'If a boy dresses in a girl's outfit, all hell breaks loose - it's gender inequality'
Chris Evans' son stole the show in a green gown at a recent premiere, but what should you do if your child wants to dress as the opposite sex? Our reporter asks the experts
One of my proudest moments as a father was taking my three-year old daughter trick-or-treating last Halloween. She was dressed as Spider-Man and was visibly thrilled to be squeezed into a miniature jump-suit with fake muscles and a polystyrene six pack. As a life-long nerd, I was meanwhile happy my geek gene had been passed to the next generation. I looked forward to the day we sat down to watch the entire Lord Of The Rings trilogy (extended edition, naturally) or played a Dungeons and Dragons board game together.
What never crossed my mind was that a little girl choosing to dress as a superhero rather than a princess should be considered unusual (my daughter adores Frozen but has never expressed any interest in stepping out in public looking like Anna or Elsa). So I can sympathise with Chris Evans, annoying British DJ and one man destroyer of the Top Gear franchise. There was a medium-size kerfuffle last week as the presenter and his family attended a West End premiere, at which his five-year old son Eli wore a green party dress.
The internet came alive at the sight of the boy in an emerald gown - a response similar to that which greeted pictures of actor Liev Schreiber's son Kai as villainess Harley Quinn at this year's Comic Con. Angelina Jolie, meanwhile, has let it be known that her 11-year-old daughter, Shiloh, dresses in boys' clothes and "wants to be a boy".
Outside the celebrity-sphere, the debate over gender norms in childhood created headlines over the weekend when a Sydney mother defended dressing her four-year-old son in an Elsa dress. He loved Frozen and she allowed him to go out dressed as Elsa so as "not to crush his individuality".
"There was a huge reaction where some parents were saying the mum was 'encouraging' the child to be gay and even a teacher waded in with his views on it, saying that boys should be boys and girls should be girls," says Siobhan O'Neill White, author and founder of Mumstown.ie. "He said that if children are blurred in terms of gender, how can he ever tell his class, 'Ok, girls on this side and boys on that side'? What stands out to me there is… why on earth would a teacher ever need to separate a primary school class by gender?"
Children wishing to dress up in opposite gender clothes are, in certain cases, categorised as having an identity disorder in the United States. "Gender variant behaviour", according to the American Psychiatric Association, typically manifests between the ages of two and four and is usually "pronounced, broad in scope and continues over a lengthy period".
At the same time, it is increasingly recognised that enforcing gender norms upon children - boys should play with toy soldiers, girls with dolls - is unhelpful. Harrods in London, for instance, no longer separates toys into boys and girls sections: instead Star Wars toys are stocked alongside dolls and action figures.
"Parents can become concerned that if they allow gender variant behaviours, they are in some ways encouraging or promoting transgenderism or homosexuality," says Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychoanalytical psychotherapist. "This would only be the case if we thought that gender or sexual orientation were influenced by environment which, of course, they are not. Gender and sexuality are not ways of thinking or behaving, they are ways of being."
We should not rush to judge where parents are fretful over their child's behaviour, he says. "The urge to discourage this behaviour is not always because the parents are xenophobic, but because they fear the reaction that children will receive socially when they express difference.
"The playground can be a cruel place and the Irish school system is not a culture that embraces change or difference.
"Maybe parents don't want their child to stick out of the crowd because of their desire for them to avoid adversity as opposed to being against homosexuality or transgenderism. If your child wanted to dress as a chicken and go into school, you might try to discourage them from doing it, not because you have anything against poultry but more because you did not want them to draw unpleasant attention to themselves."
What's obvious is that red lights are more likely to flash when boys are challenging gender norms. Nobody blinked when my daughter went out dressed as Spider-Man. Had her twin brother chosen to trick-or-treat as Rapunzel I suspect the reaction would have been quite different. "My daughter used to play with dinosaurs all the time as a child. Her room was decorated with dinosaurs everywhere - never dolls," says O'Neill White.
"She dressed up as a pirate for Halloween a couple of times. No one ever commented on it because I think it's more acceptable if a girl dresses in a male superhero or 'tomboyish' outfit. But if a boy dresses in a girl's outfit, all hell breaks loose. It's gender inequality but this time, against boys." She contrasts the way boys are encouraged to be as ruthless as possible when participating in sports while girls are told it is enough to do their best. "We tell girls to be tough but also, that it's absolutely ok to cry and express themselves. Yet, we still tell boys not to cry in public, that they need to be strong and not show weakness.
"Have you ever stood on the sidelines of a soccer or GAA match for boys and then for girls? The language at the girls' matches is vigorously supportive. For the boys, it's much more fierce. Parents scream at boys to tackle and take on other players. It's about winning at any cost and also, if a boy gets hurt, he is encouraged to be tough and not cry.
"I heard a Dad tell his son to 'f***ing take him out' about a player on my son's team who had scored a few times in a row.
"The referee didn't even say anything - that kind of aggression and coarse language is so common on the sidelines at boys' football matches. This would not happen in a girls' match."
"Gender variant behaviours in children are quite normal and not (something) to be alarmed by," adds Noctor. "This experimentation is very different to a child who is gender conflicted or gender fluid. These children are more likely to display adverse reactions to being forced to wear clothes of their biologically assigned gender and become distressed. It's like a child being asked to write left handed if they are naturally right handed. It just feels wrong."
Nor should we rush to condemn parents who have misgivings about their kids departing from gender norms. To dismiss them as reactionary dinosaurs would be wrong. "Let's not jump down the throats of parents who struggle to support gender variant behaviours," says Noctor.
"It's unfair to assume that they are xenophobes who want to stifle their child's expression - maybe they just want to protect them from social challenges. This says more about our society than these individuals."