Last week, some observers noticed that one of the absurdly famous Jolie-Pitt children — biologically female — was dressed in a suit, with a short hair cut, at a movie premiere. Some people on the internet put this image together with the fact that four years ago, Brad Pitt mentioned in an interview that his daughter preferred to be called John. And then, predictably, the gossip went wild. Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, the headlines screamed, Identifies As a Boy. From out of the woodwork came self-proclaimed psychology experts to discuss, and the comments sections of public articles were best left unexplored (as they, sadly, so often are).
In short, there was confusion, and a bizarre kind of panic, considering the topic was the style preference of an eight-year-old. Because conversations about gender identity tend to do that: they question our organization of the world, the way we have, historically, made sense of people. But there’s a problem, in this case: this isn’t a conversation about gender identity at all. This is a child, dressing up, experimenting, trying on new versions of a self. John Jolie-Pitt has not assumed a gender identity. John Jolie-Pitt hasn’t assumed an identity at all, and doesn’t need to.
The media and the public were quick to look at this beautiful child and categorize, and that speaks volumes about where we are in regards to letting go of our perfectly formed, neat, defined ideas about people, sexuality, gender, and identity. And perhaps that is a problem with the nature of gossip media, because a headline that screams “Famous Daughter Dresses in Suit, Maybe It Means Something, Maybe It Doesn’t” isn’t much of a headline at all. But the fact of the matter is that our ideas about gender identity and gender roles are so pervasive, we are assigning deep, life-altering meaning to the actions of a child. A famous child, but a child nonetheless, a child who might want to be an astronaut today and tomorrow decide to be a tennis champion instead.
That isn’t to say there is nothing to be learned from this, however. Because, even though the moment was critically over-hyped, John Jolie-Pitt demonstrated something that we should be embracing: the beautiful, miraculous fluidity of personhood, and the wondrous possibility of growth and change that is a part of being human. Because no, John did not appear in public to identify as a boy. Because a suit does not make you a boy, any more than makeup makes you a girl. And maybe someday, this lovely child will choose to assign themselves a gender identity other than the one they were given at birth, and maybe they will feel the freedom to do so because they were allowed to experiment and grow and stretch the way children should be allowed. Or maybe John will choose to go by Shiloh again, or maybe neither, perhaps John will choose Cindy or Apple or Bonanza and frankly, who cares? I hope, by that point, we don’t. I can think of no better and healthier way for a society to react to the way someone dresses or identifies or loves than that: who cares?