Do Clothes Make the Boy?: No more than lipstick and nail polish make the girl.

Snails ‘n’ Spice

Clothes and boys and everything nice

By Camille Clifton

Penis, penis, yes, yes” sang the thoughtful doodle in my 10-year-old son’s notebook. Penis, penis, my ass, thought the kindly mother who read it. Surrounded as I am by a triangle of the pointy, rising, drooping, demanding members of mystery and maintenance, “Son, lover, son, yes, yes” has become my solemn song. I’m all alone with them, menstruating on the somewhat sly, gnawing baker’s chocolate over the sink, sometimes thinking such hair, teeth, yes, yes, deep thoughts as pertain to Gwyneth Paltrow.

Genetically, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was born into a purely matriarchal family in which men who weren’t yet grandfathers were quietly disposed of in the 10th year of knowledge. One decade and boom–they were gone, just a whispering signature on the alimony check and some sorry volunteer corn stalks growing out in the garden to prove they were ever there. We were an army of four women, three sisters and one decade-dumping mother who needed men for the symphony, the rent, the occasional crab dinner and not much else.

One delicate month of mourning generally resolved a new man from the wings, much fresher and seemingly more handsome, versed in Joyce and the rougher lyrics of Frank Zappa, who could do something the last decade-holder couldn’t, like camp. Huzzah! We embraced him, borrowed his clothes, pitied him, made fun of his eating habits right in front of him and proceeded to love him as we could.

So when a zygote was announced to be harboring in my blood-rich person, I was thrilled. A new mythic army of girls danced in stolen men’s sweat pants and went to the symphony picking crab from their teeth. But my body surprised me. Where little Sophie and Aja should have been–skirts hitched, knees black, high atop a terribly wobbly tree–crawled two sons.

What the hell am I going to do with a boy, I moaned upon seeing the first little penis-yes-yes resolve on the sonogram screen. I was 13 before I had stopped admiring boys who could actually tie their shoes. They were so foreign to me that I understood them to be marvels if lunch could pass from the bag to the mouth.

Simply put, I was a feminist-raised sexist pig.

But feminism has changed and so have I. Determined to embrace that humanism thing I’d read so much about, I decided to raise my sons without social conditioning: no death toys or weapons, no curiously crotched G.I. Joe dolls, no football crap–none of it. A human being is merely heartbreakingly human and worthy of love, I cooed to my hospital-home bundle. Boy, girl, who cares–human is what matters, human we share.

When Son One was 14 months old, having never, to my knowledge, witnessed an act of violence in his life, having never so much as tasted refined white sugar, having never seen “regular” TV, having never heard a story, poem, or song that didn’t uplift and uphold the glory of life all around us, he picked up a stick. Picked it up and looked at it. Looked at it and pointed it right at my face. “Bang,” he said softly. “Bang.”

What the hell was I going to do with a boy?

Well, take away the baddamn stick, for one thing. But as anyone who’s ever been around a toddler knows, stick schmick–a banana, Lego, fat crayon, or paper-towel roll will work just as well to illustrate “bang.”

“They need to ejaculate, metaphorically,” cooed one friend, dangling her sweet little fair-haired son on one knee while in his sticky dimpled hands he toyed with a plastic AK-47. “It’s good for them to have that release.” Penis, penis, wah, wah, I silently prayed.

And so we had swords, which are in fact the perfect penis attribute, though strictly ejaculate-free. Weapons were tempered with dress-up clothes: my old castoffs as well as wigs, earrings, ties, necklaces, and hats culled from grandparents and the Good Will.

Giddy in blonde braids, fake pearls, and swords, Son One eventually battled Son Two for primacy of the playhouse. Wasn’t I good, I privately saluted, look at them, as genderless as two crazy miniature transvestites tilting at each other in high heels and pirate swags could ever hope to be.

However, state law mandates that children must eventually go to school, where other little boys who have been shouting “You’re blind!” at TV umpires virtually since birth must also attend. Son One was invited to his first kindergarten birthday party. Avidly attached to the read-aloud manners book, Eddy-Cat Goes to a Party, One knew that to show respect to himself and the birthday boy, he should bathe and wear clean clothes. He languorously indulged in the tub and insisted on dressing himself.

He proudly marched down the stairs wearing one of my old lace tops and masses of necklaces that reached to the knees of his jeans. It was festive, as festive was celebrated in our tight little world. It was clean, it was respectful and it was utterly guaranteed to get him teased to tears.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, already too sensitive to the flicker of my face.

“You’ll get beaten up,” I didn’t say. “I’ve made you unfit for society,” I never mouthed. “You’re ruined,” I refused to note.

“Let’s go,” I gaily waved.

I coaxed one strand off him before we arrived, but didn’t get the rest. He wasn’t teased. His own sweet confidence wedded well with the fact that he was wearing a damned good length of rhinestones.

Son Two was born into a world far different than that first inhabited by One. Since Two was gorgeous in a way that I associated with female beauty, I inadvertently punished him for it by dressing him in pink. He looked wonderful in it, his gold and cream coloring set off like a delicate petal. Even mindful of those baby photos of Ernest Hemingway depicting him in long ringlets and white gowns, and knowing that such garb could lead to elephant guns, whiskey and suicide, I nonetheless briefly pretended that Two was a girl. His father knew nothing except that the inexplicably pink things I kept bringing home were on sale, and that thrifty was good.

But it takes more than a length of rose-colored cloth to make a girl. Nature triumphs over nurture many times, and so it is with Two. In fact, so it is with One.

So while my campaign against the horrible sexy nihilism of the media hasn’t abated over the years, I’ve mostly given up on the gender stuff. They still can’t watch TV or play with fake guns, but they can gas on girls, sometimes do that stupid video-game zombie dance that forces them to whack their hips up against pinging machines in public, play those sports that appeal, and they must still allow me to sniff in their deep puppy smell.

Boys, as we have all wearily heard again and again, will be boys. And today–smarter and wiser, though only slightly less icky than I was in my days of whole grain campaign–I wonder: What the hell would I do with a girl?

Penis, penis, yes, yes.

From the May 5-11, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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