Posts Tagged ‘gender’

Napowrimo day 26

Guess where I had to go today?


Heels up and knees out
let those folks with microscopes
probe your sexual sins.


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A while ago in a Meeting for Worship I was thinking about old anger.

Someone particular came into Meeting, and suddenly I was feeling defensive. This person annoys me because they comment on how I (and others) are or are feeling, based purely on posture and appearance. As, when I am ill, it is usually an invisible illness (chronic fatigue syndrome can be an entirely invisible disability), I find this irritating and sometimes even distressing.

Generally, I am only aware of my posture in the vague way in which I check that I am comfortable, able to type, read, or whatever without hurting myself. In Meeting, though, I become keenly aware, especially of that fact that I adopt postures which are Not Approved by people with Opinions about how you Ought To Sit in Meeting. One Ought, I have been told, to sit with both feet flat on the ground and your palms open on your knees. It recommends this in various books, and people say it from time to time if you ask what helps them to centre in Meeting.

Now, if it’s comfortable for you and it helps you to centre and be calm, that’s fine by me. What upsets me is the policing of it. I cannot sit for long with my hands open in that way; I can sit with my fingers laced and my palms up for slightly longer, but in the end, in a cold meeting room, I am usually going to need to cross my arms and tuck my hands in near my body. Perhaps that makes me look defensive or angry, but I assure you that apperances can be decieving. (Also, if I am defensive or angry or whatever, what does that matter? Are those emotions to be policed out of our Meetings?) Similarly, I often can’t sit with both feet flat on the floor. If the chair is even slightly the wrong height, it can be more comfortable to cross them at the knee; if I am wearing a skirt (as I always am), I often can’t sit with my knees apart without been taken back to school teachers who told me to ‘be more ladylike’ and keep my knees together.

I’m never quite sure what to do with this kind of old and residual anger or distress. There seems to be little point expressing it to the person who triggers it, because it is mostly not actually about them nor something they can do anything about. On the other hand, I feel that I want to express it somewhere.

I guess that’s one of the things blogs can do.

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I’ve seen a number of people do this as a meme on livejournal, but it seemed to me to be more about real life than my fannish life, so I’m putting it here instead.

2000: I took two out of three of my Year 9 SATS (the third one was the day of my grandfather’s funeral), and began 10 GCSEs. At October half term, my brother and I both had flu; he recovered fully, and I did not. After a raft of tests, I was diagnosed – quite speedily, as it goes for the condition – with Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and M.E.. I remember very little of the remainder of 2000.

2001: For most of the year, I was ill. I was never bed-bound – my parents were determined not to let me be – but at times I was house-bound to all intents and purposes. I had home tuition, with varying degrees of success, in some of the things I was meant to be studying for GCSE. We managed to carry on with English and Maths, but dropped German after a brief attempt, and delayed science. It must have been about this time that I first went to Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre.

2002: I took three GCSEs that summer – double English (A*A*) and Maths (A). We bought a desktop computer with an internet connection so that I could study with an online tutoring system from another two GCSEs. Essentially unlimited internet access also gave me a chance to enter community and what I later learnt to call fandom. I also tried to begin an A-level in English Literature. I was ill again that winter and didn’t complete it, but the seed was sown that I could attend school for just a few classes, supported by kind members of the local Quaker Meeting who were able to save me bus trips or taxi rides by offering lifts to and fro.

2003: I took two more GCSEs – double Science (AA). In the autumn (I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t have arranged this by academic years, since they give my life shape), I began two A-levels, English Language and Literature, and Religious Studies. I literally chose the latter because it was downstairs; I think I would have preferred history, since I still harboured an ambition to be an archaeologist, but they taught it in upstairs classrooms. Science and maths were right out because they were on the other side of the school site. I studied hard at school, made a very few friends in my new year (having effectively dropped back), and began a distance learning A-level in Classical Civilisations. Around this time, my local Meeting privately published a volume of poetry, in which they included some of my work.

2004: I took two AS levels, beginning to settle into the January and June assessment which rules student life these days. My results were acceptable but not what I had hoped – an A and a B. I resolved to work harder. I was told that I needed three A-levels to go to Oxford. I resolved to finish the full A-level in Classical Civilisations rather than taking it as an AS as originally planned. I investigated the financial effects of going to university, realising for example that I could take a gap year and still be under the old rules (i.e. cheaper) if I applied quickly. I missed the Oxbridge entry deadline due to a PVFS relapse, but applied to Durham, Bristol, Nottingham, Cardiff, Bangor, and Lampeter. Only Durham rejected me.

2005: I took three A-levels, only a year behind. The scores were good (AAB; the B is the distance learning one) and accepted Nottingham’s offer. (I’d have loved to go to Lampeter, but without a car, the place in a trifle inaccessible, and everyone was still concerned that I might not be strong enough to study full-time.) I tried to decide what to do with my gap year. In the first instance, I spent several months on JobSeeker’s Allowance, and then a month in the run-up to Christmas working on the tills in an M&S food store. I decided to live on my savings for a while. Oh, and I changed my name – by use rather than deed poll at this stage. Confusion abounded!

2006: I spent the first part of the year doing voluntary work – I spent a week at a Buddhist monastery near York, and seven weeks with an ecumenical Christian community in Scotland, for example. I visited all of England’s 42 Anglican cathedrals. (The Church of England technically has 43 – the extra one is Peel.) I attended a course on Quakerism and Buddhism with Jim Pym and Andrew Burns which has lent both vocabulary and form to my spiritual life ever since (for example: stilling frog, metta meditation). I gained a lot of independence and a lot of experience with public transport. I also got a warrant to work with Brownie Guides and a Senior Section Camp Permit. In the autumn (that’s when everything starts!), I began a degree in Philosophy and Theology at the University of Nottingham. I enjoyed studying; I wrote ecstatic poetry about being on campus and in the library; I hated almost everyone else in my hall with a passion. (Drunken 18-year-olds do not mix well with people who need 8 hours’ sleep a night.) I went to sci-fi soc and made all the friends I needed: short-lived crush, long-term hug-buddy, and three future house-mates. My first week, I decided to continue my gap year spirit of exploration, and went with the Christian Union to an evangelical church. I spent the sermon wondering whether they could be any more wrong, and the lunch trying to work out how to come out as a non-believer. The next week, I went to the local, tiny, Quaker Meeting. “Have fun!” said the CU leader when he heard I was trying a different church; against my expectations, I did.

(I gave ministry, and was gently rebuking afterwards for not adding a footnote about the various possible interpretations of the word ‘God’. My kind of people.)

2007: At the end of my first year, a senior member of the Theology and Religious Studies department asked me where I thought I’d do my postgraduate work. He is to be commended on his foresight, although I think my marks were a clue. In the summer, I spent two weeks volunteering for a Quaker cafe during the Festivals – I did serious plays and religious talks the first week, heard Rabbi Lionel Blue as a turning point, and the second week went to stand-up and other comedy shows with a couple of friends from Nottingham. Back at university, I studied hard, coped with long-term hug-buddy moving to Leeds, joined the Nottingham Quaker Quest organisation team, had a brief fling with someone I met on a dating website, and got tendonitis in my right arm from typing too much. Oh, and they made me Chair of the TRS Staff-Student Feedback Committee.

2008: I went to the physiotherapist and went on the Pill; much complex medical nonsense resulted. I still managed to do pretty well in my exams, though. I’m sure I did something this summer, but other than getting involved with City of Sanctuary, I can’t remember what. By the time term started again, I was beginning to be frustrated with the lack of attention paid to a theme which was becoming more and more important to me: gender. I went to a Women’s Network meeting and managed to made contact with a PhD student. We founded a Feminist Reading Group which ran for the rest of the year and nurtured me a lot. Nottinghamshire and Derby Area Meeting welcomed me into membership.

2009: I finished my first degree – two dissertations, 100% attendance at seminars and lectures, three years of service to the Staff-Student Committee, and a First. I was quite pleased, though not so happy when they made me take my hat off to actually walk across the stage and graduate. I paid for a silly hat! I wear a hat all the time! Why do I have to have a ‘religious reason’ to wear it? What counts as a religious reason anyway? Answers to these questions were not forthcoming. They did at least get my name right. I spent a week volunteering with Oxford MENCAP, and as usual quite a lot of time at Brownie Pack Holiday and Guide Camp. I also attended Yearly Meeting Gathering at York, quite an amazing experience in many ways. Once again, the new has begun in the autumn: I started an MA in Gender, Sexuality, and Queer Theory with the University of Leeds; I changed my name by deed poll; I got a provisional driving license and starting learning to drive; I began to try and decide in earnest what my PhD should be about. (Suggestions which involve Wilde as well as feminism and Quakerism and theology welcomed!)

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When I was, I suppose, about eight, I very briefly had a bike. It was kept in my grandparent’s garage (there was no room for it at home, and not really anywhere to ride it), and I tried to ride it a maximum of twice, always with my grandparents hovering nearby. I never spent very long trying, because when a small girl falls off and cries her grandmother is wont to take her back indoors to play with craft materials.

To this day, I cannot ride a bicycle (I haven’t found a way to try again since I was eight). This fact is used to support other claims about me: my balance is not very good, my coordination is poor, and so forth.

In the last week, I have made two, very brief, attempts at joining in when other people are playing Rock Band. Rock Band does not belong to me, and I am unfamiliar with most of the mechanisms involved in making the game work (for example, I cannot off hand name the console on which it is played, though I am aware that there are two and Guitar Hero is for The Other One). In the course of those attempts, I have tried singing four songs (very variable; it depends a lot on how well I know the song, in turn affected by the failure of Rock Band Marketplace to reflect my actual musical tastes), and playing guitar on one. My fingers seemed like jelly; I could not hit the notes at the right time; obviously, I failed, and failed hard.

Something similar happens when I try and play most other video games. I usually abandon all attempts quickly, as looking stupid in front of people isn’t my favourite activity. (The occasional stand-up comic aside, does anyone enjoy it?)

My failures in this area are frequently taken to be evidence that I have a poor coordination, that my spacial awareness is bad, that my reactions are slow, etc.

Added to my history of failure on the bicycle, this is usually taken to conclude that I will find it difficult, or impossible, to learn to drive, something I have recently decided to attempt. (Any Green readers who are crying because this will prevent me from reducing my carbon emissions 10% in 2010, you are quite right, but consider these points: a) experience of previous attempts to get a job and consideration of the kinds of jobs I might want, and might get, have lead me to conclude that a driving license is a worthwhile investment; and b) that I live in Leeds and am repeatedly invited to visit Cornwall. By refusing to go, thereby avoiding the flights from Leeds/Bradford to Newquay and back, I have probably cut my potential carbon emissions by at least 10% – it all depends how you calculate it. Back to my main point.)

However, I suspect some selection bias in the evidence presented here. OK, so I can’t ride a bike. I can walk and swim perfectly well, though, and when I had the chance, I could ride a horse without physical difficulty (the problems came when teachers pushed me too far, too fast, with anger but without rewards). Similarly, I can’t pick up a computer game and play well at first attempt; on the other hand, I can sew, plait, make lace, and have in the last year learnt to knit. (If you’re sensing a gendering of activities, in the latter list in particular, I do not think you are wrong.) These things demand a high level of coordination and muscle-memory, and don’t present me any problems.

Therefore, I’m turning my attention to my learning style and the situations of my learning, and trying to draw out some things to remember when choosing how, where, and with whom to learn to drive.

Not conductive to learning:
– not being able to see when I’m doing (source: Rock Band; occasional people trying to teach me to type ‘correctly’)
– being rushed into situations in which I am not confident (source: learning to swim; learning horse riding)
– being told that a method which suits me and achieves the desired effect is ‘wrong’ for arcane reasons (source: my methods of typing and making lace patterns)
– not having any motive to learn
– public humiliation following a mistake

Conducive to learning:
– being in control of the pace of my learning
– being extremely clear about the aims and expected outcomes of an exercise
– having a motive to learn
– being supported in trying again rather than punished for failure (where ‘punishment’ includes the disappointment of others and claims that it would be easy if I’d just try)

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In or not in?

I take the following as axiomatic:

1. When you consume media – read a book, watch a TV show, whatever – you become part of the audience of that piece of media.

2. The creators of that piece of media will have had an audience in mind, an audience with characteristics which you may or may not possess.

3. To what extent you are part of the intended audience will have an effect on how you relate to a specific piece of media.

For example, if you are a secondary school pupil reading a book aimed at undergraduates, you can expect to find it a difficult read. Whether you do or not will depend on your own abilities and background knowledge, and on the clarity of the writing.

Sometimes the effects are less clear. For example, I am a white middle-class British woman with a mild interest in cooking, so it would be reasonable to expect that a British cookery show aimed at middle-class women with a white female presenter would be accessible to me. Despite this, I find Nigella Lawson nearly unwatchable. Why? Perhaps partly because she shades into upper-middle class, while I tend towards lower-middle. It is also because of the exact kind of cooking she does: she cooks with meat frequently and alcohol nearly as often, and I never use either. Finally, it seems to have something to do with her appearance and apparent aims. I will never be ‘beautiful’ or ‘attractive’ in the way that Nigella is held to be, and I long ago gave up trying, preferring the comfort and warmth of more modest clothing and the convenience of going make-up free. (This links back into my childhood ‘realisation’ that girls were either beautiful or clever but never both, which may be a post for another day.)

I said once to a friend that no other TV show makes me feel like a failure in the way that Nigella does – by embodying that to which I feel people expect me to conform, she makes me aware of my non-conformity.

On the other hand, some shows whose apparent intended audience is more markedly different from me – for example, where it seems to be aimed at men rather than women – can be much more comfortable to watch. It would be reasonable to expect that a show about cars aimed at men would not appeal to a woman who doesn’t even have a driving license, and yet I find Top Gear watchable, even entertaining. I’ve not quite convinced myself about why this is – perhaps a childhood of reading books and watching shows aimed at boys makes it easy for me to imagine myself into that role, by sheer dint of practice (Dar William’s song “When I Was a Boy” seems to encapsulate perfectly my experience of this: “I won’t forget when Peter Pan came to my house, took my hand/

I said I was a boy; I’m glad he didn’t check”). Wickedday suggests that it’s an effect akin to the Uncanny Valley, in which things close to yourself and yet different give you the creeps. I’m beginning to suspect, though, that as well as those things, there is a level at which it’s about whether you are trying to compare yourself: Nigella is within the range of ‘people next to whom I fall short’ in gender performance, while Jeremy Clarkson is simply in another competition.

This continues to work when I turn to another case: in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I didn’t mind Buffy or Anya or Angel, I liked Spike and Giles and Tara and Xander, but Willow, especially in the early seasons, could make me quite uncomfortable. This feeling intensified after I was explicitly compared to her in a family conversation. The effect is not as strong as with Nigella, but Willow is part of an ensemble rather than a solo presenter, and is not depicted as a perfect role model in the same way. Of course, this example also shows that it’s about things beside gender (perceived geek-level, for one), but I think it’s enough to show that I’m onto something, and that’ll have to do for now.

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I don’t usually publish poetry in this blog – or, indeed, online, or anywhere – but this response to the second part of this week’s Read Write Prompt seemed relevant to my themes here, dealing as it does with the effects (on this middle-class white woman) of an incident of street harassment.

* * *

Being Heckled

Curled up, shadows drawn in
and the window shut:
he’s back, in full sun,
yelling, “What a skirt!”
His mate whistles agreement.

I climb a tree.

From above me, ravens
fairy-dark and raging
drive into his mind.

Thought and Memory depart.

* * *


The prompt was “Select a memory from “what you want to forget,” [a previous part of the exercise] and write in this scenario: You are in the future, in bed, dreaming. The forgotten memory appears, haunting you, perhaps. A magical animal also crosses your path. In your narrative, incorporate images invoked by photo #1, the light through trees.”

You might also like to look up Huginn and Muninn.

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I went to Creswell Crags on Saturday – I’m trying to hit the tourist spots before I leave Nottinghamshire – and saw, among many other interesting carvings on rock and bone, (a replica of) the Pin Hole Man. You can see a picture here at the Creswell Crags website. Our tour group discussed briefly what might be depicted – a man (clearly, there’s a phallus), a woman (clearly, there’s a bosom – it doesn’t pass for an arm when compared with the legs), someone in a mask (the head is large and the nose huge). I suggested, in that joking tone I usually adopt when unsure of the reception of my ideas, that perhaps the person was cross-dressing. Much laughter. The tour guide asked for permission to use that in future.

My first response was to be pleased to have created laughter and to have been ‘approved’ by the group in this way.

My second, much more considered, response is to be sorry that nobody else had considered that even a possibility, and that it wasn’t been taken at all seriously. Art of that date is hard to interpret in any case, but why should cross-dressing be any less likely than mask-wearing?

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