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Toemaggedon, Toilets and Gender Symbols

Behold and quake, oh inhabitants of the digital village, for pinky fresh doom is upon you. The end of days is here, and worse, the end of capitalism. I refer of course to the clear and present danger posed to civilisation in toto by the painted toenails of a 6 year old boy in a glossy catalogue.

In a widely publicsed comment, Fox News “psychiatrist” Keith Ablow called the ad “psychological sterilization,” adding that

encouraging the choosing of gender identity, rather than suggesting our children become comfortable with the ones that they got at birth, can throw our species into real psychological turmoil—not to mention crowding operating rooms with procedures to grotesquely amputate body parts?

So, apparently everyone’s turning trans, and doctors are giving out sexual reassignment surgery out like they used to give lollypops. Who knew?

The controversy provoked in response to the J. Crew image might seem, to any reasonable reader, to be a bizarre, irrational overreaction to a fairly innocuous image of a mother playing with her son. But sex/gender is one area in which North American cultures are decidedly not reasonable.

Given the absence of scaremongering about the physical qualities of the nailpolish, you don’t have to be Roland Barthes to realise that this is about a crisis of meaning – it’s the symbolic effect of pink nailpolish which is being characterised as malignant to both the child who chose it and the culture at large. Not merely nailpolish (feminine itself), not a Goth black or boyish blue, but pink nailpolish. The mismatch between sex assignation of the child and the pink is a symbolic threat to masculinity, threatening to turn the proper development of a heteromasculine boy off-course. That this is statistically unlikely to occur—and so what if it did, as Jessica Valenti rightly asks—is besides the point.

The role of the mother is key here, I think, as enabler of the perverted child, as phallic mother (a certain Freudianism lurks behind a lot of this stuff). Another example of this occurred recently when Freshman Republican senator Allen West here told a gathering of right-wing women that:

We need you to come in and lock shields, and strengthen up the men who are going to the fight for you. To let these other women know on the other side — these planned Parenthood women, the Code Pink women, and all of these women that have been neutering American men and bringing us to the point of this incredible weakness — to let them know that we are not going to have our men become subservient. That’s what we need you to do. Because if you don’t, then the debt will continue to grow…deficits will continue to grow.

Do you hear that, women wanting rights? Not only are you creating a generation of trans girls by not allowing your uteri to be controlled by Republican men, you’re destroying the economy!

But seriously. How vulnerable is this kind of fortress masculinity? Beset on all sides by “feminising” influences, ironically the supposedly “natural” forms of gender performance have to be nurtured like they’re rare orchids. And not merely by the parents, but by the entire society – the merest hint of an alternative, of a child making their own choices and not being punished for it – makes the entire edifice collapse. Because of one highly symbolic set of pink toenails.

What is “supposed” to happen is violent, socially legitimated disciplining of the child against transgression. Much of the Right wing solicits violence against gender non-conforming children, advocating physical punishment and (ineffective) psychiatric treatment. But this kind of violence disappears from the frame, as the acceptable cost for producing cis het subjects.

We can see this anxiety about gender symbols at work in the never-ending debates over trans people being “allowed” to use public restrooms. Sociological Images has a good set of various images used for toilet signs, but there is near one constant – a belief in the totemic power of the single sex toilet to keep out the “wrong” sex. In the aforementioned bathroom panic discourse, this is defined in entirely cissexist ways, in a neat conflation between assigned sex, sex history, current sex configuration and gender identity. Any person who does not align all of these – are you now or have you ever been? – is vulnerable to harassment, violence, and in many areas in the U.S without protections, potential arrest.

The trans people that figure in the fevered imaginations of “bathroom panic” are predatory, violent, murderers and rapists. The entrance of a trans woman into the women’s loos is a symbolic violation so damaging the Right has been using it to sink women’s, gay and trans rights since the late 1970s, despite there being no documented cases of trans rights actually being used that way.

In reality, as Monica pointed out recently at Transgriot, cis people are the real bathroom predators. The symbolic transgression of the coercive and arbitrary sex/gender binary solicits and legitimises a very real, physical and emotional violence against those who violate its arbitrary laws.

And so it goes.


  1. JfC wrote:

    Brilliant. It is amazing how people can simultaneously maintain that gender is binary and fixed, but also that it is constantly under threat.

    Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  2. Gentle Reader wrote:

    This site renders terribly in Chrome. Okay in Firefox.

    Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
  3. Marta wrote:

    Terrific post.

    Just a thought and an anecdote.

    The thought: most of the readers of this site will know that being gay and being transgender are neither sufficient nor necessary conditions for each other: but the average heterosexist they are deeply tied. The transphobia is deeply tied to homophobia, which in turn is deeply tied to the (pardon my French) “oh-no-that-guy-is-going-to-sodomize-me”-phobia. Hence, the “toilets” problem: “if I let that guy too near my private parts, he will certainly rape me”.

    The anecdote. My mother told me that at the V&A Museum in London, toilets are not divided by gender: they are divided by “adults” and “children” – and, of course, “accessible by wheelchair” – which makes practical sense (height of the sink, etc). My mother (a lifelong feminist) was delighted.

    Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  4. Rachael wrote:

    I like the “rare orchid” comment – it’s reminiscent of Wollstonecraft’s “hothouse flowers” comment in A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

    The point is essentially the same: that any social role requiring so much cultivation and restriction is clearly not “natural” the way people say it is.

    Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Permalink
  5. alyson wrote:

    Fantastic post, thanks.

    Gentle reader: I had that until I turned off Adblock for this site. There’s only one ad anyway.

    Thursday, April 28, 2011 at 3:53 am | Permalink
  6. Rivka wrote:

    “But sex/gender is one area in which North American cultures are decidedly not reasonable.”

    I could be wrong, but I thought indigenous Americans had some quite interesting gender flexibility and options – isn’t the “third gender” transgender concept part of Navajo culture? And eg the Haida are definitely matrilineal (and Hopi men do most of the agricultural work). Again, I could be wrong but I was a bit surprised to read this comment because I had heard there were many indigenous NA cultures that had some great flexibilty open on the gender spectrum.

    Or do you just mean modern white/European colonised “North American” cultures?

    Thursday, April 28, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink
  7. Emily Manuel wrote:

    I didn’t just mean white cultures, no. But you are right, there’s a variety of gender conceptions among indigenous American tribes.

    One thing about third gender cultures is that cultural acknowledgment of existence doesn’t necessarily mean cultural *value*, and in any case, colonisation is a pretty pervasive mediating factor nowadays.

    I’m certainly not going to make a blanket statement on everything always being horrible everywhere, of course.

    Thursday, April 28, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  8. Brody wrote:

    On somewhat of a tangent, I read an article recently which talked about how the current ‘boy and girl’ colours of blue and pink were reversed in the 50s, and earlier it was common for boys to wear dresses and have long, curly hair and frilly collars in their early years. Apparently, society didn’t end when that happened.

    Thursday, April 28, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Permalink
  9. Emily Manuel wrote:

    I don’t think it actually is much of a tangent Brody, that makes my point quite nicely! 😉

    There’s a good site here of boy’s historical clothing. Basically, since what it means to look like a boy or girl is arbitrary and changes over time, there’s no inherent meaning to clothing and other gendered aspects of presentation itself. It’s quite possible to imagine in the future that pink nailpolish will become a sign of manly manlyness, and then the same type people would freak out about boys wearing blue.

    So the point is that it’s the crisis of meaning – assigning some symbols to one (presumed) sex and not the other, and freaking out when the “wrong” ones are doled out.

    It’s all very silly to me, but some people are like that.

    Friday, April 29, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  10. KittyWrangler wrote:

    “We need you to come in and lock shields, and strengthen up the men who are going to the fight for you.”

    Lol! This whole quote was great but the subtle reference to the movie 300, which stands out in my mind as very homoerotic, really took it to a new level. “Hey ladies, you need to gather round to protect your husband’s penises from these “other women!” As in, these women’s husbands are cheating on them with Freedom? Your manly husbands need their subservient wives to protect them from weakness??? What the crap? I realize this senator’s statement was not designed to appeal to logic, but… wow.

    Friday, April 29, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink