Given the endless twaddle about trans that gets trotted out in the media – week in, week out – it's almost a relief to read a book about gender (partly) which has nothing to do with that.
In his autobiographical ‘How Not to Be a Boy’, Robert Webb, the comedy partner of Victoria Coren's husband (sorry, but that's how I think of him) writes about his life growing up in Lincolnshire, concentrating on his childhood and teenage years (usually the most entertaining if done right), and hanging it all on the hook of gender. Or, more specifically, gender conditioning in the form of “The Trick”.
As Webb describes it: “‘The Trick’ is the family code-word for the incoming tide of gender bullshit that Ezzie, Dory [his two daughters] and their friends (including the boys) will spend their lives wading through. The idea that boys and girls, men and women, have different roles to play in life according to the different contributions they make to a shared reproductive system is one they are going to have to deal with whether we like it or not. So they might as well have a name for it.”
Or as I might put it: How children (and adults) both learn and are taught to suppress, according to the presumed arrangements of their genitals, certain parts of their personalities in order to fit in with arbitrary and oppressive cultural notions of binary gender.
Or as his daughter, Esme, more succinctly put it (aged six): “The Trick that makes boys unhappy and girls get rubbish jobs”.
In telling his story – of relationships (familial and otherwise), of feelings, of secret thoughts (referring to his – *facepalm* – teenage diaries), and relating how all of these were unhelpfully affected by gender expectations – Webb exemplifies the view that being (sometimes) a bit of a dickhead is a universal facet of the human condition and, consequently, he doesn't spare himself any on that account. It's not an easy thing to pull off. Self-castigating honesty, however admirable, can quickly prove tiresome if it's of the “aren't I terrible” variety, whether with a wink or a sob. But Webb totally succeeds by being funny about it, very funny, even if it's often cringe humour:
‘If I get this right, Tess Rampling will definitely want to have sex with me.’ The idea slouches through my fifteen-year-old brain and disappears before I've had time to ask it exactly why a sixth-former of Rampling's cosmic beauty would want to have sex with a GCSE pit-sniffer like me. I take Rick Astley's ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ out of its paper bag and gaze at his pink face.’
Those are the first three sentences, by the way. If they already have you smiling, you're probably going to like this book. I won't quote any more such since there is a narrative of sorts, if not a strictly linear one, and I don't want to spoil it for you. And it's not really relevant to this blog anyway.
More so: On page 48 Webb throws in a recommendation of Cordelia Fine's ‘Delusions of Gender’. Okay, he's definitely got me on his side now. (In my opinion, Fine's book should on the National Curriculum.) And he reinforces this further with a passage on page 87:
I promise I am not being wilfully dense about this. I don't know what the words ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ have to offer. Avoiding them, we still have a massive language of more precise words to describe individuals and their behaviour which somehow manage not to come pre-loaded with a steam tanker of gender manure from the last century. If we want to say that David Beckham puts a lot of thought into his appearance, then we can say ... oh, I've just done it. I didn't need to bring his sex into it. Or his attitude to his sex. I don't have to view his personality through the prism of his famously golden balls, assuming that were either possible or desirable. I could say Lily Allen's songs are full of swearwords which are at odds with her ‘femininity’ – or I could get a life.
Abso-fucking-lutely. And without the useless baggage of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, we might eventually get somewhere like page 322:
I mean to offer (...) a wider understanding of what it is to be a boy. That it's OK to cry. It's OK to talk about what's wrong. It's OK to play with girls if you like them, to dress like girls if you want to, to like the colour pink if you like it, to want to hang out with your mum if you love her company, to not be all that bothered about football if you're not all that bothered about football.
I'm certainly down with all that. Bring it on right now – or preferably even sooner. Apart from the bit about football anyway. Obviously everybody likes football.
As a footnote, I'd just add that none of that has very much to do with trans. Trans is not about gender conformity. (The trans community is hugely gender diverse.) In particular, seeing as Webb has since tweeted concern on this subject, gender non-conformity in children is not an indication that they're automatically trans and need to be "fixed" by switching binary genders. No gender-literate person – and trans people tend to be extremely gender-literate – would ever claim as much. That's why we mostly favour gender-affirmative approaches, whereby vulnerable children are simply given space and support to be themselves (ourselves), gender-wise, without any destination in mind, clinical or otherwise. In the meantime, if the rest of society would please hurry up and get its stupid gender shit together, that'd be great – for them as well as us.