Pink Toenails, Gender Identity and Social Responsibility

This one’s a real tempest in a teapot. Or rather, in a bottle of nail polish.

OK, so here’s the short version. Clothing chain J. Crew’s latest catalog includes a picture of president and creative director Jenna Lyons painting her young son’s toenails pink. Yes, pink — the colour most closely associated, in North American culture, at least, with traditional femininity. Criticism ensued, alleging that J. Crew was acting (intentionally!) to promote a gender-bending agenda. The calibre and cogency of the arguments in favour of that conclusion is about what you’d expect.

The main critic, Fox commentator and psychiatrist Dr Keith Ablow, provides an object lesson in how to cram as many argumentative fallacies as possible into a single piece of writing, in his oddly-titled editorial, “J. Crew Plants the Seeds for Gender Identity”. (I’ve blogged about the significance of logical fallacies before, here.) Among the good doctor’s fallacious arguments:

He alleges, without substantiation, that pink-toenail-painting is highly likely to result in gender confusion. In the absence of supporting evidence, we are expected to believe him because he’s got “Dr” in front of his name — essentially a form of illicit appeal to authority. He also engages in straw man argumentation (in which a critic attacks something his opponent never said nor implied), by suggesting that, via this ad, “our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity” [my emphasis]. He also begs the question by assuming that pink is just for girls (and I’m wearing pink as I write this, by the way). He also has an unfortunate tendency to resort to rhetorical questions: “If you have no problem with the J. Crew ad, how about one in which a little boy models a sundress? What could possibly be the problem with that?” (What if my answer is “nothing”? Ablow provides nothing to help me, then.) Ablow also commits the fallacy known as appeal to ignorance when he points out that the effect of “homogenizing males and females … is not known” (i.e., we don’t know that it’s safe, so it is probably unsafe.) He also makes use of an illicit slippery slope argument, suggesting comically that ads such as this are somehow going to result in the end of all procreation, and, hence, of the human race. And Ablow’s argument as a whole amounts to one giant, fallacious, appeal to tradition. I could quite literally teach the entire Fallacies section of my Critical Thinking class just by having students pick apart Ablow’s critique of the J. Crew ad.

(Note that another critic, Erin Brown, over at the conservative Culture and Media Institute, commits fewer fallacies, but only because her article is shorter. But then she apparently doen’t even know what J. Crew is, referring to the men’s and women’s clothier as a “popular preppy woman’s clothing brand.” I happen to own two J. Crew ties. Men’s ties.)

Now, my response to the critics of J. Crew’s ad may seem flippant. So be it. Sometimes ridicule is the best response to something ridiculous. But there is a serious point to be made, here, about the social responsibility of business.

Ablow and Brown share one important view in common with many critics of modern capitalism, namely this: they all believe that businesses have an obligation to pursue certain social agendas. They merely disagree over what that agenda should be. For Ablow and Brown, the social obligation of business is to defend & promote good ol’-fashioned American values, including apparently carefully scripted gender roles. For critics of capitalism, the social obligation of business is to promote social justice, environmental values, gender equality, and so on. In either case, those who urge businesses to adopt social missions — as opposed to merely making and selling stuff that people want to buy, within the bounds of law and ethics — ought to be careful what they wish for. Because if and when businesses do take up social agendas, they may not be the agendas that those advocates prefer.

Thanks to Laura for showing me this story.

21 comments so far

  1. Barbara Kimmel on

    Looks like nothing more than a PR maneuver. Jenna accomplished just what I believe she set out to do…bring lots of attention/exposure to her brand.

    But if I had to make an educated guess (as the mother of two boys), this ad WILL have a long term, lasting and negative impact on her child. Her actions (as a mother, not as a businesswoman) were reckless and irresponsible.

    Perhaps she should spend a moment (or two) reordering her priorities.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Your conclusion seems so unlikely to me that I have to ask you what possible support you could offer for it. How on earth could this have “a long term, lasting and negative impact on her child,” other than perhaps as a result of the vicious criticism by the likes of Ablow?


    • Tom Herrnstein on

      Couldn’t your first sentence apply to Dr. Ablow equally? Without over-the-top opinions would he even be a commentator on cable?

    • Galen on

      Where exactly do you get your conclusions from? What evidence do you have that supports your claim that it will have a lasting, negative impact on Jenna’s child? Much less, how do you come to the presumptuous conclusion that Jenna purposely created this ad with the intent to cause a firestorm and garner additional publicity? I would argue she adds images of her family and things they do together using J. Crew products to market those products to family-friendly consumers. How are you so dense and how is it you fail to see the illogical fallacies you’ve created?

    • Galen on

      Additionally, as a mother of two boys, you should know better than to criticize the parenting style of another mother. Maybe you should tell us what you do with your children so we can criticize your style, too.

  2. davidcoethica on

    For me it isn’t about gender it’s about selling more clothes here. Flimsy ‘arguments’ such as the good ‘Dr’ provides are beyond ridiculous and need exploding.

    It scares me that too many people won’t see past Ablow’s personal propaganda. Let’s hope it disappears without too much notice.

    FYI – Here’s an interesting article from the I remembered reading a while back on the history of wearing pink – it’s all about merchandising:

  3. Tom Herrnstein on

    I wouldn’t call your response flippant, I would call it something like appropriately dismissive with a bit of derision. And I think your serious point at the end is excellent, and the J. Crew case is a great example of make the point.

    Didn’t boys and men used to wear pink polo shirts with alligators on them? Maybe that was just an 80’s thing…

  4. Veronique on

    For the sake of argument, may I participate in the debate by asking the men who wear pink (which, I do believe suits some men, and boys, wonderfully, I might add) if they wear pink nail polish? If not, why not? And, would they have liked to have their mum paint their nails pink when they were this boy’s age? If not, why not?

    • Jen on

      @Veronica- My oldest son when he was about that age did in fact ask me to paint his fingernails with the pink polish I was using. Children emulate what they see, esp at that young age. I painted his nails, left them that way for the day and took it off the next morning when it was mostly coming off anyway. No big deal. My son is now a swashbuckling, wooden sword swinging, frog catching 10 year old. I doubt he would ask me to paint his nails now, but his 5 yr old brother probably would if I started painting mine again.

  5. Barbara Kimmel on

    Gee- I certainly didn’t mean to stir up a hornet’s nest.

    There is a bullying crisis in the US. Kids can be mercilessly cruel. If a child is short, or heavy or doesn’t wear the latest “in” clothes, it provides all the ammunition a bully needs. I can just imagine the potential “bullyfest” that could be created by being known as the boy with pink toe nails. Can’t you?

    I find it odd that any parent would have a hard time understanding how this mother’s actions might have a long term, negative impact on her child. Maybe today at school, or on the bus, a bully gives him the nick name of “Pink Toes” and he carries that with him for the rest of his life, and resents what his mother did (intentionally or unintentionally) when he was five, and not old enough to say “I’ll pass on the toenail ad.” Life is hard enough for kids, why put a potential stumbling block in the way?

    I’m not criticizing her parenting style. I don’t know this woman. Maybe she is the best parent in the world. I’m suggesting that she should have thought through any potential ramifications this could have on her child before she ran her ad campaign.

    And yes, I believe one of her main responsibilities is to bring exposure to her brand, especially at this critical time in the company’s growth (or lack thereof.)

    • Jen on

      @Barbara- I agree that there is a bullying crisis in this country, but by your own admission a bully already has all the ammo they need. We cannot put the responsibility of a bully’s bad behavior on this mother. If someone wants to bully someone they will find a reason, beleive me, I know. There is nothing you could do or not do that would stop that. Bullys will do what bullys will do.

      Bullying will in fact have a long term negative impact on a childs life, but that is really a separate issue here. Painting toenails does not cause bullying. It is my opinion that bullying is caused by a host of other things that has nothing to do with the victim, unless the victim becomes a bully, as some do.

  6. Paul Chippendale on

    Both my boys were dressed in Tutus for performing on stage when young boy scouts–we still have photos of them which get trotted out for light embarrassment at special events such as their 21 st birthday wedding etc. The Tutu dress up event, and others like it, had absolutely no impact on who the became (one son is now a mechanic, the other an aero-space engineer) and definitely did not cause any gender identity issues.

    In fact, i would argue identity comes first, we make decisions based on our identity:

  7. Cathie Guthrie on

    Oh, how interesting! How different are our take-aways! My endorphins did an “Ollie” when I saw the photograph of Mom painting her son’s toenails. The photograph conjured up beautiful intimate memories of times that flew by all too quickly with my own son who, incidentally, wore pink throughout High School while being an all star rugby player. He still wears pink, still plays rugby only now he plays with a Bay Street team. The social agenda is not a complex one; spend a little more time at goofy play with your kids. It’ll be good for everyone. The response by Dr. Ablow is quite simply incredible.

  8. WhistleBerries on


    When I was a younger guy, about 13, two of my older female cousins who were in high school, decided to paint my toenails while I was sleeping.

    I woke up with fire engine red toenails. I was very upset. All family members got a good laugh out if it, except me; but, by the end of summer, I got over it.

    Now, 55 years later, I have very ugly toenail fungus that does not want to leave, and I do not want to risk the health danger of taking an expensive medicine that might make it leave. So, I have been very seriously thinking about another toenail paint job, only in Scottish blue this time.

  9. Veronique on

    What strikes me is that this topic seems to bring out more arguments about parenting than anything else, and it’s not all that surprising since questions that relate to parenting tend to get any parent’s emotions running.

    I haven’t seen the actual ads, or heard the actual criticisms, but my guess is, on the critics’ side, it’s not just about the colour pink.

    As for the ad itself, though I can’t at all imagine painting my two boys’ toenails any colour, as they are quite naturally drawn to super heroes and hockey sticks rather than makeup, I can imagine them being curious if they saw me putting on nail polish (which they generally don’t). I don’t know if they’d want me to put it on them, but I can imagine they might, and I can certainly imagine some boys being more open to the idea than others. “Mommy, can I try?” And really, why not? But would I make it a public thing? No, but I wouldn’t have any reason to either.

    A fun thought experiment would be to ask if the same amount of hoopla would have surrounded an ad, say for shaving cream: imagine a dad shaving in the morning with his young daughter having fun imitating him. Is that cause for criticism too? Or is it just cute?

    I guess the point that someone else made is that it’s really all about having a little fun; and I suspect that’s exactly how this ad came about: Jenna Lyons probably didn’t force her son to paint his toenails. Maybe it just happened that way, and maybe she thought it would make a fun ad. But then again, that’s just a guess.

  10. gwen on

    Children are children. The ad does nothing more than show a fun moment between mother and son. Geez. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it must be a duck. Quack Quack Dr. Ablow. Oh by the way. I noticed you were wearing a pink tie in your interview. Hmmm. I suppose we can all make some assumptions about your upbringing and sexuality based on your choice of attire.

  11. Barbara Kimmel on

    It looks like others shared my concerns that the J Crew ad may have been a well crafted marketing ploy (and a parenting snafu).

  12. Veronique on

    Really, this raises a much deeper question, which is about using children in commercials: is it OK to make them sell a product that they don’t really understand they are selling? What age is an OK age to start? When they are old enough to be responsible for their actions?

  13. anthony parrish on

    ithink that the mother is not thinking about her sons feelings and should not put him in this situation.

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