Sunday, 13 September 2020

For A Dancer

Now that gender fluidity has been put firmly, if controversially, on the agenda by the young – in much the same seniors-unsettling way radical politics and recreational drugs were put on the agenda in my younger days – it's not surprising that one might end up wondering: what if I had been born the opposite sex? What differences would that have made?

In fact, it's a thought experiment that was carried out as long ago as 1928, by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own, in which she traces the life story of an imaginary sister to William Shakespeare: "She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school". Spoiler: it doesn't end well. Indeed, Woolf is quite a pioneer with respect to gender fluidity: in her novel Orlando the protagonist lives several lives over several centuries, and changes sex along the way. So these ideas have been around for a while, if not forever – see, for example, the Greek myth of Tiresias – but have only achieved their moment in the popular imagination in recent times. Well, as the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
Or, in the strangely eloquent LOLcat Bible version:
Has happen? Gunna be agin. Nuthing new undur teh sunz. Kitteh can not sez "OMFGZ sumthing new!" is jus REPOST!
Now, any single life is made up of an impossibly complex series of circumstances and choices, that only look inevitable and linear in retrospect. In the statistician's view we all get levelled out into typical examples of this or that category but, regarded as individuals, we're pretty much all crazy outliers in one respect or another. Certainly, to be born a boy in England in 1954 is to have certain broad characteristics in common with a cohort of hundreds of thousands of others, including, of course, all those born as girls in England in 1954. For a start, as I like to say in my autobiographical profile, none of us could ever have known the Land Before Rock'n'Roll, which distinguishes us from premier cru boomers, those born during or immediately after WW2.

But the standard differentiating factors start to pile in immediately after birth, of which sex is just one: these are obvious things like geographical location, social class, race, family stability, siblings, health, psychology, intelligence, schooling, height, appearance, and so on. There are, I am certain, many other men alive today who were born as white males in 1954 in English New Towns to aspirational working class families with one elder sibling, of robust health and high intelligence, with the good fortune to attend excellent state schools, and some of them will even have been short in stature, left-handed, and so on. But not one of them, as far as I am aware, has ended up as a clone of me. A thousand other circumstances and choices, less obvious ones and some quite possibly unique, have made us into entirely different people.

So, to imagine the consequences of changing just one of those factors is as absurd a proposition as it is fun to think about. I mean, what if I had grown as tall as my policeman uncle? It could have happened, but didn't. What if I had shown considerably less interest in homework, and left school at 15? Not impossible. What if I had had a bullying brother, eight years older, rather than a loving sister, one who persecuted our family's annoying little show-off? A deforming experience, I'm sure. Or what if my innate contrarian tendencies had developed into criminality? Or what about any or all of the above in combination? You can imagine any number of outcomes, none of which need necessarily have come to fruition in real life, due to some other balancing or distorting factor. Rather than Big Mick, the gangland mastermind, at one extreme, I might just as easily have become Old Wotsisname, the forgettable and dim delivery driver, at the other. Life is not so much a lottery, as a particularly complicated three-dimensional board-game, played with two chiliagonal dice and a set of truly life-changing chance cards.

But I suppose sex'n'gender is the fashionable and fun variable to play around with, so why not? One of these days, I might even write an alternative-reality, "Shakespeare's Sister"-style autobiographical account of my life as a woman. Damn, but I was a heartbreaker when I was young... For now, though, I'm just going to consider a few factors that I think would have been in play in the early years.

I think my parents' "policing" of gender would have been conventional, but not oppressive. In the 1950s, ideas of what was appropriate for girls and women were changing, but not yet radically. My parents were liberal in their views but relatively uneducated: both had left school at 14 and spent their formative years either at work or under military discipline. My mother had, in fact, been a sergeant in the ATS during the war in charge of an anti-aircraft battery, and was out at work from the time I started at school, so was clearly uncomfortable in the role of "housewife", which was never a problem for my easy-going father. From memory and from the photographic evidence, my sister was allowed to be "tomboyish", often wore trousers, and had her hair cut quite short. Indeed, I can remember my parents scoffing at the doll-like get-ups forced on a cousin, and her parents' fussing about dirt on clothes. So, there would have been no major complaints about gender stereotyping, although my toys and games would surely have been different: no guns, no "army games" in the woods. Instead, I expect skipping ropes, chalking on pavements, giggling in corner confabs, and ceremonially burying dead birds [1] would have figured large.

Actually, I think my main recreation would have been reading. Whatever gene it was that made me into a "reading boy" would surely have been amplified up to eleven as a girl. Those were the golden years of the public library service, and I would have been a familiar face at the issue desk, clutching this week's fresh batch of loans, quickly working my way up from Enid Blyton to Jane Austen. "She's always got her head in a book!" Nobody would have had to worry about what to get me for birthdays or Christmas: no dolls or dresses, just book tokens, please! And what do you want to be when you grow up, Michele? A writer, Miss!

After the co-educational, comprehensive days of primary school, the transition to secondary school marked a first, definitive fork in the road. Recently, I was surprised to be contacted by someone who had been in my primary school class, and whom I literally haven't seen or heard from since 1965. Jean, it transpired, is now an academic, fully equipped with a PhD and publications, and works at a "Russell Group" university. I wondered which secondary school she had been to, and what mutual friends we might have had: I was amazed to discover that she had in fact gone to a secondary modern, not grammar school, as I had presumed. In our county of Hertfordshire in 1965 state secondary schools were still divided into grammars for the "academic" minority, and sec mods for the rest. However, your destination was no longer determined by the notorious Eleven Plus exam, but by headteacher's recommendation alone. You have to suspect some gender bias was at work here, and it would go some way towards explaining why I never again met any of the brighter girls from my primary class [2]. However, let's assume a girl of my high-swottage readiness for three hours of homework a night would have been a grammar-school no-brainer, so to speak, and therefore there was a further choice to be made: the all-girls grammar school, or the mixed-sex grammar school? A tough one, but – on the grounds that at age ten I probably despised boys and that my older sister had already been to the girls' grammar – I think I would have chosen to go to the girls-only school and regretted it for the next seven years.

Doubtless, the long leash I was allowed in my teenage years as a boy would have been shortened considerably. There would have been bitter quarrels over clothes – "You're not leaving this house looking like that!" – what time to be home, unsuitable boyfriends, makeup, and so on. Although how far a lively social life would have been a priority for an academically-able "nice girl" in the late 1960s / early 1970s is an interesting question. Those long hours of homework aside, fear of pregnancy would have been a real party pooper. The routine prescription of contraceptives to teenage girls was still some years off, and an unplanned pregnancy was an emphatic full-stop to any girl's freedom and ambitions; as it happened, I had some very close-to-home precedents to learn from. It had never occurred to me until speaking to my old classmate Jean that another reason we boys met so few of the very brightest girls socially may have been that we represented the single most serious threat to their future plans. Certainly, many of those girls seem to have decided to postpone the distraction of romantic involvements until university. So, in those crucial mid-teen years, I think I would have given the actual, male me a very wide berth indeed, and cultivated a small, all-female coterie of BFFs, mocking the other girls for their pathetic obsessions with boys and clothes. [3]

I would have hated my hair. This seems to be standard: I have yet to meet the teenage girl who did not hate her own hair. But mine... Reddish-mousy, thick, dry, with an unruly wave, like a hatful of straw. Argh. I imagine when I was a kid my mother would have tugged it into a thick plait every morning that resembled something left over at a harvest festival. It will have driven her mad when I let it hang loose, long, tangled and knotted, as a teen. Probably even more so than the regular rows over the growing length of my actual scruffy male hair: she was a firm believer in the moral virtue of a proper "do" for a decent woman. I can remember hurtful words like "rat's tails" and "bird's nest" getting thrown about in heated arguments with my older sister. As for the rest of my body, we'll just pass over that dangerous and volatile territory in silence, except to remark that, hey, my face is up here, matey. 

Music is an interesting one. Things may be different now, in these culturally homogenised, pick'n'mix days, but boys and girls used to live their young lives to different soundtracks in the 1960s and 70s, or at least enjoyed the same sounds in different ways. You only have to watch footage of the audience at a Beatles concert to realise how "gendered" music can be. Crikey! So which one would have been my Beatle at age ten? Paul? That bimbo? John? He looks mean to me. Ringo? You must be joking... Quiet, intense, skilful George, though: I choose you to haunt my tweenie dreams. Later – going on the evidence of the record boxes of the young women I knew then – I'd be listening to Joni Mitchell and Carole King, of course (Tapestry was clearly handed out in class at girls' schools), but probably also other soulful singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen or James Taylor, glam-era David Bowie and Roxy Music (Bryan Ferry seems to have had a powerful effect on girls you would have expected to have known better), although very little "rock" as such, and no "prog" at all, unless it was the ubiquitous Pink Floyd. I would have loved folk, and become a Liege & Lief evangelist: I probably fancied myself as a Sandy Denny lookalike, taught myself to play guitar, and wrote some embarrassingly earnest songs about doomed love and handsome rogues, which would never be heard outside of my intensely private bedroom. But mostly there would have been 45rpm singles: a good solid helping of soul and Motown and even disco and the sort of one-hit wonders that brighten and define a summer: girls are far less nerdish about music than boys – unafraid to like what they like just because it's "uncool" – and above all love to dance. Which is what pop is for, isn't it? Not analysing and taxonomising as if it were Holy Writ. I would have loved to dance for sure, in the improvised, solo styles of the time. Yes, you've seen me, swirling like a dervish in a strobe-light in a darkened hall, tranced-out and untouchable, and thought: is she just stoned, or completely nuts?

Then there is the small question of actually getting to university. Men are often dismissive of the eager-to-please "swottiness" of clever women, always turning in 10,000 word essays when one side of A4 would have done the job and, incredibly, actually having followed the advice to "read around" a subject. But the British attitude that to try too hard to win is somehow cheating is essentially an aristocratic ploy to ensure the entitled stay entitled: gentlemen versus "players". Or, in this case, gentlemen versus "bluestockings". But in 1970 there were, for example, only five women's colleges at Oxford, versus over 30 for men: only 16% of Oxford undergraduates were female. The picture was even worse at Cambridge. So, to gain admission to Oxbridge at the time I sat my A-levels and subsequent entrance exam, a girl had to compete not against a large field of lazy men, but a small subsection of her own most brilliant peers. Set this alongside the fact that in 1970 only 33% of 621,000 students in higher education overall were women [4], and the chances of success were comparatively slim. No wonder the brightest girls had to try so hard; no wonder so many were discouraged from even bothering, especially those from families like mine with no history of higher education. At this crucial point, my life could have taken various, very different directions. A lot would have depended on the support and encouragement at school and at home, and on the value set in both on women's higher education. [5]

But, let's assume that, against the odds, I made it to university. It would be too big an assumption, I think, to imagine that I would have made it to Oxford with any ease. The most likely outcome, in reality – assuming I had not been firmly discouraged by my teachers from applying in the first place – would have been disappointment, a held-over place at some respectable alternative venue for literary studies like Nottingham or York, and a lifelong suspicion of "Oxbridge types" [6]. But a girl can dream, can't she? Whatever the outcome, and as was certainly the case with my male incarnation, I'm sure I would have undergone some major changes when I arrived at university, but for very different reasons.

I would have left my home-town as a conflicted young woman – a hippyish earth-mother-in-training draped around a serious scholar like an unflattering Laura Ashley dress, and trailing a misty back-story of half-understood encounters and epiphanies – one who quickly discovered radical politics and then feminism, jettisoned the flowing fabrics and joss sticks, and realised with Damascene force that the problem was not me, or my hair, or even my sharp tongue, but men. Men! Obviously the oafish ones who tear your favourite blouse, or bruise your body in terrifying displays of sexual urgency. And obviously the arrogant ones who belittle, ignore, or talk over you in seminars and meetings. And also the tongue-tied and awkward ones who stare at you with a unsettling mix of desire and contempt. But especially the ones who put themselves forward as leading lights of left-radical factions, but expect "the chicks" to do the shopping, the cooking, the housework, the leaflet-distribution, the tedious administrative tasks, and yet still to be there for them when they have their regular dark nights of the soul. Oh, and for clumsy, unsatisfying sex. Prescription contraception having turned up just in time to make "no" a really petty-bourgeois downer, Mish, yeah?

So the auspicious night when copies of the SCUM Manifesto and The Dialectic of Sex were pressed into my hands by a new, better-informed friend was the point at which another crucial divergence in this alternative life as a woman began. But that is another story, and one for which the world is not yet ready. And I fear that, as with the tale of Shakespeare's sister, it may not end well.

1. Why did girls do that? Do they still? I doubt it.
2. Unusually, my primary school was streamed by ability, so you would have expected a fair few of those "A" stream girls to have gone on to grammar school. I have no idea how many, if any, did.
3. These things are relative, of course, and not always as "gendered" as we might think. The famous Isle of Wight Festival took place in August 1970, when I was 16, but there was no question of me being allowed to attend by my parents. However, I was astounded (and not a little jealous) to discover recently that a good female friend from those days had gone – with a boyfriend! – with the full blessing of her parents. However, they were out-of-town middle-class academic liberals, and an entirely different species to most New Town parents.
4. Figures from Social Trends No. 40. This includes full-time, part-time, under- and postgraduates. Compare with 2,383,970 overall in 2018/19  of which 1,025,107 were male and 1,358,860 female (57%)! Things have changed in the last 50 years...
5. My partner tells me that at her London girls' grammar, there was a typing pool in the sixth form, to prepare girls for secretarial careers... I'm not sure what the male equivalent would have been, but whatever it was it didn't exist at my all-boys grammar.
6. As it happens, the same remarkable young woman as in note (3) did go up to Oxford at the same time as me. In fact, her father drove us there in his van.


old_bloke said...

Given that most of your blog posts are concerned with photography and image-making, I'm surprised that you didn't mention these when talking about the consequences of historical gender bias. Of course there have been (and continue to be) women doing interesting, creative work in photography, but I think that overall the subject has been dominated by men. Certainly, as a teenager in the sixties, I didn't think that the local camera club was the place to go to meet young women, and most holiday snaps seemed to be taken by fathers rather than mothers. So I guess that in the parallel universe where you're a woman, your blog would be about something quite different . . .

Mike C. said...


Yes, it gets a bit like the sci-fi "grandfather paradox", where someone travels back in time to kill their own grandfather, and thus does not exist... As I say, changing just one variable is pretty silly, really.


amolitor said...

I am very much enjoying your ruminations and speculations on the past.

You haven't been diagnosed with some fatal disease or anything, have you?

Mike C. said...

Thanks! There are more on the way...

Nothing fatal as such (though various contemporaries have been having a tough time lately, one way or another), but advancing age, an "empty nest", retirement, and a growing awareness of time passing seem to add up to a taste for retrospection... I'm acutely aware, for example, that one of my Great Years, 1970, was HALF A CENTURY AGO! I'd better get writing...