Monday 7 November 2011

School Days

As a child, I read voraciously. Naturally, I read girls' stories and comics as well as boys' ones. I was astonished to come across a story serial called Cuckoo in the Nest, in the girls' comic Tammy. In this serial, a boy is forced by his wide-boy uncle Fred to enrol at the prestigious Nesterfield Girls' School (known as "the Nest"). If he succeeds in passing as a girl, he will inherit a large bequest from his great aunt Hermione, who expects to visit her "niece" in the school at the end of term.

As a boy, I recognised that there was something very powerful about this story. The protagonist, Leslie, is naturally unwilling to begin with. He is embarrassed and angry, and struggles with his complete unfamiliarity with being a girl: how to dress, how to talk, how to behave. Naturally the school is a traditional English public school complete with all sorts of rules, and a very strict headmistress. However, after a while he begins to prosper, after a fashion.

Worth a read: Boy2Girl
I can find very little on the Internet about this obscure story from a comic book which went out of business years ago. However, there is an interesting critique here at Booksmonthly. On the face of it, the story is a comedy. (Though crossdressing and drag are often used as a vehicle for comedy, I just don't find crossdressing funny in itself). On a more intellectual level (which I totally missed as a child), there is a positive message about feminism: Leslie manages to shake up the school and its old-fashioned ways, and introduce some more modern ideas to the girls.

It's been thirty years since I read this story, yet I still remember it very clearly. Obviously what set it apart for me was its central theme of crossdressing; not merely crossdressing but forced crossdressing, with the spicy thrill of the consequences of discovery. As a child I was simultaneously appalled and enthralled by what might happen if Leslie were ever outed. (Unfortunately I don't ever remember reading a denouement to the story, so I never found out if he made it to the end of term safely!). I frequently thought about what I would do in his circumstances.

More recently, Terence Blacker wrote a novel called Boy2Girl. As you can tell by its textish title, this book is much more modern than Cuckoo in the Nest. However, some of its underlying principles are similar. Sam, a prepubescent 13 year old American boy (who conveniently has long blond hair) is enrolled as a girl at a London school by way of a dare. The book touches on many aspects of the emotional turbulence of adolescence, and allows both boys and girls a glimpse of what the "other side" is feeling. The underlying theme of the book appears to be that Sam gets on better as a girl: he is able to express his emotions more freely (including crying), and becomes popular at school (having never been so as a boy). The book also treats cross-gender behaviour with sympathy rather than ridicule.

Schoolgirls: archetypal
I find myself wondering what it is about schoolgirls which is attractive to crossdressers. I suspect that it's because so many of us become aware of our crossdressing feelings in school, and find those feelings mixed up amid crushes and enfatuations and powerful sexual awakenings. "We covet what we see every day". Like the maid, the bride, the nurse, and other female archetypes, the schoolgirl (with her irresistable mixture of innocence and powerful sexuality) is something some crossdressers aspire to.

Naturally girls themselves play on that same theme: an unforgettable example is Britney Spears's ...Baby One More Time video. This girl here is also having fun with the stereotype: you're not going to tell me that's her real school uniform!

The other fiction I read as a child (and adored) was the Famous Five series, by Enid Blyton. The Famous Five were Julian, Anne, Dick, Timmy the dog, and George. Except, of course, George was a girl whose real name was Georgina, and she liked to dress as a boy and wear her hair short, and she adopted boyish mannerisms and characteristics. It seemed perfectly acceptable, even laudable, for George to behave in this manner, and adults were often very indulging. (There is a school of thought that Blyton based the character of George on herself; certainly it seems pretty likely that she wasn't the warm cheery children's storyteller that we all expect her to be). I seem to remember identifying most with Anne, who was the most feminine of the group, although I also identified with Julian, who was always a sensible leader. But gender roles aside, I thought it was wonderful how free the children seemed from adult interference when they had their adventures.
Forced: Cuckoo in the Nest

How would it have been if Julian had insisted on dressing as a girl, and calling himself Julia? Why should that be any different? And yet it clearly is. I am certain that Blyton would never have dreamed of such a character back then, and even today it would be hard to pull off (both the authors of Cuckoo in the Nest and Boy2Girl seem to take pains to highlight the irrepressible boyish tendencies of both their lead characters. Enjoy it? Gosh no! They are forced to crossdress by circumstances, but they don't want to do it, let alone take any pleasure in it. How could you think otherwise?)

While tomboy carries certain positive connotations, its opposite, sissy, has none (I am not referring to sissy in its fetishistic sense here). And this is something I realised very early in life. It's fine, even praiseworthy, for girls to adopt certain aspects of male behaviour, but it still isn't fine for boys to adopt any aspects of female behaviour.

From a very early age I was schooled both implicitly and explicitly that boys were expected to behave in certain ways. That pattern of behaviour was considered so meritorious that even girls who chose to emulate it were praised. It was not considered acceptable for boys to behave in any remotely girly way. As a boy I recognised that I was very unlike other boys in lots of ways (and indeed as a man I am quite far removed from the "typical" man). Finding I had to suppress my feminine side caused me tremendous unhappiness, and those occasions when it unavoidably escaped caused me great stress and guilt, a guilt which still persists (and may be part of the reason for this blog).

So it is not really a surprise that Cuckoo in the Nest stays in my memory. There was a boy who was not only able to express his femininity, he was required to. A lucky boy indeed.

Further Reading

Georgia at BroadBlogs has a couple of relevant posts here and here and even here, which touch on these themes. In essence, her point of view (and I agree) is that gender ranking makes male attributes more desirable than female ones.


  1. Grok here. I recall a link that was posted to Skirt Cafe. Clothing is tainted by Gender Ranking. In general, it is considered demeaning for a male to wear clothing that deemed feminine. Skirts are a badge of inferiority. (Which leads to Trousers Tyranny.) Which makes it very difficult to sell skirt like garments to mainstream men, including garments specifically designed for men-I believe that a few companies have already gone out of business. In the meantime, I think that Freestylers/Casuial Crossdressers are kidding themselves. Based on the ralphinadress blog, I expect such people to be called Gay and thereby dismissed.

    1. Gender Ranking is a very interesting phenomenon that you bring up. You are right that, in so many ways, women are still considered less able, less productive than men. I am certain that's why tomboy is a compliment and sissy is an insult (and janegirl is probably little better). I naturally think this state of affairs is highly regrettable.


  2. Could we borrow terms from other cultures? Are there cultures with benign terms for nonconformist males?

    1. Yes, but I think they are largely culturally-dependent. To simply borrow the word wouldn't fix the problem. What we need is to borrow the concept.