Roseanne, Gender Bending, And The War Against Nature (1)


Roseanne is back on television and to great success. The pilot for the renewal of the twenty-year old series did so well in the overnight ratings that season 2 has already been picked up. Most of the attention has focused on the fact that the show, which features the working-class Connor family has Trump supporters in it. What I have not seen discussed, however, is that Darlene (one of the original kids in the series) has a child of her own, Mark played by Ames McNamara whose character is presented as preferring to dress like a girl. Mom is divorced and Grandma (Roseanne) and Grandpa (played by John Goodman) are torn. They love Darlene and Mark but they know that sending him off to school dressed like a girl is bound to create problems and, of course, it does.

It is in the nature of sitcoms to create and resolve tension. In that tension is both pathos and comedy and the writers, actors, and actresses portrayed it well. They helped us to empathize with a young who clearly needs attention, who apparently does not have a father active in his life and who gets attention by being, as they say now, transgressive of social norms. The show also captured the natural impulse of a single-mom to defend her child and struggle of Grandma and Grandpa to try to fix things.

As I watched the episode I wondered to myself how many elementary-aged boys in this country are now dressing like girls. This NYT article from 2012 caused a stir when it was published because it claimed that it is perfectly normal for boys to be “gender fluid” and to cross-dress. Of course that is utter rubbish but it was re-assuring not to find a flood of related articles in the interim signaling that this is a major trend. Still, that ABC decided to explore this theme in a mainstream television series is worrying.

As a parent, I worry about young children in the entertainment business generally and the emotional and psychological effects of playing a child with “gender dysphoria.” As attractive as this device is for the writers, how is it not propaganda or social catechesis? We are apparently being told that the new normal is that it is perfectly acceptable for nine-year old boys to wear dresses to school and that anyone who expresses concern is a bigot.

The underlying message is that social norms are completely arbitrary and should be transgressed. The problem is that it is true that some social norms are relatively arbitrary but not all are. In 2011 an article in The Smithsonian reminded us that it was common in the 19th century for boys to wear something like a baptismal gown (FDR is pictured in his) until as late as 6 or 7 years old. The author also observes that pink and blue as assigned to girls and boys is a relatively recent and commercially driven convention. During WWII women went to work in factors and wore trousers.

It is important to distinguish between social convention and nature but not everything is a convention to be deconstructed. Nature remains. The differences between boys and girls cannot be reduced to social constructs. Boys and girls are obviously different biologically, even if it is not currently fashionable to say so. As a boy of 56 years, a brother to two sisters, the husband of one wife, and the father of two daughters, my experience is that there are real, innate differences. We experience the world differently. We relate to others differently. One recent Stanford study concluded that the differences are not entirely cultural constructs.

Christians confess that there is such a thing as creation and a creational order. Scripture says, “Then God said,

“Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:26–28).

Both of the first two humans were alike in certain ways and distinct in certain ways. They were both image bearers but they were so in complementary, not identical, ways. I am sorry that recognizing this complementary relationship has been associated with “patriarchalism” and manifestly heterodox ways of speaking about the doctrine of God and Christology (e.g., the alleged “eternal subordination of the Son”). By acknowledging that males and females were created to be distinct and complementary to each other I mean to signal no support for “patriarchy” or ESS. I do mean to say, however, that there is a creational pattern and that as part of that creational pattern males and females are different and complementary in obvious and in less obvious ways.

How should we express those creational differences in dress and carriage? That is a more difficult question that it might seem but it is not impossible. Growing up in the 1960s, in the plains, in Middle America, long hair for boys was an act of rebellion against what the hippies called “the bourgeois” values of that place and time. It was controversial. It was true that it was difficult sometimes to tell the boys from the girls and all the more so in the wake of World War II, the Korean War, and in the midst of th Vietnam War, when the crew cut signaled support for America against various enemies and long hair on boys signaled questions about the war. Today, however, it is not unusual to see men with pony tails and even “man buns” who are not obviously being “transgressive” of gender norms. He probably drives a pick up, however, (or a Jeep) and not a Miata or a VW Bug (there is a reason that designers put a flower vase in the new Bug—I write as the former owner of a 1960 VW Bug, a “New” Bug, and a Miata. As water always finds its level, the differences between sexes find a way to the surface.

Even though trousers are now unisex (and in some places in America have long been) dresses remain feminine. Yes, Scottish men wear kilts, which one writer calls “hyper-masculine” but that does not seem like quite the same thing as dressing a nine-year old boy in clothing and make up (e.g., toe nail polish) associated with females. Does anyone think of the kilt as feminine? Pink and blue may be arbitrary signals of sex but it seems reasonable to be troubled by a parent, whether real or fictional, who, rather than directing the child toward an appropriate expression of their natural sex, encourages “gender bending” or even “gender dysphoria.”

Will Roseanne address the consequences of single parenthood for (the character) Mark’s development? Had he a relatively normal Dad perhaps he would not feel the need to dress like a girl? Is not interesting that even after Obergefell, after the Department of Education sought to normalize transgender behavior among school children, that the writers think that we need more catechesis about how normal it is for boys to act and carry themselves like girls?

The Apostle Paul did speak to this question and we will consider that passage next time.



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