I recently stumbled across a satirical video on Facebook from The Onion entitled: 'How To Find A Masculine Halloween Costume For Your Effeminate Son.' It was done in the style of a segment on a daily variety show. The convincing production and realistic style made me pause for a second and stare at my screen in disbelief; I quickly scrolled to the comments section to verify that this was indeed a satirical video made for the purposes of pointing out the sheer ludicrousness of suggestions such as: 'If you want your child to depict a male-dominated profession, be very careful not to choose one that's been co-opted by the gay community like a fireman, a cop, a cowboy... otherwise they'll just end up looking like a stripper.' My delayed ability to detect the subversive humour and satirical nature of this clip is reflective of the gender policing that is still so pervasive: this clip could easily have been a genuine segment on a television show.
This reminded me of the father from Virginia defending his son's right to dress up as Princess Elsa from Frozen last Halloween. The use of the word 'defended' is not a melodramatic turn of phrase in this context - members of the community took offence to a little boy wanting to dress up as a female character. Much of the rhetoric surrounding issues such as these is that it might 'turn your son gay' or that it is 'unnatural' and should not be encouraged. These sensationalistic arguments are quite in opposition to what prevailing research on the topic says: you cannot make your child gay (or straight for that matter) through limiting what they wear, what toys they play with or what sporting activities they enjoy. On the topic of what is natural or not, I had what felt like an incredibly natural inclination towards wearing my sister's dresses when I was younger and took any opportunity to dress up as a princess when I could. This was not forced upon me; instead it was a natural expression of my gender development.
While dressing up as a bloodthirsty vampire, a terrifying zombie or a vicious werewolf may all be seen as acceptable costumes for boys this Halloween, dressing up as a fairy, princess or mermaid will most certainly be largely frowned upon. Painting your son's face to resemble The Joker will be seen as 'normal' while applying lipstick and mascara to transform him into Wonder Woman will be vilified. If the argument for all the former options is that they represent a fantasy world located firmly in make-believe, then I would have to argue that the concept of gender itself is a fantasy, constructed socially and also situated in make-believe. We have been made to believe that certain forms of gender expression are acceptable while others are not and that some forms are more or less valid or more or less appropriate, depending on whether you're a boy or a girl.
Wodaabe men from Niger participate in an elaborate ceremony where they dress up, wear make-up and jewelry in order to attract a wife. These seemingly 'feminine' elements from a Western perspective are actually a display of virility in this particular culture in order to woo a partner. In this context, these men are more 'manly' based on more adornment and finery. While this is a specific cultural example, it is indicative of the fact that there are no absolutes or objective standards by which we can judge masculinity or femininity. Terms such as gender fluid and androgyny have become common parlance recently partly due to celebrities such as Jaden Smith wearing a skirt and appearing in a Louis Vuitton womenswear campaign and media attention devoted to shifting gender lines.
We are speaking about gender more than we have in the past and there may be some growing awareness that gender constructs are outdated. However, with the new awareness comes a pendulum swing - those who insist on maintaining gender integrity, defending gender stereotypes and advocating that 'boys be boys' and 'girls be girls'. All too often, these types of rhetoric are framed compassionately or out of concern for the child: they could be teased at school, their self-esteem could be affected, they are more likely to be bullied, being different is hard, it's important to fit in with the other kids... But what if you're child is different? What if they are gender non-conforming? Would it be most advisable to take a few pointers from the clip and simply find a Halloween costume that turns your effeminate son into a masculine gun-wielding soldier?
As you can imagine, my answer is a resounding no. It's time to start accepting that gender is not merely the constructed binary that we have been made to believe in. And we can see this most clearly in children who are not yet as tainted by ideas of 'boyish' boys or 'girlish' girls. If we would allow gender expression to naturally evolve and not become constrained by oppressive ideals then something truly magical could potentially happen: limitless expressive possibilities for all genders.