Tag Archives: feminism

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.



Sun, sea, sand and sex: Nana and Tracey in Margate

I spent the English late summer bank holiday in Margate; a place that Tracey Emin, so the catalogue to her latest show at Turner Contemporary tells me, has described as “a most romantic, sexy, fucking weird place”. She’s not wrong. But then Tracey is really very good at describing.

As I wandered, I wondered just how much Margate describes Tracey. On the front at Cliftonville, white cliffs drop to paved seaside walkways littered with clumps of natural chalk. A free and ready supply of drawing materials that the locals clearly exploit, judging by the uniformly white-on-concrete graffiti that stares out to sea, like so much modern day cave painting repelling, informing or perhaps enticing potential invaders.


Of course you don’t use chalk only to draw. One piece of graffiti proclaimed anonymously to the world “I love you, Melissa ***scott”, whilst just a little further round the cliffs the darker, more bruised  “Melissa, I never wrote the kid bit” made Emin’s neon gift to the town ‘I Never Stopped Loving You’ echo with fond distance. Here you could see real lives folding and unfolding before your very eyes, daily writ large on the communal chalkboard. Add the painstaking craft and marvel of the Shell Grotto’s carefully managed-for-profit mystique and you’ve pretty much charted the local girl’s artistic career.



If this is Tracey’s external childhood environment, step inside the RIBA award-winning sympathetically-reflective yet monumental seafront gallery and you’ll come face to face with Tracey’s adult internal environment. On the way in to the exhibition rooms (sponsored by Farrow and Ball, don’tyaknow) a helpful lady tried to sell me the £2 audioguide, advising “Some of the art in there is very difficult, you see”. She was right, but I figured the audio would be hard to hear above the scream of Tracey’s scratchy blue gouache sketches of her naked female form.

In the catalogue Jeanette Winterson writes “This is not the female body as art object drawn by men for millennia; it is a woman drawing on herself as a woman.” Like womanhood, this is not for the fainthearted. Emin shows herself/us in a continual dialectic with the biology of her/our sex. She speaks to us through it. She is seen staring at her body in wonderment, but most often clutching, scratching, clawing and pawing at and into her cunt (no other word appropriate here) like a rooting animal, as if desperately seeking herself, her losses, and the answer to life and mortality. She doesn’t spare her blushes or ours. We don’t really need the bold inscription ‘RELAX’ in ‘Blue Figure: Relax’ to conjure the cold metallic pinch of the speculum.

And that brings me to Tracey’s writing. She’s working on a longer piece at the moment (‘The Vanishing Lake’), and it seemed to me that her graffiti is beginning to overtake her images, sometimes appearing like a half-descended final curtain (‘I Love You’, ‘I Didn’t Say’, ‘I Know You Are Beautiful’). For my money, the written canvases are less interesting. Her writing doubtless has an everywoman appeal -it is resonant and documents our age (‘I Said No’) – but it is not outstanding. Her drawing- rarely pretty but always curious and ultimately beautiful – is. It bears comparison with the revealing Rodin and JMW Turner sketches that are included here. Not as beautiful, certainly, but far more narratively rich.

What are beautiful are the embroideries – the developments of her textile work. Stitched large on visibly tacked together calico squares, it’s as if the memory of a thousand generations of women’s work softens the line, soothing the image into something altogether more ethereal (‘Floating Blue’, ‘Dark Recline’). And, breaking from the blue to a palette of soft earth, ‘Thankyou’ is the most evocative paean to that glorious post-orgasmic, post-coitally satisfied tranquillity I have ever seen.

The exhibition also shows her current thoughts in sculpture (mostly working on the kinaesthetic self-portrait in cast bronze), monoprinting (playing with comparing her own mark-making to Picasso’s- and yes, she can switch from Schiele to Picasso with apparent ease) and more of that neon graffiti. Excepting the latter, the work has the feel of progression.  When Germaine Greer reviewed ‘Love is What You Want’ at the Hayward for Radio 4, she calculated that Tracey was now menopausal. This, she said, is “a tough time in a woman’s life”- “the reckoning”- and counselled that Emin’s anger was coming back, now from “a deeper place- the well of female frustration.”  On the evidence of  ‘She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea’ I reckon Germaine’s right.

If you’re a woman, it’s a must see. Like Winterson, I don’t know what you’ll make of it if you’re male. I guess it depends on whether you’re man enough to come to terms with what the feminine really entails. You’ve got until 23rd September….you’ve already missed your chance to stick a proper Margate Kiss-Me-Quick hat on Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’. Shame.



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