What a Drag: Why Can’t Little Boys Wear Dresses?


Tomorrow, Jews will celebrate Purim, my contender for all time best holiday in a religion. Not only are we encouraged to drink enough as to not be able to distinguish the names Haman and Mordecai (since those don’t sound remotely similar, that’s a lot of Manischewitz), we get to dress up and make lots of noise in the synagogue. And there are special cookies.

More importantly, Purim is one of few holidays in any liturgy that centers around the achievements of a woman. Not only are men in the foreground of our other holidays honoring specific people, they take center stage in many of those of other major religions: Passover (Moses with best supporting actor to Aaron and a walk-on for Miriam), Hanukah (Judah Maccabee), Christmas (Jesus with Mary supporting), Easter (Jesus again) and Laylat Usra and Miraj (Mohammed.)

Queen Esther, the heroine of the Purim tale, defied expectations to help save her people from planned annihilation at the hands of her husband’s no-good advisor, Haman. Every year, Jewish children dress up as one of the main characters in this drama. And when asked, Mordecai, Haman or King Ahasuerus — my three year old son quickly chose Queen Esther. A no brainer, really — she’s the star of this show.

While I happily borrowed a dress of the frilliest, shiniest available (and went wild at Walgreens on a plastic crown with matching jewelry) my husband is not so keen on this little gender-bending adventure. A close friend, your liberal by habit kind of corporate lawyer, declared — upon seeing him in full regalia — “that’s child abuse.”

There’s been a spate of articles remarking on a burgeoning preference for girls. Change.org asked readers “so what do you think of this modern-day girl fetish? As we fight for equality among men, could it be possible that women in the United States will end up outgrowing the ‘boys club’?” And Elle magazine caused quite a stir with an article that chronicled several women’s obsessive desire for a girl.

Perhaps it’s only fitting to want a girl, in this age when girls can be Superman or fairies, lumberjacks or princesses. Girls, in many cases, have the whole range of gender expression open to them. We may call them tom-boys but climbing trees and playing matchbox cars is a possibility for girls.

Not so for boys — from the clothes they wear to the toys they play with — there is a proscribed set of options. Boys not only will be boys, we seem determined to ensure that’s the case. And this is not just a re-enforcement of the importance of masculinity above all things — it’s an implicit and powerful devaluation of what’s feminine in all of us.

Make no mistake, my son will be the cutest little Queen Esther in my eyes but it’s troubling that this role playing will surely cause double-takes for others. My son is no more likely to actually think he’s a queen than he believes he is a frog, his choice for Halloween costume. He understands Esther as a character he’s learned about in pre-school — one he desires to play. To me, she symbolizes courage, non-conformity, loyalty and faith — if these are traits my child wishes to emulate, I couldn’t be happier.

Happy Purim to you all!

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  • flora

    Anat, I totally agree that people (both young and old) should be able to explore both masculine and feminine sides of themselves. The other day I was thinking how often we hear the phrase “Be a Man”… but “Be a Woman” isn’t tossed around so much. My sense is that being a man in our culture is much more limiting than being a woman (like you said — girls can be lumberjacks or princesses! Boys must be boys…). Curiosity and acceptance are two traits I try to foster in myself and can only hope to pass on to the next generation. Kudos to you for modeling these traits for your son.

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    Flora,

     

    Thanks for reading and finding the time to respond. In Spanish, the equivalent phrase (which we hear at my in-laws with frequency) is “hacete hombre” or make yourself a man. When I hear this, and think about which member of our sex goes through labor and child birth (not to mention generally lives longer and works more) it makes me laugh. You won’t be surprised to hear, I’m sure, that I prefer to say “hacete mujer.”

    Incidentally, we just got back from the pre-school Purim play and the Rabbi made an amazing Queen Esther. Good for him!

    Anat

  • catherineh

    Big props for letting your little cutie express his enthusiasm for his culture however he sees fit. That seems a much better response than the alternative — telling him no because he’s not a girl — which would introduce or reinforce gender stereotypes that are not helpful to him or his peers.

    Last year I took my 3-year-old nephew to the Los Angeles County Fair and found fascinating that of all the rides, booths, and other entertainment, he most wanted to visit the princess house. There, he could try on costumes, play “castle,” and make crafts like his very own magic wand. The workers said that they opened the princess house the previous year as an acitivty for girls and were overwhelmed by the volume of preschool aged boys who wanted to participate. As a result, they added several prince costumes yet still find that boys don’t limit themselves to trying on only those. Several months later, my nephew still prizes his purple wand which he uses for creative play and to explore his own powers and independence.

    It sounds like the preschool-aged desire for fantasy play is totally natural and should be encouraged, rather than turned into a potential shaming lesson in gender stereotypes.

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    Catherine,

     

    I’m impressed that the folks at the LA County Fair take such an enlightened view. Perhaps the array of allowable preferences for boys is actually widening.

     

    Let’s hope so. In the meantime, I’m going to eat more hamentaschen.

     

    Anat

  • sarahhoffman101

    Anat, I loved this post! My son, who dressed only in female costumes until he was six, was Queen Esther in kindergarten (and he looked beautiful). I wrote about your essay on my blog (where I write about raising a pink boy):

     

    http://www.sarahhoffmanwriter.com/?page_id=19

     

    Thanks for the excellent feminist analysis of the Purim story, and our social attitudes toward gender. Right on!!

  • moose90

    He’s a BOY not a GIRL…BOY not GIRL…BOYs and GIRLs are different…We were CREATED that way…

  • crowepps

    Yep, and they STAY different even if the boys occasionally wear skirts or pretend they’re princesses.  Superficial cultural things like clothes and pretending do not change a thing.  So why the hysteria?  It will NOT fall off.

  • colleen

    So why the hysteria?

    Because if women aren’t selfless, stupid and submissive and boys aren’t forced to bully and dominate at an early age, life as he knows it will collapse. Besides, this is a clear case of women making boys gay.

    ——————————————
    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

      Dr Warren Hern, MD
  • crowepps

    The amount of trouble that is caused by the theory that boys can be ‘made gay’ by superficial stuff directly leads to the insanity imposed on young men as they distort their lives so they don’t ‘look gay’ to their male buddies.

     

    “Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood”

    http://books.google.com/books?id=514Ny0lOgSoC&printsec=frontcover&dq=reals+boys+myths+of+boyhood&source=bl&ots=u5AWd2P_3X&sig=-oYLTnMMZ9twtbqJZDU_FdJiwK0&hl=en&ei=a3OJS9zIIIaiswPh062GAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CBsQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=&f=false

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    Sarah,

     

    Thanks for reading, writing and reposting. Your blog is equally lovely — I’m glad to know of it. Hope you’re getting your fill of Hamentaschen, as far as I’m concerned no such thing as too much.

    Shabbat Shalom v’Chag Sameach,

    Anat

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    Moose90,

    Thanks for reading about my family and what raising a child is helping me understand about the world. My son was created a boy — I am in full agreement. And endowed by this creator (to borrow a phrase) with rights — among them the pursuit of happiness. My broad parenting philosophy is to say no — sternly and consistently — in matters that could harm my son’s health or safety or that of others. Since his request to play Queen Esther, risked none of these — I was happy to oblige.

    Being a boy means one thing for certain — anatomy. You imply it must mean much more. My son is whomever he’s supposed to be and my greatest responsibility, honor and challenge is recognizing who that is. This is the very least we can give all of our children.

     

    Anat

  • atunionbob

    “this is a clear case of women making boys gay”.

    As a gay male I can assure you this will NOT make a person gay!
    You can dress his as a female all his life and when it comes time to take a mate if he is Hetro he will take a woman, if he is Homo he will take a male. No amount of pressure from mom or dad will change that. Its a natural selection that a person is BORN with!!! No one chooses to be gay or straight, as we are born that way. Prove otherwise colleen  Prove otherwise!!!!

  • colleen

    Prove otherwise colleen Prove otherwise!!!!

    My apologies atunionbob, I was attempting a small joke.

  • crowepps

    Certainly the evidence is in from those cases of botched circumcision or ambiguous genitalia (1% of births) where the ‘solution’ to the penis being destroyed or the genitalia unusual was to ‘assign’ the child a sex.  Didn’t work in any of the cases, they remained ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ in their heads, and parental and social insistence that they not act in the ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ manner outsiders felt to be inappropriate caused the children enormous problems.

     

    “Like most of the other children in the study, Kayla had been castrated and was being raised as a girl. But she was not a happy child. Small and aggressive, she had gotten into a number of fights with her classmates. Rather than the dolls her parents gave her, she played with cars and trucks, and she had insisted that her schoolmates call her by the biblical boy’s name she had chosen for herself. Eventually she had refused to go to school altogether.

     

    Reiner gave Kayla a battery of psychological tests and found that she came out overwhelmingly male on measurements of gender-typical behaviors and self-concept. He told Kayla’s parents what he had observed. After some reflection, the parents decided that their child ought to know that she had been born a boy. They asked Reiner if he would tell her.

     

    So the next day, Reiner explained to Kayla that she had been born a boy who had no penis, so her doctors and parents had decided to raise her as a girl.

     

    “His eyes opened about as wide as eyes could open,” recalls Reiner. “He climbed into my lap and wrapped his arms around me and stayed like that.”

     

    As Reiner cradled the child in his arms, he felt as though an enormous weight had been lifted, and he himself was overcome with emotion. The child remained in his arms without moving for half an hour.

     

    http://www.jhu.edu/jhumag/0900web/babes.html

     

    http://www.amazon.com/As-Nature-Made-Him-Raised/dp/0060192119

  • deb-r

    Surely a good reason to NOT circumsize infant boys–accidents can happen after all!

    An experience from my family–my step mother wanted a girl so badly that she dressed her 2nd boy in dresses and let his blonde hair grow long and even curled it!(until he went to school), today he is happily married and has 2 kids–I don’t think he suffered too much from her weirdness.  Then she had a girl with my dad–and she was in heaven –dressing her little girl in pretty princess clothes and entering her in beauty pageants (we step daughters would not have anything to do with her extreme feminine craziness). My half sister at age 12 was so fed up she chopped her beautiful hair off and refused to wear anything but jeans and refused to go to the pageants.

     

     

  • crowepps

    While it’s true there have been sex assignments done after circumcision accidents, it’s far more common for this to happen when infants are born with ‘ambiguous genitalia’, a common birth defect found in 1.5 to 2% of infants.  The sensible thing to do, of course, would be to wait until the children are five or six and then ASK them whether they are boys or girls, but apparently some people find the whole idea of not having a gender label to slap on the kid right up front so distressing that they prefer to settle the question by making a guess and then doing irrevocable, and painful, surgery immediately.

     

    http://www.childrensnational.org/DepartmentsAndPrograms/default.aspx?Type=Conditions&SubType=ConditionOrTreatment&Id=&Name=Genital%20Problems&SubName=Genital%20Problems&SubId=462#causes

  • cmarie

    It would be nice to think that the little one can just do whatever he wants and its between him and his parents.  But at this age and for a looonnnnggg time after its also going to be about his peers.  Both boys and girls could make his life miserable if you make a habit of encouraging this kind of thing.  This is one reason why young kids have such a terrible time with bullying at school.  Remember, if you or I go to work and face harrasment there are HR people to go to.  Kids in school really can’t get rid of a bully so easily even if they do complain.  Granted, this child is only three but very soon this kind of thing could lead to a lot of teasing.  Just a couple of weeks ago in my area a young girl hung herself because teasing had become so relentless and as far as I know all the school has done is suspend the bullies for a week or two.  An adult at work would never have had to tolerate such abuse.  Sometimes the bullies will target anyone, but, a child allowed to dress in public as a woman– I’m afraid it would be open season on him– from many kids. If I thought one of my kids was teasing a child for this I would end the teasing, immediatly, but kids don’t generally have their parents with them in class.   I wouldn’t encourage it.

  • crowepps

    What people are wearing, particularly at the age of three, is irrelevant to the issue of bullying.  Trying to fit in so as to avoid the bullies notice does nothing to end that type of behavior.

     

    Schools should proactively socialize children out of bullying – it would result in a huge cost-savings for society by guiding children out of the childish belief that they are more important than others and entitled to monitor conformity of personality, appearance and behaviors of others and to harass or punish anyone who is different, an attitude that contributes to all sorts of crime in adults, including harassing women going into Planned Parenthood.

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    cmarie,

    Thanks for weighing in about a real and very hurtful issue children face. I’m proud to say that at my son’s preschool, not only did no one look twice, the Rabbi himself wore a dress and a wig for the Purim play. 

    Obviously, preschool and real school are different things. I will also add that I live in an incredibly progressive community and our synagogue happily welcomes all couples and believes dress-up and role playing is an integral part of how kids learn and enjoy life. Frankly, I wouldn’t send my kid to any other kind of care.

    My experience with teasing is that if it isn’t your clothes, it’s your name, your nose, your teeth, your anything to make you feel badly about yourself. I wish we could shield our kids from the petty meanness of the playground — but we can’t. All we can do is encourage them to be kind and speak up for themselves and others.

    Bullying and physical violence is another matter. Most schools have zero tolerance for these issues — regardless of why the harassment is happening. Again, I would do everything in my power to avoid placing my child in any other kind of school. Less because I fear him being picked on and more because I think that kind of environment is toxic.

    Your proposed solution — not encouraging what is essentially harmless play — is letting conformity rule and the bullies take charge. People who can’t behave civilly when confronted with difference are the ones who should change — boys wearing girls clothes should not. Caving into this just perpetuates the idea that aggressive behavior is ok and it’s the victims who should alter themselves.

    Anat