Pink Boys, Blue Girls

Yesterday's New York Times Magazine had an interesting article by Ruth Pradawer about boys who like to dress like girls ("pink boys" is the phrase the author uses).  Parents get much more concerned about these boys than about girls who want to dress like boys.  Why is that?  One reason is because their futures are less conventional. The author writes--

The studies on what happens in adulthood to boys who strayed from gender norms all have methodological limitations, but they suggest that although plenty of gay men don’t start out as pink boys, 60 to 80 percent of pink boys do eventually become gay men. The rest grow up to either become heterosexual men or become women by taking hormones and maybe having surgery. Gender-nonconforming behavior of girls, however, is rarely studied, in part because departures from traditional femininity are so pervasive and accepted. The studies that do exist indicate that tomboys are somewhat more likely than gender-typical girls to become bisexual, lesbian or male-identified, but most become heterosexual women.
One of the experts interviewed by Pradawer has a different interpretation of why "pink boys" are worrisome for parents, but "blue girls" (a phrase never even used in the article) aren't--
These days, flouting gender conventions extends even to baby naming: first names that were once unambiguously masculine are now given to girls. The shift, however, almost never goes the other way. That’s because girls gain status by moving into “boy” space, while boys are tainted by the slightest whiff of femininity. “There’s a lot more privilege to being a man in our society,” says Diane Ehrensaft, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who supports allowing children to be what she calls gender creative. “When a boy wants to act like a girl, it subconsciously shakes our foundation, because why would someone want to be the lesser gender?”
This doesn't ring entirely true to me. People can desperately want to have a girl, and be thrilled with the girliness of their girls, yet be anxious when boys start doing "girl" things.  That doesn't mesh with the notion that girliness is undesirable in boys because it's viewed as inferior, period.

No, what people (many, anyway) don't like to see is girliness in boys; it's not a question of girliness in general.  For some reason masculinity seems more fragile. Forgive the crude analogy, but masculinity and femininity seem sort of like chocolate and vanilla. Chocolate (femininity) is the more durable flavor. You can add vanilla to chocolate, and it still tastes like chocolate. 

Adding chocolate to vanilla, on the other hand, makes it no longer vanilla. Masculinity has to be scrupulously protected or it disappears.  That's how we perceive it, anyway ... but based on what?  The first paragraph might shed a lot of light--perhaps "pink boys" really are much more different from other boys than "blue girls" are from other girls.  That's why we think of small deviations from "pure masculinity" as major differences, to be guarded against diligently.  (What a lot of stress for boys who are drawn to "feminine" things, and for their anxious parents.)

Sure to help me think about these things is Charlotte Witt's new book The Metaphysics of Gender, arriving courtesy of Amazon any day now.  We published a review written by Asta Sveinsdottir in The Philosophers' Magazine (you can read it here).  A longer review by the same author is at NDPR.


Charles Sullivan said...

I can't help but think that masculinity is one way (depending on the culture, or course) where men and older boys can establish their status, which can be closely tied to identity.

Perhaps particular deviations from masculinity (pink-boys) might be seen as a rejection of masculinity overall, and even a threat to the way men can establish their identities.

I'm not making a normative judgement here, just an anecdotal observation.

Torquil Macneil said...

It used to be a commonplace of feminism that masculinity was something that was viewed as being made/constructed/earned, while femininity was associated with the natural. This dichotomy was thought to favour men, although it needn't, because male gender was linked with culture, intellect, art, science etc, while female gender was stuck with the limits of the body (sexier but with fewer career prospects). I think there is something in that but it has been radically altered in the last few decades which means that the reflexive comments about 'privilege'in this area can seem peculiarly outdated. Surely these dyas if it were found that men were culturally able to cross gender expectations freely while women were strictly policed, we would assume that this was a manifestation of patriarchal control?I think that would be right and so we are better off assuming that boys are the losers in this arrangement, that it represents a conflict about masculinity rather than any disparagement of the feminine. In fact, I think the masculinisation of our culture in the last 100 years has been a disaster for thousands of boys (I blame Hemingway and Pollock for most of it, with the help of the CIA of course)but I am surprised at how many feminist commenters seem to have deeply absorbed the cultural assumption that masculine traits are in some way superior to feminine ones, even when the division is entirely arbitrary, so girls wearing pink is concerning while boys wearing blue isn't, even if the girls consequently have much more freedom in this sphere.

greg byshenk said...

I think the argument that '"pink boys" really are much more different from other boys than "blue girls" are from other girls' is unwarranted. It may well be true that 'pink boys' are more likely to homosexual than 'blue girls', but that isn't sufficient, because of the stigma attached to 'pink boys'. It may be that few boys other that those who are homosexual are willing to risk the stigma of being a 'pink boy', whereas if the stigma were less strong, more boys would display feminine aspects, just as it is more common (and more acceptable) for girls to display masculine aspects.

Jean Kazez said...

Greg, Really good point--I hadn't thought of that.

Ed Darrell said...

Interesting discussion. Of all the tomboys I knew as a kid, all of them grew up to be quite hetero, so far as I know (lost track of some over the last 30 years, but most seemed well set on their path). Women who later turned out to be lesbian were, for all I saw, just as firmly planted in the pink girl side as any others.

Boys have it tougher, I think. As a child I was fascinated with cooking: From where come the bubbles in boiling water? Why do clear parts of eggs turn white? What's the difference between a melting ice cube and a melting pat of butter, that makes the butter not evaporate away (and leave grease spots)? Why does cooked meat turn brown, and not blue or bright yellow? What sorts of foods behave like Cream of Wheat, and expand and get soft on cooking? Why doesn't a bowl of Grape Nuts require cooking to get soft? So I wanted a stove to experiment with. Every Santa in Burley, Idaho, treated me like a kid with influenza. So I secretly experimented with the big stove in the kitchen . . .

Later, I got compliments from teachers in physics and chemistry for what were essentially the same questions. Sometimes, we put too much stock in the presentation, and not enough stock in the substance. I wonder how many boys got turned off of science by a gender-straight-jacketed view from the rest of world. I wonder how many girls had genuine science interests turned off by the assumption they wanted the little stove to play house with, to learn how to be subservient with, instead of to check out how the world and universe work.

I've also wondered about looking into the history of pink and blue. Get the photos of Franklin D. Roosevelt as a child -- notice his pretty white dress. One of my college history teachers noted that, up to the Great Depression, pink was the male color, blue the female color, for babies. He said he'd discovered that accidentally, and he never was quite sure when the shift occurred, but he wondered if it had anything to do with smoking, with women taking up smoking, and with the shift in things like Chesterfield brand cigarettes from a female cigarette to a male cigarette -- and isn't that silly, that we'd ascribe gender to cigarette brands?

Jean Kazez said...

Enjoyed this comment, especially the paragraph about cooking questions!