BY Brandon Voss
June 06 2011 5:50 PM ET
One might argue that there’s a fine line between empowerment and exploitation. How do you respond to critics who might say that this exhibit is exploiting Theo — in part because, at 12, he’s too young to make an informed decision about being your subject?
This is a very important question. Theo has, since a very young age, been drawn to my paintings and wanted to “star” in them. My paintings have always represented to him a beautiful alternate reality. I of course adamantly will not tell him that his desire to be in those paintings is wrong. However, the decision to allow him his desires was made by his father and me, not by Theo. We have seen the benefit of a positive visualization of Theo’s own attraction to another imagined world filled with lush beauty, mystery, and power. The paintings have proven to be enormously positive exercises in letting him share, in a very visual way, his inner world. Starring in the paintings allows him to see himself portrayed with the kind of confidence and power that he, and every kid, hopes to have someday.
I understand that Theo has toyed with cross-dressing since he was 7 years old. How do you view Theo’s periodic penchant for long hair and traditionally feminine fashions?
Theo is really more androgynous than he is feminine. Like I said, in many ways he’s a typical rambunctious boy. His fine features and long hair came across to people in Los Angeles as more “surfer dude” than feminine. All children start out fairly androgynous. Each child picks up cues from the world and decides when to get off the androgyny train, and the age of 12 seems like a pretty universal stop where kids get off that train and go in one direction or another. There is a natural affinity between Theo’s androgyny and the historical references in my paintings. Throughout most of Western history, the most powerful men in any Western nation have worn long hair or wigs, fine fabrics, feathers, jewelry, and tight-fitting pants that showed off their legs. The references remind us that the strict gender categories in our own time are a historical anomaly.
Have you and your husband always responded so positively to Theo’s androgyny?
My husband has been enormously accepting and supportive of Theo’s reluctance to conform to strict notions of what boys and girls are allowed to do. On paper, Theo’s world is very different from the one that my husband and I grew up in, in small-town Kentucky. But Theo is also our oldest child. I think every parent would report that your first child turns your life, your viewpoints, and your values upside down. We just folded Theo’s refusal to fit neatly into one category or another into the general flexibility that having a child requires of a parent. Your first child makes you have to recalibrate your understanding of reality. Theo required us to realize and accept that in the larger world there are people like Lady Gaga, Zac Efron, and Ellen DeGeneres, who challenge traditional notions of what is masculine and feminine.
In recent months we’ve seen the mother who wrote a children’s book in support of her so-called Princess Boy, and we’ve also seen the mother who painted her 5-year-old son’s toenails pink in a J. Crew catalog. Numerous news outlets picked up these stories, and various pundits questioned whether or not those mothers were actually encouraging gender confusion.
I think that if you meet the children, such as Theo, you realize that there is no “encouraging” going on. Androgyny is a natural state in children, and it is society that purges that out of them. Theo’s father and I are simply refusing to enforce that purge on our son.
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