I first saw the cover of Life&Style magazine when my mom snapped a picture of it at the supermarket and texted it to me on my phone, with the message: “???” Knowing my gender politics, she knew I’d have something to say about this:
The article inside features this gem of an interview:
“Shiloh is pushing the boundaries of a tomboy look and crossing over to cross-dresser territory,” Alana Kelen, senior fashion stylist at VH1, tells Life & Style. Celebrity stylist Gili Rashal-Niv agrees. “I get that times are tough but does Angie really need to have Shiloh sharing clothes with her brothers? Hopefully we won’t be seeing Maddox in one of Shiloh’s dresses any time soon.”
The article goes on to report that Brad Pitt told Oprah that Shiloh insists that they call her (them?/per?) “John,” and then quotes a Focus on the Family rep, who states that, “[i]t’s important to teach our children that gender distinction is very healthy.”
Oh.my. Where to begin? Apparently there is more in the issue than you can read on-line, but I’m certainly not going to dignify that magazine with any financial contribution–(although I’m not opposed to someone liberating it, and sending it my way for further analysis). I can’t imagine that their feature gets much more nuanced, however, especially when the online teaser states that we should buy the magazine if we want to read more about Shiloh’s “shocking transformation”!
Now, I’m not trying to claim Shiloh as atransbaby figurehead; the postmodernist in me (coupled with plenty of transfolk testimony) would not claim that transfolk are necessarily “always already” the “opposite gender.” That is to say, there are plenty of people who transition later in life and say that they did not always have a desire to do their gender through a trans-modality. So, while Shiloh’s actions are certainly a possible sign of her wanting to transition in the future (which is clearly the cause of the moral panic), she could also just be a toddler fucking with gender norms. And why shouldn’t they/we? There is nothing “natural” about Shiloh having long hair or wearing dresses, just as there would be nothing “unnatural” about (god forbid!) Maddox wearing a dress.
I also saw a picture of “tomboy-Shiloh” on a community blog I frequent called “birls” (a portmanteau of boys/girls). Birls is a “community dedicated to androgynous/boyish/masculine females and those who don’t let the stereotypes surrounding their sex define who they are. Whether you’re a tomboy or a butch dyke, a boi, genderqueer, or an androgyne, FTM or transgendered, or simply refuse to put a label on your identity… you’re welcome here. Birl-admirers are welcome here, as well!” (I did a paper on this last semester, but I am also a pretty fervent birl-admirer, hence my continued involvement). A member of the community simply posted a pic of Shiloh’s new-do and wrote: “Shiloh Jolie-Pitt is looking so cute! She looks like a birly baby!” Compare that to: “IS IT HARMING THE THREE YEAR OLD?” (dun, dun, dun!).
I think this juxtaposition of reaction is a profound one. And because in order to be an activist/a fighter/an organizer for a better world, you have to be an optimist, I believe there is encouragement to be found here. While it’s true that Life&Style magazine probably reflects majority opinion more than a genderqueer internet community, I am certain that these brief pockets of uninterrupted queer world-making can be foretellers of the future. I believe in the power of prefigurative politics, and the magnitude of fantasy. In Undoing Gender (2004), Judith Butler writes (are you SHOCKED i’m quoting her? i know i know):
“To posit possibilities beyond the norm or, indeed, a different future for the norm itself, is part of the work of fantasy when we understand fantasy as taking the body as a point of departure for an articulation that is now always constrained by the body as it is. If we accept that altering these norms that decide normative human morphology give differential “reality” to different kinds of humans as a result, then we are compelled to affirm that transgendered lives have a potential and actual impact on political life at its most fundamental level, that is, who counts as a human, and what norms govern the appearance of “real” humanness.” (p. 28)
Thus, we can read any subversive gender performance as more than just individual, everyday resistance, and can instead see the inherent politicalness of reconstituting the intelligible “human.” Now, I know Brad and Angelina are “progressive” and dedicated to “human rights,” but I’m not sure their politics are necessarily radical, or if they are cognizant of the ways in which Shiloh’s actions could be a means of challenging oppressive power systems. It does seem that they are willing to call her “John,” and obviously provide Shiloh with agency over clothing and hair decisions, which I hope they’ll continue. Regardless of whether or not Shiloh continues to fuck with gender in the future, I am going to put my rose-colored-media-scholar-glasses on and assert that this magazine story, if nothing, else, will get folks talking.
And perhaps a 3-year-old child-of-stars could actually be a role model. Eli Clare, a self-described trannyfag who lives in a body that tremors, writes, “Without a language, I am in particular need of role models. I think many of us are. Whom do we shape our masculinities, our femininities, after? Who shows us how to be a drag queen, a butch, a trannyfag who used to be a straight married woman and now cruises the boys hot and heavy, a multigendered femme boy/girl who walks the dividing line?”
Of course, I am not saying Shiloh ought to be hailed to respond to any of those requests, but for parents of gender non-conforming children to see that “even Brad and Angie have a girl who wants to be a boy,” maybe we have to “use the master’s tools” to start. For those outside of academia and queer culture, this conversation is a foreign one, and if it has to commence through the detestable voyeurism of Hollywood lives, then so be it.
So now it is up to us to insert ourselves in those conversations of horror and shock, and instead echo our friend on birls… Because, my oh my, isn’t that Shiloh Jolie-Pitt just looking so cute?!