Once when I was fifteen, my very British grandmother and I sipped tea in her colourful West Coast garden while she regaled me with stories about her life in Singapore in the 1930s.  With a gleam in her bright blue eyes, she confessed the feminine tricks she and the most sophisticated of her friends used to use to captivate men.  Before dances, they’d pin rose buds to their underskirts, so that when they danced, men would go crazy trying to work out what was causing the occasional flash of colour by the girls’ legs.  And they never showed too much skin, not because it wasn’t proper, but because they knew translucent fabric was so much more tantalizing.  Then there was doing the unexpected, like showing up at a picnic in wide-legged Katherine Hepburn trousers and a big hat, instead of the ubiquitous floral frock.

In these stories, it was pretty clear that my grandmother was no victim of gender roles, forced to play the coquette because it was the only access to power she had.  Not a bit of it.  She pinned roses to her slip because it was fun:  fun for her, fun for the men, fun all round.  This is not to say that gender roles in the 1930s wouldn’t have been constraining:  of course they were.  But they were also sources of experimentation, play and celebration.

My grandmother’s stories have been on my mind recently given the number of articles about new initiatives to encourage children to develop free of gender stereotypes.  For example, there is the Swedish preschool that’s purportedly trying to cultivate a completely gender-free environment by banning all fairy tales and doing away with masculine and feminine pronouns, among other efforts.  And of course there is Toronto-based baby Storm, whose parents are concealing his/her sex until the child is old enough to decide on his/her own gender identification.  Some people are for these sorts of radical efforts to de-emphasize (or perhaps even attempt to abolish) gender, and some people say that they go too far, but it seems that whoever weighs into this debate shares a similar belief that we ought to take gender very, very seriously and that it is fundamentally a problem that we need to fix.

I find this kind of irritating.

OK, I’m enough of a dyed-in-the-wool feminist to agree that gender is an important topic, and that it’s quite right that we ask ourselves how to raise children who are free to be who they want to be.  And I’m not going to claim that my grandmother’s generation had it right and we ought to turn back the clock.

But at the same time, I can’t help thinking that the whole topic of gender bubbles with the potential for fun.  Take the bedrock level of the dance between the sexes: as my grandmother illustrated so vividly, it’s fun to play around with masculine and feminine allure.  Flowers pinned to slips!  Many (if not most) women who have been to say, Paris, Rome or Bogota will speak wistfully about the switched-on feeling one gets from the flirting that’s just a normal part of life there.  And of course, there’s male equivalents:  the man perfecting his approach to women (a subject of umpteen comedies), or polishing his wit, or cultivating a bad boy appeal.

All of which raises the point that, at an individual level, it’s also fun to experiment with gender repertoires.  Yes, there’s a world of experimentation beyond gender categories too, but in addition to asking, “what kind of person do I want to be,” it’s fun to ask, “what kind of man or woman do I want to be”.  And of course it’s not static…that’s the beautiful thing about identity.  We’re our own narratives, and can continue playing throughout our lives.

It’s also fun to celebrate inhabiting a certain gender.  Peggy Lee and her wonderful song I Enjoy Being a Girl come to mind here, with her happy verses about of dresses made of lace, receiving flowers and talking on the phone for hours, “with a pound and a half of cream upon my face”.  We seem far more inclined to fret about gender now than to celebrate it, perhaps because we’ve become terrified of stereotyping, or because we’ve come to define gender by only constraint instead of possibility.

And finally, it’s fun to experiment with transgressing gender too, but one can only transgress if some boundary exists in the first place.  The dazzling academic Marjorie Garber has pointed out that drag is a theatrical exploration of the ideas of essence (sex) and construction (gender), but drag is also fundamentally fun because it transgresses gender rules about who wears, does and says what.  Individual artists, such as icons Marlene Dietrich to David Bowie, have clearly had a lot of fun (and created damn sexy personas) doing the same.  But these are just the visible examples.  In their song Laid, the band James describes the intense sexual play of a couple, “Dressed me up in women’s clothes, Messed around with gender roles, Dye my eyes and call me pretty.”  In other words, the lovers are having a whole lot of fun pushing the limits on everything, including their own gender roles.  If it seems a little perverse to say that we should have rules just to break them, well, maybe it is.  But it’s also a means of keeping a genuinely creative force going in culture, one that opens up whole realms of fun.

This is not a post to argue we should create rigid gender categories and then police them…not at all.  What I am saying though, is that fun is built into the existence of male and female, and to try to excise gender from our world would be to cut ourselves off from something that is a source of fun in addition to whatever else it may be.  A gendered existence doesn’t have to mean simply slavishly acting out preordained sex roles, it can also mean playing with identity in an engaged, irreverent and even sexy way.

Which brings me back to the Swedish preschool.  Hats off to the people who are trying to create a brave new world for all those little girls and boys.  But just suppose instead of trying to suppress the idea of gender, they played with it instead?  Play and fun are wildly creative, and through it, we just might find a way to have our pink frosted cupcakes and eat them too.

My Grandmother with my Mother, late 1930s

Glam 1930s Picnic, my Mother and Grandmother are on the left


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