Thursday, April 14, 2011

J. Crew ad signals apparent end of civilization as we know it

…the fate of the human race hangs in the balance if enough little boys opt for pink nail polish…

The blogosphere has been rife with outrage about Dr. Keith Ablow’s scathing assessment on Monday of a J. Crew ad released last week (1). In his Fox News column (2), he lambastes their president and creative director, Jenna Lyons, for painting her son, Beckett’s toenails hot pink (the five year old’s favourite colour, according to the ad). He laments that “almost nothing is now honored as real and true” (¶4), meaning prescriptive gender behaviour, but what is real and true is that the boy loves pink. Ablow has his fair share of supporters, with some calling it gross and others declaring with homophobic certainty, “He will be gay”. With so many arguments already articulated against this perspective, I don’t want to be redundant. At the same time, I feel the need to weigh in since my art is about gender as a social construct, with a focus on youth and the connection between pink and femininity/sexuality.

At face value, the issue is the painting of his toenails, and that is Ablow’s point of departure. To be fair, last year, I expressed dismay at Shiloh Jolie-Pitt being baited to have her nails painted (3). Where our opinions diverge radically, though, is in my championing of her right to agency, and by extension, of Beckett’s right to agency. Based on his smile, we can tell he adores bonding with his mom in this way and is not being forced into it.

Ablow associates nail painting with costuming, and expresses concern about the slippery slope of dress-up. He writes about girls being sexualized at a frighteningly young age through clothing. I agree with that perspective. However, Beckett’s navy pants and striped sailor shirt, reminiscent of Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock’s attire, don’t belie femininity (not that I would find that problematic, personally). What seems to be the real issue is marking his body with pink, which amounts to a form of social labeling, or to be more academic, social semiotics/semantics. (I am fascinated by the extent of this labeling: I picked up a shirt in Chicago recently for my art that says repeatedly—like a mantra—“I love pink”. It’s for a one year old).

Are polished nails really a signifier of sexuality? I’ve been watching My So-Called Life lately, in which Rickie Vasquez, a groundbreaking gay television character, first experiments with makeup and later comes out. Positive correlation? Arbitrary connection? Who is to say? Even the prospect of the former is enough to make Ablow take a number of staggering leaps. He implies that the fate of the human race hangs in the balance if enough little boys opt for pink nail polish and don’t grow up to fulfill their biological duty. Then again, if, as he says, girls are being less cautious sexually these days, the situation would balance, wouldn’t it? He also questions whether the next step will be manipulating race by changing skin colour. OK, then.

Why is pink such a contentious colour, anyway? Veronika Koller’s study, “Not Just a Color: Pink as a Gender and Sexuality Marker in Visual Communication” showed that women associate pink with femininity and positive attributes, but men mostly regard it as neutral. For instance, 45.3 percent of women thought pink was alluring, compared to 23.9 percent of men (4). Extrapolating from this study, one could assume that Beckett is unaffected in any substantial way. Still, Ablow insists money should be put aside for the child’s inevitable therapy. That seems about as likely as someone needing therapy because their parents posted naked photos of them as a baby on Facebook (as one of the followers of my blog did just yesterday).

Ablow wants to “hold dear anything with which we were born” (¶8). His birth date, from what I can tell from online sources, is 1961, a mere two decades after the approximated reversal of the pink/blue trend. That is to say, pink used to be the colour of men and boys, as it was associated with the colour of blood and war. So, when Ablow imagines a future where “neither gender is motivated to protect the nation by marching into combat against other men and risking their lives” (¶10), I am inclined to disagree. At any rate, blue used to be the colour of women and girls. It was linked to the Virgin Mary, and it became a colour of morality during the Protestant Reformation (5). Bottom line? Society is fickle. If we’re talking about time-honoured tradition, I’d argue that little Beckett has a classic sense of fashion.

We would do well to update Simone de Beauvoir’s statement, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” to “One is not born, but rather becomes, intolerant.”

Sources:

(1) Copy and paste this link, as it does not seem to link to this blog:
http://www.jcrew.com/womens_feature/Jennaspicks.jsp

(2) Ablow, K. J. Crew Plants the Seeds for Gender Identity.
http://www.foxnews.com/health/2011/04/11/j-crew-plants-seeds-
gender-identity/

(3) Copy and paste this link, as it does not seem to link to this blog: http://artistintransit.blogspot.com/2010/03/shiloh-parsing-out-
celebrity-fashion.html/

(4) Pastroureau, M. Blue: The History of a Color. 2001. Princeton University Press.

(5) Koller, V. Not just a color: pink as a gender and sexuality marker in visual communication. 2008, November. Vol. 7, No. 4. Visual Communication. Doi: 10.1177/1470357208096209.

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