A Woman’s a Woman for A’ That

Nana recently attended her first Burn’s supper. This involved being introduced to the twin customs of The Toast to the Lassies and The Reply to the Toast to the Lassies.

At the particular supper to which I was party, the Toast to the Lassies was a cheekily scurrilous account of the behaviours of the fairer sex which, in baffling the speaker, were deemed praiseworthy from a sense of bewilderment if nothing else. The Reply, in turn, was a robust account of how, like many other fine examples of the dominant sex, our esteemed speaker could only succeed in life with the support of a good woman.

An amusing showcase of ‘70s gender politics, then.

Over in Glasgow, meanwhile, The Reply to the Toast to the Lassies was being delivered for the first time by a transgender woman – Jo Clifford . I’d recommend a read.

This curious whisky-fuelled cocktail of discourses fair set my head spinning.

When Germaine Greer rattled everyone’s cage recently with her pronouncement that transgender women were not women, I confess I had some sympathy with her position. She was responding to Caitlyn Jenner’s award of Woman of the Year and I suspect Germaine wasn’t the only person whose feminist sentiments rankled at the implied notion that femininity could best be made successful by bringing on board a new CEO who used to be man. A new spin on the ‘old boys’ network’ to be sure, but one guaranteed to bring out the conspiracy theorist in any card-carrying member of the old guard.

And I have to further confess to initially feeling something of the same response to Jo’s Reply – she draws very heavily on her previous experiences as a man to illustrate the uniqueness of her position. Surely it is this unique view that separates her experiences from those of women raised as females within our society? After all, Jo’s conversion/ full realization of herself as a woman came after years of living as boy and man during which time she was surely not entirely immune to the calque of masculine privilege ossifying her form?

As I pondered this, I began to muse on the various situations of the three people amongst my friends and acquaintances whose experiences in this regard really count.

First among these is Jo herself, to whose acquaintance I can lay scant claim beyond the intimacy of her one-woman show The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven — the most moving and thought-provoking theatrical work on this theme I have encountered. (See it if you can).

The second acquaintance may yet be too young to offer her considered account, since she is a child whose inner female was so strong she began her transition at infant school and her journey continues through her still tender years.

The third is a childhood friend whose strong female identity was a certain cat amongst the pigeons of a late ‘60s – early ‘70s childhood in our working class northern English milieu. He now lives as a (camp) adult homosexual man.

I cannot gainsay whether Germaine Greer has any genuine axe to grind with transgender women. It may be that she simply rejects transgender women as women. Rightly or wrongly, I took her argument to be that by including transgender women in the category ‘women’ we deny the uniqueness of their perspective.

But, I come to realise, this is also precisely where such an argument begins to unravel.

For the two folks I know most intimately, it couldn’t be said they had ‘enjoyed’ a prototypical male socialization experience. But then who could claim that?

And whilst I consider myself very much a female I’m not sure I could claim a prototypical female socialization experience, since I’m not entirely sure what one is. Or at least if I imagine one, it is simply that- a construct of the imagination; a fairytale amalgamated from an idiosyncratic selection of all the various gendered and gendering experiences available.

And I couldn’t even give you a percentaged guesstimate of how much of ‘me’ is gendered. Because don’t we all have a core being that remains a genderless thing?

When I wake in the early hours and am gazing at the sleeping windows of the houses in the town where I live, I am not conscious of doing that as a woman, but as a being. The fact that my being is in human form I concede has a considerable degree of influence on my perspective in this instance, but I’m not sure that my gender always exerts the same force.

So whilst the rigidity of the existing gender options of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are beneficially challenged by the fluidity of the trans experience, Germaine’s move to insert a further category of ‘transgender woman’ (and presumably its counterpart ‘transgender man’ — although as a feminist I find it telling that this category is little vaunted, much like Queen Victoria’s infamous lesbian blindspot) still leaves the gender landscape hopelessly codified. The cranny between ‘transgender woman’ and ‘cis woman’ (a term I find both ugly and difficult to accept) simply offers a fertile space for further prejudice to gestate.

Yet surely language has a key role to play. It is the primordial conceptual brine through which we all emerge. Language shapes our imaginations as well as our cultures.

The youngest of my children is of a generation which seeks to obliterate gender altogether. It’s taken me some time to grasp, but this seems to me a genuinely liberating ideal, and worth pursuing.

The most immediate barrier for English speakers is one of pronouns. It seems petty, but in the petri-dish of identity formation pronouns are protozoic.

Discovering self is wonderfully neutral from a gendered language perspective: I; me.

Beyond self, however, our language offers a binary choice of pronouns available to the description of other individual humans, and the only alternative is so cold that we often gender inanimate objects in order to avoid it.

That linguistic move between self and another is our first operation of ‘othering’, and it brings into focus another important aspect of this whole debate. Perhaps one reason for its resonance in contemporary society (after all gender challenges are nothing new) is that it speaks to the conflict between individualism and collectivity.

Here arguments of biology are shown to be something of a red herring, and the question is whether – in an increasingly atomized society – we can ever claim sufficient commonality with others to form an invulnerable group identity. And, given a choice, would we want to?

What premises underpin the claim that ‘we’ are ‘women’ and ‘you’ are ‘men’ ?

Is the rise of individuation a threat to compassion, empathy and sharing? Or does recognition of each as individual remove the barriers that currently divide us as human beings?

As the French philosopher Michel Serres suggests in Hermès, what we have constructed as a coherent real could just as easily be understood to be ‘fluctuating tatters’ wherein ‘the state of things consists of islands sown in archipelagoes on the noisy, poorly understood disorder of the sea…’

Doesn’t our increasing transhumanism broaden our ability to simultaneously encounter, comprehend, experience such that it may become the gift of our time to leave behind the cold safety of categories, to swim freely in the fast-flowing burn of our digital social connectivity?

Perhaps at next year’s haggis someone will be brave and gifted enough to uphold the Lost Burns manuscript tradition with a gender-free rewrite of For a’ That and a’ That ?

And perhaps we might all find the confidence to raise a dram in toast.

 

 


More on witnessing….

“What to do? Where to turn? Is there a self-identity for the writer that combines responsibility with artistic integrity? If there is, what might it be? Ask the age we live in and it might reply – the witness. And, if possible, the eyewitness.

It’s an old role, this. I was there, I saw it, it happened to me: these are seductive recommendations, and make a deep appeal to the imagination…

…… Captivity narratives, castaway narratives, war stories, civil-war stories, slavery narratives, catastrophe stories, memoirs of hard-done-by-outlaws and pirates, incest-survivor stories, Soviet union gulag stories, atrocity stories: how much more compelling we find them if we think they’re based on real events, and especially real events that have happened to the writer!

The power of such narratives is immense, especially when combined with artistic power. And the courage to write them, and sometimes to smuggle then across borders so they can be published is equally stupendous. These stories exist in a realm that is neither fact nor fiction, but perhaps both: let us call it enhanced fact.

….This is why so many people have faked such stories….

….A socially conscious writer can quite easily be charged with exploiting the misery and misfortune of the downtrodden for his own gain……The line between these is sometimes thin, and sometimes it’s only in the eye of the beholder.

Then, too, the eyewitness can be a kind of voyeur.

…What did Yeats mean when he told a future generation of poets to cast a cold eye on life and death? Why does the eye have to be so cold?

…The eye is cold because it is clear, and it is clear because its owner must look: he must look at everything. Then she must record.

…the secret is that it isn’t the writer who decides whether or not his work is relevant. Instead it’s the reader. ”

Extracted from Margaret Atwood’s ‘Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co”,  in On Writers and Writing, Virago, 2003:104-109


Love and pride

It’s a strange thing these days to watch a Pride march pass by.

I always cry, but increasingly these are tears of nostalgia.

Soon I suspect I won’t cry at all, and after that, most likely I’ll feel peeved.

On Saturday (11th July, Bristol) I cried at those sections of the march occupied by folks who, I suspect, still face some hardships because of their sexuality – the uniformed police officers still feeling it necessary to cleverly disguise their epaulettes with rainbow flags, the few straggling and forlorn teachers who brave the social media ridicule of their colleagues and pre-pubescent pupils, the ambulance workers.

And I cried for the older marchers – the flagging drag queens who have fought all the long, bitter battles and proudly bear the scars of their victories.

But they have won.

So how long will such celebrations last?

I remember broaching the tender topic of sexuality with my young children, suggesting that they be true to themselves and promising their family would honour and cherish them whatever their sexual identity.

They laughed at my old-fashioned sensibilities. My children – and many of their (Western) generation – no longer do sexuality. It’s a little passé.

They do sex and intimacy. They genuinely don’t care whether they find their joy with another or others of the same sex, the opposite sex, or both, or neither. They care about the joy.

Those Pride warriors have given this generation all the tools they need to rewrite societal norms. They are changing the code.

And that’s worth a party, for sure.

Not that our youth are escaping controversy- even within their own ranks – but one can’t help feeling that joy will slowly and gently conquer the backwashes of misogyny, conservatism, and oppressive masculinism that currently swirl like effluent dispersing into a clear, fast flowing stream.

Already this generation is navigating its internet porn-fuelled, image-bombed, hyper-connected milieu; knowing it for what it is, absorbing it, emerging beyond it.

I have high hopes that in some future far from my knowing they’ll have deconstructed and reordered the dominant model of monogamy (gay, straight or other, obv), and child-rearing too.

So at what point do the drag queens start to do just that, to drag?

Already such large-scale, public displays of ‘deviant’ sexuality are no longer ‘deviant’. I used to cry at the sight of two men or two women holding hands on a Pride march because it was the only space in which they could safely do so. Now, thankfully, it’s a common sight on the high street.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, whatever- these are all mainstream now.

And that’s still something to be proud of; it’s still something new.

But how long might it be before such loud, proud, glorious displays will be likened to similarly loud displays of heterosexuality – to the stag night and the hen do? In generational terms it isn’t long since women reclaimed the right to wear minimal outfits and get leary in the streets. Yet now coming across a gaggle of women invoking that right is invariably simply tiresome.

What do we march for now?


All aboard the Tory budget train…

When I was younger I made promises to my future self. Many have been left tattered by life; ‘never allow yourself to become too cynical’ has fared particularly badly.

Developments like George Osborne’s recent budget don’t help (UK, Wednesday, 8th July 2015). I can’t stop my mind returning to the image of an overcrowded train carriage. Instead of supplying more trains, passengers are asked to move further down into the carriage to accommodate more people in the limited space. It’s a risk to everyone on board, of course, but it’s the more profitable solution.

In this first fully Conservative budget since the General Election in May, Osborne led with the introduction of a new national living wage of £7.20 an hour for those over 25. There are a number of obvious and some less obvious problems with this superficially liberal sleight of hand. The first is the conundrum of just who would actually be able to ‘live’ (and where) on £7.20 an hour. And whilst Osborne estimates that 2.5 million people will benefit by some £5,000 over the coming five years, he is surely balancing the budget in his favour with the unspoken calculation of just how many will find their incomes reduced by employers who can relax their standards to the level of this new bar.

The question of what happens to those under 25 is thornier…. If they are unfortunate enough to be born to parents earning the national living wage, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to stay at home long beyond working age; they’ll soon be pushed out of the meager nest by the benefits cap (£20,000 per household outside of London).

They’re unlikely to be able to educate themselves out of poverty, as they will no longer be able to access student grants (now abolished). The deal offered by student loans is not attractive – look at their parents’ impossible debts, now exacerbated by the reduction of working tax credits.

Anyway, given the national living wage and the new alignment of Employment and Support Allowance with Jobseeker’s Allowance, they are unlikely to be able to work enough hours to sufficiently supplement a student loan. The rents demanded by the private landlords will be unattainable now that there is a limited and stagnant supply of social housing. And 18 to 21 year olds will no longer be entitled to housing benefit (you’ve got to ‘earn to learn’ now, fam).

Don’t worry though, this new undereducated, undernourished and homeless underclass won’t be encouraged to reproduce (assuming they can find a park bench somewhere on which to entertain such a possibility) – restricting tax credits and Universal Credits to only two children will ensure the feckless and the lowly won’t be able to occupy their time breeding.

But they won’t have to pay tax, so that’s a positive isn’t it? The personal allowance for tax will rise to £11,000 next year. You’ve got to be pretty lucky to hit that target on a £7.20 zero hours contract.

But don’t be fooled into thinking this is some sort of new Tory benevolence. No, look instead to the simultaneous trial of a fresh approach to non-dom taxpayers. The new rules are that if you’ve lived in the UK for over 15 years, then you have to cough up your taxes like a good old boy. The flaw is that, as we all know, good old boys don’t pay tax. This will be a popular but ineffective fundraiser – if you’re rich enough to qualify for non-dom, then you’ve got a second home to move to when the deadline approaches.

But this is not just a sop to Middle England (where the hobbits live). The real significance of this new bit of legislation is that it sets a precedent. Once established, it will be much easier to suggest that anyone will have had to be resident in the UK for more than 15 years before they can benefit from its welfare provision.

Or that benefits are restricted to UK taxpayers.

Who’s paying tax again? Ah.

So, there you have it. The great divide. The creation of an underclass of non-unionised, disposable, internationally exchangeable, cheap and non-dependent migrant workers.

And what will happen as the underclass ages? While state pensions will be triple locked (dying old people being a tabloid hit any government would wish to avoid), the threshold for tax-free pension contributions has just been reduced, so if you want to stay out of the miasma you’re going to have to pay.

But that’s ok because if you’re already established in salaried, pensioned employment chances are that you’ll benefit from this budget by some small but smugly comforting margin.

So that’s alright, isn’t it?

You won’t mind when the government announces that the train is moving more slowly than scheduled, but if we just uncouple that heavily overcrowded carriage at the back that’s weighing us down…..


@MIfestival #TreeofCodes 05 July 2015 14:30

At the delightfully avant garde opening sequences of Manchester International Festival’s Tree of Codes I felt a little cheated.

In 2012 I had run around Arthur’s Seat in a lightsuit – and not once, since a practice session was necessary to the choreography (Speed of Light, Edinburgh Festival). I then emailed the innovators behind that performance hoping to borrow a suit to map one of the expressive dimensions of natural sign language poetry performance (Signart). Sadly my request fell on stony ground.

It was at least heartening to see such suits well deployed by the Paris Opera Ballet and Company Wayne McGregor.

The next sequence, involving angled mirrors, had me wishing all my deaf and sign sensitive friends were in the stalls alongside me (and no, that number does not include Mr. Tumble, unless his purpose is to offer umbrellas at the farthest reaches of the foyer).

And then sorcery gave way to beauty – the chromatography and chroma-graphics; Jamie xx’s formational soundscapes; refractions of reflection upon reflection; layered dimensionality….

Yet the real 3D human bodies remained somehow trapped – if not in dimension, then in plane – and, indeed, in only the lower reaches of the vertical (as if footnote or subtitle).

Despite the virtuosity and funk of dancers and choreographer Wayne McGregor, towards the culmination of the revolving circular windows one longed for some lift – perhaps by such choreographic stage management as vertically revolving panes lifting individual dancers to an exit amongst the higher boughs.

Or for some underscoring of depth. This latter, in particular, could have liberated the embodied text by occasioning the dancer to emerge from those unreachable parallel dimensions, through the coupéd scenery and out toward or even into the auditorium in which we featured. Foer’s book made such manoeuvres possible for the word.

Small frustrations not withstanding, I was not disappointed to have made the pilgrimage for such a gem, and left dreaming of chats with Olafur Eliasson.

photo-9        Highly recommended.


notes and sketches: on process

The workshop

[Session I]

“Okay, let’s all write that then”, he says

“We’ve got fifteen minutes”

Around the table heads bow, brows furrow, pens scratch

Her fat universes turn pondering

dark matter she must not betray

bright orbs whose heat she will not share

[Session II]

They read

With each testimony new galaxies storm into hers

fizzing spraying blasting spewing clattering

Now it’s her turn

She battens down her gaze

locks her ears to her inadequate voice

bleats her offering

They blink, nod, sniff

Did the earth move for you?

[Session III]

Her self is stripped

What’s left no longer fills her clothes

Men talk over the insect whine of her voice

In the street she avoids being trodden underfoot

[Session IV]

They sit round the table

stripping yesterday’s carcass

cleaving phrases

slicing sounds

They take her words

place them in their mouths

taste their shapes

And she is reconstituted:

swollen, bursting, grown

© Kyra Pollitt, 2015


notes and sketches: recalling witness

The 5th February 2004 was my son’s 8th birthday. That evening a group of Chinese illegal workers were taken by gang masters to dig for cockles in Morecambe Bay, just behind our house. It is not known exactly how many were in the cockling group.

The bay was our playground, although – like all locals – we were hugely respectful of its power. The tides of the bay are as notorious and treacherous as the sinking sands beneath. They have always followed obscure patterns, often remaining invisible until the sands are completely encircled.

21 bodies were recovered in the following days. One further body was found in 2010. It is understood at least one is still missing.

Washing up

Was I the last
 to see you all 
alive?

What was it you saw?

A white woman 
framed in a glow of warm kitchen

as the dark closed in

after the boy’s birthday

washing up

bitter

to February’s rapacious tide

of traffic 
flooding

our quiet lane accustomed

to hoof fall still

I couldn’t believe you would

at this time of year

at this time of night

‘They’ll turn back’, I thought

as I turned my back

and sank – cockled – into the sofa

before


I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here

Morning’s milk was marooned

on the cold stone sill

isolated

by the tickertape yelling

INCIDENT

at our front gate

All day
 the helicopters circled

high over the swelling stream

of panda cars

vehicles stuck with antennae

casting views 
from window to television set

flocks of ambulances

arriving hopefully

leaving silently

We sold the house

We found we could no longer play

on the shore without

thinking of you
 and the

washing up

©Kyra Pollitt 2004


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