Sunday 31 January 2016

Representation matters.

“I want every single person who doesn't think representation matters to look at queer folk mourning Bowie and try to believe those words.”
– Wolferfly (on Twitter).

Yes, representation matters. To be able to see ourselves, or someone like ourselves, reflected in the wider culture gives us (an often crucial) permission to be ourselves. See, it's okay to be this way.

But David Bowie wasn't that person for me. In the early 70s I was still at junior school and Bowie's gender transgression hardly registered. I don't think I even noticed that he was wearing "girls' clothes" and stuff, and it probably wouldn't have mattered if I had. That wasn't how I wanted to wear girls' clothes. I wanted to wear them like a girl, not a young genderqueer boy (even if I'd had words for anything like that). So, to me, Bowie was just another wildly dressed star of glam rock; and of those bands the pictures on my wall were of Slade, T. Rex, and The Sweet, not Bowie. (I do now have Aladdin Sane from back then, but it was bought long after, and mainly because of Mike Garson's piano on the title track.)

In their 2010 book, Missed Her, Ivan Coyote writes about growing up in isolation. Many (most) of us whose formative years were pre-internet surely know about that. Certainly, I knew no one like me, and had no one to look to either. What I mostly recall is a progression of ridicule and shame:

  • Frank Spencer in Betty's nightdress in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em – cue audience laughter as the credits roll. (I just wanted to wear it.)
  • Monty Python's ‘Lingerie Shop’ sketch – which is all about shame: it's an elaborate excuse to be in that shop.
  • Norman Bates as his mother in Psycho – cross-dresser as murderous psychotic with a mother fixation.
  • Pink Floyd's Arnold Layne – more disparagement; it's not the same.
  • Anthony Storr's book Sexual Deviation – part of the Pelican series ‘Studies in Social Pathology’... and that's all I have to say about that.
  • Corporal Klinger in M.A.S.H. – played for laughs; it's his attempt to gain a psychiatric discharge.
  • Jeffrey Tambor as Judge Alan Wachtel in Hill Street Blues – another joke character, supposedly accessing his "female" side.
  • Cross-dressers in a seedy underground club in an Oscar Wilde TV serial – nothing positive to see here, move on.
  • Cross-dressing boy in a TV drama (by Alan Bleasdale?) set in Liverpool – it was just a phase.
  • Margaret Thatcher's male cabinet dancing in lingerie in Spitting Image – okay, I laughed at that one too.
  • Tim Curry in the Rocky Horror Picture Show – so outrageously positive I couldn't see it as such until much later.

When you're growing up – if that ever stops – such relentless negativity bears down heavily upon the imagination, but it doesn't crush it entirely. (Metaphor: a plant shut in a dark shed still tries to grow.) And in the absence of standard iconography, we find our own. I had:

  • Teddy Robinson and his “best purple dress”. (What Joan G. Robinson was exploring here, I'm not sure; perhaps nothing, though it seems quite radical in retrospect.)
  • Robin the Boy Wonder, whose outfit was very femme – that yellow cape; those matching green pants, gloves and pixie boots.
  • Jo Grant in The Green Death, which was the beginning of my fondness for furry coats. (I now have six.)
  • Alice in Wonderland, as played by a boy in a play at school. That could have been me; instead, I had a small undistinguished part as the dormouse.
  • Barbara Good in The Last Posh Frock, yelling at Tom about there being men, women and Barbaras; missing the point, I saw myself as a Barbara. (Watching it again, the real point is Barbara's thwarted need to express her femininity, and of course I can relate to that too.)

It's interesting what we remember, what affected us, who influenced us, and why. We all (or at least most of us) need someone. Representation matters.

As it happens, David Bowie wasn't a very significant figure in my life. But send me back to the 1970s and he probably would be.