|Perry wins the Turner prize.|
Yes, it's going to be one of those posts in which I muse aloud on things such as Feminism and society, so if this is not your bag you maybe want to look away now and hit the 'Beer Review' tag to your right!
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I saw this article having been alerted by ChapDad (his blog is here) on the Book of Faces. Being someone I respect, ChapDad has previously pointed me in the direction of Grayson Perry and, to my shame, I have done no more than confirm the identity of the artist without really looking into the art nor his story. ChapDad was extolling the down-to-earth qualities of Perry and the article seemed to be talking about identity in a most provocative way.
And what I read there (you can access the article here, it's called 'Just because you don't have a dress on, doesn't stop you being a tranny' and I relate that without comment, because I'm not entirely certain that would have been Perry's take on the interview) caused me some disquiet and also some challenge about how I, too, view the world. I think it also impacts quite heavily, if I may, on Feminism at the fringes. That is, beyond the day to day important Feminism and into the realms of, at the moment, Feminist theory.
In this regard, I'm viewing transvestism as an expression of masculinity that is outside of the norm. And, in this regard, I see my critique of the article as stemming from my understanding of gender equality and, thus, Feminism.
Allow me to explain still further. I used to teach a course about ideologies and, in the course of that, we spoke about John Stuart Mill's famous idea that everything was permissible so long as it did not harm others. That is, you were sovereign of any decisions that did not affect other people. Self-regarding and other-regarding action. Many people will defend the right of others to carry out such things as cross-dressing providing that they do not, in so pursuing their right to do so, impact or infringe on the rights of others. However, there are shades here. My students were always of the opinion that whilst the sexual orientation of a teacher was entirely self-regarding (excepting the case of paedophilia) the outward appearance was more important. So that homosexuality was 'alright' but that transvestism was not. Reading around the topic there was an article from the States, in which the opinion was put forward that cross-dressing was part of a sexual fetish called autogynephilia - that is, where the cross-dressing male is 'turned on' by the thought and sight of himself as a woman. Reading the article, this may well be true of Perry, but I am less convinced that it applies universally.
The interviewer notes with some amazement at the outset that Perry rates 7 out of 10 as a male (on Perry's scale) and 0 out of 10 as a female. As if this should be based on the clothes that Perry wears. Indeed, if you have read it, you'll note that the interviewer is put off by the fact that Perry arrives in masculine garb. Perry has attended the BAFTAs and been awarded the CBE in a 'mother of the bride' outfit; the alter-ego of 'Claire' is well known in the work produced and caused quite a stir when the award of the Turner prize was made. In other words, cross-dressing is seen as something that Grayson Perry should 'do', part of the performance and part of the popular image. As an artist, the freedom is there to express through cross-dressing but, and this is important, only as a gimmick and there is no freedom to admit to being a cross-dresser whilst dressed in clothes that reflect the binary gender set by sexual organs. That is, Perry cannot be seen as a transvestite dressed in male clothing. There's even a picture in there of Perry painted with bell and ribbon tied to his genetalia. I found it fascinating that this picture was included, as evidence of the fact that Perry is 'out there' and much of the reported speech aims at showing that Perry remains an artistic snob (which I'm sure is true) and avant garde.
Why then am I harping on about it? Simply, equality. One of the quotes I have up on my classroom wall reads: "Be the change you wish to see in the world" and if this interview, in a lefty-liberal newspaper that prides itself on being lefty-liberal and equality-minded, is anything to go on, a truly gender equal society is far away indeed. So, if I wish to be the change I wish to see in the world, I must critique the article, challenge the need to expect people to conform to certain images they project to the world and offer some explanation as to why that might be so.
In short, if Grayson Perry cannot be who he is all of the time, and must defend what he does or refer to himself in slurs to reach the 'common man' then we need to seriously consider what we're doing. It's one step from women born in the 1960s referring to themselves as "silly girls" when stating opinions or Jamaican descended British people born in the 1960s referring to themselves as "darkies" when discussing cultural politics. We wouldn't expect it, nor would we support it, but it is quite alright for people whose gender does not fit into neat little boxes. And I am not okay with that.