How Gender Roles Crush Creativity


Photo: Flickruser (George Eastman House), Creative Commons 2.0

The recent firestorm surrounding the J Crew ad (also included below) that showed a mom painting her son’s toenails hot pink appalled me. Set aside the repulsive homophobia—Ms. Lyons, one naysayer complained, is “exploiting [her son] Beckett behind the facade of liberal, transgendered identity politics”—really? Never mind feminist politics—would these same critics be appalled by a photo of a five-year-old girl collecting rocks or digging up worms? I doubt it.

As an artist, I’m aghast.

Creativity demands that we stretch boundaries, break rules. William James said, “genius . . . means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.”

As writers and artists, we rack our brain trying to figure out how to “perceive in an unhabitual way,” break out of habit, loosen inhibitions, free our minds of all the nasty, judgmental detritus. We play tricks on ourselves—read, meditate, listen to music. Some drink or use drugs. With all these activities, healthy or not, we attempt to escape the restrictions forced upon us by our upbringing, our education, by a world that distrusts the original, disparages rule-breakers.

Creativity demands that we stretch boundaries, break rules.

Rules are necessary, of course. Civilizations require adequate means of controlling their citizens. Without rules to prohibit rape, thievery, murder, we’d live in mayhem, in constant fear for our lives. Yet rules can also be arbitrary, the product of superstition, outmoded beliefs. For thousands of years, people associated left-handedness with the Devil. My kindergarten teacher had this rule, demonstrated rather than spoken: you wrote, cut, and colored with your right hand. By implication, without ever aggressively trying, she transformed me, a natural leftie, into a right-hander—no big deal, except that it set me up for a lifetime of directional confusion. Not all rules are righteous or good.

For artists and writers, rules create structure. They provide a way to frame our ideas, give us a place to begin. Following rules helps to eliminate confusion, ambiguity. For patrons or readers, rules serve as a guide; they provide accessibility, offer a way in, a means of understanding the work. Strict adherence to form, though in certain ways restrictive, can produce works of great beauty. Creativity, originality, though—this demands a break from the rules.

Why can’t an American boy have painted toenails? What’s the big deal? Egyptian men applied henna to their fingernails as a cosmetic. In 19th century Afghanistan, hennaed fingernails were a sign of victory and prestige. Or is the real problem, the detail that drove the detractors so crazy, that Ms. Lyons painted her son’s toenails hot pink?

Circumscribed gender roles—among the most stereotypical and arbitrary of rules—put kids in a box. Reining kids in—forcing adherence to arbitrary roles for the sake of social acceptance—bridles their imagination, teaches them to conform. If we hope to foster creativity in our children, we need to give them room to breathe, space to imagine.

We need to let them dig up their worms. Or paint their nails pink.


Terri Long


Terri Giuliano Long is the bestselling author of the award-winning novel In Leah’s Wake. Books offer her a zest for life’s highs and comfort in its lows. She’s all-too-happy to share this love with others as a novelist and a writing teacher at Boston College. She was grateful and thrilled beyond words when In Leah’s Wake hit the

Barnes & Noble and Amazon bestseller lists in August. She owes a lot of wonderful people – big time! – for any success she’ s enjoyed!

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7 thoughts on “How Gender Roles Crush Creativity

  1. Pingback: How Gender Roles Crush Creativity | Creative Flux | Random Creativity |

  2. Thank you, Terri; you bring up many interesting points in this piece. And I agree with you, wholeheartedly, regarding gender roles crushing creativity, primarily relating to a child’s self-esteem.

    In addition, I was struck by the concept of ‘Rules’ impinging on a child’s imagination. As you’ve pointed out, certain rules are necessary constructs to be learned in order for a person to function in any given society. Healthy rules. But how we determine, introduce, or impose those healthy rules is what interests me.

    I’m reminded of a story told by my first-year philosophy professor: that of the little Italian girl, Claudia, who could flip a tennis ball inside out, just by ‘willing it so.’ Once she began attending school, however, she lost the ability. An urban myth, no doubt (is it?) [Lyall Watson (Lifetide)], but it illustrates the potentially detrimental effects of external influences—Rules? Lack of praise? Peer pressure? Malicious Dogma? . . . Science? Knowledge?—on human development.

    O, to lose our arrogance and recapture the upside of Innocence . . .

    As adult-creatives, we recognize, if not have a firm grasp on, that connection to our imagination. Aided by hindsight, foresight, or desperation, we can analyze and deconstruct rules. This frees us to wrestle with our individual millstones, take a swat at the albatrosses, and dip our thirsty little tongues-of-creative-desire into the well-spring of endless possibilities. With any luck, our visions are unleashed and we use our particular skills to bring them to fruition.

    Children don’t have hindsight to help them choose a creative life; we, adults, are their stewards. And, as a society, we have an obligation to teach, lead, and protect. We need to reduce the damaging dogma fed to our brain-trust and nurture all those things we know to be vital to the foundation of creativity (not to mention, humanity): including individuality, acceptance, and respect.

    I’m all in for fostering the next Tesla, Wordsworth, or Gentileschi.

    Terri, thank you for this wonderful post. (And I hope you’ve claimed your rightful place in this world as a ‘leftie.’)

  3. Terri,
    Thank you for such a insightful and wonderful post. The innocence and joy of youth should not be held back by ignorance or judgement.

    Maybe the little boys favorite color was hot pink. Are we to judge that wrong? By societies rules or by the rules of the narrow minded.

    Kudos to you.

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  5. Good article. I know a lot of creative-type people in college who were in abusive relationships with partners who believed in strict gender roles and never appreciated their talent and skill that some failed to turn in work on time or didn’t work efficiently enough to make their projects stand out because of this. And this is in an art college where I went to in Atlanta, GA, a small town-like city filled with homophobia and strict gender roles for both men and women as well as little support for the arts.

    As for women in my hometown being creative, they easily give up their assertive, confident, bold, outgoing, independent, tough bad girl personalities when they are dating or married to men, especially those who are strict, religious, and narrow-minded. Men in Atlanta, typically don’t like bad girls types on average since Atlanta is part of the Bible Belt Deep South where domestic violence runs high.

    • LR, thank you so much for reading and commenting. Your observations are sobering and your tale is saddening and eye-opening to those fortunate enough to have escaped these cruelties. Life is chock-full of so many other obstacles that it’s a shame gender roles are made an issue, particularly in college—a leading venue for personal exploration and discovery. Regrettably, religious dogma and creativity oftentimes conflict. And violence in reaction to confidence and individuality is a vile crime! I feel for you and trust that you are well. I would love to see your work and learn about the philosophy behind it! If you get a chance, please stop by my new art blog: and we can “talk art”! Thanks again for sharing your story, although it’s taken me forever to respond, I really appreciate it.

      • Not to mention, society holds women to a higher standard, by setting them on a pedestal that is, compared to men which is why women have a tendency to be less creative compared to men who can do as they please since they are considered the superior sex.

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