Flash-forward to today, and the internet is freaking out over an image of Charlize Theron’s adopted Black son, Jackson, wearing a dress and a hat with a braid, to look like Elsa from Frozen. And people aren’t upset simply because of the unconventional gender play, but at the fact that Theron, a South African white woman, was "feminizing" a young Black male.
As a Black queer man, I’ve known from a young age that gender boundaries were not things that could be easily transgressed, which is why I kept my Disney princess obsession to myself. There’s something about a young Black male in drag that makes some people uncomfortable, and that uneasiness is the direct result of a problematic tie between notions of Black manhood and toxic masculinity.
For Black men in particular, performative manliness is a survival mechanism in response to centuries of slavery, decades of Jim Crow laws, and white supremacist systems of inequality that still affect Black people. In this way, Black men in America have always been afraid that their manhood is under siege, which seemingly leads many of them to display a hyper-masculine attitude of anger, sexual bravado, and emotional numbness.
Black men in America have always been afraid that their manhood is under siege.
For years, there’s been speculation about a Hollywood conspiracy to emasculate Black men on TV, in film, and in pop culture in general. (These theories, of course, are as unbelievable as the internet plots that link Jay-Z and Beyonce to the illuminati.) In 2010, comedian Dave Chappelle called out Hollywood for using Black men in drag as a punchline during an interview with Oprah. “All the comics that I’ve seen, men, you know, strong brothers, why are they putting us in these dresses?” Chappelle asks, referring to actors like Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence.
More recently, Nate Parker, director, star, producer, and writer of The Birth of a Nation, told BET that he would never play a gay man because he felt a duty to “preserve the Black man.” Although the video of the interview was subsequently removed from BET’s site, journalist Michael Arceneaux called out Parker on his homophobia, noting that being gay and Black doesn’t make you any less of a man. (It’s worth noting that Parker has also been under scrutiny for a 1999 rape charge that has resurfaced in light of his film’s press coverage.) But the thing is, Parker’s comments don’t exist in a vacuum — they are a symptom of a culturally specific toxic masculinity that has plagued the Black community for decades, which is partly the result of racism, but also a result of the homophobia of Black churches.
As in many Christian institutions, homophobia runs rampant in Black churches. But for many Black people, myself included, the church provides our first sense of community outside the home. Speaking from personal experience, I know just how hard it is to come to terms with sexuality and gender identity while being part of a religious community. Growing up in the church, I learned values and gained a sense of cultural belonging, all the while hiding an essential part of who I was in fear of rejection from my church family. This meant that I was always hyper-aware of my gender performance (what I said, how I walked, etc.) and was careful to not accidentally do something "too feminine" that would out me — and shame me and my family.
Of course, it’s not as simple as the church perpetuating toxic masculinity, either. As Clay Cane, producer of the BET documentary Holler If You Hear Me, told me last year: “The intersection of the church and of Black masculinity and of racism creates a pot of complicated reasons why there’s this misperception of Black folks being more homophobic.” The backlash against Theron’s son — and the many other instances of intolerance of Black males expressing femininity — are examples of misplaced frustration with the racism that persists in our society. Everything from the coverage of Ryan Lochte’s incident at the Rio Olympics (which highlighted the power of white male privilege) to the continued violence against people of color at the hands of law enforcement makes Black men feel disempowered in a more complicated way than most of us are able to consciously process.
The backlash against Theron’s son — and the many other instances of intolerance of Black males expressing femininity — are examples of misplaced frustration with the racism that persists in our society.
Despite strong resistance, things are moving in the right direction. We are now entering the era of the carefree Black boy, in which Jaden Smith can be the face of Louis Vuitton's women's wear, Donald Glover can make it cool to be a geek, and Frank Ocean can openly talk about relationships with men and women without feeling afraid. These may seem like small steps compared to systemic racism, but these examples mark significant progress. People are finally beginning to accept the diversity of Black manhood. As Lindsay Johns recently wrote in The New Black magazine: “There are as many manifestations of Black masculinity as there are shades of black.”
Which brings me back to Theron, and Jackson’s Elsa costume. Theron has given her son the opportunity to explore gender beyond the binary that society has set for boys and girls. This is not only an example of loving parenting; it’s an example of freedom. Theron is allowing Jackson to be the young Black boy he wants to be.
When I look back on myself as a first-grader, doing Disney drag in the bathroom, I think about how much I would have benefitted from seeing representations of alternate Black masculine identities; I think about how different my future would have been if I knew boys were allowed to cry or wear dresses if they wanted, and that the world wouldn’t stop if they did. My only hope is that Jackson and all other Black sons don’t take as long as I did to learn that there isn’t a singular form of Black manhood; the only type of man we have to be is ourselves.