Boys Won’t Be Boys
In Jacob's New Dress, parents and authors Ian and Sarah Hoffman draw from their own experience raising a son with atypical gender preferences.
Back in December, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s first-born child made international headlines for exhibiting a strong desire to identify as male. While it has long been culturally acceptable for little girls to wear jeans, play sports, and perform other otherwise “male” activities, Shiloh provoked a media kerfuffle by referring to herself as John.
Her unrelenting insistence breached the cultural expectation that once playtime is over, little girls trade in their cleats for ballet flats and return to their societally-designated roles of pretty pink princesses.
Shiloh/John’s situation is a socially complex one—and a parallel storyline to Ian and Sarah Hoffman’s children’s book Jacob’s New Dress. Drawn from their own experiences raising a son with atypical gender preferences, the book illustrates the titular young character’s struggle to reconcile his desire to wear frilly dresses and other “pink boy” habits with an innate need to be accepted.
Jacob doesn’t necessarily consider himself a girl, but he doesn’t need to in order to inadvertently subject himself to stigmatization. As Sarah points out “there are all sorts of ways to be a boy.”
The moment any little boy dons his sister’s tiara or reaches for sparkly nail polish, eyebrows are raised, as are suspicions about his future masculinity. And yet the concept of gender identity, so often confused with its biological counterpart of sex, is perpetually fluid and pertains less to sexual orientation than it does to society’s collective impression about how certain binary subsets should dress and behave.
When a child’s aptitudes deviate from these accepted norms, he may experience social isolation from his peers, many of whom have been indoctrinated with certain expectations even at their young age. The Hoffmans point out that this needn’t be the case.
Ian says, “Our experience is that early childhood education can make a huge difference as to whether or not a gender non-conforming kids experience ostracism. To our surprise, when we saw small children taught that it’s okay to be gender non-conforming, they accepted the idea pretty easily.”
This, he adds, is “part of why it was so important to write Jacob’s New Dress as a picture book. We really wanted to reach the kids when they’re in preschool and kindergarten, before the boxes get too rigid.”
In an ideal world, this (and any!) type of bullying would be moot. Until then, studies have shown that familial compassion for today’s gender defiant youth can counteract the potentially detrimental effects on their self-esteem in the future. And that is exactly what Sarah and Ian hope to convey in Jacob’s New Dress. Jacob’s own parents, initially hesitant to allow him to school in a dress, have a change of heart once they realize how much it means to him. Acceptance is key, a notion that Jolie succinctly encapsulated while discussing Shiloh. She said, “Children should be allowed to express themselves in whatever way they wish without anybody judging them … it is an important part of their growth.”
Additionally, organizations like Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Welcoming Schools program, and Gender Spectrum are all great sources of support and information.