Reader C. contributed this sign, found in the modern art museum in Stockholm:
My new office building has many floors. On one floor:
On the next floor:
(Including, apparently, the ‘wheelchair gender’. Odd how wheelchairs keep being presented as some kind of stick-on gender feature. Or genderlessness feature: most wheelchair-accessible loos are shared among all genders. But that’s a slightly different topic.)
And then there was this one:
I recently visited the International Archive for the Women’s Movement in Amsterdam. In my break, I found a single toilet cubicle, marked with the following pictogram:
This confused me – which only goes to show how seriously we take these symbols. Women’s movement? Were women expected to look for a different loo?
I moved on. Suddenly, the WC door showed a different picture:
Another moment of confusion. Had I misread the picto the first time around?
And then: but of course, a tilt card (a lenticular print, or ‘hologram’). Both images were really there, but which one I saw depended on my standpoint.
A common description of postmodernist art is that it contains an ontological flickering (‘onto-‘ from the Greek word for ‘being’). This means that you are presented with multiple realities; a story in which the protagonist moves in two different worlds, for instance. Only, whereas in non-postmodernist art, one of these worlds usually turns out to be a dream-world from which the protagonist wakes up, in postmodernist art, both worlds are equally real. The Neverending Story would be a classic example.
I could enter the loo a woman, and come out a man. Or vice versa. Or perhaps more accurately: as long as I was inside, I would always be both woman and man. A little like Schrödinger’s cat, but a cat which remains both dead and alive even after someone has opened the door to check.
The archive in Amsterdam therefore presented me with a wonderful ontological opportunity. (And no: no one opened the door to check. This had been firmly locked from the inside.) And I had the pleasure of being postmodernist for a brief while.
Luckily, after these few minutes I did not much mind to give up being female and male, and to just be me again.
* Or that which is often presented to us as a third option: disabled. Which raises a whole number of additional issues.
More on ontological flicker: Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (1987). Years ago, I used his (her?) ideas in an essay on postmodernist children’s literature, which included Michael Ende’s Neverending Story (Die unendliche Geschichte).
Two weeks ago, the following notice appeared on the fence of a building site in the northern-English town where I live:
Warning: men and women at work*
Men and women: the text is a sign that the construction industry is finally starting to recognise the many female workers it employs. The text, by being so unusual, also invites passers-by to reflect on this fact: that is, that some of the people who build our homes and offices and bus stations, are women.
I’ll come back to this in a moment, but first: Sweden and Hong Kong.
I’ve just returned from a journey to Sweden, where I got my first sight of the latte pappas: Swedish fathers who care for their children full-time. They can be seen out on the streets with prams and diaper-changing bags, and they walk around completely independently, without being accompanied by a mother.
If this presented a culture shock to someone living in Britain, that does not mean Sweden is the only place in the world where independent fathering is normal. In fact, the latte pappas reminded me of something I saw in Hong Kong years ago:
This poster in the underground of Hong Kong was warning against pickpockets, but it did something else as well: normalise fathers who take care of their children unaided by any mother. And it looks like baby and daddy make a good team.
Who did this? A humorous passer-by? It that case, the deletion only emphasises the newness of this language: the corrector must have found the incongruousness of working women so huge, that to draw attention to it seemed funny.
Or was the sign defaced by a worker him[?]self? Perhaps someone with an obsessive compulsion for correctness who wanted to point at that at this particular site, no women were employed? Or a male worker who thought that no women ought to work there? Or someone else still?
Perhaps a Hong Kong latte pappa can come over and teach his mates here a lesson in new gender roles?**
* It seems justified to insert a colon here: the warning is not directed at those who are at work.
** I haven’t touched on the issue of class here – the term ‘latte pappa’ at least sounds privileged – for which we would need to combine knowledge about the person(s) who defaced the construction notice, what classed message is transmitted by the Hong Kong poster, what use Swedish working-class fathers make of the state’s care benefit system, etc.
Photo credits: women at work by JHMS; Hong Kong father by APHG.
Today is Women’s Day. These weeks’ news again brought plenty of reminders of why this day is necessary.
In the Dutch North-East Polder, the police report, a fourteen-year-old was pushed off her bike, kicked in the head and back, and left on the pavement with bruises and brain injury.
Who did this? Two blonde boys aged c. 18.
Because she was a woman.
Because she was exercising her right to education and independent mobility, by cycling home from school alone.
And, finally: because she had the guts to say ‘no’. She said ‘no’ to the boys’ demand to undress.
Is this then ‘simply’ another case of gendered sexual assault? Not quite.
Because the fourteen-year-old was also wearing a headscarf.
And although most Dutch newspaper readers will have reacted with shock to the assault, its underlying mechanisms are perpetuated by a large proportion of those same newspaper readers. They are women and men from western-European, largely Christian extraction, and they are not so sure whether Muslim women should be wearing a headscarf.
It’s the people I’ve spent most of my life amongst. I think I understand them a little, and therefore I would like to ask them something.
I would ask them to imagine emigrating to a distant planet. The local inhabitants look just like us. However, there is a striking difference in the way they dress: everyone, whether male or female, wears the same skirt (pretty progressive, what?). And nothing else. Wherever they go, they go dressed like this; to parties, but also to work.
Most European immigrants are taken aback by the naked breasts of the local females. And all of the immigrant women continue to cover their own chest in public spaces.
In the eyes of the locals, however, this constitutes an act of repression, and they wonder what masculinist ideology forces these women to hide themselves. They decide to help them. Female employees and schoolchildren are sent home, bikini-wearing humans are chased off the beaches, and everyone is ordered to only come back after throwing off these absurd symbols of self-humiliation.
If for a migrant to Europe, wearing a headscarf is like wearing a T-shirt, surely their European hosts can sympathise and forbid neither.
Of course, my comparison here highlights only one of the reasons women have to cover their hair or their face – but I think a fundamental one. It suggests that wearing or not wearing a specific headdress is largely a cultural matter. By that I mean that someone’s decision to (not) wear an item of clothing can best be understood by placing oneself in the position(s) that person occupies in the culture(s) she lives in. In the end, what we wear is often a matter of what we feel comfortable in, and that is not based on abstract choices but on the signals we emit with these clothes and the response we get from the people around us. (British physician and columnist Qanta Ahmed has also underlined the cultural rather than religious background of the hijab, though arriving at a different conclusion than I am.)
So European anxieties over Muslim dress are really about migration and the intercultural misunderstandings this leads to.
These images should not feel unfamiliar. Nor should these:
In a nutshell: not all Muslim women want to cover their head, while many non-Muslim women do.
So far, I’ve argued that to wear a piece of clothing is often a matter of conformity rather than repression. However, it can also be a part of personal style or identity. Of fashion. Or of shyness. Of distinction. Of rebellion against previous (migrant) generations; or of defiance of the locals who lack the experience of living in two cultures at the same time. Or it can function as a reminder and token of religious commitment… all depending on women’s cultural backgrounds, their interpretation of their religion, whether they are migrants or have long been settled, and many more factors.
But in the end, do we even need to understand women’s motivations in order to accept their decision? A decision which, after all, concerns their own bodies? (The same does not apply to the actions of their critics: these always concern other people’s bodies.) Do people need to justify the way they look? Perhaps public figures, who act as role models, may expect some form of public interrogation of their choices – but at the moment, this unfortunately means that we should in fact be talking a bit more about how men look.
To return to the student who was not allowed to attend school safely: our public discourse about what women and specifically Muslim women should wear, gave her attackers their motivation. Remember, this was not mindless bullying: the boys were 18, not 8. Their actions were the practical manifestation of a way of thinking which they had gleaned from their less violent neighbours.
As non-scarf-wearing Muslim Tahmeena (no surname) has said in Broadly magazine when asked about European employers’ bans on headscarfs:
There’s no liberation in being told what to wear […] in order to ‘become’ liberated
(An English rendering of the Dutch news item can be found on The World News.)
Let’s start the new year with something positive. Crying. (I am not being sarcastic.)
Over the past years, TV shows seem to have shown an increasing number of crying men. The Great British Bake Off; interviews with ex-servicemen; sitcoms like Big Bang Theory; the hugely popular Farmer Wants a Wife programmes across the world: they regularly feature men who let it all out.
This development is not to everyone’s liking, as this interview with Mary Berry suggests, but it remains a fact: crying on TV is pretty acceptable nowadays – yes, desirable in some shows – even for men.
Over the past century or so, however, such public show of emotion has hardly been possible for people of the male gender. North-western Europeans, at least, were living under a strict emotional macho regime under which men were not supposed to show their weaknesses: stiff upper lip and all that.
This has not always been the case. In earlier centuries, crying was much more acceptable for men.
Take for instance the 1782 novel Sara Burgerhart, famous for being the first literary novel in the Dutch language. It was written by Elizabeth Wolff and Agatha Deken in response to Samuel Richardson’s novels in letter form (Pamela, Clarissa). Sara Burgerhart was popular straight away and went through three editions within five years. Even though Wolff and Deken professed to resist the sentimental fashion of their days, their novel carries the traces of it.
One of the most sympathetic characters in the novel, Sara Burgerhart’s guardian, the middle-aged bachelor Abraham Blankaart, shows himself to be a sensitive man from the very beginning. Returning a letter to Sara Burgerhart’s landlady, a widow who has told him the tragic story of her life, he writes:
Would you believe, Madam, that your letter cost me perhaps as many as four tears? Yet it’s the truth. [Again, no sarcasm involved here!]
Sara Burgerhart’s noble love interest, writing to his own brother, also calls himself ‘a sensitive man’. And the third valiant man in the novel (which really is all about a Lovelace-type deceiver) is described by his sister as someone who would ‘dissolve in happy tears’ just from hearing about his sister’s engagement.
The same public approval of male sobs can be gathered from the even greater popularity of Nicolaas Beets’s Camera Obscura, which has gone through countless editions since first appearing in the Netherlands in 1839. For the seventh edition, of 1871, Beets wrote a new preface. It was directed at one of his best friends, the friend to which the book had been dedicated from the start. Just before the new edition came out, this friend had passed away. In his preface, Beets sketches the scene of the funeral. His own ‘lonely heart’ filled with sentiment, Beets recounts how even his friend’s trusty carriage driver had
thick tears rolling into [his] sideburns.
So we are talking actual tears, streaming down bearded cheeks. In these popular texts, crying was a sign of civilisation; sentiment the mark of a good man. A decent man showed that he was capable of feeling for his fellow creatures.
In the later nineteenth and particularly the twentieth century, ideals of masculinity shifted. In that age of nationalism and militarism, each man instead had to demonstrate he was up to the task of defending his nation. If you were a good soldier, you were a good man.
Although I am necessarily simplifying things here, it looks like there has been a genuine going back and forth in this region’s history of emotions: from an approval of a sentimental masculinity around 1800, to emotional rigidity around 1900, and perhaps, now, back to an appreciation of the more vulnerable emotions of men. Crying is permitted again.
N.B. Nicolaas Beets himself felt that his century saw the dawn of a new emotional regime for men. In his essay on grave memorials he deplores the ‘cold’ macho rhetoric of forerunners like Byron, quoting from his ‘Euthanasia’:
WHEN Time, or soon or late, shall bring
The dreamless sleep that lulls the dead,
Oblivion! may thy languid wing
Wave gently o’er my dying bed!
No band of friends or heirs be there,
To weep, or wish, the coming blow:
No maiden, with dishevell’d hair,
To feel, or feign, decorous woe.
But silent let me sink to earth,
With no officious mourners near:
I would not mar one hour of mirth,
Nor startle friendship with a fear.
But vain the wish—for Beauty still
Will shrink, as shrinks the ebbing breath;
And woman’s tears, produced at will,
Deceive in life, unman in death.
- Wolff and Deken, History van mejuffrouw Sara Burgerhart, with an introduction by L. Knappert (Amsterdam, 1919), pages 60, 63, 135.
- Hildebrand/Beets, Camera Obscura (Utrecht, Antwerp, 1982), pages 297, 313.
- Poetry of Byron, ed. Matthew Arnold (London, 1881).
This is a self-portrait by Adolf Dauthage.
Dauthage was a nineteenth-century Austrian lithographer. Working for the most part before photography became available, this means it was his job to draw portraits of high society, which could then be multiplied without limit using the new technology of lithographic printing, and serve as publicity material.
At the very start of his career as a portraitist, however, he drew himself (pictured here), as a soldier. And not just any soldier: this is the uniform of the Viennese Academic Legion, one of the many militia that were formed by students across Europe during the 1848 revolutions.
A contemporary from Germany described the Viennese students in his memoir:
They looked like a troop of knights of old.
Indeed the uniform can be said to express a very romantic masculinity.
Yet Dauthage’s posture subverts this masculinity. From under his feathered hat, he looks coyly out at the spectator. Add to this his tight waist, skirted coat, slightly stuck-out bottom, handkerchief (or single glove) in hand, the fact that he has kept his hat on (whereas men would always take theirs off indoors), and perhaps also his somewhat strangely positioned sabre, and his portrait reminds us more of the aristocratic and theatrical ladies he drew than of the statesmen and male artists:
Or, the ones drawn by his colleagues:
It is rare to see a man portrayed with his head bent down, looking up at the spectator. Especially a military man.
Perhaps this is all a figment of the imagination and we should look for the reason behind Dauthage’s posture in the history of self-portraiture: perhaps the coy look I saw is in fact the penetrating look of an artist looking at their own face in the mirror (think Rubens, Van Dyck… Gluck…).
Yet looking at the portrait naively, I felt Dauthage might be having a private cross-dressing party in his studio.
Quoted are The reminiscences of Carl Schurz (New York: McClure, 1907-1908.), p. 145.