Wednesday 25 January 2012

Pinnacles of masculinity

Surely it cannot be true that men have football instead of emotions? --Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.
As an academic with an inquiring mind, I find myself interested in a great many things. There are very few things which I have no interest in whatsoever, but field sports is one of them. One of the earliest things which I realised marked me out from among the "normal" boys was my complete disinterest in football. (For the avoidance of doubt, the football I mean here is soccer).

Where I grew up, football was ingrained. Knowledge, understanding and appreciation of football was essential for peer acceptance. I possessed none of those.

While I found it easy to learn the binomial nomenclature of living things, I found it impossible to learn anything about football. Conversely, boys in my class who struggled with the simplest of arithmetic and grammar knew seemingly everything about football: all the names of all the players in all the teams. And the peripheral information too: the managers, the grounds, the histories. Who beat whom in the semifinals in 1982, and what the score was.

Of course, I played football at school. The alternative was complete isolation, which was worse. But lacking any enthusiasm for the game, I was basically rubbish at it (yes, I was always the last kid picked for the team). I still don't understand the offside rule. As soon as reasonably possible, I gave up football completely.

I laughed out loud when I read this extract from the wonderful book, Long Way Round, written by Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman. In 2004, they made a trip round the world on motorbikes, telling everyone they were going from London to New York, "the long way round". I saw a new side to Ewan McGregor which I found I really admired, and I found myself deeply moved at many of the situations they found themselves in. I often wish I could do something similar.

In this extract, Ewan and Charlie have just been stopped by the police at a border:
"Are you German?" one of the policeman said.
"No, British. He's English and I'm Scottish", I said, pointing to the flags on our helmets.
"Arsenal!" the policeman exclaimed.
Not a football fan, I nevertheless realised that I should play along. After all, Jamie [their security advisor] had told us there were two English words that were understood the world over: fuck and Beckham.
"Yeah, Arsenal," I said, smiling and trying to look enthusiastic about a team of which I knew nothing.
"Chelsea!" the policeman said. I racked my brain. I knew Chelsea had recently played a team from somewhere in Europe.
"Three-one," the policeman said. "Monaco three. Chelsea one."
I was lost. Football, the male lingua franca, and I couldn't speak a word.
I've had similar conversations with other men my whole life, in which I attempt to feign knowledge or interest in this most uninteresting subject.

My problems are not limited to football, but also rugby, which was played at my secondary school in preference to soccer. Football, they say, is a game for gentlemen, but played by hooligans. Rugby is a game for hooligans, played by gentlemen. Either of those sayings may be true in some circumstances. From my perspective, both seem to be games for hooligans, played by hooligans.

New Zealand is a wonderful country in all respects: outstanding scenery, amazing food and wine, delightful people, and a welcoming, egalitarian society which made me feel instantly at home. I have spent several years there. The national game of NZ is rugby, and the national team is the All Blacks, who won the most recent Rugby World Cup in 2011.

As a student, I knew very little about New Zealand. My girlfriend of the time had been to many more rugby matches than I had, and one day told me about the haka. I had never heard of it. It was, she said, a war dance performed by the All Blacks before their international fixtures. A way of intimidating the opposition, it sounded ridiculous and comical: surely something to provoke amusement rather than intimidation.

It took some years before I eventually witnessed a haka. My jaw dropped. Take a look:

This is very similar to the haka which I first saw. In fact, on YouTube there are dozens of clips to choose from. Even the All Blacks' haka is not a concrete thing, but there are different versions which are performed from time to time.

Clearly it is a Maori war dance. The All Blacks have been doing a haka for over a century, so it's not a new thing. In fact, other island nations have similar intimidating dances which they perform before their games. The history and the translation can be easily found on Wikipedia.

But if you knew nothing of any of this, you would just need to watch it. The haka speaks clearly on a level which transcends all language, culture and geographical boundaries. It is the language of the midbrain, the language of pure testosterone-drenched aggression. Fifteen or so of the toughest, strongest and most powerful players in the world line up, roar, stomp, slap themselves and glare at you with expressions of pure hostility. It looks like rage. It looks like violence. It looks like pain. And it is doesn't contain any of these things!

When I first saw it, I thought it was one of the most thrilling and frightening displays I had ever seen. It still makes me want to run away and hide. I surrender! The reason I find it so powerful is that I know that I would have no meaningful answer to it whatsoever: no threat or physicality to offer in return; this is not true of the opposing team, who are also fifteen or so of the toughest players in the world.

I think the haka is an astonishing thing. I totally get it: I understand its popularity, its longevity, and its widespread imitation. I feel quite strongly, however, that it is unfair for the All Blacks to have the psychological advantage of performing the haka, but according to official rules the other team is not permitted to perform any act of defiance or retribution.

When looking for a pinnacle of masculinity, the haka must be pretty close to it. As someone who is not aggressive or traditionally masculine in any way, even I adore it.

How does one respond to this level of masculinity? You can't fight fire with fire, but you can fight it with another masculine gesture, and a dash of wit:

Sunday 8 January 2012

Tampon Troubles

A lot of controversy has been generated this week by a New Zealand television advertisement for tampons. The brand, Libra, produced a 30-second commercial featuring a crossdresser and a genetic woman in the ladies' room. (It was also planned to be screened in Australia).

The ad features a "competition" between the crossdresser and the girl, as they attempt to outdo each other in an "anything you can do, I can do better" manner: applying lip gloss and mascara, and jiggling their boobs. Finally the girl "wins" by pulling out a small box of tampons, at which the crossdresser stalks out in an apparent huff. The closing line of the commercial is "Libra gets girls".

Cherise Witehira, President of Agender New Zealand, said the ad was "blatantly transphobic" and called for a public apology and the ad to be withdrawn. Although no apology has been issued, the ad has been taken off the air after only a couple of screenings. Thankfully we have YouTube, where we can all watch it as often as we like.

In her interview with TVNZ, Ms Witehira claimed that members of the public, who are not familiar with different categories of transgendered people, would be confused about whether the crossdresser in the ad was a drag queen or a transsexual.

However, the main point of contention seems to be that the ad is claiming that transgendered women are not "real" women, because they don't menstruate. Some very powerful comments to this effect have been left on Libra's Facebook page and in other public fora.

In addition, some commentators are pointing out the ad is just in poor taste. It's not offensive, it's just not that funny.

In fairness, not everyone hates the ad. There are some positive comments in response to the NZ Herald's article about it. Serena writes: The trans community is not speaking for me here. (I'm a 10 years post-operative transwoman). The character is clearly a drag queen, the advert is gentle and funny, and a whole lot of people need to lighten up, they are NOT helping the trans community in any way be being up in arms about nothing. How can people be "disgusted and offended" by this? next they'll get upset by knicker and bra adverts. I'd love to be able to disown the lot of them.

So what do I think about this?

First, one sure fire way to stimulate a great deal of public interest in something is to protest about it. By protesting so strongly, Cherise Witehira has undoubtedly scored an own goal: she has given the ad substantially more publicity than it would otherwise have generated. (It would probably have been screened late at night a dozen or so times, before being eventually dropped).

Second, I deeply sympathise with the plight of transsexual people of all kinds. It's an unspeakably painful experience to go through. Every one of them I have ever met has made enormous sacrifices to be true to themselves: their job, their friends, their marriage. So it's quite understandable that this sort of ad presses an especially tender button with some transsexual people: What do you mean I'm not a real woman?

Third, from an ordinary viewer's perspective, the ad is quite funny, though not a side-splitter. I find ads for feminine sanitary products to be, in general, quite unstimulating. Proving how many gallons of blue water a sanitary pad can absorb is not especially entertaining. I can see how the ad agency was looking for a new angle with a bit of humour thrown in, and I applaud this effort.

And Libra have always tried to inject a bit of humour into their advertising. Take a look at this one, which I think is hilarious, and provoked no complaint at all:

Fourth, it's not quite clear to me what "category" of trans person the ad is supposed to be depicting. It seems the transsexuals are quite clear that they don't identify with the person in the ad, who is described as a "drag queen" in some circles. Is she a drag queen? Or just a glamorous transvestite? It doesn't matter! I confess to being a "lumper" rather than a "splitter", in this regard; which is to say that, as a man who loves to dress as a woman, for me the motivation is less important than the behaviour. Another way to put it is to say that I think there is more than unites us than divides us, and insisting on somewhat arbitrary categorisations is unhelpful. In any case, I wish I could look as good as that!

Finally, from a crossdresser's viewpoint, the ad is quite cool. A person (who is not at first glance a crossdresser) walks into a ladies' room. At second glance, we realise there is something a little different about her (she looks great, IMHO), and we "read" her. So does the girl she is standing beside. Nobody runs screaming. Nobody calls the police. Nobody, in fact, thinks that this is a particularly inappropriate thing for her to be doing. In fact, the crossdresser and the girl begin to size each other up, and compete with each other, on the same terms. The only way in which the girl can "win" this competition is by changing the terms: you look as good as me, you dress as well as me, you can apply as many cosmetics as me, but I've got a uterus and you don't. (This is actually a cheap shot, which makes the girl (not the crossdresser) look bad, and is one reason why the ad doesn't succeed: the tampon wins, but does not win without (just a little) cruelty).

But stepping aside from this parting shot, the scenario of the ad is quite positive. It implies that crossdressers can just go out to bars like everyone else, and adopt the role and persona of women without anyone being upset by it. And the very premise of the ad is that it's acceptable for crossdressers to behave in this way. Surely some encouragement can be taken from that?

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Green Eyed Monster

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on. --Iago.
I was listening to this podcast this week from the BBC. The broadcaster was Alain de Botton, who is, among other things, a modern philosopher. The podcast was on the subject of social climbing, but touched on the subject of envy.

Envy, de Botton argues, is not always a negative thing, although it has had a bit of a bad press, being one of the classical Seven Deadly Sins. In the context of social climbing, he points out that in order for us to advance in anything, we must first desire the qualities of those above us. Envy gives us the "energy to achieve".

Not envious: silverback
From the point of view of biology, many social animals, including primates, have a social hierarchy which is established by various sexual characteristics such as physical strength and aggression. This hierarchy is fluid, and changes depending on the relative strengths and successes of members of the group (for a well-known example, read Jack London's Call of the Wild). In our modern human world, the trappings of reproductive success are not necessarily physical (although beautiful, fit people are highly sought-after for reproduction), but may include money, celebrity and possessions.

There are a couple of times in my life when I have unquestionably felt deep envy. As a teenager, I had a friend who came from a wealthy family. He invited me round one day to see his father's new Lamborghini. As I sat in the driving seat and gripped the wheel, the car was, to me a complete object of desire, and simultaneously unobtainable; at the time it cost more than my parents' house. I was upset for the rest of the day; angry and resentful with my friend, even angry at my dad: why couldn't he get a better-paid job? Even although my friend's attitude was not "Look what I've got that you haven't", but "Come and share this lovely thing with us". His father even took me for a drive in it, the one and only time in my life I have ever been in such a car.

Thankfully I learned to cope with that envy. Our friendship survived and endures still. In general I find I am not envious: I am happy with my life, even if I don't own a sports car. (And would I really be happier if I had one? Surely not!).

Then a couple of years ago, I was walking in the centre of a European capital city with my family. I was carrying one of my kids, aged about 2, on my shoulders. It was a pleasant sunny afternoon; the streets were busy and the cafes bustling. As we walked up the hill, I saw a young woman ahead of me bending down to get something out of her bag. She had fantastic legs, a lovely figure, lavish long dark hair and looked dazzling. I couldn't help looking at her, and I am sure I was not the only one.

Envious of this: me
As I drew level with her, she straightened up and looked right at me. And she was a boy: of that I am absolutely certain. I do not know what emotion registered on my face, but she immediately looked away. We walked a little further on and I turned to look back at her. I am certain that she knew she had been read, since she looked at me again. Very shortly afterward, she got into a taxi with a companion and sped off.

I found myself very upset. My wife, who hadn't seen any of this, couldn't understand why I had been previously cheerful and became suddenly tense and silent. Even I couldn't at first identify why I was so upset. It was only later on that I realised that I was experiencing that cold metallic sensation of pure envy.

The girl I saw looked fantastic, was comfortable (and passable) crossdressing in public, and (I presumed) was on her way to some social event with her friend (who was also presenting as female, but I didn't get enough of a look at her). For me to achieve that is as impossible as to buy a Lamborghini. Sometimes, when I am dressing alone at home with the blinds drawn, I remind myself of that, and that doesn't help in any way at all!

If there was emotion written on my face when I looked at that girl, it was longing. The emotion of envy completely overwhelmed me, and prevented me from smiling, saying "Hi, you look fantastic. Do you mind if I ask where you got those shoes?" and turning the encounter into a pleasant event for both of us. Instead, she probably thought "Let's get in this taxi quick, before that creepy guy comes back".

If de Botton is right, envy is a clue to our most fundamental desires. If I were to actually buy a Lamborghini, I could just about do it, but it would mean selling my house, among other changes so profound that they cannot reasonably be made (and the truth is, I don't really want one any more). Likewise, regular public crossdressing would, in all likelihood, involve sacrifices which are too great to be reasonably made.

So there you have it. My desires are clear, but the limitations of my situation equally clear. And between those two things there is an insoluble tension which causes considerable discomfort at times.

My encounters with other trans people have not always elicited this same response, as I will no doubt get round to posting in the fullness of time.