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Laurie Essig Ph.D.

Dr. Phil's Very Bad Advice

Dr. Phil's advice on raising boy children only increases anxiety and depression.

Sometimes I fantasize that I am as influential as Dr. Phil. And that millions of people follow my advice, instead of his. That's because I think Dr. Phil often dishes some very bad advice. Recently, he told the mother of a young boy who likes Barbie that her son could be put back on the straight and narrow.

Dr. Phil gave this advice because he wants our sons to grow up straight. Because who wouldn't want a straight son like Dr. Phil, whose marital woes fill the gossip blogs and whose sense of style begs for queer intervention?

But I digress. This is not about the rather sad gender and sexual expression of Dr. Phil, but about the advice he gave to the mother of a five-year-old boy. Dr. Phil tells her not to panic! She can avoid having a gay son if she acts now: "This is not a precursor to your son being gay ... Direct your son in an unconfusing way. Don't buy him Barbie dolls or girl's clothes. You don't want to do things that seem to support the confusion at this stage of the game ... Take the girl things away, and buy him boy toys. Support him in what he's doing, but not in the girl things."

Wow! That's some really bad advice. I realize Dr. Phil is a psychologist for the masses and therefore has to uphold the dominant point of view about things like gender rigidity and thinking gay is a bad outcome for our sons. And that's why everyone listens to him (not me). But if I were Dr. Phil, not only would I dress better, but I would have answered it more like this:

"Modern culture is built on the idea that there are only two genders, masculine or feminine. Because of this binary gender, we also assume that there can only be two sexual identities: attraction to the same gender or its opposite. Not only do we assume this to be true, but consumer capitalism exploits it by convincing us that everything from tee shirts to toys, diapers to dog toys have a gender.

In fact, inanimate objects do not have a gender. And there are so many varieties of gender expression that they cannot be counted. A person in a male body can grow up to love Barbie dolls and dresses as well as logging trees in his Carhartts and Timberland boots. Gender expression doesn't have to be something we choose once and for all. It can just exist as endless possibility. Why, it's like the song:

I"m a lumberjack and I'm okay. I work all night and I sleep all day. I try on women's clothing and I hang around in bars.

And who knows what love will look like for a dress-wearing lumberjack? Maybe it will be with a femime fatale or maybe it will be with a macho man or anything in between or beyond.

The point is not to enforce rigid binary gender on your son, the toys he plays with, or the life he leads. Allow him to grow into a fully realized human being — not a particular gender or a sexuality.

But then again, if people listened to that sort of advice, then we'd all be much less stressed out about upholding the gender binary, there'd be much less anxiety about whether a toy or a piece of clothing was the "right" gender, whether love was good or bad, and not very many people would feel desperate enough to get child-rearing advice from TV personalities like Dr. Phil. Perhaps even more disastrous, there'd be far fewer things for advertisers to sell us since we could wear each other's tee shirts, dresses, and jeans and play with the same toys, whether Barbies or building blocks.

Good thing we have Dr. Phil to keep us trapped in the way things are rather than help us imagine the way things could be.


About the Author

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.