weakness. When boys steer themselves toward feminine things, adults feel the need to protect them. That’s understandable, since kids can certainly be cruel. But last Halloween, when a Kansas City woman let her 5-year-old son dress like Scooby Doo’s friend Daphne, she reported on her blog that his preschool classmates were unfazed. It was adults who freaked out — and later harassed her at church for “promoting gayness.’’

Maybe the boy in the Daphne costume will grow up to be gay; his mother maintained that she won’t care either way. Maybe the boy in the J.Crew ad also likes to wear pink fairy dresses. Maybe he just likes playing with his mom, and hasn’t yet been conditioned to see toenail-painting differently from getting a fake tattoo.

Is there a point where adults have a duty to teach him otherwise? Will we ever be ready to send a signal that mixing up gender stereotypes isn’t dangerous for boys, either? Savvy marketers have figured out how to appease both sides of the gender wars, selling pink tee-ball stands and a hard-hat-wearing Architect Barbie.

Now, I’d love to see someone sell toenail polish just for boys, in masculine shades of navy and brown. Maybe J.Crew will carry it soon.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.