The internet has been abuzz with discussions of John Jolie-Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s eight-year-old child who hit the red carpet in a sharp suit at the premier of Unbroken on December 16. In the weeks since the premier multiple sources have reported that the child, who was designated female at birth and named Shiloh, now wishes to be called John and may identify as a boy. However, information on John is limited and no official statement has been released about his gender identity.
All reports so far have suggested that Jolie and Pitt are supportive of John’s interest in masculinity. Perez Hilton, seemly the first to break this story in mid-December, praises Jolie and Pitt as support parents. Radhika Sanghani at The Telegraph emphasizes that it is not at all unusual for children to explore and play with gender. These and more media reports on John Jolie-Pitt seem to suggest that our attitudes towards transgender and gender nonconforming people, especially children, are increasingly supportive and accepting.
However, the public reaction to John Jolie-Pitt does not actually tell us much about current attitudes towards transgender and gender nonconforming people. Instead what it highlights is how uncomfortable we are with gender ambiguity. When covering this story, most journalists have taken a stand: John is either now a transgender boy who should be referred to as “he” or a gender nonconforming girl who should be referred to as “she.” These categories undoubtedly expand the gender options available, especially to children. Still, these options of transgender boy and gender nonconforming girl are incredibly binary and assume John has a definite, established gender identity that is either all boy or all girl. This contradicts the information we actually have about John. From Pitt’s 2008 statement we know that two-year-old John preferred, at least at that time, being called John or Peter. From Jolie’s 2010 statement we know that Angelina believes John “wants to be a boy” and “thinks she’s one of the brothers.” The same statement tells us that John wanted a short haircut and “likes to wear boys’ everything.”
These two statements, along with the pictures of John in a suit at the Unbroken premier, give us a very incomplete picture of John’s gender identity. We know that John showed an interest in names typically given to boys. We know that four years ago Angelina felt that John wanted to be a boy and was one of the brothers. We know that John has a short haircut and wears clothing we associate with boys. This incomplete picture of John Jolie-Pitt’s gender tells us nothing about whether John self identifies today as a boy, a girl, both, or neither. Instead, we are now left in a very uncomfortable place: we are in the realm of gender ambiguity.
Based on my own research on transgender and gender nonconforming children and their parents—as well as existing psychological research—it is obvious to me that Jolie and Pitt are doing a fantastic job with John. From the limited information we have it seems that they are accepting, even celebratory, of John’s gender expression. Parental acceptance is key for transgender and gender nonconforming children, especially children whose genders are fluid or ambiguous. I have found that parental support is often what helps these children survive difficulties like bullying.
Whatever John’s gender identity in the past, today, or in the future, the high level of public and media interest in his gender is illuminating. Our refusal to address the fluidity and uncertainty around John’s gender is a reminder of how tightly we cling to the belief that children are either boys or girls. Even people who are accepting of transgender boys, gender nonconforming girls, gender creative boys, and so on struggle with gender ambiguity, especially among children. As one parent of a gender nonconforming child explains to Andrew Solomon in his book Far From the Tree, “the fluidity is challenging. Some days, [my child] goes in the girls’ bathroom, some days in the boys’ bathroom. That is still so outside the norm.”
The interest in John Jolie-Pitt creates a perfect opportunity for us to confront our discomfort with gender fluidity and ambiguity. Now is the time to ask ourselves: what do we have to fear from a child we cannot identify as a girl or boy and why are we so afraid?
Alli Lindner is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Stony Brook University (SUNY). Her BA is in Women’s and Gender Studies from Hunter College (CUNY). Her research is on transgender and gender nonconforming children and their support systems with particular interest in peer-to-peer support. She is currently working on a qualitative study of summer camps for transgender and gender nonconforming children.