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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