Is The New York Times trying to tell us something? Just eleven days after running a story on gender-bending teenagers on the front page of its "Style" section, the paper is back with yet another front page story in the same section, this time on gender-bending young adults. The articles even cite the same psychologist as authority. What's going on here?
On November 8, the paper ran an article, "Can a Boy Wear a Skirt to School?," that described cross-dressing among teenagers as a growing phenomenon. Reporter Jan Hoffman explained that "a growing number of teenagers have been dressing to articulate - or to confound - gender identity and sexual orientation." Hoffman's article focused on the challenge these teens present to public school officials, who must now deal with boys who want to wear makeup and skirts and girls who want to dress like male gang members.
Hoffman quoted Oakland, California psychologist Diane Ehrensaft, who said: "This generation is really challenging the gender norms we grew up with. . . . A lot of youths say they won't be bound by boys having to wear this or girls wearing that. For them, gender is a creative playing field."
Then, in the November 19 edition of the paper, reporter Ruth La Ferla brought a similar story, this time focusing on a slightly older age group and the marketing opportunity their new gender experimentation affords. Her article, "It's All a Blur to Them," is accompanied by a photograph of three rather androgynous young adults and the statement, "Crossing between the men's and women's aisles feels right to young customers today."
And Diane Ehrensaft is back, explaining that this is all a part of the new "gender fluidity." In her words, "younger people no longer accept the standard boxes. They won't be bound by boys having to wear this or girls wearing that. I think there is a peer culture in which that kind of gender blurring is not only acceptable but cool." That statement is virtually identical to her statement reported in the November 8 article about teenagers.
Is anyone editing the "Style" section? It appears safe to assume that The New York Times is trying to make a point.
Ruth La Ferla begins her article with a description of Chuong Pham, a 28-year-old engineer in Manhattan who wears "stalk-thin jeans" and borrows his mom's "sexily sheared" sweatshirt. "There is a whole transition of men getting into women's wear," Pham explains. "It used to be that the people who did it were just the edgier ones. Now it's much more common."
Brandon Dailey, a 26-year-old hairstylist in Manhattan has not yet worn a skirt, but he expresses his experimentation by wearing "a long drapey shirt with really tight pants." "My generation is more outside the box than the generation before me," he advises.
Audrey Reynolds, age 25, alerted the world of fashion that a gender revolution is at hand. "Every line should be unisex," she suggested. "A good piece of clothing is a good piece of clothing no matter who was meant to wear it in the first place."
Ruth La Ferla suggests that these three young adults represent a "forward-thinking cohort" of the population who are "revising standard notions of gender-appropriate dressing, tweaking codes, upending conventions, and making hash of ancient norms." This "artfully calibrated ambiguity" about gender is fast becoming mainstream, she reports.
Evidently, at least some in the fashion industry are paying attention:
So entrenched are the latest forms of gender blending that mainstream purveyors of hip, including Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, are offering clothing and jewelry meant to be worn by either sex. American Apparel has no fewer than 724 unisex items - hoodies, cardigans, blazers and bow ties, among them - on its Web site, simply because, as Marsha Brady, the company's creative director, put it, "that's the way people wear clothes."
Ms. La Ferla observes that some fashion lines "have been quick to interpret that sort of ambiguity." One industry insider told La Ferla that "the more successful designers are the ones that try to bridge the gap between the sexes."
Not all are buying into this as a broadening trend. Harold Koda, costume curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art advised that "you need to be young to do it well," adding: "To carry it off, you need the physique of an adolescent boy. As long as the young are the primary audience, it's not going to be economically sustained."
Psychologist Ehrensaft admits that "androgyny may not play in Peoria," but she also insists that "norms are shifting." She then said this: "Kids, even little kids, are experimenting across gender lines. Boys are wearing My Little Pony T-shirts, just because they like them. Sometimes they like to dress in the girls' section because the shirts are cooler."
Well, my guess is that little boys wearing "My Little Pony" T-shirts will indeed not play in Peoria - especially if their dads ever see it. Yet there is something to these reports. There is a lot of experimentation with gender going on among young adults and teenagers. The paper seems to celebrate these young people as the vanguard of a new cultural future. The New York Times appears to be telling America to get ready. What are we to make of the paper running two stories with this much similarity on the front page of the same section within the span of less than two weeks?
The gender confusion and experimentation almost celebrated in these articles is a symptom of a larger and deeper confusion found throughout the culture. Androgynous young people are trying to get our attention. To them, male and female are fluid categories without objective meaning. They are also crossing more than aisles in clothing stores - they are intentionally confusing sexual identity and the very concepts of male and female.
Recovering sexual sanity and a proper appreciation for gender as a part of the goodness of God's creation will not come easily. Just take a look at the clothing marketed to teenagers and young adults in trendy stores at your local mall. We have a lot of work to do.