Bugs and Puppy Faces

We took off for a late summer trip to a New Jersey amusement park today, which was fun.

At one point, my daughter wanted to get her face painted. I was kind of struck at the catalogue of choices. They were mostly for girls, with a few boy faces. The boys were: Loch Ness monster, spider, leopard, a few other gross and monstrous things, and puppy. The girls were all sorts of things: princess, butterfly, flower, cat, fairy, on and on.

The catalog reminded me again of how gender (and other identities) get produced, but maybe also of how weirdly we approach trying to attack or critique that production, about what went wrong (and is still sometimes going wrong) in how we go about that critique.

So much of the time, that critique is made in negative terms, and in a discourse that’s about virtue. “Watch this, do this, dress like this, because that’s what good (political) girls and boys and women and men do”. Conversely: “That film is bad. That image is bad. That text is doing bad work in the world.”

Bring those two discourses down on the head of a six-year old and it’s the equivalent of bombing civilians in Iraq. For that matter, do it to the desires, subjectivities, consciousness of adults, and it’s that also, but even worse with kids.

I watched for a while while my daughter was getting her face painted. The little girls stopped and pointed to the princesses and the butterflies. The little boys mostly didn’t stop, but occasionally they stopped to demand crocodiles and monsters. A few got in line to get their wish, most of them were shooed along to the next ride or game.

Why are those faces cued (explicitly) in the catalog to gender? Why do they stop where they stop? It’s not a conspiracy, or a calculated act on the part of the face-painters. They could mislabel the faces (butterflies for boys, monsters for girls) and I don’t think it would stop the girls and boys from pointing where they point.

When you’ve got kids, you remember all again how weird and atypical it was to have a grown-up try to directly enforce gender or class identity on you as a dictate. At least it was for me, and it seems so for my daughter. Rarely does any adult say directly and unambiguously to her: girls don’t do that. Or “you’re acting like a boy”. When they do, she remembers it, asks me about it, is disturbed by it. The teacher who said that “a father’s kiss isn’t important, only a mother’s kiss is special” was a total freak as far as she was concerned: she asked about it immediately that night.

Kids, on the other hand, aggressively and unselfconsciously enforce gender on other kids. My daughter hears all the time from other girls about what she’s not supposed to like. Yes, kids are getting it from somewhere: these ideas are not spontaneously generated by them. They’re getting it from their observations of the total cultural space, and in some cases, from direct and indirect commentary in their own domestic world. But when there’s identity work going on, a lot of it is coming from peers, sometimes made more malevolently and directly powerful and coercive by the unveiled and direct uses of interpersonal power that young children are capable of.

I don’t like any of that work that other kids are doing to her, obviously. I hate hearing her say, pensively, that she wonders whether she’s supposed to like video games while we’re playing a game that she asked for us to play. “Because”, she says, “some of the girls I know say girls don’t like video games”.

But when I think about what I should do about it, the last thing that enters my mind is to tell her she can’t get her face painted because I don’t like the choices that system offers her. That’s what a lot of our cultural politics still amount to, unfortunately: a commandment, a declaration of virtue. Like a Victorian primer for good children. Do this, disavow that. Do not watch this, that thing is forbidden. You should not feel that, you should not want that. That movie is bad: it has a scene in it which is bad. That character is bad: she looks the wrong way. I do it too, still. I used to do it a lot more.

When I think about what I do that I’m a lot happier about? It’s not to forbid, to scold, to command virtue. I just do the things I love and ask my daughter if she wants to do them with me. So I am gardening and I see a lot of really interesting insects as I till up the ground. I call her, and we hold worms, beetles, grubs, slugs, cicadas, ants, crickets. We look at them, talk about what they do, why they’re interesting or cool. This is what I did all afternoon long when I was six and seven: lift the bricks and rocks in our backyard, fill pickle jars with insects, read about and look at them. I don’t tell her it’s a duty for her to do it because she’s a girl and she’s fighting hegemonic narratives about gender. I do it because I still like to do it, and so it’s my culture and my life and I share it. She’ll like it or she won’t, like she likes or not the dinners I cook and the movies I put on the DVD and the comics I show her and the science-fiction and fantasy stories I like and the things I talk about and care for. If I was a hunter, I’d take her hunting. If I liked musicals, I’d show her my favorite. I’m not doing work when I bring her in my cultural world: I’m giving gifts.

I wonder a bit at whether some of the women I know who are also concerned about their kids’ ideas about gender could manage to stifle or repress being grossed out by a beetle or a snake long enough to keep their daughters’ from picking up on that feeling. Probably not. I don’t blame them. What you feel about a slug is a hard thing to change. You could say, “A slug, how interesting”, but if your face says, “I’m going to vomit”, almost any kid is going to read the face rather than hear the words. Why doesn’t that inability to change feelings about bugs or monsters or boy-things worry us as much about whether men can suppress or transform some of the things they like, the things they feel, the things they look at in the world? I don’t know. Maybe that’s the problem: repression. Maybe it’s easier and better to say, “Here’s an interesting insect, let me tell you what it is and why I like it. Let’s look at it under the stereo microscope and read about it in the Audubon guide. Let me tell you why I looked under bricks as a child, and why I still do it.”

The problem with the commandment: no. “That scene is bad: do not watch it.” “That image is bad: feel bad about it.” “That character is bad: do not like him or her”. It puts a kid in an impossible position: but I like fairies! I like pink! I like war toys! I like video games! I like television! even though Mom and Dad say I must not. Desire doesn’t just become mysterious suddenly at 18, it always is. Being the censor puts us in an impossible position, because we have to playact at virtues we don’t feel in any deep way ourselves. “Why, yes, that image was quite bad, my darling! Let’s, uh, watch the movie again so that we can reacquaint ourselves with its offensiveness.” I’ve never forgotten when I showed The Man Who Would Be King, a movie I really like, to a class where we were trying to study it in relation to colonialism and masculinity. I still think that was an appropriate use of the film, there are a lot of interesting discussions to be had out of the narrative. But one student sighed afterwards and said, “Do we have to talk about that film now? Because I really liked it and now we’re going to spoil it”.

So today I went and put two quarters in a foot massage machine while my daughter and my wife supervised the face painting. My daughter chose puppy, partly because she and her mom are on an extended campaign of psychological warfare against me on behalf of acquiring a second dog, to which I have tonight surrendered. But, I have to note, puppy was a “boy” face. Maybe we change culture best by viewing and doing and being what we desire and love best, and less by trying to perform the role of an ideal and virtuous self.

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24 Responses to Bugs and Puppy Faces

  1. jfruh says:

    This is a really great essay!

    I had a friend once who was getting her psychology degree, and was focusing on children with various hypersexual disorders. One of the things she told me about that really stuck with me was young kids — like, in the 4 to 6 range — with Tourette’s who manifested the condition with really explicit talk. This was not just ambient swear words (whose taboo power is obvious from context even if you don’t know their specific meaning) but graphic descriptions of sex acts. The parents were naturally horrified and had no idea where this was coming from. It really brought home to me a number of things: how much (supposedly) not safe for kids stuff is out there being encountered by kids all the time, how impossible it is to “protect” them, and how (most) kids are none the worse for encounering it.


  2. jfruh says:

    Er, and how sponge-like kids are in terms of absorbing stuff that isn’t aimed specifically at them, I meant to add, which is really why I brought it up in terms of your post.


  3. k8 says:

    I’m not sure how a cat is a girl face and a puppy is a boy face, either. I will say that, as a female, I am in no way grossed out by slugs or snakes. 😉 My father, on the other hand, is scared to death of snakes, freaking out at the appearance of little garter snakes, and my brother cringes at spiders. I remember getting in trouble for placing plastic spiders on his pillow as he slept. But then, we grew up on the farm – when you have to shovel manure out of animals; stalls, these other things don’t seem quite so bad.

    And all of this makes me think that this is more than just gendered expectations – it is also tied to class-based assumptions about gender and propriety. I didn’t “get” a lot of the gender expectations once I hit school. And when I encountered the idea of girls books and boys books in 4th grade, I was royally confused and more than just a little defiant. (a librarian didn’t want to help me get Treasure Island off of a high shelf because it was a “boy’s book” and I wouldn’t like it – I insisted that I did want it and asked her for Kidnapped, too)

    And you’re right – I think peer pressure is the worst part of all of this – when our friends start enforcing/inflicting their ideas of gender norms on us.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t see the puppy as a boy-thing either, but then, neither do I think “Loch Ness monster” ought be be necessarily a boy-face. However, the catalog at the face-painting station explicitly broke it down that way–there was a set of faces labelled “boy” (including the puppy) and faces labelled “girl”.

  5. Not exactly on your point, but . . .

    This is what I did all afternoon long when I was six and seven: lift the bricks and rocks in our backyard, fill pickle jars with insects, read about and look at them.

    Did you do this on your own or under adult supervision? There’s a book out now that says kids play these days has too much adult supervision, that kids aren’t allowed to, well, just play. If he’s right that kids don’t have as much unsupervised play time, then . . . without any particularly relevant knowledge, I’d have to agree. When I was a kid me and my friends spent hours upon hours just messing around here and there and the other place without any adult supervision. We knew when dinner was served and got home in time for that. Otherwise . . . play was the thing.

    But one student sighed afterwards and said, “Do we have to talk about that film now? Because I really liked it and now we’re going to spoil it”.

    I understand that. When a film really works, I don’t want to say anything to anyone about it. I just want to let the experience seep in.

  6. Laura says:

    The whole gender thing has been so interesting for us. Our daughter has an older brother whose favorite color was once pink and did other “girl” things. Geeky Girl regularly asks us about “girl” issues, like why is x for girls and y for boys. And she almost always comes to the conclusion that she likes y and doesn’t care if some people say it’s for boys. Most recently, she selected a “boy” bike for her birthday. I actually steered her to the purple and pink bikes, only because those are her favorite colors. She ended up selecting a bright green monster bike.

    I, myself, have always loved bugs and I think much of what I do is not typically “female,” so at home at least, Geeky Girl sees female as something different than what she’s getting in school. A lot of the tv shows she watches are dealing with this issue well, too. They show girls in school being good at science and sports. They’re not boy crazy and they don’t always dress in frilly or sexy clothes. I think the culture is gradually changing in some areas. We still make the occasional comment when we see something that is stereotypical. I guess we’ll see how this turns out in about 20 years. 🙂

  7. Gavin Weaire says:

    Hmm. The gendering of dogs and cats seems pretty frequent to me, with a long history behind it. (What 18th century gentleman would be portrayed without his hound at his feet? Odysseus doesn’t stifle his tears over his old cat.) Easy to spot in popular culture: Superboy has Krypto, Supergirl has Streaky.

    Obviously some types of dogs (poodles) and cats (alley cats) get gendered the other way round. But would I be right in guessing that the “puppy” facepaint portrayed a stereotypical floppy-eared* vaguely hound-ish sort of dog? I’ll bet it was brown.

    *If you can do ears in facepaint. That strikes me as technically difficult, now I think about it.

  8. Rob says:


    “Being the censor puts us in an impossible position, because we have to playact at virtues we don’t feel in any deep way ourselves”

    and this

    “one student sighed afterwards and said, “Do we have to talk about that film now? Because I really liked it and now we’re going to spoil it”.”

    seem to cut against each other. If we’re only play-acting at virtues which we don’t really feel when we engage in cultural criticism – when that really is criticism – how is it that that criticism can spoil it? The picture that seems to be being given here is one of desire and preference as somehow both impervious and very vulnerable to reflection on its content. If that’s not the case though, if the sharp distinction between desire and reflection implied by that kind of model of mind is abandoned, then surely cultural criticism no longer seems like an alien force coercing quasi-naturalised desire.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    The puppy face paint was kind of like the dog in the Little Rascals: black and white, circle around one eye, tongue lolling out.

    Rob, the playacting at virtues thing was more the kind of thing where we claim not to like a film or a book because we’re not supposed to like it, because there’s some kind of existing reading out there that says it has a bad image or representation within it, but secretly, we do like it. Where we let a tension between “criticism” and “pleasure” come into being without exploring that tension. I think when a critic asks, “Why do I like this text, when I shouldn’t?” that’s an interesting question, and one that doesn’t involve playacting, as long as it doesn’t arrive at a sort of disciplined disavowal of the pleasure or attraction that it began with. (E.g., a kind of monkish rejection of sin-in-culture that the author aims to persuade the readers of the criticism to follow).

  10. Clarification: I don’t know what Tim’s student actually had in mind when complaining about talking about a film they had just seen in class. What I had in mind in my own remark had nothing to do with spoiling the film though negative remarks about it. Rather, I don’t like spoiling the mood the film (or book or play or music, whatever) had created in my by talking about it in any terms whatever, or, for that matter, even talking about anything at all — other than, perhaps, idle chit-chat.

  11. Gavin Weaire says:

    Curses! My magical predictive powers of cultural criticism have failed me.

    Re: playacting at virtue. There is a related type of hypocrisy, where, because one likes a work, one aggressively reads it to make it conform to a perceived ideal rather than admit that it has features that one “should” find distasteful (because what would that say about the person who likes it?)

  12. V Ricks says:

    About playacting at virtue: If some of the “habituation” models of the development of virtues (e.g., Confucius and Aristotle, to take but two examples) are right, then there will inevitably be a sense that one is “playacting” whenever one is acquiring or refining a new way of seeing and of valuing. However, part of the point is that eventually, what was once a deliberately chosen form of “acting” becomes internalized; what was once felt superficially (if at all) becomes part of one feels in a “deep way”, as you put it.
    Trying to become a more generous person requires, in part, acting as a generous person would act, even when I don’t feel “authentic” in doing so — even when I would prefer NOT to act that way. Learning a new backhand grip means, in part, holding the racquet in a way that feels silly and awkward — a way in which I would prefer NOT to hold it.
    In both cases, it’s true that some sort of preference is being “repressed” or suppressed, and both cases involve some sort of saying of “No!” But it’s also true (I think!) that that “No” is uttered not just for the sake of negating something or of stigmatizing something, but as a necessary step on a path to a different — presumably richer, better, more fulfilling — alternative.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Gavin: yeah, I think that’s what happens in one branch of cultural studies, where folks work hard to make a work perform a transgressive or political function that it really doesn’t have.

  14. Wendy says:

    Tim, you wrote: “That’s what a lot of our cultural politics still amount to, unfortunately: a commandment, a declaration of virtue.” That may very well be our cultural politics, but I don’t think people who have those politics approach the matter by commanding our *children* to accommodate our politics. I am Politically Correct etc yadda yadda, and it would never occur to me to refuse to allow my daughter to get her face painted with a butterfly. If there is a “command,” it is directed to the adults offering the face painting designs. It is directed to the society that offers such limited choices. And I *know* you know that, and yet you create this straw parent anyway, without examples.

    I think what you do with your daughter is *great*. It’s precisely what I, Ms. Politically Correct etc. yadda yadda, and my husband, less Politically Correct etc. yadda yadda, do with our son and daughter. It’s simply good parenting to share our interests with our kids.

  15. k8 says:

    Tangent warning: While working on my dissertation today, I came across an interesting use of tying masculine values with certain types of readings for boys. I posted it my site if you are interested. [http://harmoniasnecklace.blogspot.com/2007/08/boys-books-and-reading.html]

  16. Timothy Burke says:

    Wendy, honestly, I do see parents who command their children in these terms. You mean you haven’t met someone who has earnestly, aggressively tried to keep their boy from playing with war toys, for example? Or someone who believes their child should not watch TV under any circumstances? I think in this respect that boy desires get more heavily “disciplined” by politically correct parents, though girl culture may spark a lot of fretting and complaining about the culture industry.

    But I’d extend it outward: I think we command each other in these terms under the banner of “political correctness”, and that’s equally bad for most of the same reasons. We say: don’t watch *that* film, it has a bad representation in it. Don’t do that activity: it has bad representational politics. Maybe we command ourselves. Are your interests “native” to you, or the ones you feel you ought to have? Do you ever have to talk yourself into liking something, or disliking something?

    Commanding the people selling culture is a different matter, but there are problems there too. Put yourself in the role of the manager of a facepainting operation at a large corporate amusement park. What are you actually prepared to ask that person to do that wouldn’t represent economic suicide? I’m prepared to say that they don’t actually have to label various designs “girl” and “boy”. I’m prepared to suggest–for their own sake, because I think it wouldn’t hurt their sales–that they have the models a bit more mixed up (e.g., a few boys with butterflies, etc. and a few girls with monsters). But, for example, am I prepared to say that they should have a wider range of designs? Not really because they’ve got to train young summer workers in face painting and pay them an appropriate wage: you can’t ask for unique, boutique or countercultural designs that might be difficult to execute and might not be asked for more than three or four times in a summer. I’m not prepared to ask them to challenge the entire semiotics of children’s culture. It would be cool if they did do some funky stuff, sure, but it isn’t reasonable to demand or command that they do so. Am I prepared to make a big deal out of any of my modestly critical observations about what they do offer? No, because it’s also important to be proportionate about this kind of criticism.

    If the facepainters come back and say, “Look, this is what these kids want”, they’re not really wrong. If I gathered together a panel of my daughter’s friends and said, “What kinds of pictures would you like to paint on your face?” or “What kind of costume would you like to wear at Halloween”, a lot of the answers would look like the catalog of available choices. A smaller plurality might be more individual choices that are badly represented in the available commercial systems, sure. My daughter’s Halloween ideas are usually NOT easily satisfied by what you can get in the costume stores. (The current plan for this fall is that she goes as one of her favorite Pokemon, not Pikachu, and my wife and I go as Team Rocket. I’d have to shave my mustache to be James, though, and I don’t exactly have the right figure. I could be Professor Oak or Professor Rowan but they’re kind of generic figures.) But the facepainters wouldn’t be wrong to say, “Princesses, monsters, fairies, cats both sell AND they’re relatively easy to turn into iconic face designs that most of our workers can execute well enough to satisfy the kids”.

  17. Wendy says:

    I put “command” in quotes because I don’t really think of it as a command–just a forceful expression of opinion. 🙂 I’m not ready to put any sort of institutional force behind the encouragement to change social norms. But I am prepared to *speak* about it–and what you seem to be doing is discouraging or dismissing such speaking. When you say “But, for example, am I prepared to say that they should have a wider range of designs?” I think we’re talking about different things. I think it goes without saying that I should say they should. However, I’m also aware I can’t *make* them have a wider range of designs. You seem to equate *saying* people should do something as *making* them do something. I only wish that were so!

    How will the face painters know that more children are ready to accept more gender-neutral designs unless parents go up to them and say “Hey, why don’t you have more gender-neutral designs”? That’s a kind of feedback that *is* useful.

    That said, of course I know parents who “command their children in these terms” (though as an aside I don’t think all the people who prohibit the tv necessarily do it because of gender or “political correctness” reasons). I just think those parents are a significant minority, and it’s unfair and dismissive to label all those who advocate a certain cultural politics of minimizing gender differences in consumer goods as parenting in this way. That’s just not accurate.

  18. back40 says:

    If the catalog included faces for boys that allowed them to be more fierce or channel their doffal I suspect that there would be more boys in the face painting line. But, those are taboo faces in polite society these days. In some ways, boys are taboo. We really don’t have much need for them any longer and they can be so disruptive. The last thing we want to do is to amplify them by externalizing their internal desires.

  19. jd says:

    I’m with Wendy here. Couldn’t we express — & teach children to express — a certain disdain for cultural cliches? I’m not talking about compelling anyone to do anything, but being willing to express a critical view of the world to both children & the purveyors of face painting.

  20. Rob says:

    “…when a critic asks, “Why do I like this text, when I shouldn’t?” that’s an interesting question, and one that doesn’t involve playacting, as long as it doesn’t arrive at a sort of disciplined disavowal of the pleasure or attraction that it began with.”

    There’s an ambiguity about the condition you express there. Do you mean a disavowal of the pleasure that, after the critical examination of it, nonetheless remains, or do you mean a disavowal of the pleasure that has in the process of its critical examination has evaporated? The first version seems to make sense, but the second doesn’t, since it would be quite destructive of the point of critical reflection – to not disavow a pleasure which had evaporated under the light of reason (or whatever) would make the use of reason (or whatever) pointless; it’d be to privilege, for no obvious reason, your initial reaction over your considered one. I even think the first version needs to be expressed pretty carefully, since the condition of the initial question remaining interesting is that we don’t disavow the results of the processes of examination either; the tension can only exist if we really take both the pleasure and the reflection seriously. And I think that’s to the good in a way; the kind of idea of sin-in-culture that that can sustain can be enjoyably transgressive.

  21. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, what I’m trying to avoid is asking that question in such a manner where the very point of it is to give the questioner further reason to avoid an understanding of their attraction to a text, where the question isn’t an exploration of desire but simply a further showy performance of a disingenuous rejection. We should ask the question with a real interest in our desire and without a prior presumption that the end result of exploration will be to confirm the politically incorrect character of the text.

  22. hestal says:

    So I think you are saying that gender identificatiion is inculcated in the child by the following formula: x parts parental instruction + y parts peer pressure + z parts genetic endowment.

    Makes sense to me, and I think that: x

  23. hestal says:

    Oops, I must have used an illegal character:

    So I think you are saying that gender identificatiion is inculcated in the child by the following formula: x parts parental instruction + y parts peer pressure + z parts genetic endowment.

    Makes sense to me. And I think that x is less than y is less than z.

    And I think that political identification works the same way.

  24. Valerie says:

    Well, yeah, and it’s all interactive, too. Little kids are driven to find out what is a boy? what is a girl? They look to their parents, to extended family, to peers, and to culture for the answer to those questions, and they pull all that stuff together to come up with their own tentative answers to what *they* are going to be, and then they see how that plays.

    It was very funny to see how much our own family trope of “some people think…” (which was usually followed up with, “but we think…” on a whole host of issues of personal style and gender identification and other cultural stuff was internalized by our youngest, who came home from first grade with “Some people think the earth revolves around the sun!”

    Er, yes, sweetheart, and those people would be the ones who are correct!

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