On Containing Identity

One pleasure amid the shifted normality of school in lockdown is to have the opportunity to teach a module in Gender Studies as a pre-university elective opportunity for boys who would, in normal circumstances, have been completing A Level exams and jetting off on post-school holidays together. It has given me the chance to formalize some of my own informal interests in the area, developed from a social justice and personal perspective, and to translate into my teaching previous study as part of my previous Classics PhD and current Theology MTh work. However, such reflections inevitably begin to develop one’s thinking beyond the academic – indeed a lot of our discussion has hinged on a particular issue: the potential disjunction between the academic/theoretical and lived experience.

In truth, it is less the academic ramifications of this module that have been of interest than the practical consequences that have surrounded it. I should perhaps begin with a note of gratitude: teaching as I do within a Roman Catholic school, I was thankful to be allowed to run the course at all, given the tensions that it might seem to pose with Catholic teaching. I am also grateful to have found the students on the course not only to be open-minded, but also to be well-informed, and keen to learn and to challenge themselves. In general, few colleagues have made much mention of the course or its themes, other than to express (often considerable) surprise at the fact that any boys have chosen to take it. However, on the one occasion when I was asked about it in front of a couple of senior colleagues I’d run into on site, the response I encountered was one of homophobic joking between these two men (within my earshot but not directed to me), including derogatory comments about the possible sexuality of one of the participants. This I knew was the basis from which I would be working in trying to normalize any progressive discussion of gender within this community, but I was nonetheless struck by the blatant way in which their homophobia was manifested.

However, it is in an at once more subtle and more blatant way that gender prejudice has been exposed as part of this experience. In part this was brought about by my own naivety. To set the scene, I have long worn my hair in a short and high-maintenance pixie crop. When lockdown began and hairdressers closed, I was left with the prospect of an unappealing mullet or investing in clippers and doing my best to manage it myself. I had been doing this with semi-successful results until this month, when I made the decision, perhaps unwise in hindsight, to crop all of it to half a centimetre across my whole head.

I suppose in part I was full of my reading of Judith Butler and discussions about gender performativity. Although happy in my own female identity, I have long since adopted a look that moves somewhat fluidly between masculine and feminine aesthetics: short hair and heavy makeup; waistcoats and stiletto heels; floral tops with leather jackets; piercings and tattoos with dresses. None of this has ever seemed either controversial or unusual, though I have had responses that veer from compliments on my ‘androgynous style’ to unpleasant comments about my ‘lesbian hair’. And so to me, armed with my clippers on a Sunday afternoon, it didn’t seem a big step to cut off all my hair into a traditionally ‘masculine’ style: I had often wondered in the past how it would look and feel, and lockdown seemed like a good time to give it a try.

I am not so naïve as to have thought it wouldn’t be controversial. It even took me a while to stop the double-take whenever I caught sight of my reflection. At the same time, I liked the results: it felt empowering to have stripped away an aspect of my appearance that I and others were so used to. Nevertheless, at the same time I also found myself applying extra lipstick, checking my face more carefully than usual, implying not only increased self-consciousness but also a desire to make sure I was maintaining the ‘feminine’ aspects of my appearance to their utmost.

I reflected a lot on my own responses and tried to anticipate those of others. I forewarned my parents before their weekly Skype call, for fear of heart attacks. I assessed responses from my friends carefully, to try to predetermine what more hostile responses might look like. My regular circle were kind, and some friends and colleagues were very positive: ‘punk’ and ‘cool’ were the more generous adjectives, though more cautious responses spoke about associations for them between shaved heads and recovering patients. My parents, primed as they were, restrained their horror admirably, but were most concerned by how ‘unfeminine’ I looked and what ‘message’ I was trying to send. One friend also asked me whether I thought I would be more at risk of arrest if out and about in public! I had an honest conversation with my students, where we analysed how we felt it changed perceptions about me, and one of them shared the experience of a female friend who had acted similarly after a hair-dyeing disaster and now felt almost unable to leave her home. I became more aware of the strength of feeling that lies around self-expression through hair, and how much it affects people.

In spite of what I thought I had done to assess likely responses, I was nonetheless unprepared for the email from the Head Master, subject line: ‘Hair’. I should perhaps add a little context: there is nothing in the staff policy prohibiting women having short hair. Furthermore, the clothing policy has been suspended while we are teaching remotely, and we are not returning to school physically this term. Male colleagues in my time here have had long hair, shaved heads, and everything in between. In normal circumstances, I conform with little objection to the clothing policy, even wearing a jacket at all times (a rule that strictly seems to apply only to male staff), and always covering my tattoos during the school day.

However, the Head wished to enquire ‘what had happened’ to my hair. When I expressed that I had cut it off for the rest of lockdown, he raised concerns about parental perception. He was concerned specifically with the fact that he has just promoted me, with effect from September, into a role with a considerable public-facing element, implying that relationships with current and future parents would be undermined by the image he felt I projected. Clearly he must have realized that there was little he could do in the short-term, but he evidently wished to make it apparent that such a hairstyle would not be appropriate in the future. However, he did not express to me what he actually thought was wrong with a woman sporting very short hair.

In writing this, I have given a lot of thought about the extent to which I should be ashamed of my response. Because all I did was to assure him that it would have grown back by the end of the summer, acknowledging that I understood it was not uncontroversial (while also expressing my frustration at that fact). I did not raise the question of the discrepancy between his treatment of his male and female staff. I did not ask him to explain to me what exactly he considered to be wrong with my appearance. I did not protest my right to express my identity in a way that I choose, especially given that it does not contravene regulations. I did not object to the perpetuation of only conservative aesthetics or heteronormative gender performance. I just tried to quash the issue in the way that I felt would cause least damage to my own position and relationship with my employer.

If this were just about me, I don’t think that I would feel so bad. However, in the same week I had published a statement as part of a press-release regarding my new leadership role that had expressly referred to creating an environment at the school in which all pupils could grow into their own identities. And yet I had just colluded with the limitations that we place upon what those identities should look like. Like many independent schools, we have a strict uniform policy, and, as we go co-educational, this will include different uniforms dictated along binary gender lines. Our hair policy is not as strict as many schools’, but certainly draws implicit lines along traditional gender expectations for boys’ hair and girls’. Although identity expression is obviously limited in all ways by the very existence of school uniform and appearance policies, the effect these have on freedom to perform gender is particularly palpable.

My decision to cut off my hair was not a strong statement of my gender identity, although it is certainly a manifestation of certain important aspects of how I perceive and present myself. As much as I like the look, it will not be hard for me to let go of this period of self-expression once my hair grows out again. But for others this might not be the case. I have learned the lesson that to survive in the contemporary workplace it may well be necessary to comply with the unwritten rules as well as with policies, and, in this sense, I suppose uniform policies prepare our students well. A part of me knows that just to have presented pupils, even for a short period and only via video calls, with an alternative view of a woman’s appearance may help progress acceptance of difference. But I must now accept that, on this occasion at least, I have also failed to stand up and ask those who create and perpetuate rules that may be harmful to those whose identities fall further outside traditional norms how they justify doing so.

I am not unsympathetic, or at least not without understanding, of the position of a Head Master trying to attract parents to consider a fee-paying school with a conservative identity. He is not wrong that people balk at the presentation of non-normative identities. And yet we are educators and, furthermore, we are Christian educators, whose love of the individual for who they are in the image of God is supposed to be at the heart of everything we do. If we seek to police and indeed close down the expression of individual identity in this way, are we really fulfilling our calling and our duty?

Beaten by a girl: cricket, academics, and the perception of gender

It was a beautiful summer’s afternoon, the sort that makes the Trinity term seem, in one’s memory, like a blissful few weeks of sunny outings, drinks receptions on the terrace, picnics on the lawn, rather than the reality of exam panic, report-writing, and chaotic upheaval to the normal school routine. Out on what must be one of the most beautiful cricket pitches in the country, the school’s first XI (all young men aged between 12 and 18) took on a county women’s team, in an exciting and enjoyable afternoon of play.

The afternoon has stayed in my memory less because of the cricket (I’m trying to learn to appreciate the game, but I confess I have a long way to go), and more because of an anecdote with which I was regaled by the coach after the match: in the spirit of ‘banter’ with one of his players, who had just come in from batting, he had wittily admonished the young man with a cry of, ‘At your age, you’re supposed to be taking girls out, they aren’t supposed to be catching you out!’.

I was not present at the initial delivery of this ‘quip’, so I do not know in what spirit it was received, nor indeed in what state of mind the batsman was at the time, whether dejected, resigned, or pleased with his performance. I do know that, however poorly thought through, the remark was well-intentioned, rightly or wrongly intended to help rather than hinder morale among the team and rapport between boy and coach. By and large, I think this is also how it was received by the audience alongside me for its retelling in the Ref after the match.

None of this removes the fact that this kind of comment epitomizes for me a very typical way that persists in speaking to young men about their relationship with women, not only in a sporting environment, but across the spectrum of ordinary life-situations, at school and beyond. I am not, of course, alone in noticing this nor getting riled by it, but I am also concerned that my perception that everybody is starting to bristle at everyday comments such as these is, in fact, skewed by the echo-chamber of my own Twitter account and social circle outside of work. Among my colleagues, and plenty of other people I encounter in the wider world, I suspect many would have thought of the comments as nothing more than a passable witticism, and certainly would not agree with my own analysis. I therefore have a particular personal concern with it as a teacher of boys, who will shortly become a teacher of girls again, too, when the school becomes coeducational in a year’s time.

I see two particular issues raised in microcosm by the cricket comment. The first, which I shall perhaps return to more fully in another post later, is the reduction of male-female relationships to the (implicitly) sexual before anything else. The role, here, of the man is to ‘take girls out’, that is to initiate ‘dates’ or other encounters that, if not actually erotic, have overtones of leading to an erotic relationship of some sort. As well as being explicitly heteronormative, if not heterosexist, in its worldview, the assumptions behind this are also that men are sexual initiators who control the woman in the encounter, ‘taking’ girls out running deeper than just the play on words.

The second issue is of course the message that it is ‘bad’ for a boy to be beaten by a girl. Leaving aside the question of whether or not it is ‘bad’ for a school cricketer to go out against a county team, we have a huge problem if schoolboys are being told that there is something inherently wrong with a woman being better than them at sport, or indeed at anything else. To take this to its logical extent, we must conclude that boys are receiving the message that their maleness alone should give them a right to do well. And, on the flip side to this, that to be beaten by a girl is ‘emasculating’ or a failure to themselves and their gender. Furthermore, since it is still early days in the appreciation that cricket (and other traditionally ‘male’ sports) may be played and excelled in by women, we have a potential added pastoral concern here, that young men are being told that they are failing specifically in their gendered role if they can be beaten by a woman in a ‘man’s world’. Take that perspective on cricket and apply it, for example, to the City workplace, and we have a far more concerning issue on our hands than gender in sports-‘man’-ship.

As part of a school community preparing itself to welcome girls into a long-standing masculine all-boys institution, I am hyperaware of the damage this sort of messaging is doing not only now, but also looking forward. One of the questions I am frequently asked is whether I think that the introduction of girls into the school is going to boost our overall academic achievement, or, more specifically, improve the academic achievement and attitude among boys at the school. On the one hand, I understand where this question is coming from, especially as parents, staff, and pupils alike come to terms with the changes that will occur in a school whose single-sex identity may have played a part in their decision to join its community, and wish to understand the possible benefits. I have read the research and think that academic improvements among the boys may well be a by-product, if we get the transition right, and I am fully aware that I have said so in response to such questioning.

However, the comment of my cricketing colleague, along with other daily encounters with similar messaging, has also left me with another concern. The more we answer ‘yes’ to the claim that introducing girls can have a positive impact on boys’ academic achievement, or use it as part of a justification for going co-ed, the more we are at risk of promoting, however inadvertently, another message to our young men: academic achievement is what girls do. We are, implicitly, claiming the academic sphere for the girls. We may, therefore, end up with the same sort of negative by-products as I see promoted in our cricket match. On the one hand, we have already sent a message to boys that they should not allow themselves to be beaten by girls, which will therefore challenge the place of girls’ success and their right to do well once they join the school. However, we may also have started to promote the idea that while boys should be triumphing at the cricket ground, the academic sphere is the girls’ – after all that’s why they are joining the school, we told everyone – and to succeed there (arguably a greater challenge in our current school culture than it would be for boys to succeed at cricket) is in fact also to emasculate oneself, a gendered ‘failure’ that still looms very large in our aggressively masculine environment.

It is hard to know exactly how to address issues such as these. However much I see a promising increase across society in the understanding of gender, its fluidity, and its diversity, I see alongside this a strong persistence in ill-informed gender stereotyping and construction of masculinity, in particular, which runs so deep that a well-meaning bit of jovial ‘banter’ will perpetuate toxic gender-identity-messaging without thought and without reprisal. Unless challenged, we create a culture which may inform the perception on issues that really matter: academic achievement, workplace roles, relationships. Worst of all, we perpetuate the toxic and damaging idea that for a young man to ‘underachieve’ in a ‘male role’, or perhaps succeed in a ‘female’ one, is to have failed in his masculinity and let down his own gender.