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Why do we care whether 'John' Jolie-Pitt is a boy or a girl?

 

Editor’s Note: Out of respect to the Jolie-Pitts, we have referred to the eight-year-old using gender-neutral “they” pronouns, as have many other publications.

When I was four, I decided I didn’t want to be me any more. I wanted to be a dashing hero named Prince Max. Prince Max was handsome, and kind, and smart, and he stuck around for a good two years, much to the amusement of my sisters and the tired acceptance of my parents.

If they called me by my birth name — Lola — I would correct them, refasten my little blanket-cape around my neck, and storm off with my toy dog (also called Prince Max, because originality is hard when you’re 4) in tow.

Lola.

In 2008, actor Brad Pritt recounted having a similar experience with one of his children. His eight-year-old, Shiloh, prefers to be known as John. If Pitt called his child ‘Shi’, he would be corrected with an “I’m John!”.

Read more: Shiloh isn’t called Shiloh any more. And Brad and Ange are totally cool with it.

In a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair, John’s mother, actress Angelina Jolie, said, “She wants to be a boy. So we had to cut her hair. She likes to wear boys’ everything. She thinks she’s one of the brothers.”

John Jolie-Pitt

And, to the credit of the entire Jolie-Pitt clan, they’ve respected and accepted this. The whole family uses the name John, and for years, Brad and Ange’s oldest biological child has dressed and seemingly acted in traditionally masculine clothes and behaviours. The whole brood seems happy to accept John’s wish to be a boy.

Now, I remember my time as Prince Max very well. He was a huge, huge part of my identity– but he was just that: a part of it. I wanted to be like him, yes, but I knew he was a made-up character I used to have adventures. He was never me, and I never needed him to be. I was still a little girl, and happy to be so- I was just a little girl who loved being a prince and doing princely things.

Unpacking it now, as an adult, I can hazard a guess that it was something to do with the stuffy prince and princess gender roles that existed (and still do exist), that I wanted no part of- where Snow White cleaned and then passed out, her Prince rode a freakin’ cool horse and did what he wanted; while Ariel lost her voice, then her legs, and almost her life for a man, Eric, who got to play a piccolo and wander the beaches and sail the seven seas.

Lola when she was little.

Eventually, I got to primary school and realised that none of my friends cared when I – ‘I’ being Lola, not Prince Max- played a prince and saved a girl from whoever was being the monster that day, and that I could be a girl AND be a hero. So I quickly said goodbye to Prince Max and said hello to myself once more.

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John, however, either has not yet made that realisation- or it just doesn’t matter. Maybe John is, like some suggest, just having a few years of child precociousness and will eventually fall back into girlhood- she’s just in awe of her big brothers. Or maybe, as others are wondering, John actually is John- he really is a boy, stuck in the body of a girl.

The one thing we know for sure about the young Jolie-Pitt?

John is eight.

John is just a kid. A kid born from two of the most famous people in the world, which means that they’re a kid with literally millions of eyes watching them all the time.

And you know what those millions of eyes are doing the majority of the time? They’re wondering if little John Jolie-Pitt is a boy or a girl.

Now, I can understand the curiosity. Gender is a very important thing to a lot of us; and we want to know what to call the glorious little child in the suit that we all saw at the premier for Jolie’s newest film, Unbroken. Are they a he or a she?

The Jolie-Pitt’s at the Unbroken premiere.

Turning to John’s family is proving useless, too. In some interviews, John’s parents use ‘he’. In others, they use ‘she’. They’re being absolutely no help in solving this mystery. Either way, the world wants to know.

If we call John a he, assuming he’s transgender, and he’s not- are we causing undue confusion?

If we call John a she, assuming she’s just in a phase, and she is transgender- are we causing undue angst and pain?

If we continue to talk about how good John looked in a suit, without knowing what pronouns to use, will we ALL EXPLODE IN A BALL OF GENDERED CONFUSION?

The answer is no.

Because, at the end of the day, we actually already have pronouns to use.

Pronouns that won’t gender John- at least, not until John steps forward and tells us gender is preferred.

It’s quite possible not to cause John- or ourselves- undue strife by wondering about something that doesn’t matter; all we have to do is stop with the incessant gendering of a child, and use the pronouns that don’t gender them at all.

John doesn’t need to be a he or a she. John can, quite simply, be a ‘they’.

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And it’s not even a new thing, either. As far back as the 16th century, they/them/their has been used as a singular pronoun. It’s recognised as a singular pronoun, and it’s one that doesn’t assign gender.

This is awesome for people who don’t feel as though they fit into those traditional gendered pronouns; who reject the thought that they have to be one or the other, or even anything at all.

It’s also awesome for those of us who see someone and aren’t sure what pronouns they prefer. Instead of blindly guessing a gender; and risking offending others and embarrassing ourselves, using ‘they’ as a pronoun skips that whole gendered mess and allows people to just be themselves.

If you’re really, really, really curious- and concerned that you might physically explode into a ball of gendered confusion- then you can (politely) ask. The person might give you a gendered pronoun. They might use a preferred pronoun you’ve never even heard of- ‘shi/hir’, ‘ne’, ‘ze’, ‘hus/hum’ (to name a few). They might stick with ‘they’. They might request that you refer to them only as ‘Your Highness’, and nothing else. They might tell you that it’s none of your business.

Either way, start with ‘they’. (I’m proud of this rhyme I jus made up).

By not misgendering them, you’ve skipped what might be an assumption that severely hurts the person in question. You’ve skipped embarrassing yourself by seeming like a bigot.

And, in the case of John, you’ve skipped trying to gender a kid before they have a chance to step forward and gender themselves for you.

John’s parents – Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

It’s possible that John is transgender. It’s possible that John is just spending some time being John, as I once spent being Prince Max, and will eventually go back to their birth name and identity. It’s possible something else entirely will happen.

At the end of the day, as clinical psychologist Linda Blair pointed out in a recent interview with The Telegraph, “You can’t become what you are until you know what you’re not.”

John may know what they are. They may not yet know. Their self-identity may change over time. Either way, it’s not up to us to decide for them.

Let John be a them, a they, a their, a John, until we’re told otherwise.

And let us no longer worry about gendering a child… especially not one who looks that darn good in a suit.

Lola is an ardent cat lover and feminist in equal measures, who likes attempting to educate children almost as much as she enjoys pretending to be one. In future years she hopes to teach primary students and live in Northcote, Melbourne, with ten cats.

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