Celine Dion Was Doing Gender-Neutral Parenting Before it Was Cool
Long before the royals took heat for a rumored gender-neutral nursery, Celine Dion was there, putting her sons in high heels.
Growing up in Montreal, only 50 kilometers away (get in the car, loser, we’re using the metric system) from where Celine Dion was born and raised meant that I’ve never shied away from wearing my Celine fandom on my sleeve. Or, my collar and pretty much any other part of my shirts, many of which have her face on them. The moment I get to any karaoke bar, I still scan the pages for her OG French hits, the ones I've loved (like fanny packs) since before they were cool. Whether it’s the soothing synthesizer beats of "Incognito" or the blissful ballad of "Pour Que tu M’aimes Encore," these songs have meant everything to me because they’ve been the soundtrack of my entire life.
Because of my intimate (and entirely one-way) relationship with Celine, I wasn’t as surprised as everyone else seemed to be when she announced her gender-neutral children’s clothing line, CELINUNUNU (with a very on brand launch video in which she played some sort of very extra secret agent). It’s exactly what I had come to expect from her. Throughout my life, I saw her face on the cover of every single magazine, with every single detail of her life scrutinized and documented by the regional press in Quebec. One of the recurring storylines that always made me cringe was the tabloids’ obsession with the length of her sons’ hair. Magazines would splash photos of her children — Rene Charles, who just turned 18; and 8-year-old twins Eddy and Nelson — who had long, luscious golden locks, with sensationalist headlines. “Celine Dion: Why does her son have long hair?” or “Celine Dion’s twins forced to cut their hair by their school” and “Rene Charles cuts his hair!”
Reporters would press Dion and try to investigate the deal with her sons’ hair as if it were the cure to cancer. When she shared a photo of her family on Instagram recently and the twins sported shorter haircuts, one French magazine headline read “Celine Dion’s twins (finally) have short hair” as if the media’s incessant and cruel obsession with them had “finally” worked. The problematic subtext of this media frenzy is that there is something inherently wrong with boys having long hair, and the parents who choose not to craft their children's image so they reflect the "proper" gender presentation.
People really got riled up when Celine went on the Today show in 2013 and revealed to Katie Couric that one of her boys enjoyed wearing heels around the house. “One of my sons, Nelson, who is two-and-a-half, he looks better in heels than me,” she joked. “I don’t know how he does it, but I’m not the only one in this family who loves shoes, believe me.” The reaction was mixed; while many laughed, as many in the audience awkwardly did, some online commenters were not as kind, and reporters weren’t sure how to frame the story. “Is it kind of weird that her son loves her high heels so much, or do you think it's fine?” an article in Glamour at the time asked.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, six years later, CELINUNUNU has been met with a similar reaction. The brand, launched in partnership with Israeli kids' label Nununu features a rather monochrome and urban style of clothing for children that’s completely gender-neutral. You won’t find any pink ribbons or sports balls on any of the clothes. While this may seem innocuous, it made a lot of people uncomfortable. Nicole Russell at the Washington Examiner was just one of the reporters who mocked it and argued that “pushing” the idea of gender neutrality onto children is “cruel” and “irresponsible.” A Roman Catholic preacher and mom of 10 wrote in a blog post that the line was “satanic” and has "the marks of the devil."
But Celine’s decision to launch a gender neutral line isn’t out of carelessness toward her children, it’s out of love for them. In an interview about her line, she told CNN in November that she adhered to societal norms around gender when her kids were young, but realized it was harming them. "I thought they were going to go for the big superheroes,” she said about her sons. “They were looking at princesses. And they all wanted to be Minnie Mouse. And then I said, 'But what about Mickey?' ... I end up saying to myself, 'You know what, it's OK.' You know why it's OK? Because they're talking, they're finding themselves.”
Removing toxic masculinity from her household was one small way she could begin chipping away at gender inequality, which she recently told InStyle is "not pretty." Even though she says her career as a woman in music wasn't harmed by double-standards, she's resolute in calling those out, and it started with encouraging her boys to be the Minnie Mouse they wanted to see in the world. “Women were not treated appropriately for so long and that's why I say, you know what, a change is gonna come,” she told InStyle at an event in February. “We cannot remain silent because we cannot be prisoners of ourselves, and if we count on society to help us to get us out of there it won't happen. I'm sorry, but if you look at the society do you think we're sailing well? I don't think so. I'm saying it. It's not pretty.”
While Celine has long been a pioneer in conversation about relaxing gender expectations, she is being joined by a growing number of celebrities like Gabrielle Union and Angelina Jolie who have been open about letting their children determine their own personalities and proclivities, free of predetermined roles. Olivia Wilde recently revealed she’s raising her children to be free of gendered expectations. In a piece for MSNBC’s Think she says she encourages her daughter to embrace things that boys traditionally like and vice-versa. “As a parent, I’m trying very hard to reject traditional messaging of gender roles. If my son equates his dad’s strength with Wonder Woman, I am given hope,” she said.
But despite the efforts from Celine Dion and many other celebrity (interestingly mostly) moms, choosing not to impose gendered roles on children is still viewed as a contentious choice and it invites a healthy amount of concern-trolling. Both Sarah Michelle Gellar and Amber Rose have received disparaging comments from their fans for posting photos of their sons getting treated to something as frivolous as a manicure. And when rumors were swirling that Meghan Markle and Prince Harry were intending on raising their royal baby in a gender fluid way, by for instance trying to stay away from blue or pink colors in the nursery, the literal Kensington Palace issued a rare statement to refute it. God forbid they would let their son (gasp!) choose (gasp!) what color toys he likes (gasp!).
While all forms of gender neutral parenting are hotly debated, what often gets lost in this conversation is the special kind of vitriol reserved for parents who engage in it with their sons. If Celine had daughters instead, and had chosen to let them sport short hair and wear boyish shoes, it’s hard to imagine that the same kind of extreme response would have ensued. While girls are increasingly encouraged to take on attitudes and behaviors that we mostly associate with masculinity — like being independent and assertive, not unlike unstoppable powerhouse Celine Dion herself — then why is the opposite viewed as reckless parenting? While we tell girls that they can do anything that a boy can do, why are we reluctant to tell boys they can do anything that a girl can? Wouldn’t that be what true equality looks like?
Celine Dion has become an unlikely hero in the gender-neutral parenting game, without ever saying the words "toxic masculinity," "gender" or "feminism," and it’s probably why she’s been so effective. She’s not trying to impose any ideology on anyone, she’s simply modeling what it’s like to let your children fully express their humanity and be arbiters of their own destinies. While Celine has used the first 50 years of her life making an impact on millions of people around the world through her music, encouraging those fans to let go of preconceived gender roles might just the next chapter of a legacy that’s only just begun.
Liz Plank is a journalist in New York. Her book, For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity, comes out fall 2019.