In April 2021, Justice N Anand Venkatesh of the Madras High Court announced that he wanted to undergo an educational session with a psychologist so that he could “understand same-sex relationships better”. He had been hearing a case of a lesbian couple seeking protection and felt that he did not have sufficient knowledge to deliver an order. He felt this psycho-education session would help “pave way for his evolution” and wanted to give himself “some more time to churn”. In an earlier order passed on March 29, 2021, Justice Venkatesh said, “I am also trying to break my own preconceived notions about this issue and I am in the process of evolving.”
While reading this news, I was excited because education on sex, sexuality, gender, dignity and respect in all kinds of relationships is not mainstreamed, and instead, often considered taboo and mired in socio-cultural ignorance. A large part of our work at Red Dot Foundation is helping people understand these socio-cultural norms that promote violence and restrict people from fully expressing themselves and living meaningful lives. Even the most well-intentioned people are often compelled to force their loved ones to adhere to stereotypical norms, thus causing them harm.
In the movie, A Kid Like Jake, a four-year-old boy, Jake, loves to play with dolls, watch Disney princess movies, and wear frilly costumes. His parents are loving, and accommodating of his choices until they have to write essays for his school admission. The father, Greg Wheeler, is a licensed social worker and his mother, Alex, a lawyer, is now a stay-at-home mom.
They want the best school for Jake but the recent re-zoning of schools means that the public school, which is excellent, is now out of bounds for them. Judy, Jake’s preschool principal, suggests they apply for a scholarship to private schools which would allow him more suitable options for a safe and dignified learning environment. She thinks Jake is special and unique, always wanting to do things his own way. She encourages Alex to celebrate this uniqueness.
Parents and teachers are the first line of support for kids like Jake who are exploring their gender identity, as they spend the most time with the child and can observe their behaviour. Yet they may not be equipped to help the child or may face societal pushback. In Australia for example, teachers were being trained to spot potential transgender students. The Australian Premier Scott Morrison however tweeted that schools did not need “gender whisperers” and we should “let kids be kids”. He was subsequently called out for his hateful comments.
Judy explains to Alex that parents and teachers need to pay more attention to children at early ages, listen to them, and observe them. These help children be more engaged and confident, not just in school but for the rest of their lives. Judy wants to place Jake in a school where he will be safe and respected. At the preschool, she has observed Jake taking the lead with the girls in creating their own fairy tale in an enchanted forest, and making trees with chairs and pillows. Jake dresses up as a princess who, in the fairy tale, does not know she is a princess. He has no inhibition dressing up but often gets bullied by the other kids and stays silent (like Ariel from The Little Mermaid who loses her voice) because he does not know how to express his anger or distress.
As Alex writes the essays for school applications, she is asked to think of the uniqueness of her child and how he stands out among other children. She highlights his creativity and imagination but does not delve deeper into his personality. When Judy insists she should lead with his “gender expansive play” to highlight Jake’s uniqueness which would speak to the need for more diversity amongst students, Alex becomes defensive. She realises he has a tendency to prefer dolls and Disney princesses over traditionally ‘boyish’ playthings and games but she does not believe this has anything to do with Jake’s gender identity. Jake likes playing dress-up and she does not want to send him to kindergarten with “labels”. She believes that it is her job to protect her child and set some boundaries on dress code lest she push him into thinking he is someone that he is not.
As the race for admissions carries on, tensions within the home are amplified when Alex finds out that she is pregnant. She has morning sickness and finds it difficult to manage all her responsibilities. A part of her troubles is also the pressure she feels to be perfect and meet her own mother’s expectations. The idea that her child might be gender non-conforming is making her even more upset and she takes offence at the constant discussions by Judy and her friend, Amal, on the topic. Greg suggests that they take Jake to see a psychologist who can help him figure things out but Alex is reluctant.
Things come to a head during a conversation between Judy, Alex, and Greg where Judy advises them to make choices regarding Jake. The boundaries that have been set at home on not dressing in girls’ clothes are affecting him mentally and emotionally and he has been expressing this through the artwork he is making. He has also been at the receiving end of bullying at school. Alex is extremely upset and says some mean things to Judy, and they have an intense argument which results in Alex having a miscarriage. This puts a strain on the relationship between her and her husband, and she accuses him of not taking Jake to the park or playing ball with him. Greg retaliates by saying she believes he, Greg, is ‘effeminate’ and ‘not man enough’. However, they work through their issues, find Jake a psychologist, and learn to accept his gender expansiveness because that is what makes him happy and accepted. The movie ends with them walking down the street with Jake wearing a tutu.
My friend’s son, too, likes wearing tutus and frilly skirts. Every time they go shopping for clothes, he heads to the girl’s section and picks out the frilliest outfit. At check out, invariably the cashier asks if the pretty outfit is for his sister and he confidently says it is for him. Often he wears these outfits to school. His confidence comes from his mother’s acceptance of him and her understanding of his gender expansiveness. It helps that she is a sociologist, but there is a constant pushback from society including from his peers at school who bully the little boy. But it is the constant support from his mother and family that allows him to remain confident and thrive whilst being different.
A Kid Like Jake is a great movie for parents who are trying to understand and know their kids better. As Judy wisely says, “It is never going to be easy to really see people for who they are, especially the ones you love.” Like Justice Venkatesh, we can all make an effort to upskill ourselves so that we can confront our biases, improve our understanding of diversity, learn to accept people, and see them for who they are.