Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Dangerous Lives of Sissies: How RDCA’s Ad Campaign Hurts Gender Fluid Children

This is a guest post from Garland Grey. Garland Grey is a writer from Texas, a contributor to Tiger Beatdown, and the owner of

Throughout childhood, you do things to seek your parent’s approval and avoid their disapproval. But when you are a gender noncomforming child growing up in a hetero and cis normative household, their disapproval is not about the things you have done but about what you are. My brother once flooded the downstairs bathroom by stuffing rags into the sink and turning on the taps. He caught hell, he was punished, he cried, tensions ran high, he apologized, and was welcomed back into the fold. He was still a valued member of the team, his input was still appreciated, operators were still. standing. by.

But not me. My sin was too great. I couldn’t apologize for being queer. I couldn’t promise not to do it again. And the entire landscape of childhood seemed treacherously constructed to march me through a series a manhood tests which I would fail. Skinning a deer? No thank you. Playing football? Yeah, if I had been coordinated and the other boys didn’t always aim for my head. Picking out clothes? “What do you mean they don’t have it in turquoise? We’re going to need to talk to someone about this.” My mother wanted me to pick out clothes from Bugle Boy: dull, uninspired shirts with Dragons or Ray Guns or Racecars on them. These clothes were perfect for the boys in the Sunday circular, who stood in several dynamic action poses to communicate that they were active boys. Holding a piece of sports equipment they seemed to stare off panel, deciding which of the dainty girls in This Summer’s Hottest Fashions they would take as their future bride.

I wasn’t anything like these boys, and I was punished for it. I could be scolded for crying, which I did “at the drop of a hat.” I could be yelled at for dressing the way I wanted. For dyeing my hair hot pink. I catalogued expressions of distaste and disgust: the slight downward moue of irritation, the head shake meant to convey how much wasted space I was by volume, the animated features yelling at me for one thing but saying it was about another. Once one of my mother’s tubes of lipstick went missing for a week and I was harangued and interrogated to the point of exhaustion - I would have preferred to skip that.

All of this makes me lucky. I survived. Not all of us do. Some of take our own lives. Some of us develop dangerous coping mechanism that lead us into adulthood. Some of us are murdered. Like Lawrence King, who was shot by another classmate for having a crush. Or Roy Jones, the 17-month-old that was beaten to death in an attempt to “make him act like a boy instead of a little girl.” 17 months old. Roy Jones had 17 months on this earth before it was decided he should die for not being masculine enough.

This is my past, but also my present. So when I see posters like this I experience a molten rage that flows under the surface of my skin.

In the picture, a small boy stands in a pair of red high heels. At the bottom left is a stylized pictograph of a person doing a high kick, the name of the company, and the little boy’s sentence: Karate lessons. Which he has earned for playing in his mother’s shoes. Which is something most boys do at one point. He looks like he is having a grand old time, experiencing the unsophisticated pleasure of breaking boundaries. Hearing the satisfying thwack thwack of a shoe that is far too big for his feet hitting the floor.

What he is doing is making him happy and harming no one. The trains will run on time, water will continue to be wet and fat free, the pillars of society will hold. He is only daring to try on a different gender role, he is deprioritizing his masculinity. But modern masculinity is something which must be constantly reinforced, reasserted, proven. By stepping into a woman’s shoes, he risks seeing his gender as not something to be defended, but something he can create himself. With a pair of shoes. Or a bracelet. Or a tube of his mother’s lipstick, which, in all fairness, didn’t go with any of her outfits.

But what really angers me is that a series of people looked at this photo: a photographer, a graphic artist, marketing teams, the owners of the Karate School, and they all thought the same thing: this will scare men into enrolling their children in Karate. Am I against martial arts? Not in the least. My friend Harold was in Taekwondo in middle school, and I really wanted to join. But as it happens martial arts is expensive. There are costumes to buy, appointments, enrollment fees - it wasn’t possible for me. And that hasn’t changed. Martial arts is still expensive. So some of the fathers with gender noncomforming children will not be able to send them to martial arts lessons as a form of gender boot camp. But they will turn the page of a magazine and see something that makes them more hostile to their child. Whose life is already to the saturation point with gender policing.

The lives of gender noncomforming children are dangerous. And because of a Miami advertising agency named “Zubi” and RDCA in Key Biscayne, those lives have become more endangered.

Did you know that Deeply Problematic pays guest posters like Garland Grey? Consider throwing a couple bucks our way.


  1. It was just posted on Shakesville that the posters were an ad agency concept that the agency owner apologized profusely for and said that if they crossed his desk they would never have seen the light of day. The company did not approve them, a designer person made them and posted them on one f those industry boards where concept ads get found all the time.

  2. Leaper, thanks for alerting us to this!

  3. Definitely glad that these were pre-production, and that they weren't greenlit by a whole agency and company!

    Funnily enough, karate lessons were a great way that I felt able to defend my queer self as a kid, and almost all my friends who've done martial arts are also queer. The ads themselves still suck, but it's funny how they reminded me happily of how I associate MA with a 'freaks defend ourselves' mentality.

  4. I wonder if you've heard of the Thai ladyboy kickboxer Nong Tum? She's an awesome example of how gender fluidity and martial arts are not mutually exclusive.

  5. Thank you for commenting on this. Using rigid, stereotypical gender roles to advertize a martial arts class is not cool. I'm glad that more and more people are recognizing that gender can be fluid and encompasses so much more than black-and-white binaries.

  6. Hey, at least it's a change from "enroll your daughters in martial arts, because otherwise they'll get raped and it'll be all your fault!"



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