In their latest catalogue, J. Crew featured a spread called “Saturday with Jenna.” A photo shoot showing creative director and company president Jenna Lyons at home on a Saturday, enjoying her morning coffee, her J. Crew sweats and a round of toenail painting with her 5-year-old son Beckett. The caption reads, “Lucky for me I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.”
Incidentally, the company doesn’t even seem to be selling this shade of polish—though it does advertise a couple of more modest shades in the “necessary luxuries” section of the women’s wear shop—and it is certainly not listed alongside the pint-sized bowties and gingham shirts in the little boys’ section. But, so what if it did?
As you might have already deduced, the photograph has been roundly criticized. Not for being an insipid, navel-gazing image encouraging consumers to emulate some kind of mythic upward-mobility in the hopes of realizing some non-existent upper-middle-class ideal. It was also not critiqued for being an obvious and thinly veiled attempt to feminize a corporate head by imagining her as the modern-day fusion of June and Ward Cleaver. Nor was the controversy around the way the company promotes children as a sort of aesthetic ideal—irresistible in their tiny, man-like suits and thick-framed glasses. Instead, what pricked the ire of those people who like to pay attention to promotional photographs and their inherently heathen (er, consumerist?) and liberal (read: homosexual) bias was the fact that Jenna Lyons had painted her son’s toenails pink, and he appeared to enjoy it.
I don’t want to get into all the for-and-against arguing around this photo—which, at the most extreme end has been called “transgendered child propaganda”—except to say that predictably Fox News is one of the red-faced, steam-spewing outraged. In an opinion piece on the Fox News website, Dr. Keith Ablow calls the photograph “a dramatic example of the way our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity;” the picture, he believes, promotes “psychological sterilization.” This photo is the so-called “dramatic example” that throws into relief the increasing tendency of young girls to wear highly sexualized clothing, the increasing attention young boys pay to their physical appearances (as evidenced in the push to ban Axe body spray in many middle schools), and why not lump in teen violence, as witnessed in YouTube videos in which girls beat up other girls (he does).
So at the tender age of 5, Beckett summarizes everything that is wrong with youth culture, and all of that can be traced back to the confusion of gender roles? Of course, there are many who have loudly disagreed with Ablow and his ilk, the most articulate being Sarah Manley, a mother who was publically flagellated after she posted Halloween photos of her young son dressed up as Daphne from Scooby Doo, who said, “If the roles had been reversed and the photo… had been of a little girl playing in the mud with trucks, nobody would have batted an eye.” Touché.
Except that we have a word for that girl: a tomboy. We have a popular culture who embraces and describes her to us: there’s a history of famous and loveable tomboys, from Pippi Longstocking, to Harriet the Spy, to Ramona Quimby. Where’s the history of effeminate boys? And what about a cute shorthand term to encompass their impish vivacity? I’ve certainly known quite a few: there was the kid on the bus who always played with My Little Ponies. The boy in a day care I worked at who went through a “pink phase,” and if we’re counting toe-nail painting, then I’m sure any boy with a sister would fall into the category.
The internet makes a lot of banality far too present—see: Twitter—but this might be one example of a tiny, everyday moment that deserves our attention. I don’t mean attention in the spirit of Ablow. In fact, I don’t think Ablow’s even interested in the photo itself (he’s just interested in the way it allows him to promote a particularly conservative and misogynist reading of culture in a way that seems directed, rather than just ranting). What I mean is that perhaps we should all acknowledge that this moment between Jenna Lyons and her son is one that has been shared by many men and their sisters/mothers/neighbours-down-the-street, or perhaps also between boys and their brothers/fathers/friends, and not just recently, but likely since the invention of nail polish.
It’s only really since the 1980s—in part due to the cooption of gay culture by the mainstream (thanks Madonna!)— that marketers began to recognize in men’s personal hygiene and appearance a vast empty drugstore shelf just waiting to be filled. We have them to thank for the current Axe deluge in middle schools. Today it’s not just the Oscar Wildes of the bunch who are sartorialists, but the so-called “every-man” is increasingly encouraged to spruce up. But, why is it that even The Sartorialist himself—our current man-about-fashion—must reiterate his masculine authenticity by reminding us he “grew up playing sports”? Why doesn’t he add a detail to his biography about painting his toenails, trying on a tutu or playing with Barbies? Of course, this is not to assume he must have a hidden feminine streak just because he’s interested in fashion, but if he did, why is this one detail he’s likely to leave out?
It might be because there’s no endearing term like “tomboy” to describe such a phase and because photos like the one of 5-year-old Beckett still provoke such intense controversy. In other words, it may be because something as ubiquitous as nail polish becomes extraordinary and shocking in the hands of a small boy. I smell a YouTube campaign, or Facebook, Twitter, whatever other viral social media might exist that I’m not cool enough to know about. C’mon boys I know you’re hiding them: the snapshots of you in your mom’s heels standing proudly at the top of the stairs, your treasured tube of cherry lip balm, your My Little Pony. You aren’t really going to let J. Crew be leading edge on this, are you?
In the end, it’s just a painted toenail, and we should all just simmer down. And yet, it’s also not a toenail. It’s a thin slice of keratin that demonstrates how uncomfortable we are with masculinity, particularly with a masculinity that flexes and shifts and inhabits ill-defined parameters, with a masculinity that bleeds over into its counterpart. Perhaps we’re fine with tomboys because they’re just playing with a position that can never be theirs—like a cute dog who thinks it’s people—but, when boys start playing at being girls, well, no one really wants to know that the emperor isn’t wearing anything but pink panties.