Gender is messy, language is messy, but my son is abso-freaking-loutely beautiful.
Quiet moments with my son are a rarity; at two years old, he’s reveling in the developing mastery of mobility, and spends hours running, climbing, spinning, and generally wearing me out. While he loves being close to me, he mostly satisfies that need through roughhousing – wrestling matches, tickle fights, piggyback rides. Snuggling, though it does happens, is reserved for sleep time and those bittersweet sick/”owwie” moments.
A few weeks ago, I was granted a rare moment of stillness at my mother’s house sitting on the floor, my son in my lap, as I brushed his hair. This was a doubly special experience, because my son, like his father, does not generally enjoy certain kinds of physical contact, and touching his face or hair is usually a no-go. Of course, faces need to be washed and hair needs to be brushed, so usually I just put on my metaphorical battle gear and brace myself. But this calm moment, with my son singing along with the TV, his warm weight in my lap, and with his soft hair bundled in my hand as I brushed and stroked it – this moment was precious in it’s scarcity, and I was enjoying it.
My mother passed by us, in her usual course of puttering about the house.
“Oo,” she cooed, “Oh, how pretty you are.” She brushed his bangs back fro his eyes as he pulled away distractedly clearly she was blocking his view of whatever had mesmerized him on the television. She pulled back.
“No,” she quickly corrected herself, “No, you’re a little boy, you’re handsome. I can’t call you pretty.”
“Yes, you can,” I assured her. The end of his long hair poked through the ball of my fist like the petals of a silk flower. “You can definitely call him pretty. He’s my pretty little guy.”
I don’t think I would have had any problem with her calling him “handsome” had she not made the switch after calling him “pretty” – I don’t even think I would have minded if she’d used both interchangeably, had she not prefaced it with that self-admonition: I can’t call you pretty – you’re a boy.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with my gender all my life; that’s really a topic for another time, but it’s warrants mentioning. I’ve always been frustrated by the constraints placed on people based on (perceived) gender – behavioral expectations codes of presentation, and, yes, language.
It’s not that I don’t understand the dictates of common usage – “pretty” has been primarily associated with femininity, just as handsome has been associated with masculinity for so long, it’s nearly instinctual for many to pay someone a compliment with what they perceive to be the “correctly gendered” word. But remove the presumption of gender from the words; there are a lot of things that we, in the course of normal conversation, call pretty or handsome.
A flower, most would agree, is pretty, and we often refer to certain animals – eagles, perhaps, or wild cats – as handsome.
Where the presumption of gender is removed, we see the words rooted in the qualities that they describe – pretty connotes something graceful, or delicate; handsome, something austere or distinguished. My son has honey-colored hair that stick out every which way in flowing wisps and curls, blue eyes you could drown in, and lashes that would make a pageant contestant green with envy.
By that standard, my son is not handsome. Maybe he’ll grow to be handsome; maybe his features will fill in, and the soft curves of babyhood will give way to more severe edges and angles – or maybe they won’t. The delicateness of youth may fade to something rougher and more rugged – but then again, maybe not. The future will tell, and honestly, either way, it’s fine. But that’s not his current reality. My son is pretty. My son is pretty, and that’s fine.
The thing I find interesting is, while it’s not common per se, it’s a lot more likely that you’ll hear a woman described as “handsome” than a man described as “pretty.” There’s a sense that the qualities associated with the word “handsome” – and by proxy, with masculinity – are things to strive for;desirous traits that anyone, regardless of gender should feel proud to be named as. I can go to any family gathering and hear someone refer to a woman – usually an actress, usually of a certain age – as “handsome,” the intention obviously complimentary. Meanwhile, when my son was young (he was still nursing, so fourteen months or younger), it was at a family gathering that a cousin’s husband told me (not in an unkind tone) not to call my son pretty because it would “mess him up.”
So, why one way and not the other? Why is it okay to call a woman “handsome,” but not call a man, or even a boy, “pretty?” Even when the nuances of the word match his physique, even when he is soft skin and chubby cheeks and tiny, translucent fingers, when he is wild curls and long lashes? The only answer I can think of is, because it’s coded as a feminine word, and femininity is inherently devalued in our culture.
(And honestly, this is something I could turn into an essay all it’s own. It’s hard to write about this, and harder to still to write succinctly about this, following one clear narrative thread, without veering into talking about misogyny, or the expectations of gender roles, or gender presentation versus gender identity, but for the sake of my readership – this time – I’ll refrain).
I am not delicate. I am closer to 200 lbs than I am not, I have a shaved head and a pseudo-mohawk, and short, blunt fingernails. Nothing about me is delicate – my body isn’t delicate, my gait and mannerisms aren’t delicate, my laughter isn’t delicate, my language (when I’m not writing/speaking formally for an audience) sure as hell isn’t delicate. “Pretty” is not the descriptor that comes to mind when I think about myself – maybe I look good, I look nice, I look well put-together; hell, I look cute. Cute has a quirky, sort of youthful, gender ambiguous feel to it. I aspire to “cute.” But people jump to pretty as a means of complimenting me, and honestly – I am an adult, and I will take an honest compliment in the spirit in which it is intended, but – I think it’s the wrong word.
But… language is hard, and language is powerful; I learned that as a writer and as an undergrad in English.
And gender is, if anything, way harder, and way more powerful; I learned that as a genderqueer person growing up female.
I can’t deny there are gendered connotations to certain words or certain uses of language – they’ve evolved into the language, for better or for worse, and they are real. I also can’t tell people that they “have to” feel comfortable being addressed or described a certain way – if you don’t want to be called “pretty,” I will not call you “pretty.” What I am saying, though, is that calling a boy “pretty” should not be looked at as something that will inherently “mess him up.” It will not “confuse” him. It does not determine or detract from his identity as a boy, if he identifies as a boy; it will not determine or detract from his identity as a man, if he identifies as a man. It is, in fact, okay for him to accept “pretty” as a compliment.
It’s okay for a boy to be pretty, without it being a punchline or a joke. It’s okay for a woman to be handsome, or a non-binary person to be gorgeous, or any other combination of identities and adjectives. You don’t have to be anything you don’t want to be, or that makes you feel uncomfortable – but you shouldn’t be told you can’t be, either.
When my son gets more language, he can better tell him how he feels about these words, and I will respect his wishes, whatever they may be. But for now, I can only call it as I see fit – he’s my pretty little dude, and that is totally okay.