Make sure you check out the end of the post for a special commenting contest and giveaway!
The firestorm set off in April by the J Crew ad showing a mom painting her son’s toenails hot pink appalled me. Set aside the repulsive homophobia—Ms. Lyons is “exploiting [her son] Beckett behind the facade of liberal, transgendered identity politics”—really? Set aside feminist politics—would critics be equally appalled by a photo of a five-year-old girl collecting rocks or digging up worms? I doubt it. For artistic reasons, I am aghast.
Creativity demands that we stretch our boundaries, break rules. William James said, “genius . . . means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.”
We writers rack our brain trying to figure out how to break out of the mold, dodge our hang-ups, free our mind. We play tricks on ourselves—we read, we meditate, we listen to music. Some use alcohol or drugs. All these activities, healthy or not, are attempts to escape the inhibitions we developed – growing up, throughout our education – in a world that condemns rule-breakers, in essence disparaging creativity, discouraging creators.
Rules are necessary, of course. Communities need a means of controlling their citizens. Without laws forbidding theft, rape, murder, we’d live in mayhem, in fear of not only losing our possessions, but of losing our lives. Yet some of our most abiding rules are arbitrary, based on superstition, antiquated beliefs. For thousands of years, people associated left-handedness with the Devil. In my kindergarten class, you were to write, cut, and color with your right hand. My teacher transformed me, a 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 writers, rules create structure. A conventional story begins in medias res, in the midst of a situation, flashes back to provide context, and moves forward, through a series of conflicts to resolution. The framework makes stories readable, eliminates confusion, ambiguity. For readers, rules act as a guide, offering a way in, providing accessibility, a means of understanding the work. While adhering to rules can feel restrictive, disciplined effort produces works of great beauty. Creativity, originality – this demands experimentation, a break from convention or rules.
Circumscribed gender roles, among the most arbitrary rules, put kids in a box. Why can’t an American boy paint his toenails? Egyptian men used henna as a cosmetic on their fingernails. For males in 19th century Afghanistan, hennaed fingernails were a sign of victory and prestige. Yet here, today, we censure a mom for painting her son’s toenails.
Reining kids in—forcing them to adhere to arbitrary roles—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 let them dig up their worms. Allow little boys paint their nails pink.
Commenting Contest & Giveaway:
Terri Giuliano Long is giving away a $100 cash reward to the blog with the largest number of commenters. I will split that with one of the commenters, to be chosen via random.org.
There is also a contest for the most interesting answer to this question: Do you enjoy literary fiction? Why or why not? The winner, which will be chosen by a judge appointed by Terri Giuliano Long, will win $50.
I will also use random.org to choose a winner for an autographed copy of In Leah’s Wake. (Added 8/22/2011, the deadline for comments will be midnight, 8/23/11.)
Let’s show everyone that Motherhoot readers know how to comment!