There are two parts to Fay Weldon’s reputation: first that she is a feminist writer, and second that she is a very funny one. The “funny” is earned, the “feminist” less so, and Death of a She Devil is a credit to neither. When Weldon introduced Ruth Patchett in The Life and Loves of a She Devil, 34 years ago, she created one of literature’s greatest monsters. Deserted by callous husband Bobbo for the simpering romance novelist Mary Fisher, ugly doormat Ruth remakes herself as the She Devil and has her revenge on the adulterers. Her punisher’s progress takes her through every circle of society, from underclass to judiciary, from family to clergy, until finally she is surgically transformed into “an impossible male fantasy made flesh” – even losing six inches of leg to become desirably petite. At the close of the book, with Bobbo broken and Mary dead, Ruth’s triumph is complete.
I’ve never tried being a man, but the writer Norah Vincent did in a year-long experiment for her book Self-Made Man, and she found out two things. Firstly, that people were amazingly eager to accept her as a man on the basis of a bound chest, a flat-top haircut, masculine clothing and some ersatz stubble. Secondly, that while it was easy to get classed as a man, living in that class meant being subject to constant scrutiny: “Someone is always evaluating your manhood […] everybody is always on the lookout for your weakness or your inadequacy”. In the end, Vincent suffered what she calls a “crack-up”, attributing it to the pressure of her restrictive alter-ego.
The best way to think about gender is as a kind of hell. Men occupy the narrow centre, with various degrees of “non-men” expanding outward in concentric circles, every region bristling with demons ready to prod deviants back into line or cast recalcitrants into the outer darkness. A man who falls out of manliness can only fall so far. A woman who fails at femininity, as Glosswitch describes, has failed doubly by gender’s underworld logic: first of all to be male, and secondly to be a woman, a low enough condition on its own even before you get banished to the far fringes of the inferno.
Impartiality is the necessary fiction that allows the BBC to exist. A public service broadcaster that didn’t attempt to hold its head above bias would be untenable, and this is why the BBC’s editorial guidelines make it clear that news and current affairs presenters are not to publish their personal views on “controversial subjects”.
But what do you do when the controversy comes for you? When, however much you’d rather not be the object of dispute, you become the frontier in an ideological war? When what you are – and how you name yourself – slips from neutral to contentious, without you doing anything?
Jenni Murray has presented the BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour for 30 years, and she’s been a woman for even longer than that. At the weekend, the Sunday Times published an article by her titled “Be trans, be proud — but don’t call yourself a ‘real woman’”. Under that headline, Murray criticised some claims of trans activism (and she was careful to say she was talking about the extreme of the debate): that anyone who identifies as a woman has “always been a woman” no matter the age at which they transition, and that references to the female body should be censored in the interests of inclusion.
In November, the British high-street bank Metro announced that it was expanding its gender and title options. Customers could now register as “non-binary” rather than male or female, and as “Mx” rather than Miss, Ms, Mrs or Mr. In some ways, this development parallels the rise of Ms in the 1970s, which was popularised by feminists who wanted a title that didn’t identify women by their marital status. In practice, Ms marks women by their political affiliation instead (if you’re talking to a Ms, you’re probably talking to a feminist) but, even so, its first intention was to conceal rather than reveal information.
Mx does something different. To declare yourself a Mx is to disclose something about yourself: that your identity is outside what has become known as “the gender binary”, and you are neither man nor woman but something either in between or entirely other. This is a statement about who you are, and it comes with an implicit understanding that not being able to make that statement – or not having it recognised – is damaging. As the father of one gender-non-binary teenager told BuzzFeed UK: “When . . . you don’t identify as male or female and you only see those two boxes, then you don’t see yourself there . . . You are absent. That must hurt, and that’s what makes me angry.”
First published New Statesman, 17-23 February 2017, as part of the New Times feature
This week’s New Statesman is a special issue on “culture, identity and the cutting edge of change”. In it, you can read Caroline Crampton on podcasts, Deborah Cameron on language, Helen Lewis on media, Yo Zushi on smartphones, Felicity Cloake on clean eating, Ian Leslie on Netflix – every entry, in fact, is a match between a brilliant writer and a topic they can’t fail to be interesting about. Hence, I’m very pleased that it also includes my piece on gender and identity: “Why gender became the ultimate forum for self expression”. On newsstands now, or subscribe to get the magazine by post.
On Sunday morning, I took part in BBC One’s ethics debate show The Big Questions, where the topics were treatment of asylum seekers, child poverty and (the section I was booked for) the right to gender self-determination. There are a few interesting moments to pull out:
- At about 00:22:00, transwoman Rachel Hoskins gives a personal account of dysphoria, including “the real visceral thrill” of “putting [my sister’s undies] on” at four years old.
- At about 00:30:00, I give a brief account of the gender-as-class-system position and why that’s not compatible with the principle of gender self-determination.
- At about 00:38:30, a transwoman tells a story about being challenged on toilet access: “I said, ‘This is the way I’m dressed, I didn’t want to go into the gents and scare anybody in there.’”
- There didn’t appear to be any contributions from transmen.
- At 00:46:00 you can see gender in action as Nicky Campbell invites me to contribute to the debate and the man next to me (Ben Harris-Quinney) talks over me.
I’m reading the British Medical Association’s guidance on inclusive language, subsection “pregnancy and maternity”. “Gender inequality is reflected in traditional ideas about the roles of women and men,” it says, and I nod firmly. “It is common to assume a woman will have children, look after them and take a break from paid work or work part-time to accommodate the family…such assumptions and stereotypes can and often do have the effect of seriously disadvantaging women,” it says, and my nodding steps up to a vigorous pace.
All solid, sensible and anti-sexist stuff. And then I get to this: “A large majority of people that have been pregnant or have given birth identify as women. We can include intersex men and transmen who may get pregnant by saying ‘pregnant people’ instead of ‘expectant mothers’.”
Pregnant people. Pregnant. People. As though acknowledging a connection between femaleness and pregnancy was as crass and false as saying “little girls like pink” or “men make better leaders”.