12 October 2016

Men, ladies, women, children, and pigs

I spent the day digging up missing parts of the story of a development that I’m trying to write. A friend has traced some missing links in architectural journals and emailed me the news. It’s a building that exists now – on the edge of London’s docklands – and I’ve been trying to trace how it came into being. It was built, or at least designed, early in the process of the docks’ transition from old warehouses, repair shops and derelict yards into what I serially see referred to as a “trading entrepot”. One of things I’m doing is looking at the interpersonal linkages between various agents. There’s a whole untold story about freemasonry and lunchtime pints I fear. It’s a man thing. It’s strange, being a woman – oh sure, for anyone, but maybe especially for women – and seeing how your environment has been so shaped by a certain kind of man in a suit.

And then, this evening, I get my hair cut. By a man. And since I’m early I pop into a shop to look for a present for my nephew’s forthcoming birthday. Construction toy upon construction toy. Meaty looking action dolls for boys. Dolls adorned in hazardous flammable horrors for girls. Both the kids like construction toys, but my niece has – much to the bafflement of parents, grandparent, and aunt – developed a deep love of pink. Or rather the idea of pink. She used to be content for you just to call a colour pink (the coat is orange, but if you say it’s pink, she’s happy), but now, she lays claim to all the things that are pink and purple. He has blue, she has pink. Yes. I find it tough.

But in the shop there’s a Peppa Pig moon rocket (it’s quaint to say moon rocket isn’t it? But I rather like the sound of it). It’s too young for him, and anyway, it doesn’t make any sounds or flash any lights. But it’s got doors and a handle and I think, she’d like it. She likes Peppa. I can’t cope with children’s TV – don’t get me started on Octonauts with its gang of sensitive men, its big white chief, and its sole female (kooky and Asian) – so I’ll admit to not being an expert on Peppa, but I understand she belongs to a nuclear family.


She wears a dress, her brother wears blue dungarees or somesuch. Papa Pig seems to do nothing but sleep and read the paper (don’t follow this link if you are keeping your browser history free of the Daily Mail) and is in the words of columnist Robert Hardman, Papa Pig “is an obese serial incompetent who fails at every menial task and is a general disappointment to his litter.” The Peppa Pig motor caravan toy has him manning a barbecue. He drives the car. But Mama Pig, when I’ve seen her, seems to do most of the housework (including washing his football shirts) and DIY as well as have a money-paying job, which she conducts from her kitchen table. The picture of perfected multi-tasking. The Guardian says it’s feminist. How’s that feminist? I’m with the Mail on this one. The gender politics are deeply suspect. Feminist would be to show the family constantly on the threshold of mania.

Today, my brother is looking after my niece. They’re both fabulously coated in purple glue and cut up magazines. He does compressed hours and has Wednesdays with her. He and his wife split things pretty well. “Silly Daddy” is a phrase that gets said a lot to him, like Papa Pig, but not because of incompetence – more likely something ambitious and enriching that’s not quite come off, or a funny improvised song that delights them – and my sister in law is often at the table with her laptop full of work with a child swinging on her leg whining for attention. But then, we all are.

Yesterday, my nephew said – I forget what the catalyst was – that I was a man. Earlier in the day, I’d laughed, a shocked sort of laugh, at an email that contained the dresscode for a major international conservation conference: button-down shirts and chinos or slacks for men. Dresses and skirts (stockings unnecessary) for women (I’m told it was gloriously ignored, thankfully).

I said I wasn’t a man, and asked why he’d said I was. He said I looked like one. They both stopped their industrious cutting (I was helping Binh Tam do his homework – due the next day) and asked immensely difficult questions about sex and gender. Things have moved on since I, invited by the tutor in an undergraduate art history seminar to explain to my classmates, defined sex as biologically given and gender as culturally determined. And so I try to avoid crass or hard definitions now and introduce a libertarian notion of some people are like this, some people are like that, and we can all be however we feel. My niece, Binh An, insists she’s a LADY. Her method of delivery of this fact always makes me laugh. You can probably guess who she sounds like. I say, hedging, but keen that she put the reins on her acceleration to a constrained view of femininity, I think you need to be grown up to be a lady. She gets cross. I let it go. They ask what I am. I say I’m a woman. WOMAN! They shout. WOMAN! Great glee at this new word. The more they shout it the better it sounds, to them also I think. I’m not one who thinks “lady” is a term that scourges feminism. It is what it is, commonplace and almost always intended respectfully. Even I struggle with saying things like “say thank you to the woman,” let alone “person.” For me, there are better fights to pick. Like this one. “Lots of women have short hair and wear trousers” say I. It’s not like they’re ignorant of various bodies, so I’m a little taken aback by their abstract notions of what makes a man or a lady. We get into a conversation, predictably about willies and “ginas”. My niece lists endless family and friends and enquires after who has what. A few of them, I don’t know, so I say, “I don’t know” which gives a pleasing ambiguity to this otherwise binary affair, even if it miscasts some folk. I sometimes have a gripe with current gender politics. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve corrected people who have been discussing transphobia when talking about butch lesbians. That’s homophobia. Butches are by and large women. I’d like a whole load more room in the notion of both man and woman for all manner of identities.

I finished the homework off after I’d put them to bed. The glue had stuck to its lid and I had to get some more. We’d failed to register that it had to be handed in the following day. “Triage” a friend said of children’s homework when I said it was a patriarchal plot, thinking of all the Mama Pigs who come home from work only to find they need to cut the phase 2 “tricky words” (go, no, into, to, the, and I, since you ask) out of magazines with their kids. To separate the parents with capacity to care from those without, she said. But it’s an unnecessary pressure on any family where parent(s) work full time.

But here is a Peppa Pig moonrocket with no flashing lights. It’s not until I’m on the way home with my man-hair freshly shorn that I see it’s whining George, Peppa’s brother, who flies this moon rocket. He’s wearing a spacesuit and looks perfectly sexless, so I’ll tell her it’s Peppa. She can damn well fly a moon rocket if she wants to.


Meanwhile. We’re haunted by these endless parades of men in suits, still building the fabric of the way we live (and look what happens when they don’t wear a suit). One in particular seems to haunt the media at the moment with his choice opinions on women. The “as a father of daughters” meme has been fun to watch, and we enjoy the clip of that man’s daughter dodging his embrace. It could be heartening, this deconstruction of the besuited. It could be. If they didn’t then get a ninth life as a foreign secretary or something. But it starts here. Daddy Pig drives the car. George Pig goes to the moon. My niece is praised at her nursgooery for “getting it right” when she draws her family in height order, blues for the hims and pinks for the hers (I wasn’t in that picture). I tell them a story and find halfway through that, unusally, I must say, all my characters are men. I introduce a female dolphin and a female tortoise and some gender undetermined bonobos, and my swallows become theys. I wish I could introduce some women into the tale of 1980s planning I’m writing. But there’s only one and we tend to see her as the devil. Ironic really, since she so intended to reduce the power of those all-male cartels. And the woman who’s in the media now. Damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. I’m no fan. But y’know. Masons. Lizards. Illuminati. TV. Schools. Parents. Stop telling girls they can’t go to the moon and stop projecting fat pigs as continually forgiven. It would be nice if all manner of beasts had a share in creating our environment without these peculiar archaic prejudices we insist on foisting on them.


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