Friday, November 19, 2010

"I could turn my little boys into girls"

That's a quote from an article on boys competing in girls' beauty pageants, "Pageant Boys."

I heard about this story from the morning radio show on my way to work. The DJs were discussing the habit of entering young boys into beauty pageants with disdain and mockery. At the heart of the story is six-year-old Zander who has been competing since infancy. Zander says that he loves competing in the pageants.  He likes the attention and the prizes.

Zander's mother insists that his participation is about freedom from gender roles and that she is allowing him to choose his own path.

But Zander isn't the anomaly he used to be in. In fact, the number of boys participating in the pageants has risen to 10% (up from 5% in 2005). Some of these other mothers (there aren't any fathers speaking in the article) admit that they are trying to fill the void of not having the daughter they wanted; thus, they see their child and think "I could turn my little boys into girls."

This article and the radio conversation bothered me in a way that I couldn't immediately figure out. See, I like the idea of challenging gender roles, so I can't say that I necessarily disagree with Zander's mother. At the same time, I don't think that an infant (and there are boys "competing" in these pageants at the ripe age of 2 weeks) is very cognizant of choosing any particular path. On top of that, I find the idea of competing on the grounds of "beauty" problematic for any child.

It also made me think of this blog post from Nerdy Apple Bottom, which was posted on a message board I read.

In this post, Nerdy Apple Bottom recounts the criticism she got from other mothers at her son's preschool when she allowed him to dress up as his chosen Halloween character: Daphne from Scooby Doo. She has a picture of him decked out (and pretty adorable) in the orange wig, knee-high pink boots, and sparkly purple tights. Among the issues she addresses are the ways that the parents reacted v. the way the children did (parents cared a lot more than the other kids), the assumption that experimentation in gender roles would "make" her son gay, and her own role as a mother in shaping her son's gender identity.

Nerdy Apple Bottom let her son choose his costume, she ordered it for him, and then she made him follow through with his decision to wear it to school when he started to get nervous about how people would react. All in all, I think she acted exactly the way that I would have in the given situation.

So why am I still bothered by the little boys competing in the beauty pageant? And why did the radio show bother me so much?

Also in the radio show, the DJs began lambasting parents who try to turn their little girls into boys by dressing them in "boy clothes" and forcing them to play little league ("not softball, but little league" the DJs incredulously commented).

I was such a tomboy growing up that my teachers would ocassionaly check out the bruising and scabs on my knees and ask if I was okay at home. I climbed trees, caught frogs, spent hours wandering through the woods in my back yard, and generally avoided anything pink, frilly, or heart-shaped. I wouldn't be caught dead in a dress. I begged my dad to play catch with me, took my BB gun to hunt rabbits with him (a task at which I was thankfully unskilled--poor bunnies!), and much preferred a day digging in dirt to one dressing up.

I truly don't think my parents had much to do with this decision. I think that my inclinations came out very clearly on their own. While they certainly could have discouraged them once they began, I don't think that they did much to encourage them at the start. Their decision to let me dress and play how I wanted gave me a lot of skills that I still use today, and I even ocassionally put on a dress now!

Clearly, little girls can bend these gender roles with more ease than little boys can (as Nerdy Apple Bottom points out, no one would have made a fuss if she'd had a daughter that dressed up like batman). But I still think that we have to allow room for this kind of exploration and play for all children. At the same time, I think we need to recognize that there comes a time in a child's development when he/she is old enough to make these decisions, and a two-week old entered into a beauty contest has probably not met that milestone, male or female.

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Comments are welcome and encouraged. I appreciate debate and have no problem hearing from people who disagree. This is a space where people can question and discuss. That said, I will delete comments that contain name-calling or bigotry. If it would get you kicked out of a dinner party, don't say it here. Use your manners.