Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Too Much Pink. Some insights into Gender Roles by Susan Elia MacNeal

RHYS BOWEN: A couple of years ago I was asked to read and give a quote to the first book in a new mystery series. It was Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal. I thought it was terrific and have been delighted with Susan’s success, included being nominated for an Edgar for best paperback original. She has now written 3 books in the Maggie Hope World War Two series and her latest is His Majesty's Hope.

So I asked Susan to come and guest blog for us at Jungle Reds today. And she’s chosen not to talk about the world war or research but a subject dearer to her heart— take it away, Susan.
“Too. Much. Pink.”

The Story of a Boy at the Barre

By Susan Elia MacNeal

“No, Mommy, no! Don’t make me go back there! Pleeeeeeeeease don’t make me go back!!”

            Our then six-year-old son Matthew wasn’t crying about juvenile detention or foster care or the Russian gulag. He was crying about dance class. He didn’t want to finish his first year as a student at the School of American Ballet (the one created by George Balanchine, the legendary choreographer and ballet master of New York City Ballet).

            Eventually, my husband and I untangled the problem. Matthew’s problem was not ballet. The problem was being a boy in ballet.

            “I don’t think you should make him go,” said my well-meaning mother-in-law. “He’s too young to handle it if his friends make fun of him.”

            But how old do you have to be to stand up for who you are and what you love? When do we, as parents, teach that?

            For us, ballet started with physical therapy. At nine months, Matthew had been diagnosed with torticolis, known in layman’s terms as twisted neck. He began physical therapy three times a week at nine months, and continued through age five. When he “graduated,” we asked his therapist what more we could do. A former dancer, she said, “Ballet. I don’t know of anything better for the body.”

            The summer before kindergarten started, we took Matthew to the studio down the street and signed him up for summer dance camp—ballet, tap, and jazz. He loved it. He started dancing anywhere and everywhere, to all kinds of music.

            And then in the fall, he asked for ballet lessons. We brought him back to the same studio.

            It was a disaster.

            Matthew was the only boy in the class. The teacher didn’t help things. “Ballerinas, over here!” she would trill, excluding my son, the lone figure in a white t-shirt and black leggings. “Fairy princesses, this way, please!”

And this sort of treatment of boys in ballet class at the beginner level is not unusual. According to Mark Tappan, Professor and Director of the education department at Colby College and the co-author of Packaging Boyhood: Saving our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and other Media Stereotypes (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), gender role awareness at this age is normal, but it’s brought on by media and cultural influences, not biology: “For boys, it doesn’t take long to get the message that certain activities are taboo and they should feel bad about themselves if they like something stereotypically ‘girly.’ ”

Or, as Matthew put it, “Too. Much. Pink.”

            And that would have been the end of it, had we not watched the DVD of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker that December. Matthew was swept away, by the music, the dance, the drama. 

            “You know,” I happened to say one evening, “that particular Nutcracker is done here, in New York City. The Nutcracker prince is a kid who studies at the School of American Ballet. Someday, you might be friends with someone who’s really in it.”

            Behind Matthew’s eyes, I could see the wheels spin. “Mommy, I want to be in The Nutcracker.”

            And that’s how he ended up at SAB. Twice weekly we’d trek from Park Slope, Brooklyn, to Lincoln Center, where he took class with famous retired ballerinas. (One former star is known affectionately in our household as “The Yelling-est Ballerina Ever.”) And he loved class, saying, “At the other school, the teachers were nice, but at SAB, they’re firm. They show us how hard ballet is, that it isn’t just a game. I like that.” And not only were there other boys at SAB, but they were treated with respect.

            More than respect, actually. Males in ballet are not just a rare commodity, but also a historically privileged minority. It’s a definite advantage to be a male in ballet. First of all, there’s less competition. And at SAB, all boys attend on scholarship—a savings, at the beginner levels, of about $7,500 per year. Peter Martins is not just Ballet Master of NYCB and a major choreographer, he is also Mr. Balanchine’s successor as Chairman of Faculty at SAB. As Tappen says: “That’s the way the patriarchy works—men are privileged to have the authority to be the directors and leaders and ones in charge, with resulting higher salaries.”

            But something happened to Matthew that year. He became increasingly aware of gender roles and terrified the kids at school would find out and tease him. He began to get stomachaches before class, not wanting to go. “Why not?” I asked finally.

“Mommy, ballet is just too girly,” he confided.

           The subtext, to quote Billy Elliot’s disapproving father in the eponymous film, is that male ballet dancers are thought of as “poofs.”

“They’re not,” Billy counters. “Ballet dancers are as fit as athletes!” But it’s that underlying homophobia that persists. And what my son, even if he couldn’t yet articulate it, was sensing.

            Somehow, though, we made it through. A myriad of things helped. One was the incredible support we received from SAB. Matthew and his father were able to observe an advanced boys-only class—taught by a male teacher. “It was really cool that a man was teaching a class of all boys,” Matthew said. “It was really hard and athletic and I loved it.”          

            Although we went through a wrenching time of questioning and then resolution—Matthew ultimately made the decision to follow his love for dance and continue at SAB—it seems as if ballet itself is also questioning its own image and trying to tone down the pink.

When asked about his classmate’s reaction to his taking ballet, he shrugs. “They might still laugh,” he says, “but I’d like them to take a class and see how hard it really is. And then if they like it, that’s great, and if they don’t, that’s OK, too.

“It’s all right for boys not to dance ballet.”

Susan Elia MacNeal is the author of the New York Times bestselling Maggie Hope mystery series from Random House. Her novels have been nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, Dilys, and Barry awards. She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her husband and son.
And Suan will be giving away a copy of His Majesty's Hope to her favorite comment of the day.


  1. Hurray, hurray..this is a wonderful story! (And I keep humming I can do that" from A Chorus LIne..)

    YOur son is a treasure..and so are know I am SUCH a fan.

    Reds, did you take ballet? I made the mistake of wearing red tights to my first class..and was called "Red Tights" for ever after by Madame DeAngera...sigh.

  2. What a great story, Susan... Wanting to hug your son.

    This reminds me of when we took our kids to Europe and one daughter loved that really short women's haircuts she saw everywhere. So when we got back she got her hair cut. It looked adorable, of course, but she took the meanest most horrific abuse when she got on the soccer field from other cookie cutter pony-tailed players. Anyone who thinks we're past gender stereotyping has a few screws loose. It's hard to just be your own person.

  3. It's wonderful that Matthew found his way through the "worrisome" issues and retained his love of dance. I hope he has/had a chance to be in "The Nutcracker" . . . .

    I loved ballet class [and tap, and jazz and . . .]

  4. Awesome, Susan!!! I am a great proponent of eliminating the "typical" gender roles that children are brought up with. I've seen things changing but not fast enough. There was a story yesterday about a hospital gift shop They had small tshirts for children. A pink one said "Future Nurse" and and the blue one said "Future Doctor." That is so very wrong. Girls (and boys) should be empowered to be anything they want to be whether it's a "traditional" gender role or not.

    Kudos to Matthew for being brave.

    And while we're at it, let's get rid of pink and blue stereotypes.

    I enjoyed MR CHURCHILL'S SECRETARY. I've got to read the rest now.

    Thanks for sharing with us.

  5. Here, Here Hallie. Gender stereotyping is still a huge problem and is a huge culprit in the bullying situation.

    We are just losing too many precious souls to suicide, simply because they feel "different" for any vast number of reasons.

    Parents like Susan should be commended for addressing this, making their children feel comfortable with themselves. And Matthew should be very proud of himself for being true to himself. He doesn't even know it, but he is a role model for someone out there. And likely will be for the foreseeable future.

    Dance on Matthew! And the world dances with you!

  6. Susan As I was reading your Story about Matthews Ballet Worries,not knowing where you lived at first,I Thought NYC!!! Took many classes for exercise..And was always so Gender Friendly...In Fact I have Read Many Male Atheletes take Ballet Lessons...Best Exercise ever...My Daughter had one boy in her class in Downstate NY(I live in VT now) Never a Problem...Kudos to Matthew and Your Family's Support...Love Park Slope,I will Always Be A Brooklyn Girl

  7. Fabulous story Susan, thank you!

    It very much reminds me of a documentary we saw recently called FIRST POSITION, about ballet competition, with both boys and girls. Highly recommended!

    Hank, my sisters and I took 1/2 hour tap and 1/2 ballet for years, while my brother played sports. I might have been better at it had I ever, ever practiced in between lessons:). But I always thought my brother must be having more fun...

  8. Love your story, Susan, and LOVE your books. I'm a big fan and have been sharing them wherever I can.

    I always want to give little girls dump trucks and boys dolls ... but I've so far resisted the urge in favor of not being "that weirdo" at the baby shower. But maybe I'll suck up my courage the next time around!

  9. A wonderful story, Susan. So glad Matthew made it through the hard parts. My (older) sisters and I all took ballet for many years, and my little brother asked to, too. So he did for one year in first grade, and of course was the only boy. He got the special part in the recital, but that was it for him. Although he didn't do sports, instead, except for swimming. He's not a very physical kind of guy.

    Tammy, I always give little girls play tool sets! And big girls, too: I gave my goddaughter a nifty compact tool set to take off to college.

  10. Thank you, everyone, for all your support. I think this story is in a way the flip side of the coin to writing the Maggie Hope series, and about early feminism, and changing women's roles — what happens to the boys and men. And I must say, as a mom to a son, I don't think boys have it very easy when it comes to breaking away from stereotypes, either.

  11. I suffered through ballet school from age 4 to twelve. Very strict old style ballet teacher who carried a cane and used it on any limb that was out of place. She was also the "yellingest ballet teacher". Everyone was terrified.

    When I was eleven I grew to the height I am now. Suddenly it was "everyone will be wood fairies and Rhys is the tree."

    We had one boy for a while but he was treated well, I remember.

  12. Great piece. I feel like I have fallen into the gender stereotypes myself in not pushing my son to dance. It's a huge bummer that suburbia in particular does NOT have dance studios where there are boys in dance and non-pink kinds of dance experiences!! But still - as a former dancer it really bums me out that I'm not getting him in there...

  13. Susan, so glad that Matthew is enjoying ballet once again! And I am counting the days until your next Maggie Hope book comes out. Keep up the wonderful work!

  14. I love ballet--always have. Back in the 70s, I was probably the only non-ballet-dancing girl to have a crush on Barishnykov this side of the Rockies. :-)

    I did try ballet for awhile, but in the end I was more of a modern dance/jazz kind of girl.

    Thank you for telling us about your son, Susan. He's so lucky to have found his passion--and to have parents like you to guide him through the ups and downs.

    Most of the time, we talk about gender roles for girls, but boys' gender roles are just as insidious. What about the boy who wants the t-shirt that says "Future Nurse"--or who wants to dance ballet?

    That said, I find it interesting/discomforting that within the ballet community, even though there are way fewer men compared to women, that men still become the directors and earn the money. Why is that? Ultimately, it's still a man's world...even in ballet.

  15. Rhys, I'm sure you were the best tree ever. : ) And I'm convinced ballerinas yell in class to compensate for being so silent onstage most of their careers....

  16. Lisa, yes, for all that beginning male dancers are often disenfranchised, the men who persevere become the choreographers, artistic directors and company directors — lots more money involved. Whereas it seems most of the women teach. Which is noble, of course, but not as influential or well-paying. An exception, and one of my personal heroines is NYCB ballerina Suzanne Farrell, who started her own company, Suzanne Farrell Ballet.

  17. I took tap and ballet at our very tiny "community center", classes only lasted a year. (Or was it that my very poor parents only lasted a year?) I loved ballet, was absolutely abominable at tap--maybe it was something to do with being moderately dyslexic?

    But I was fortunate that my family wasn't totally into gender typing. Yes, I got a big doll one Christmas, but that was the same year I got a cap pistol with holster. My friends will have no trouble guessing my favorite of the two. And yes, I still go shooting at the range, but with ammunition that not only makes noise, but puts holes in the paper. :)

  18. Good for Matthew, and good for you! It's amazing to me how early boys pick up on the attitude of "dance is only for girls." It's such a shame.

    My dancer daughter used to have a tank top that said "If Dance Were Any Easier, It Would Be Football." Take that, macho schmucks!

  19. Thanks for mentioned Suzanne Farrell. I'm gong to check her out now. :-)

  20. Hi Susan! What a great story. The middle son of a good friend of mine danced all the way into his twenties. He finally gave it up because of knee problems, after several surgeries in his teens. He loved it, and I don't think was too bothered by the gender issues.

    Congrats to Matthew! He's be so glad he stuck with dance, and I'll bet he will get to dance the Nutcracker one day!

    I didn't do dance, or sports, or music. My mom worked, and those just weren't the sort of things that occurred to my parents. So I read a lot of books:-)

    And yours have been on my TBR list since I first saw a review of Mr. Churchill's Secretary, so now I MUST READ!

  21. I read this and nod, yet then I think of my own two kids.

    My daughter (13 today) danced for six years - until her teacher sat on her (because she wasn't flat enough) and she walked out. She still talks about going back to ballet, which was her first love, but now is also into swimming. She has long, blonde hair and loves "primping" it.

    My son (11), also a swimmer, is also into martial arts, and almost anything outdoors.

    I tried very hard to stay away from the whole pink/blue girl/boy thing. But you know what? They went that way themselves. I offered my son the opportunity when he was young to dance or take piano lessons. He shrugged and asked for soccer cleats. My daughter played soccer for a while, and gave it up to dance. My favorite toy when I was a kid was a green dump truck. She doesn't have a lick of interest in cars (except driving a snazzy sports car someday). She loves pink, and purple, and sparkles. I did not buy her that stuff.

    I think you can be open to different opportunities and encourage interests. But, in the end, kids have the darndest way of going their own way - and sometimes that way looks very traditional.

  22. Two words: Rahm Emanuel.

    If a boy who studied ballet can grow up to be White House Chief of Staff, a member of Congress, and Mayor of Chicago.... Nothing wrong with knowing how to do a fast dance when necessary!

  23. Susan, SO good to see you here today! I am a fan of your books. Is your son's interest in ballet one of the reasons one of your characters is a ballet dancer?

    Family (lack of) finances prevented me from taking ballet as a youngster. From the first time I saw The Nutcracker on TV as a very young child I was fascinated. When I was 26, my sisters and I and some friends of ours persuaded our local Y to offer a class for adults. Sadly, I was the clumsiest student...but I DID enjoy it! One of my nieces took ballet for many years and went on to become a professional dancer. When she was in high school, some of the male students in her ballet program said that when people gave them a hard time about their "girly" activity, they responded "it's the best way I know to meet girls my age!" It is SUCH an athletic way of life, too, and takes a lot of focus and discipline.

    I hope to see your son perform someday!

  24. Lynn Swann of the greatest Pittsburgh Steelers team credited ballet lessons for giving him the ability to do dramatic leaps for the ball...and we tried switching yellow and green for the pink and blue, only to hear young mums say "yellow is for girls and green is for boys." Bleagh.

  25. I forgot to mention that two adult men friends of mine (who don't know each other) each took ballet in college (in the 70s). They said, as Deb Romano mentioned, that it was a great way to meet girls and to get in shape. Fred went on to work construction for a while, and he said he was the only one who could balance well enough to be comfortable walking along roof beams.

  26. Great story! Great son! This story reminded me of when my now 26-year-old son was around 3 or 4. He would put on his older sister's swirly skirt and sing Oklahoma, providing much fun for him, his sister, and me. (I think his sister originally put it on him.) My mother-in-law learned of this bit of fun and suggested I ban my son from this activity, as it was not an activity a boy should be doing. I allowed him to continue twirling until he tired of it. Somehow, it didn't seem to damage him. LOL!

  27. Girls can face the same kind of prejudice. In our sports-mad society (and I am a sports fan), ballet is seen as something cute with tutus that little girls do until they grow out of it. Often those girls are also on a soccer or other sports team. Parents who think nothing of bringing a child to practices 5 days a week and spend entire weekends dragging along siblings to out-of-town tournaments will pull their daughters from ballet because it is too time consuming to take them to ballet classes 2 3 times a week. My daughters danced ballet for many years, and their schoolmates would tease them for doing ballet, and exclude them because they weren't on a sports team.

  28. Susan,
    What a wonderfully touching story. Thank you so much for sharing. You and your husband are raising one amazing boy, who will grow up to be one amazing man. Kudos to both of you, and to him for having the courage to follow his convictions.

  29. When my son was small, he wanted to take ballet like his sister. Only in a small town, the teacher wouldn't take boys. Then a few years later, the son of a prominent family was accepted. One of the first "it's not fair" situations I had to try to explain.

    Pen M

  30. No, I was never a ballet dancer myself. When I was 22, I worked as an intern at Random House for the legendary editor Kate Medina. She was often too busy to use her New York City Ballet subscription tickets, so she'd sometimes give them to me. And I was blown away by what I saw on stage — Balanchine and Stravinsky most memorably. Just so amazing. I think for someone so involved with reading and writing and words, dance was a revelation — no words at all! And so I became a fan as an adult. Ultimately, I became an associate editor at Dance Magazine, one of my favorite jobs, ever.

    In Mr. Churchill's Secretary, I never meant to have Sarah Sanderson, the ballet dancer. She was never in my notes, or my outlines. But she was there when they all went to the Blue Moon Club and has become a big part of my fictional world. I'm happy to say that Sarah will be returning to Maggie Hope's life in a big way in novel #4, The Prime Minister's Secret Agent.

  31. Have you seen the wonderful documentary, FIRST POSITION? It follows several young AMAZING male dancers. I can't recommend it highly enough.

  32. I am looking forward to reading your books,Susan! When I was about 5 or 6 my mother signed me up for ballet class, along with my best friend. I don't know whose idea that was. Not mine! I preferred playing cowboys and Indians, Superman, and so forth with my big brother. Anyway, it was doomed from the start. I am not a morning person now and was not one back then either. The classes were early in the morning and I HATED going to them. The big recital had all of us girls dressed like bunny rabbits skipping around the dance studio owner's son who was dressed as a carrot. He did all the dancing. I still cringe when I see a picture of me in that costume. Anyway I whined enough that Mom did not make me continue. And know what? I didn't miss it one bit!

  33. Great post -- such an important message. I recently was going to a baby shower, and the couple is not revealing the baby's gender.

    I ordered something off their registry, but wanted a little outfit to wrap up and bring to the party. I went to a nice children's clothing store where the choices were PINK and BLUE, and nothing else!

    So many colors to choose from -- green & red & stripes & yellow! I finally found a white "onesie."

    I dressed my four daughters in basic crayon colors, and gave them a variety of toys. These days, they even make LEGO blocks gender- specific!!

    Ballet for boys and baseball for girls. Let's just do it.

  34. I know you don't need strangers commenting on your parenting, but your son is fortunate he's not being limited by the people who love him best, even with good intentions.

    Billy Elliot--totally great movie! I hope your son's dreams, like Billy's, come true.

  35. Yes, loved both First Position and Billy Elliott. I think seeing those boys on screen really helped my son.

  36. Susan and Matthew - I am so proud of both of you. I know that there were hurdles to overcome, and there will be in the future. On the other hand, becoming a very strong and mature person will give Matthew a HUGE advantage in life. And he will be able to move in such a way that women will turn to admire his backside as he walks away. Just sayin'.

  37. Susan, Janet Reid quotes a few paragraphs from your Churchill book today as an shining example of how to tell, not show, when you just have to!

  38. Edith, thank you, I saw that! I'm honored.

  39. our son was also the only boy. he followed his sister into ballet. we could not keep him out of the classes. every week the teachers would walk him to the door after he had sneaked in and started to dance. this was before he was 3. they would not let him start until he was 3. he also attended sab. he is a professional ballet dancer now. he is brilliant. he was born to dance. very brave young man. endured so many horrible, awful things. we are very proud of him for his hard work and dedication. ballet makes you strong in many ways. we could not love him more. (not my real name - gaylen marie on fb)

  40. Gaylen, what a lovely story, thank you for sharing. And thank you everyone for sharing your stories!

  41. My daughter gets no grief for playing basketball or any other sport but my son has been tormented for all kinds of derivations from the norm (all pretty minor, from my POV). Seems it's easier to be a tough girl than a gentle boy. I will share this with both of them. Thanks!

  42. Gender roles are delineated in the public education system constantly. The most subtle, but pervasive form, is the use of "boys and girls" as a manner of addressing a group of children. Boys. And girls. It's loaded with subtext, yet it just rolls off the tongue...

  43. I remember taking my then six year old, loves-the-limelight, son to a musical theater class... just to try it out before we made a year-long commitment.

    Shushed away by the teacher, I wasn't permitted to watch. Ninety minutes later I was anxious to hear his thoughts (check-book in hand)when the door swung open.

    Me: What did you think?!
    He: It was okay.
    Me: So you want to go back.
    He: Nah.
    Me: Why?
    He: Too much singing and dancing.

    There you have it. For someone who always wanted to take dance as a child, this ended my first lesson in encouraging your children's (not your own)interests and listening when they are ready to veer in their own direction.

  44. In the South, in a small town, boys in dance - any kind of dance - will be looked at as strange. I know because I have a friend who's son takes dance lessons and it is not an easy road for him. It has also been hard for my daughter Grace playing softball. They see a girl that hates pink, loves softball, and cannot fathom that she also loves Ian Somerhalder. How can a tomboy like guys?!? She's run into this more than once. Not easy at 12. Talking, talking, talking - and getting her to places she can meet/interact/talk with women that played softball successfully has made a huge difference. They each find their own passion, we help them as best we can. You're a great mom.

  45. No. No. No. This young man was not being hit with "homophobia." He's being hit with SEXISM. The presumption that all male dancers are gay is DISCRIMINATION AGAINST MALE DANCERS, and is also SEXISM.

    This is important. Ask any woman athlete who's NOT a lesbian.

  46. This really is the same issue as Maggie's - being limited by someone else's preconceived notion of how we are supposed to act based on our gender.

    I am glad that Mattie is going through the rough spots ok. He will soar no matter what he decides.

  47. Dear Jungle Reds, thank you so much for having me today! What a wonderful group of writers, women, and web hostesses! So, I closed my eyes and pointed and Lisa Alber is the winner of a FREE autographed copy of His Majesty's Hope! Rhys, how do I get Ms Alber's address?

    Thanks again, everybody! It was wonderful to meet you and hear your thoughts!

    xoxo Susan

  48. Mattie is lucky to have Susan as a mom. We have as much to learn from her as we do from him! Thanks for this!!

  49. I was totally thinking of Billy Elliot when i was reading your post, Susan. Your son was lucky to have parents like you and your husband. I'm glad he stuck with it!

    My 4yr old daughter has been taking a ballet/tap/jazz class the last two summers. She loves it. Her dance studio offers free classes for brothers and half price if there isn't a sister enrolled. Obviously they are trying to encourage boy dancers. I am planning on signing my son up as soon as he's old enough, and I hope that he wants to do it for at least a few years.

    When I was in high school over 20yrs ago, there were two boys who did ballet--both actually went on to dance in the NYC ballet for awhile. they were both good looking and nobody ever gave them crap about dancing. The girls were all after them, too.

  50. I've been thinking about this article and following the comments for a week now. The issues of gender and sexuality in dance fascinate and trouble me. It's fascinating because an art form that is so generally accepted as "gay" is also one that strongly reinforces standard gender roles. And it's troubling because so often attempts to challenge the gender stigma in dance often do so by reinforcing heteronormativity.

    This is a more low brow example than ballet, but I think of Nigel Lythgoe on So You Think You Can Dance saying he wants to encourage more boys in dance, and in the next breath chastising dancers for not being masculine enough in their dancing. Or how that show loves to highlight when a male dancer has a girlfriend but keeps the lives of gay dancers invisible. (They've gotten a wee bit better on this after much criticism, but there's still this odd assumption of heterosexuality.)

    I worry that some attempts to make dance okay for boys do so by subtly saying that "it's okay because it's not gay." It's okay because look at these famous dancers who are straight. It's okay because it's just like football or some other sport. It's okay because he'll be so popular with all those girls. I wish it were simply okay because it's beautiful and expressive and some people are very good at it and love to do it and bring pleasure to others.

    I'm glad to read that ballet is trying to tone down the pink, because I think the gender pressures for girls are as strong, although different.

    Susan, have you looked into the work of Doug Risner? He writes fascinating stuff on gender, sexuality, and dance, and has done extensive scholarship looking specifically at boys in dance. I think you'd be interested in reading him. There are links to some of his writings here: