Phil McGraw, the pop guru of TV psychology advice known as Dr. Phil, has been taking a lot of heat this week for the online posting of his response to a mother’s request for advice. (BTW, this was apparently a question from a show several years ago.)
“Robby’s 5-year-old son loves to play with Barbies and prefers wearing girl’s clothes. She asks Dr. Phil how to deal with this behavior, which she doesn’t think is normal.”
Many news respondents and bloggers have focused on McGraw’s advice to “take the girl things away, and buy him boy toys.” TV’s Today with Kathie Lee and Hoda covered the story and featured an online poll that asked, “Is it OK for boys to play with Barbies?” In the midst of the anger and name-calling at McGraw by some parents (“stupid,” “idiot,” “homophobe”) and the disgust at parents who aren’t teaching their sons to be “masculine” by others, I’m noticing the voices of confusion in the middle.
“I’m confused because Dr. Phil has been rather supportive of issues important to the gay community recently,” one comment says. Another points out how simplistic the response seems, to mention the possibility of the boy in question being gay, but not mention other possibilities, including gender identity disorder. Noticing the tangled, contradictory nature of McGraw’s response may be more helpful than simple vilification.
The good doctor starts with these premises : 1) boys playing with Barbies and wearing girls’ clothes is normal (“not unusual”), 2) it’s important to support your son, and 3) I don’t know if he’s gay, but if he is, there’s not anything you can do about it. Somehow, from these beliefs he ends up recommending seeing the boy’s desire for Barbies or girls’ clothes as “confusion,” refusing to allow him to express himself in these manners, and pushing toward only (undefined) boy toys. This seems illogical to the point of ludicrousness. How did he get here?
Columnist Leonard Pitts characterized the current state of the US this week with a parable comparing the country to a giant: “Stupidity stole over the giant until it could no longer tell science from faith, or conventional wisdom from actual wisdom and in any event, valued ideological purity above them all.” Looking at responses about childhood gender and sexuality — not only from McGraw but from other supposed experts such as Leonard Sax — one sees this confusion. A convoluted mix of research-based scientific fact, conventional wisdom, and cultural ideology flow over each other so messily that advice may directly contradict itself in the same page, paragraph, or sentence. And these incongruities seem to escape the notice of the writers themselves completely.
Here’s one example, from McGraw’s response to the worried mother: “And if your son is gay,” Dr. Phil continues, “he’ll learn that when he passes puberty and gets into a lifestyle and determines what his orientation is, and his lifestyle will flow from that. It won’t be a choice; it will be something that he’s pre-wired to do, and he’ll know that in plenty of time if he’s an adult. But you shouldn’t take this as an indication of that at this
McGraw states correctly, as far as science knows, that if Robby’s 5 year-old son is gay, he’s gay. Nothing she does (or doesn’t do) is likely to change that fact. But in the same paragraph he uses the term “lifestyle” twice; “gay lifestyle” is a synonym for “choice” and is SO inflammatory that it makes me wonder, is this an attempt at undermining the very thing he’s saying or is Dr. Phil’s actual knowledge blending into what he was brought up believing without him even noticing?
Also mixed into this paragraph is the belief that sexuality is something that begins to be felt and expressed in puberty. Most folks, gay or straight, would tell you that’s not true (as would scientists). We are born sexual beings, in ways completely independent from having sex. But I see this unexamined belief all the time in sincerely well-meaning churches and schools, who welcome openly gay couples and parents but don’t consider how their policies and attitudes toward children affect GLBT kids. I joke that the message is, “after you’ve spent your decade in therapy recovering from your painful, unaffirming childhood, we’ll welcome you with open arms.”
It’s easy to blame people who publicly dish out an obviously wrong answer. More challenging, but more helpful in the long run, is to consider how deeply and subtly enforced beliefs and stereotypes may undermine our own desires to be effective allies and generally all-around good people.