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Painting her son's toenails pink wasn't Jenna Lyons' big mistake

April 15, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
What bothers me is that Jenna Lyons, J. Crew company president and creative director, had to know exactly what effect she was aiming for in a company ad and she used her kid to do it.

The ad features a picture of a smiling Lyons painting her 5-year-old son's toenails a neon pink. Below it is a caption that reads: "Lucky for me I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon." Another photo on the page shows young Beckett wearing huge dark glasses of the sort that are stylish in Hollywood at the moment and a J Crewe T shirt. The page's headline: "Saturday with Jenna. See how she and son Beckett go off duty in style."

There's been a huge brouhaha over this in the media this week, after a conservative FOX news commentator named Kenneth Ablow said the kid will end up needing psychotherapy and said the ad is "an example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity." The conservative Media Research Center called the ad "blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children." Other media outlets fired back that the conservative commentators were ridiculous beyond words. All they saw was a beautiful picture of a mother having fun with her little boy. Nail polish isn't going to turn the boy gay or transgender, they said, and why would it matter if it did? And so on and so on. It's just another day in America's ongoing culture war.

Lyons, who would have to be an expert in media relations and advertising messages to hold the position she does, must have known what kind of reaction the ad would get. She'd have been hoping to drum up some free publicity for her company and to get the attention of her target audience, whomever that might be. At a guess I'd say she wants the attention of urban hipsters with children and money to spend on them and upscale gay and lesbian families and anyone else who wants to be stylish and likes the vibe of the ad. I think it worked. The kid is adorable, the mom and son look like they're having fun during their nail painting session and hundreds of people have flooded forums talking about how they used to paint their son's or their brother's toenails and it was never a big deal. Some of them will take a look-see at J. Crew's clothing line. Of course, some FOX news watchers are responding with disparaging comments about Lyons' parenting choices and speculating about the child's future sexual preference.

Both reactions bother me because I don't think it's fair to use a 5-year-old as an advertising tool or place him at the center of the culture wars. In 10 or 15 years, when his classmates, prospective dating partners, college admissions staff and prospective employers are Googling his name, the ad and all the discussions will pop up and people will still be having these strong and varied reactions to him. The boy may well have a different last name than his mother's, which might help matters, but Lyons is so well known that friends, employers and dating partners will be Googling her too out of sheer curiosity.

I don't think painting the boy's toenails pink will have any effect on his sexual preference as an adult. I tend to think that's inborn and can't be changed or influenced. But kids can and will be damaged by the boneheaded decisions of their parents.


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