Eight-year-old Ethan Wilwert wanted one special thing for Christmas—not a puppy, nor, thankfully, a hoverboard. Ethan wanted an in-person makeup tutorial at the MAC Cosmetics store in his family’s local Florida mall.
“A couple of months before Christmas, he and I were at the mall, and we went into the MAC store,” Ethan’s mom, Season Wilwert, told The Daily Beast. “He’s always been interested in makeup. It’s something he likes to do creative-wise. It’s something he gets excited about. He watches a lot of online tutorials.”
In fact, Wilwert laughed that Ethan is already helping her do her own. “He does a much better job than I do on myself. Many times I have to borrow his stash of makeup. He helps me out.”
One of Ethan’s favorite makeup tutorials is taught by Jeffree Star, a designer/model/singer/makeup artist who has a theatrical, drag queen style—and that’s what Ethan wanted to explore when he met with Joey Killmeyer at MAC for his one-on-one tutorial.
Wilwert described an “immediate connection” between Ethan and Killmeyer, who was completely enamored of Ethan’s skills.
“It was such an awesome experience,” Killmeyer told The Daily Beast. “He was so amazing and talented that he was able to do half of his face on his own. Granted, I did his eyebrows and his eyelashes, but he did everything else.”
Killmeyer, who has been a makeup artist for 15 years, was so impressed by Ethan and so touched by Wilwert’s support for her son’s interest in makeup art that, with her permission, he posted a picture of him and Ethan in drag makeup on Facebook.
It’s clear from the photo how talented and happy Ethan is: Dramatic eyebrows, smoky shades of blue around his eyes, and richly plum lips in a pout that reveals just a hint of smile. There is joy in his fabulous, fierce expression.
Admittedly, this photo is not the “typical” image of a young, happy boy—and it fast gained attention, being shared by thousands and earning more than 140,000 likes as of Jan. 3 (the original post is no longer accessible).
“8-Year-Old Fulfills Dream of Becoming a Drag Queen” heralded Towleroad in support.
“This kid will grow up to be well-adjusted, self-actualized, and will literally give not one f**k to the remaining insecure misogynists in our culture who will likely toss out insults at this kid from a place of cowardly anonymity,” wrote one online commentator in response to the story.
“Obviously as you are such a trans-ally you have no problems with the sexualisation of children,” posted another.
“This kid is 8. Dressing a child up as a whore is sick. Child protection needs to investigate this make-up ‘artist.’”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the photo of Ethan in full drag would not pass through the Web without comment, but the extreme responses are jarring.
From praise for Ethan’s look to alarm bells that he was being sexualized, the viral Facebook photo shows how much progress we’ve made and how far we have yet to come in breaking down gender norms for children—and blocking our adult, knee-jerk reaction to project our own concerns onto them.
When speaking with Killmeyer, he emphasized that Ethan’s desire to learn how to do drag makeup did not make him a drag queen.
“It’s not like he’s running around like that. Just because he liked watching Jeffree Star doesn’t mean he’s a drag queen. That’s the problem. I don’t want him labeled. He’s young. I don’t want him known the rest of his life as the eight-year-old drag queen [because] he’s not.”
“He’s young. Who knows what he’s going to be? Right now, he’s just interested in makeup. There are girls interested in playing with trucks. I just don’t like that it’s being turned into something it’s not necessarily. Just because he likes makeup, doesn’t mean he’s gay or wants to be a drag queen.”
Wilwert said that while she has received mostly support and approval, there has been criticism around whether the makeup “sexualizes” a young child and, even in 2016, whether it’s wrong for a boy to play with makeup (where “wrong” is really a code for “unusual,” “cross-dressing,” “gay,” or “transgender”).
“Most of the backlash comes from people who think he’s too young to wear makeup,” Wilwert said. She understood the negative “beauty pageant connotation” and that regardless of a child’s gender, many people are uneasy with kids being dolled up.
However, Wilwert said, “I think people misunderstand it was a one-time fun deal. He doesn’t even wear makeup in daily life.”
For his parents, Ethan’s interest in makeup goes along with his passion for drawing and other forms of artistic expression.
Ethan’s father is a graphic designer, and while he and Wilwert are no longer together, she stressed they co-parent and that he and the “extended family have always been supportive of Ethan whatever he wants to do, whatever he wants to be passionate about.”
Wilwert said that “the other backlash is that it’s making him gay” was completely misguided.
“This is really not about gender identity or sexual preference. It’s about a young boy happening to have an interest in the arts. It would be no different than a girl liking sports or a truck. I think we’re too quick to judge.
“People think gender is black-and-white, that if you’re a boy and like makeup you’re gay. That’s not necessarily going to be the case. This is just a kid being a kid.”
She said that while this photo has not specifically inspired bullying toward Ethan, he has been the object of it in the past. “He’s been called ‘gay,’” she said. “I don’t see that as a bullying term, but it was used in a derogatory way.”
Wilwert proudly noted that Ethan is undeterred and will continue to pursue his passion for makeup and other areas.
“He’s so confident in who he is. When he had his makeup on, he owned it. I think because he’s so confident, it makes others secure.”
Some of the attacks have been directed against Wilwert as a mother, but she won’t let the haters change her and her family.
“I want to say I’m always going to support my son and what he wants to do. I know what I’m doing is right. We’re trying to spread a message of unconditional love of your children. Embrace differences and the unique qualities in your children, instead of pushing them into what we think or what society thinks they should be.”
Child psychology experts endorse Wilwert’s encouraging, open-minded parenting.
“This mom seems really awesome, and has allowed her son to try out different things,” Dr. Matthew Rouse, a clinical psychologist at New York’s Child Mind Institute, told The Daily Beast.
“That’s really important for kids as they grow up. It’s important they get to try on different ideas and ways of expressing themselves. It’s really normal for kids to experiment with how they express themselves.”
Nor did Dr. Rouse see anything overtly sexual or disconcerting in Ethan’s example of theatrical makeup.
“I don’t see this as a sexual expression. I see it as a fun, creative way of trying something new out,” he said.
Rather than worrying about whether wearing makeup was “sexualizing” a child or creating gender confusion, Rouse said the concern for parents should be that “as adults, we don’t over-interpret these forms of experimentation.”
“If you say to a child, ‘This isn’t an acceptable way of expressing yourself,’ it’s like saying, ‘This isn’t an acceptable version of you.’ You run the risk of putting down how they see themselves.
“It doesn’t mean he’s going to grow up to be gay or transgender. But if he is gay or transgender, as long as the parents say, ‘We love you and support you,’ those are all acceptable outcomes.”
Wilwert said she has received messages on Facebook from people she’s never even met, thanking her for encouraging Ethan’s creativity and refusing to force him into stereotypical roles.
“There are a lot of other parents who feel they didn’t have a voice until now,” she said. “We love and accept him. No matter what society believes is correct.”