After my post about Real Men yesterday, the subject stuck with me. I went home, I ate some lunch, tried and failed to get my Cycle Hire key to work and went for a quick walk around the City which ended up going South of the River and taking in about four and a half miles. Every now and then I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirrored windows of posh offices and because I’m a vain creature, I looked right back at her.
And it occurred to me that, not for the first time, I was basically dressed like a fifteen year old boy: dark trousers, slightly-not-clean hair pulled back into a messy ponytail (I mistyped this as ‘ponyfail’ and I’m not sure I was wrong) with bits hanging down in my eyes, as well as scuffed up, holey green Converse sneakers, and my most favourite plaid shirt. It is purple, you know.
One of the phrases I’d had in my head as part of the post yesterday was ‘Real Men Wear Plaid’, and some of them do. One of my absolute most favourite men in the entire history of the universe wore checked shirts. He’s the reason I have one of my own, I suspect (I suspect nothing: he is why, and I have two).
It’s not a feminine item though, really, is it? Unless it’s sexualised to the point of cowgirl parody, a size too small, tied at the front and paired with some Daisy Dukes. It’s a workshirt, it’s basic. The plaid pattern itself is the only nod to aesthetic anything. It’s a useful item though, good for keeping the riverside breezes at bay.
For some time in my youth, I didn’t own a single dress. For a pantomime I had to borrow one so I could be one of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. For the next panto, me and my friend played spivs called Mike and Spike. I seem to recall basing my performance in part on James Beck, from Dad’s Army, and the rest on the cast of Oliver! I have in fact, performed in the lead role in Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations. I mean, it’s not quite Victor/Victoria, but most girls I know wouldn’t play a boy. It’s like the opposite of Shakespeare. Or is it just the plot of Shakespeare In Love without (mercifully) the Shakespeare?
Have you ever seen Calamity Jane? I am Calamity without the compulsive lying and before the ‘we can’t have Doris Day looking too manly/scruffy for too long’ makeover part of the way through the film. You know Annie, Get Your Gun? I’m Annie at the start. Have you seen Little Giants? I’m Icebox, before she turns cheerleader to catch Devon Sawa’s eye.
Now, pals will say I’m exaggerating, and maybe I am, but only a very little. I have a good line in vintage dresses and I even own hair straighteners now. However, left to my own devices and without the weight of expectations, it would appear that I dress myself like a fifteen year old in 1976 about to head out to meet his friends to argue about Page Vs. Clapton Vs. Gallagher Vs. Green Vs. Every Other Guitarist Ever. (For the record, I come down on the side of Gallagher, then Page, then Green, then Every Other Guitarist Ever, then Clapton.)
I mentioned Annie, Get Your Gun above. I’ve seen a lot of movies that make me angry, but that one really is something special. Only the presence of the brilliantly wonderful Howard Keel makes me keep it. In said film Annie (played by the irritatingly chirpy Betty Hutton) transforms herself like the proverbial Ugly Duckling into the proverbial Swan to please Frank Butler (aforementioned Keel)… who then can’t handle it when she’s a magnificent showman herself. At the end, Annie throws a shooting competition so that she can keep her man. And yeah, I get that it’s Howard Keel. Even I’d probably comb my hair a bit for Howard Keel, but I wouldn’t sell myself out, you know? In real life, it didn’t even work like that.
There’s a song in that movie which breaks my heart every time I hear it: ‘The Girl That I Marry’. In it, Frank Butler/Howard Keel tells us that the girl to whom he will wed himself must be as soft and as pink as a nursery, wearing satins and laces, and smelling of cologne with polished nails and gardenias in her hair… and everything ultra-feminine that Annie at that point is not. Indeed, everything I am not. I am not soft and I am only pink where I caught too much sun at the Cambridge Folk Festival (a one-armed farmer’s tan is so this season). In that one brief song, Keel sings what I suspect most people in the world think: in order to find love, women must conform to certain things. They must appear pleasing. They must be pleasing.
I recall now watching a James May TV show about his sister’s toys back when they were children. He hated most of them, of course, and I remembered some with fondness and some (like that weird tree-house thing) with the same disdain as him. Interesting thing though, he ended by talking about how his sister basically put away childish things when she was 12/13 and that was it… yet he carried on playing with his toys, albeit with some variations, until… well, about now.
Not to say that all boys are like James May… some do grow up. The point he made about girls was a good one though: how many of us got to be 12/13 and thought we had to give all that stuff up? I saw it happen to my friends and the other girls at school. I of course, was contrary, and refused to give up any of my toys. I clung to them while my friends started reading Sugar and Just 17 and all those teen magazines. They learned to do their hair and make-up, and how to go on dates and stuff, some years before they actually needed to, in most cases. They learned how to be pleasing.
I have never been on a date in my life. Not ever. I was asked out on one once, and though I was never going to say yes, I was enraged when said requester said it was because of how I’d looked in a red dress I wore to a party. In that moment, when I was eighteen, I had confirmed what I already believed: the real me was not enough, was not worthy. The fake me, in an admittedly awesome red dress, now she could maybe be date worthy. I still hold by what I thought then: fuck that.
I would rather be alone for the rest of my life than spend the rest of my life conforming to some notion of what women are supposed to be, or look like. That’s why that song breaks my heart: it confirms that I likely will be alone because that’s how it goes. Annie had to shove flowers in her hair to be noticed and had to pretend to be less than she was to win the man. Calamity Jane was humiliated before she was allowed love.
You’re about to tell me that they’re only movies, aren’t you? Come on. The movies reflect how people already think, and then they make sure that people keep thinking that way. (I refer here to mainstream Hollywood pictures. A lot of awesome creative people are working to challenge preconceptions, but they’re generally not doing from inside the castle.)
There’s a song called ‘Don’t Ever Change’. Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote it, and I think I heard The Crickets’ version first, because I remember it chiming a massive major chord in my head when I put The Beatles Live at the BBC on for the very first time. I loved that song so much. Even though it’s strictly speaking sung by both Paul and George, I really only ever hear George for some reason… and I loved it so much, when I was fifteen and now, still. You never wear a stitch of lace, your powder’s never on your face… you’re always wearing jeans, except on Sundays… and even that has a bit of fail: your kisses let me know you’re not a tomboy.
Well you know what, factfans? I was a tomboy. I was a fucking tree-climbing, running around, mountain bike-riding, make believe adventure-having tomboy. My childhood hate of all things Laura Ashley hasn’t waned and has led me to a healthy mistrust of many things Cath Kidston. I was a tomboy, and I was as worthy as any of the patent-leather shoe-wearing girls. Not more worthy, as worthy.
Anyway, that song used to make me so sad. I knew, even as a little kid hearing the Crickets and then as a fucked-up, depressive teenaged Beatles fan, that it was the reality of love/romance that I was willing to accept. The only reality, in fact. Please don’t ever change. God, to have someone love me for me, scruffy though I often am… rather than having to pretzel myself into someone else like Annie or Jane or Icebox or a score of other cultural tomboys had to. The thing is, the world doesn’t work like ‘Don’t Ever Change’, it works like ‘The Girl That I Marry’. We have to be pleasing in both manners and appearance, or we can whistle for it.
I do know how to whistle.
Now, you might say ‘oh, it’s because you watched all these movies that you think this way’ but I disagree: I watched them because I already felt this way. Grease and Grease 2 are, strangely, a good example of what I mean:
When it comes up in conversation, as it does from time to time, I tell people that I liked Grease 2 better than the original as a kid because it had motorbikes in it. This is partly true… but mostly it’s because of Stephanie Zinone. She was fucking fierce… I didn’t care that the leading man was quite nothingy, or that the rest of the film was barely even a pale shadow of the original, because Stephanie was fierce. And anyway Grease 2 has the teen death ballad hints of Tell Laura I Love Her, Teen Angel and The Leader of the Pack, which I always liked. What? You thought I only got this twisted and dark later on in life?
Stephanie was someone I could admire, is what I’m saying. Don’t get me wrong, Sandy is all well and good, but she sells herself out at the end of Grease. I’m all for compromise and sure, she looks awesome in her black spandex thing, but was it necessary to change herself? The only redeeming fact is that Mr Cool Pre-Scientology Zuko has done something similar… but he gets to remove his letterman jacket and return to being a t-bird while she stays as the newly minted siren. If it’s a genuine choice she makes, to embrace her presumably flowering sexuality, then I’m all for it, but if it’s only to regain the (presumably quite greasy) heart of Danny Zuko? Fuck that.
I had a straightforward choice when I was seven/eight: Sandy or Stephanie. I could be like Sandy: winsome, delightful and pleasing… or I could be like the girl that works in a garage and runs off with the cool and mysterious bike rider. It wasn’t a difficult choice for me then, even though as a film, Grease 2 is so inferior… because the cool rider was cool (sort of), and Stephanie was fierce. Imperfect, but fierce. And you know, I always fast-forwarded through Hopelessly Devoted To You in the original. I fucking hate that fucking song and that part of the film so fucking much. I was seven and I didn’t want to be hopelessly devoted to anyone.
Have I established my scruffy tomboy cred yet? How about the fact I was a massive rock and roll fan even then? I spent chunks of time throwing shapes like Freddie Mercury and pretending I was on the stage at Wembley. My friends were listening to New Kids on the Block. I was listening to Buddy Holly and writing notes to my friends as to why NKOTB sucked (sorry Jay). I was practising my country and morris dancing steps for school to Elvis (Wooden Heart was good for one particular dance as I recall).
When I was four or five, I decided that my favourite colour was blue. This was entirely to be contrary, and I knew it even at the time. If boys liked blue and girls liked pink, then I was going to fuck with that and go with blue. I think I’ve been consciously and unconsciously doing the same ever since. Boys climbed trees and played football, girls played with dolls and teasets. I climbed trees and played football.
But having said all that, and having established myself as a tomboy… there’s a box of about 80 Barbie and Sindy dolls not so far away from me, my old companions. I’ve got a fuzzy red Elmo sat on the top of my armchair. The first thing I did when I was old enough to have a choice about my own hair was to grow it long. I really do like my vintage dresses… maybe all this stuff isn’t as cut, dried or simple as the world at large would like it to be.
I spent a lot of my childhood playing with Barbie dolls, and I’m not going to fucking apologise for it. A lot of their time was spent looking for love, but not all of it. My Jessica Wakefield (natch) doll had a seriously soap operatic thing going on with Ken Matthews (natch) but she was also an entrepreneur: she owned a boutique (Jessica Wakefield would) and a cafe even before graduating high school. I was a weird kid, what can I say? For my Barbie and Sindys, their lives had lots of love and romance, but they were not defined by it, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many other girls (and boys) had a similar experience.
And you know what? When I was seven, I was in love with Jason Donovan. Well, let’s be honest: I was in love with Scott Robinson. And you know who Scott Robinson married in Neighbours? A scruffy mechanic. Sure, she grew up to be Kylie, but nobody’s perfect. One of my favourite Sindy dolls, come to that, was called Frankie and her job was to customise Harley Davidsons and stuff. I bet if you went into that big box, you’d find my Frankie with her long, messy hair, still in her overalls.
Weird thing? Much as I love Top Gear and cars in theory, I have no knowledge, or particular wish for knowledge, of engines and mechanical stuff. My brain isn’t lent towards the mathematical, so engineering isn’t something I enjoy. I suppose that back then, in the dark days of the 80s and 90s, a girl mechanic was easy shorthand for tomboy, right? But importantly, after work, she could clean up and be pretty for the boys. Charlene Robinson did become Kylie, after all.
I never did learn how engines work and I never did learn how to be pretty and pleasing. By the time my friends were experimenting with make up and hair, I was cloistering myself away with my dark clouds and Beatles records. By the time I woke up, everyone knew everything they needed to know: how to attract boys, in other words. How to harness their own awesome sexualities, basically. I make no complaint about this, only at the expectation that we must all do so, and we must all do it in the same way: by being pleasing.
Well, I never did learn. In fact, I’ve managed to exist in such a way that I’m not sure people see it at all. I know so many women who get hollered at in the street or otherwise treated like meat or some other type of commodity for men to publicly comment on, and it just doesn’t happen to me. Even on the very rare occasions that I lower myself to attending a night club with my friends, it doesn’t happen. A couple of times it nearly has but I have the ‘fuck off’ vibe so well developed now. I wish I could pass these things onto other women while we’re waiting for the world to treat us like human beings instead of objects.
I wonder what it is? Is it that I have rejected the accepted tropes of feminine sexuality so thoroughly that, even when I play along a smidge, people don’t see it? Have I succeeded in making that part of myself essentially invisible, so that even when I’m noticed by a roomful of people (it happens, I wear wacky shit sometimes), I am not noticed ‘in that way’? Do I project something masculine or merely confidently ‘fuck off, douchebag’? I’m truly not sure.
I don’t really know how to deal with that, you know. 99.9% of me is jumping up and down in joy and glee. I have freed myself from the soap opera-go-round! I have free time to do as I please! My long-wished for autonomy is in no danger of being eroded away! I’m not treated like an object! On the other hand, the 0.1% of me, the kid who did sorta love Scott Robinson, who listened to Don’t Ever Change and thought ‘hey, someday!’ is kinda… well, she’s pissed off, if I’m honest. The 99.9% isn’t willing to conform and so 0.1% is stuck on her own and I’m not sure she likes it much.
Funnily enough, she’s the arrogant bit. She cannot for the life of her, work out why she is not universally loved and adored by all those whose lives she passes through. The 99.9% assumes that a: she’s not feminine enough to be noticed and frankly can’t be bothered. Mind you, that 99.9% is also pretty fucking arrogant and figures nobody is good enough for her. Funny little bird, ain’t she?
Actually, I’m talking bollocks for the sake of writing style: I know exactly how to deal with this: the same way I always have. The 0.1% won’t be satisfied if the other 99.9% has to be crushed, so I’ll just go along my own way, because I like it far, far too much to stamp on myself. There’s not a man in the world worth that. You could bring Jim Morrison back from the dead, looking every bit like it’s 1968, and sober, thoughtful and kind, and I wouldn’t sell myself out for him. No, that’s not how I operate in the world. I’ll take your respect if you’re offering, or I’ll turn away and not regret it for a moment.
I suspect that this is exactly the thing that the social arbiters of femininity would hate me for the most.
Well femininity is a societal construct, just like the Real Man was made up by some dudes once. It’s all bollocks. I’m no more a straightforward tomboy than John Wayne was the perfect Real Man. I’m not nearly so un-girl as I think I probably am, and John Wayne wasn’t nearly so macho as the world believes.
I might be a plaid shirt wearing scruff, but I also love a good musical from the 1940s. I might be a tomboy, but my flat is full of fluffy, fuzzy things that wouldn’t be given room in a manly man’s flat. I love a good romcom, although I haven’t seen a good one in a very long time. I don’t mind crying, although I prefer not to because it gives me a headache. I’m scruffy, but I have awesome vintage dresses that I wear to work and such. I really love boxing, but also love long hot baths with candles and bath stuff from Lush. I’m quite alone, but I’m also the last of the great romantics. I love Bill Hicks but I also love Morecambe & Wise. I love heavy guitar music but I also love Dean Martin and Mario Lanza. I don’t mind political incorrectness, but I’m not going to laugh at bigoted jokes. I love The Godfather, but I also love Singin’ In The Rain.
In short, I don’t really fit any pigeon-hole or genre, and nor do many/most/all women. We’re not all the same, we’re not even all the same in the ways we’re different. You can’t call me ‘tomboy’ without denying a lot of my personality. And you know, I’m not actually claiming to be much different from most women and girls. I’m not putting myself on the outside in direct opposition to most other women. My point is that none of us really fit the ‘Real Girl’ description because it’s not based in reality but in society’s demands – the Mythic List of Real Femininity comes from the same place as the Mythic List of Real Manliness. That place? Cloud Cuckoo Land.
So I repeat what I said yesterday: can we please just stop this categorising? Let’s stop thinking in terms of Real Men and Real Women and just go for Good Humans. Thinking that way, we might actually achieve something in this feeble, pathetic civilisation of ours.
Right, I’m off to put some Derek & Clive on the stereo while I play with my Barbie dolls, just to keep on being contrary.