Thursday, March 20, 2014

I guess I’m old fashioned, but I wouldn’t let my son wear a My Little Pony backpack to school

Matt Walsh writes:

I’m going to walk down a path here, and I don’t know if anyone will follow.

I also go into this knowing that my points can often be misconstrued and twisted when the nuances in my positions are deliberately ignored. There's a difference between saying your positions are nuanced, and actually having nuanced positions.

Be that as it may, many of you have emailed to ask that I chime in on this, so here we go.
You may have heard about nine-year-old Grayson Bruce and his now-famous My Little Pony backpack. Here he is, alongside his mother and the notorious piece of apparel:

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As the story goes — at least according to one side of it — young Grayson brought his My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic gear to school, which prompted other boys to bully him. Grayson says that he was “called horrible names,” “punched,” and “pushed.” The school allegedly responded by, in part, telling Grayson to leave his My Little Pony accessories at home, claiming that it was causing an undue distraction.

The way the media and Grayson’s mom tell it, the school has given the bullies a total pass.

I’m not actually sure if this is true — and I suspect it isn’t. If the kid was literally assaulted by groups of boys, I find it hard to believe that none of the offenders have been punished.

I’m not accusing the mom of dishonesty, but I do think she’s demonstrated a capacity for hyperbole, as evidenced by this quote:

“Saying a lunchbox is a trigger for bullying is like saying a short skirt is a trigger for rape.”

She just compared her son to a rape victim. No, she isn't saying the situations themselves are comparable, she is saying the practice of blaming the victim is analogous, Mr. Nuance. Tragically, many young boys in this country have been sexually assaulted, and it’s rather unconscionable to minimize those atrocities by likening them to a child being harassed over My Little Pony. Sighhh

Now, if the world was full of sane and lucid human beings, it probably wouldn’t be necessary for me to offer the following qualifier, but it isn’t so I must:

Clearly, I neither condone nor support any person — man or woman, boy or girl — who would physically assault or verbally abuse any other person merely for their taste in cartoon programs, or for any other reason. These bullies ought to be punished and punished severely. Like the rest of humanity, I am unequivocally against bullying. "Except in a recent post, when I said that acts of violence among young boys was totally healthy and normal."

If Grayson were my son, I certainly wouldn’t tell him that he deserves this treatment — far from it. I’d take him aside, as my dad did with me, and tell him that he must always be prepared to stand up for himself. I’d tell him that nobody ever has the right to abuse him. I’d tell him that he may even need to respond physically, and I’d give him the two caveats that my dad gave me: 1) You may hit back in self-defense. 2) You may hit back in order to defend some other innocent person.  Yes, that always ends well...

Never instigate. Never provoke. But always stand tall with conviction and courage.

That said, I’m very uncomfortable with the reaction to this story. Seemingly everyone’s taken the same stance on this latest viral Outrage Du Jour. They say the school is wrong, the boy should keep wearing the backpack, and we should all celebrate the individuality and self-expression of a male who watches a TV show about unicorns. Not quite, Mr. Nuance. It's about not wanting children to be violently pressured into conforming to rigid gender stereotypes.

Unfortunately, I can’t quite get on board with all of that. And I can give you three reasons why:

1) As long as the bullies are made to suffer serious consequences (I cannot emphasize that enough), I’m not sure I have any problem with the school’s reaction here. The administrators have been accused of “victim blaming,” but that’s just one of the new euphemisms we toss around anytime someone in authority looks to find a pragmatic solution to a difficult problem. Not sure you know what "euphemism" means.

It would appear that we are no longer allowed to assign any responsibility to the victimized party, nor are we permitted to search for an answer that at all, in any fashion, to any extent, involves even the slightest modification of behavior on the victim’s part. Nowadays, if I am mugged and robbed while walking down a dark alley at night in west Baltimore, it would be highly offensive of you to breathe even the mildest notion that perhaps I ought to avoid such strolls in the future. The false dichotomy is presented: either you arrest and charge the muggers, or you urge caution and discernment on my part.

Nope, Mr. Nuance, once again you misunderstand. Let's use rape as an example. You can get raped if you are walking down a dark alley. You can get raped if you go to your professor's office hours. You can get raped by your boyfriend. You can get raped wearing a mini-skirt. You can get raped wearing sweat pants. You can get raped in "safe" environments, looking as unsexy as possible. This is a fact. This is the problem with victim-blaming in the case of rape, which does not apply to your mugging scenario above: there is nothing you can do to prevent rape. You can get raped in just about any situation. The problem with victim-blaming is the underlying assumption that the act of rape is confined to particular dangerous situations in which women have intentionally placed themselves. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The problem with victim-blaming is that it ignores and obscures the root societal causes of rape, thus making it ever more likely to continue at its current rate. The circumstances surrounding rape and mugging are completely different.

The mugging example is also totally inapplicable to the bullying situation we are discussing. The boy did not place himself in a dangerous situation. He was at school. He wore a backpack. Those are totally normal and safe activities. He was not bullied for what he did, but for who he was. He was bullied because he was not properly, stereotypically a "boy."

You are not allowed to do both anymore.
It’s absurd.

It isn’t fair or right that a boy’s enthusiasm for a show called My Little Pony – featuring unicorns named Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie — would lead to bullying, but it does. And yet, we're still supposed to blame the victim? I suppose it shouldn’t cause a distraction, but it does. What, now, must be the priority of the educational system? To protect a boy’s right to wear unicorns on his backpack, or to maintain order and focus in the classroom? It’s not as though a child’s My Little Pony gear represents some heroic stand for a virtuous ideal or important ethical principle. Unless that virtuous ideal or important ethical principle is resistance again harmful gender binaries.

It’s just a child’s cartoon show, designed and marketed towards girls, but also watched by a certain collection of passionate male fans. Is this the hill to die on? Really? As a parent — knowing that the undeniable oddity of a boy wearing a girl’s backpack will lead to a certain level of mockery and chaos among his peers — why would you permit him to continue? Because he wants to? If it's no big deal, then why should we accept bullying on such a basis? Do we want to live in a society where children are constantly at risk of being bullied for trivial, meaningless things? So... say your child is taunted and maybe roughed up a bit because he really likes the show Andy Griffith, and everyone else thinks it's old and nerdy. Do you tell your child to stop watching Andy Griffith? That he is partially to blame for being bullied?  In what way is this not group tyranny? Where is there any space for individual differences?

 I wouldn't call your thinking nuanced, Matt, I would call it inconsistent and incoherent.

Sure, we don’t want to teach our kids to hide “who they are” for fear of abuse from small minded bullies that's exactly what you're saying, but we also don’t want to teach them that “because I like it” is enough of a justification to do something that will cause problems for other people. But what if the "problems" in question are not actual problems. What if the "problem" amounts to kids not liking it when other kids have preferences that differ from theirs? ("You shouldn't eat peanut butter sandwiches anymore, even though you like them, because Bobby doesn't like kids who eat peanut butter sandwiches.")  Shouldn't they learn how to handle some difference, given the society we live in?  The other people in this scenario would be, not the bullies, but the teachers and neutral students who’d rather not be bothered by the whole ordeal. Once again, maybe we could stop bullying, and then the "problems" for other students wouldn't exist.

Speaking of hiding who they are, that’s bring us to…

2) I don’t believe that Grayson’s affinity for My Little Pony has anything to do with “individuality” or “self-expression.” This is a cartoon show produced by a subsidiarity of the multinational conglomerate known as Hasbro. The Pony gear is mass produced kid’s apparel, which his mother likely bought at Toys ‘R Us, Target, Walmart, or some such place. This stuff is packaged, marketed, and sold in bulk. Individuality? Hardly. Call it whatever you want to call it, but “individuality” isn’t involved here. Nope, Mr. Nuance, still missing it. It's about gender expression. And yes, mass-produced commodities are integral to gender expression, because gender stereotypes are to a large extent the creation of the producers of said commodities (all to maximize their profit, of course - because why should parents buy only ONE set of toys for their boy AND their girl?).

As mentioned above, many bloggers and internet commenters have lamented that Grayson is being made to feel ashamed of “who he is.”  Exactly, the issue is gender.


So he is defined by his affection for cartoon unicorns, is he? That backpack speaks to the very substance of his soul, does it? No, Mr. Nuance, the cartoon and the backpack are secondary to the real point: gender. The point is that he is refusing to define himself by all the stereotypes of boyhood.

This is precisely the problem with modern culture (well, one of the many problems). We all walk around following fads and trends — some of which are DESIGNED to elicit glares and guffaws from non-trendy “prudes” — and then we act as if we’ve been attacked on a molecular level when someone expresses distaste for our plastic-wrapped, calculated, corporately constructed “image.” I’m not accusing nine-year-old Grayson of falling into this category, but this does describe many in the Outraged Mass who choose to hoist up a My Little Pony backpack, and march under it like a battle flag.   You're really going off in all directions here. You know the issue is gender. This is all irrelevant; get to gender.

To prove my point, the “Bronies” have turned Grayson into a martyr for their cause.
What are Bronies, you ask? I was unfamiliar myself until recently. Evidently, these are a sub-culture of grown men who love My Little Pony. They gather together on internet forums and discuss the show. They congregate at Brony Conventions.


They are involved in a fad that is one in a long line of similar fads, all bound by one goal: to do bizarre things, then dare anyone to call it a bizarre thing. Nope. Do more research on bronies, and then you will find out the real reason why they like the show.

I, for one, will take the challenge. It is bizarre for grown men to be such passionate lovers of a little girl’s cartoon show about unicorns.

Yes, it is bizarre. But bizarre ain’t unique these days. It isn’t individualistic or bold. It is precisely what it purports to attack: collectivism.

But the boy, Grayson, isn’t yet a Brony. Yes, so we have been in completely irrelevant territory. Get to the point.  He’s just a kid and, for now, the show is just a show. It’s frivolous and unimportant. Better for his mother to steer him away from it before it becomes something more than that. The problem with the Bronies isn’t solely the fact that My Little Pony is girly, it’s that adults shouldn’t be obsessed with children’s cartoon shows. It isn’t healthy. There is no reason that Grayson will become a brony because he liked the show as a child. Bronies are completely irrelevant to this discussion. You have finally admitted that gender is the issue. Let's get to gender.

3) This next part probably won’t come as a surprise, but here it is: I wouldn’t let my son wear a My Little Pony backpack to school. I don’t think anyone should. Here we go.

I wouldn’t let my son wear the backpack, I would discourage him from being a fan of the show, and I would and will guide my son away from “girly” things and towards “boyish” things. Yup. Despite spending most of this post pretending this wasn't the issue (going on about differences that cause problems, and self-expression through commodities, and bronies) we have finally gotten to the heart of it. If my son wanted to wear a skirt, I wouldn’t let him. If he wanted me to buy him a Barbie doll, I wouldn’t buy it. If he wanted his room adorned in My Little Pony paraphernalia, I wouldn’t do it. Both my son and my daughter will not be able to do everything they want to do, nor “express themselves” in every way they wish to express themselves. In fact, my wife and I will have a lot to do with shaping their “selves,” thereby shaping their expression.

The one thing lost (besides sanity, reason, rationality, and coherence) in this modern idea of “genderless” parenting is that boys do need to be taught how to be boys, and girls do need to be taught how to be girls.  This is not true. If you think it is true, then evidence, please. We can’t sit back and say, “hey Junior, a boy is whatever you think a boy should be.” Junior doesn’t know what a boy should be — that’s where you come in.  Nope, actually the corporations (all the ones you mentioned) and the tv shows and the movies and everything else children are exposed to have already come in. They have already taught your child about gender binaries. That’s why you’re the parent. This doesn’t mean that all boys should like to play in the dirt and read books about dinosaurs (although I think both are valuable pursuits), and it doesn’t mean that all girls should like to play dress up and brush their doll’s hair. So then... why, again, do children need to be taught gender stereotypes? If all girls don't have to like playing dress up and brushing dolls hair, why is it so important that we teach them that "real" girls like doing those things?  Can't we just let children explore whatever interests they want? What's the big deal if Amanda likes astronauts and Robbie likes cooking?

Here's something for you to ponder, Matt: gender differences in children's toys and activities has increased markedly over the past century. Imposing gender binaries on children isn't "old-fashioned," it's - gasp! - modern!

But there’s quite a wide gulf between rigidly forcing our children to fit every superfluous stereotype associated with their genders, and acting as though their sex ought to have no bearing on their behavior and habits at all. “Gender” (or “sex,” as science calls it) might not be relevant to everything, but it isn’t irrelevant to everything, either. Time for social science lesson of the day.  "Gender" and "sex" are actually two different terms. They are not equivalent. Sex refers to biological characteristics. Gender refers to cultural meanings attributed to biological difference (e.g. the arbitrary attribution of "liking ponies" to people with female anatomy). Gender is inherently cultural, and hence, arbitrary. I have already discussed this in detail (cross-cultural gender differences, historical gender differences, no biological link between sex and gender, etc. etc.) but you will have to do your research, Matt. I can only repeat this so much.

Shows like My Little Pony, starring unicorns named “Rainbow,” probably aren’t particularly useful to kids of any chromosomal composition. They’d all be better off reading books and playing outside.

But they especially don’t do anything to help a boy become a man. They don’t assist a young boy in his quest to discover true masculinity.  Oh my word. Are you for real?  (Pssst. btw, there's no such thing as "real masculinity" - masculinity is an arbitrary cultural construct.) They don’t provide any answers to him.

It’s quite easy to look at these things from a utilitarian perspective. Why is pink girly? Why can’t a boy play with dolls? Why shouldn’t a boy wear makeup? It’s true that, on the surface, these all appear to be mechanically neutral things. A color is just a color, a doll is just a bit of plastic and fake hair, make up is just a dash of face paint. What’s the difference?

Yet these associations aren’t entirely inventions of toy manufacturers.  Actually, if you take a good look at the history, they pretty much are. Example: pink was  more of a boy's color and blue was more of a girl's color, until department stores decided otherwise.  They aren’t just societal conventions.  Yes, they absolutely are. Once again, look at history. And even if they were just societal conventions, I’ve yet to hear anyone articulate a good reason to dismantle them.  Because we don't want to be pawns of corporations? Because teaching boys to be dominant, and to express their dominance through violence is damaging to their psyches (as well as to the recipients of violence)? Because teaching girls to limit their interests to superficial things is damaging to their souls? Because teaching girls to be weak and passive is damaging to their future? Because forcing children into 2 boxes, when they could be so many different things, is damaging to creativity and the societal division of labor?  As Chesterton said, modern progressives tear down a fence without knowing why the fence was erected in the first place.  They know exactly why the fence was erected. It is you, Matt Walsh, who is not doing the historical research.   And where does that leave us? With more confusion and listlessness, as far as I can tell.

Still, one kid watching My Little Pony can’t lead to the utter destruction of culture and tradition.

I’m not saying that.

I’m not the one making a big deal out of this. Well, actually, you kind of are.

I’m just trying to offer a different perspective, even if it’s the perspective of a dwindling minority.

1 comment:

  1. I came across your blog yesterday and I love it! I appreciate how you bring the arguments into historical and cultural context and actually root them in logical reasoning. Keep it up. I hope Matt Walsh is reading, too.