The Pink Shoes: Parenting, Stereotypes, and Gender

With her Vanity Fair cover, Caitlyn Jenner has become the face of the transgender movement in America in the glitziest way possible. Others’ experiences with gender ambiguity are often less glamorous.

In her 2013 TED talk on “Gender Fluidity,” filmmaker and author Gabrielle Burton decries the structures in our society that force us to identify as either male or female. She relates a story about a shopping experience with her two small children, her son and daughter. When they were at the store one day, her three-year old son came up to her holding bedazzled pink shoes from the girl’s section of the children’s shoe store and said, “Mama, aren’t they bootiful?” She responded, “Oh, yeah, honey, those are really beautiful shoes. Um… they’re too big for you,” and then led him over to a display of brown boys’ shoes.

Burton feels remorseful that she could not or would not give her son the shoes he favored because of the societal pressures to fit into gender defined forms of self-expression. She uses the words “segregation” and “discrimination” to talk about the ways in which we have one set of standards and expectations for males and another for females. Burton asks: In what other arena would we tolerate such discrimination between people?

The answer she expects us to give, we presume, is none. Yet that is untrue. Our government discriminates by giving special privileges to its citizens, which are simply not available to non-citizens. We would not normally consider this negative because citizens are burdened by taxes and therefore receive privileges and protection by the state for their monetary sacrifice. However, there certainly are instances in which the discrimination between citizen and others seems to transgress the limits of what is fair, but that is in the eye of the beholder. Our government also legalizes discrimination against many of the formerly incarcerated by revoking their right to vote. Whether this is a fair discriminatory practice again has its arguments on both sides, many of which would focus on whether the crimes considered felonies all deserve to be in that category.

Discrimination can be fair if it is used to respond to real differences- as opposed to contrived differences- in a way that is appropriate and proportional. In contemporary discourse, however, we use the word discrimination to imply that one group is being treated differently and unjustly for a reason that is invalid. The poll tax, for instance, forced Black people to pay in order to vote. There was no logical reason that Black voters should have to pay when White voters didn’t, because there is no distinction between them that is relevant when it comes to voting. Each group marks the ballot in the same way (though perhaps not for the same candidate) and at the same cost to the government.

To go back to Burton’s conundrum: Do I, or do I not buy my son bedazzled pink shoes when he seems to want them? I do not think that this situation has to be as awkward or momentous as Burton makes it out to be. Nor do I think that recalling the abuses of racial segregation and discrimination here is a wise or reasonable employment of that historical reality. For one, there are real differences between males and females that may require one group to be treated differently from the other with respect to a certain right or privilege. As an example, mothers are given paid maternity leave from work because their life circumstances necessitate this leave from work. Fathers are usually not given paternity leave when their wives become pregnant because the father’s individual life circumstances have not changed as dramatically as his wife’s has.

Secondly, it is perfectly acceptable for boys to recognize beauty, even feminine beauty. In fact, it’s something that should be cultivated in a healthy way. An appreciation for feminine beauty is not an admission that a male wants to permanently take on the attributes of that beauty. For a boy to see the beauty in something normally resigned to a girl’s attire is not in itself a departure from the norm. On the contrary, it is the recognition of the good and beauty in the other that brings men and women together in the first place.

There is nothing alarming or earthshattering in the story Burton tells. On the contrary, it’s perfectly commonplace. Burton is allowed to interpret this rather mundane affair as something momentous, but we are under no obligation to agree with her interpretation. Burton’s affirmation of her son’s sentiment that the shoes are indeed beautiful would not set him up for failure for when he eventually matures and faces society’s demands of gender normativity. After all, the colors associated with female expression and male expression in fashion are not static. They change from culture to culture. We should not be so shallow as to think that the color someone is attracted to says something definitive about their character, disposition, or sex.

It is the second part of Burton’s statement in her response to her son that is supposed to be more loaded: “…they’re too big for you.” This was her way of deflecting his attention away from the shoes. She wanted him to think that he was not being denied the shoes absolutely, but only for practical reasons. We gather that Burton feared her son’s response had she said he could not have the shoes because the shoes are for girls.

Considering that mothers and fathers all over have made this gender distinction to their children one has to wonder why this became so abhorrent to Burton. We tell children that they cannot have all sorts of things, usually for their own good. When a four-year-old boy sees his mother or father take a hot dish out of the oven and pipes up: “Can I help?” We say: “No, it’s hot, and it may burn you.” Obviously, gender identity is both more consequential and more complex than oven safety. However, when a four-year-old boy asks: “Can I have these pink shoes?” and when that same boys asks: “Can I get that plate out of the oven?” I am not at all convinced that—in the mind of that four-year-old boy—the first question has any more gravity and consequence than the second. I am sure that its possible that the boy wants his mother to get him the pink shoes just as much as he wants his father to allow him to reach into the hot oven. This would alert us to the child’s desire for the shoes being fleeting, as most childish desires are.

Gender and sexuality are matters that our culture is obsessed with, not our children. Children live part of almost every day in a fiction only known to them, in which they pretend to be king, dinosaur, shark, and yes—on occasion—a person of the opposite sex. It is certainly possible that some children who dress up in the clothes of the opposite gender may grow up to have a complicated relationship with their gender, as Walt Heyer did. However, for many (perhaps most) children, this foray into the way the other side dresses will be just a passing folly that they have no recollection of as adults.

As Burton concludes her talk, we are left with the impression that, if she could do it again, Burton would buy those pink shoes for her son because she does not want to restrict his self-expression along traditional gender lines. Is Burton saying that when it comes to how her son expresses himself she will leave him to his own devices? Such an attitude seems like an awfully hands-off approach to parenting. It strikes me that how she chooses to parent must be informed not only by her convictions, but also by what is most beneficial for her son given the society he will have to enter into one day. She might choose to raise him in a way that will make it difficult for him to find a place in society. That is her choice as a parent, although it seems mighty unwise to many. If, on the other hand, she decides to raise him in a way that conforms with our societal norms for males so that society recognizes him, embraces him, and he feels comfortable within it, then that is also her choice. Arguably, Burton would be doing her son a favor if she chose this path. She will have to make an intelligent decision and deal with the consequence of her approach to parenting, just as all parents and all people do.

Her approach so far opens up the door to related questions of concern. Will Burton limit or enable her children’s self-expression along other lines, such as socio-economic status? Wealth certainly limits the way one is able to express him or herself. A certain amount of financial stability is necessary to, say, purchase accouterments associated with a particular gender or to broaden one’s intellectual horizons by pursuing higher education.

On the other hand, money often comes with certain expectations, which can be restrictive. If her son decides to leave school at sixteen and pursue dignified but menial work, will Burton support that as a valid form of self-expression? If not, we must ask: Isn’t he, at sixteen, more prepared to decide the course of his life than he was at age four? Do not the things that attract and motivate him at sixteen tell us more about his constitution than the things that attract and motivate him at the age of four?

In short, will Burton apply this laissez faire attitude to other consequential matters of her sons’ life, with full consciousness of the repercussions? If she does then this is certainly a radical form of parenting that society needs to have a larger discussion about. Previous discussions about the welfare of children have made unlawful child labor and many other practices that society has matured to find immoral. It is very possible that one day we may see the highest courts debating whether or not a parent can legally and for any reason change the sex of their child, for instance.

Muslim organizations and masjids will have to think about instituting policies related to transgender Muslims who wish to participate in such places. Scholars of both the Islamic intellectual tradition and the medical community, as well as cultural vanguards will have to think together about properly addressing this issue. As this relates to marriage, leaders and communities will have to think about if and under what circumstances transgender people can be accommodated. Some in the Christian community have decided to get out of the marriage business all together. Ministers with state licenses to wed couples are no longer performing marriages even for heterosexual couples because “The new definition of marriage no longer coincides with the Christian understanding of marriage between a man and woman.” Therefore, to keep a clean conscience and also to avoid facing state coercion when they are asked to perform a marriage between a gay couple but must refuse, they opt out entirely. They ask all who seek civil marriage to seek such a marriage outside of the church. The Marriage Pledge drafted by two reverends and quoted above is worth taking a look at. Parents must teach their children to love and embrace who God made them in an environment that supports the kind of children they are aiming to raise. We must do nothing short of following the sunnah of our Prophet in compassion as well as justice. The Prophet did mention people who did not fit squarely into the male/female divide. As far as I am aware none of the prominent figures in the sunnah were of this persuasion. Perhaps there were minor figures, but their absence from the narrative means that we do not take them as examples.

The proper functioning and flourishing of society often requires us to make categories that support that development. Likewise we must acknowledge aberrations from the norm. This must always be based on justice. It does not mean those people or things that fall outside the norm become irrelevant, but there is recognition that they do not represent the best of what society wants for itself. We seek to help them if we have the ability and if they are willing to receive the help, but until they reform themselves to community standards they must remain tangential to the community for the sake of the majority.


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