Theseus’ paradox and the search for Australianness

In the thought experiment known as the ship of Theseus or Theseus’ paradox, the boat in question, due to the decay over time of the wood from which it was originally built, is gradually rebuilt, plank by plank, until none of the original planks remain. The question then goes: Is it still the original ship of Theseus, or is it a new ship entirely?

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes asked what would happen if you used all the old, discarded planks to build a new boat. Would that be the true Theseus’ ship, or would it be the one gradually replenished, over time, with new planks? Which represents the true heritage of Theseus?

While I’m looking at the website of Reclaim Australia, one of several groups involved in anti-Islam protests in Australia last weekend, it occurs to me that ‘White/Anglo’ and ‘Christian’, when viewed as being fundamental to what it means to be Australian today, are like the planks in the second boat, the one recreated out of old timber.

In which boat would I rather set out on a long voyage? The boat built of newer, sturdier planks, always being replenished, or the boat built of discarded planks, weak and rotten in places?

* * *

Riding on the Cranbourne line a few months ago, passing through suburb after suburb – from Toorak to Springvale to Dandenong and on through Merinda Park – I realise, as the houses flash by, and people of all kinds get on and off, that I don’t know this country at all.

I mean, I know plenty of stuff about it.

But I’m not sure I really know who ‘we’ are, or what is constant, apart from the ground beneath our feet.

Is the land itself all that keeps us from floating apart?

* * *

On the Left, it is often said that our conservative government has used fear to curtail our freedoms and to turn us against the people who have risked their lives to find asylum in Australia.

But I am beginning to think that the fear goes deeper than that. That it has to do with the fact that the Australian identity feels so nebulous at times that we have trouble knowing what we are; knowing what is constant.

Because of that, I think many Australians fear newcomers who appear to be more sure of their identity, especially when they are so sure that they flag it with distinctive clothes and customs, which they retain even after they become Australians themselves.

Has that fear come to define my country?

* * *

One of the groups involved in the anti-Islam rallies is proposing a complete rewrite of the Australian Constitution and a radical revision of the structure of government. They feel the current Constitution and system of government are failing ‘We the people’. They have helpfully provided a draft Constitution on their website.

The hubris of it is breathtaking, but the feeling behind it – deep frustration with almost everything the government says and does, a sense that we only seem to be going backwards – may be something that is shared across the Left/Right divide. For what that’s worth.

* * *

Mind you, the Australian Constitution does contain some weird nuggets from the past.

It still lists New Zealand among the possible original states (with New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia). It specifies the salaries of the Governor-General (ten thousand pounds per annum) and the Ministers of State (twelve thousand pounds per annum). It greatly emphasises the role of the Governor-General, while not mentioning anywhere the role of Prime Minister.

Worrying rather than merely quaint, though, are the sections which take for granted that the state and federal governments may wish to create legislation with a specific racial bias.

Section 25, for example, relates to ‘Provisions as to races disqualified from voting’.

Section 51 (xxvi) allows the federal parliament ‘to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to … the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.’

The intention of the latter, often called ‘the race power’, was expressly to enable parliament to control ‘alien races’, as is described in ‘The Races Power and the 1967 Referendum’ by George Williams. The particular concern at the time – in 1900 – was to do with foreigners, especially Chinese, gaining mining rights and hence, presumably, threatening the livelihoods (and, it was often suggested, the morals) of British Australians.

Section 51 (xxvi) was adjusted in 1967, following a much celebrated referendum, to remove the words ‘other than the aboriginal race in any State’, which were seen as being discriminatory against Indigenous Australians.

However, ironically, given the intentions of the 1967 decision, Section 51 (xxvi) has actually allowed the federal government to pass legislation that negatively targets Indigenous Australians, as in the case of the Northern Territory Emergency Response. Even the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 is no protection, as the federal government may override it.

I am happy to report that the Constitution does, at least, prevent the government from ‘prohibiting the free exercise of any religion’.

* * *

In 1873, in Clunes, the gold-mining town where my grandmother was born (somewhat later than 1873), there was a riot.

Management at the South Clunes mine had tried to force its miners to accept Saturday afternoon shifts or lose their contracts. As Saturday afternoon was a customary time of rest from a job that was already dangerous and hard on miners’ health, the miners, understandably, went on strike. When the nearby Lothair mine decided to abolish contracts altogether, and to force its miners to work not only Saturday afternoons but Sunday nights as well, they went on strike as well.

While the strike at South Clunes was resolved fairly quickly in favour of the miners, the one at Lothair continued for several months. The mine directors attempted to bring in European miners from Ballarat, but they refused to come. Perhaps they were persuaded by the appeal, published in the Ballarat Courier by the Clunes Miners’ Association, to refuse the work.

Eventually the directors decided to turn to Chinese labour. A large party consisting of mine directors, Chinese miners and police descended on the town, preparing to break the strike. Having got word they were coming, something like a thousand townspeople – men, women and children – turned out to greet their arrival with a ‘fast and furious’ barrage of sticks and stones, and succeeded in driving them away.

Was it a racist riot or simply a matter of economics – of feeding the family?

Whatever the underlying feelings and motives of the Clunes strikers, the commentary which followed was like a tidal wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, such as this relatively mild example (noted in ‘Class and racism in the 1873 Clunes Riot’ by Jerome Small):

Why should these Mongolians … enjoy the advantages of this colony, which were only intended for Europeans.

Somehow, I think, that sentiment hasn’t entirely gone away.

* * *

Later my grandmother lived in Box Hill, an area of Melbourne that changed dramatically over the fifty years that she and my grandfather lived in their war service home.

At the Box Hill shopping centre, the largely Caucasian population has gradually become more Asian in appearance. With its Chinese, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Thai and Korean businesses, its overflowing and raucous Chinese markets, it is a different world from the one my grandmother knew.

The old-timers who’ve been living in their houses for half a century find that their neighbours are different and that somehow values have shifted in ways that are deeply felt and often resented – for example, in the choices made about real estate and appropriate housing for the area.

Some of these old timers, not all of them, refer to ‘Asians’ with a certain hard emphasis on the ‘A’. The ‘zh’ sound is a baring of the teeth.

Crossing a street in Box Hill with my grandmother one day, her hand tucked under my arm, I try to move us gently to the left to avoid mowing down a young woman of Chinese appearance coming the other way.

My grandmother jerks at my arm, hissing, ‘We don’t give way to them.’

I know her feelings are different things rolled into one – her resentment of the changes to the place she knows, the shared attitudes of people she loves, and the distrust of ‘Japs’ still lingering from the war – but still I’m rocked by this aspect of my grandmother that I’ve never seen before.

It had darted out like a snake’s tongue, then disappeared again. Just the once.

* * *

The cartoonist First Dog on the Moon, documenting his history of taking in foster dogs, describes how an incumbent animal ‘Glares at each new dog like the child of migrants who hates asylum seekers.’

It reminds me of the taxi driver – a migrant from Turkey, perhaps? – who complained to me about the ‘Asians’ taking over Box Hill. That word. That same bite.

Him a migrant.

Me too, going back a few generations.

* * *

The ABC reporter Sarah Dingle in ‘My interview with a white supremacist’ describes how Matt (the supremacist’s) early impression of ‘Asia’ was of a mass of people trying to take over Australia. He’d had family members fighting in Vietnam; fighting the Japanese in World War II. His grandfather had died in a Japanese POW camp.

‘At the time, especially in Western Sydney, we were just told that, these Asians are trying to take over like they did, you know, the Japanese tried to take over,’ he said.

‘So, you know, they’re just trying it again, but this time they’re trying to come in and live here, you know. Buying up all the property and all that sort of stuff. So, just because we have that background anger and the whole community going on about it, that’s why we only targeted Asians.’

He was angry, and his reaction to that, and to what was being said in the community, was to form a group of violent extremists. They had planned to carry out a massacre. Not just on Asians – on ‘Lebanese homeboys’ too.

He sees things differently now, he says; but he also says that, to some degree, the hate is still there.

* * *

In her article, Sarah Dingle also mentions, by way of introduction to her article, the ‘covert’ assumptions she experiences as a person of Malaysian Chinese background. That she is a poor speaker of English. That she is part of that Asian-looking group being shepherded through the boarding queue at the airport. That it is appropriate to ask her where she is from.

* * *

There is a young man with dark skin standing at the intersection of Flinders and Swanston streets, facing the Flinders Street tram stop and the traffic which has stopped for the red light. He is holding a large sign in front of him that says: ‘We experience racism every day.’

Who is the ‘we’ he is referring to? People of dark skin (of any background)? Perhaps the asylum seeker community? I want to step up and ask him, but feel daft. It seems not to be, after all, the right question, given what he’s trying to communicate, standing there bravely by himself.

Then again, his message isn’t ‘Racism happens in Australia every day.’ It is ‘We experience racism …’ So perhaps the ‘we’ is not irrelevant, at least not to him.

I sympathise, only half understanding the message; but I don’t stop.

* * *

Amal Basry, one of the few survivors of the 2001 Siev X disaster in which 353 people died, speaks in Steve Thomas’s documentary Hope of spending 22 hours in the water. She survived by clinging onto the floating body of a woman who’d died.

The things she has known are almost overwhelming.

Why would we waste the things she has to tell us? Why would we not want to know?

* * *

I’m getting a lift home. The driver is about to move into the right lane, but stops at the last minute.

‘I’ll just wait for ISIS guy,’ she says. ‘In the turban.’ As if it wouldn’t be a good idea to cross him.

‘That would be Sikh,’ I say. Avoiding the enormity of what she has actually just said.


* * *

And so the ship sails on, being perpetually rebuilt, plank by plank … toward a time when we might not even recognise it, except for a certain something about its shape.

Whether we like it or not. Whether it’s easy or not.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

Womankind, and the thinking woman (a review)

The ‘thinking woman’: what is she? Who is she?

I instantly picture a female version of Rodin’s sculpture, The Thinker. And swiftly discard it.

When I come across a description of Benedict Cumberbatch as the ‘thinking woman’s crumpet’, I know just what that means.

And when I read about a new magazine that’s aimed at ‘the thinking woman’, I know just who she is.

Or do I?

* * *

Womankind issue 1

Issue 1: Simone de Beauvoir

The Australian quarterly magazine Womankind, now a year old, has been described as the ‘thinking woman’s magazine’. It seems like a good way for me to get to the bottom of what ‘thinking woman’ might actually mean.

The magazine’s editor and founder, Antonia Case, told Mumbrella that she wants to position the magazine to ‘reflect the very intelligent and worldly women, who travel, who live in different countries etc.’ She stresses that it is ‘not academic’, but that its aim is to bring ‘the best ideas we can from philosophy, sociology and economics, if we have to, to explain the world …’

The magazine is laudably ad-free and lusciously design-rich, with a cover that, according to Women’s Agenda, was voted one of the top in the world by German media website MEEDIA within a week of the launch of its first issue (shown above). By its own account, it has sold remarkably well.

I have Issue 4 right here at my elbow. On the cover is a collaged image by Charis Tsevis of Frida Kahlo, composed of leaves and flowers. Each issue is organised thematically by country and by animal or insect: this issue it’s Mexico and bees.

Frida cover

Issue 4: Frida Kahlo

Accordingly, alongside the feature on Frida Kahlo herself is a photo shoot of ‘Frida Fashion’ designed by Austrian artist Susanne Bisovsky (not Bisovksy, as it is misspelled in the magazine); an essay on ‘Women as revolutionaries’ which focuses on the Zapatistas of Mexico; a piece by Charlotte Wood, ‘Cooking as revolution’; a short article about a town called Cherán in Mexico where the women held loggers hostage as part of a strategy to take back control of their local natural resources; ‘Memoirs of a volunteer’, written by Cate Kennedy about her volunteer placement in central Mexico; an article on magic realism which references (of course) Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; a photo essay featuring the work of Peruvian-born artist María María Acha-Kutscher; a feature on the vast border enforcement apparatus now in place between Mexico and the United States; and snippets on the Spanish-born surrealist painter Remedios Varo, and surrealism more generally. There is also a set of surreal photos from the series Flying Houses by French artist Laurent Chéhère.

The bees are represented by visuals throughout; an article on colony collapse disorder among bee populations; a delightful visual bee glossary; a couple of short pieces in the beginning pages; and a profile of Katherine Lyall Watson, an urban beekeeper. ‘Flower hunter’, on the artist Leonie Norton, fits in nicely.

At the end are reviews of books and videos that also relate thematically. And interwoven is content unrelated to the two themes, including the winners of the Womankind Photographers’ Award II; pages of contributions from readers logging their ‘No news week’ experiences; and an impassioned article by Alecia Simmonds, ‘The great Australian nightmare’, on Australia’s obsession with home ownership, which as I write is one of the five top reads on the Womankind site.

The magazine is a feast for the eyes and mind. Within its quirkily chosen themes it provides good variety and quite a few delights, especially for those who enjoy art, and promises to cover fascinating ground in future issues. While it bears a certain relationship design-wise to its sibling magazine, New Philosopher, of which Antonia Case is Literary Editor, the many one-off textures and flavours in the design, especially the distinctive and striking endpapers, attest to the enormous amount of work that has gone into its creation, and well and truly set the magazine apart.

Moreover, as much of the commentary around the magazine applauds, it steers away from the makeup and dieting tips, and the celebrity gossip, that we ‘thinking women’ have had enough of. That on top of the lack of ads make it a sort of safe haven from … certain kinds of messages about what women should want, or how we should behave, or what we are.

In fact, the magazine is determinedly empowering and inspiring – dare I say, ‘nurturing’? – with article categories such as ‘Happiness’ and ‘Ideas to change your life’ prominent on the magazine’s home page. (A little, in that regard, like Dumbo Feather.)

It also strongly encourages the inclusion and participation of readers through regular competitions and challenges, as per the photographer’s award and ‘No news week’ sections mentioned above.

All good.

* * *

It does strike me as curious that the comments on Womankind’s Facebook page seem to suggest there have been no other options among magazines for women readers. Comments such as ‘I almost cried, finally someone has addressed not just the desire but the reality that women are more than their body.’ Or ‘I just wanted to say thank you for creating a magazine with substance which offers more than just advertisements and beauty tips. I haven’t bought a magazine for over 3 years as the thought of flipping through another body shaming, oppressive waste of paper exhausted me.’

There are other magazines in the Australian market that offer substantial food for thought without excluding, shaming or shamefully limiting women. I’ve already mentioned Dumbo Feather and New Philosopher. What about the literary magazines, such as Island (with its current headline article on Marina Abramović) or Overland, with its many articles by and about women and women’s issues?

Womankind issue 2

Issue 2: Rachel Carson

Is it that they are all too academic? Too specific in their focus? Too ‘token’ in their representation of women?

Or not somehow soft enough? Not feminine?

Simply not ‘lifestyle’ enough?

What is it Womankind readers are after? Who are these particular thinking women?

* * *

The answer is: I’m not sure.

For me, tantalising as it is, Womankind has its shortcomings. Foremost among them are lack of rigour and overuse of conventional feminine imagery. Especially flowers.

Flowers first.

The insistence on floral imagery reminded me instantly of the marketing of certain brands aimed at women – feminine products among them. It might have been the pastel hues of the first three covers.

Dumbo Feather Issue-37 Clare BowditchI’m not a flower hater. I love flowers. I thought Dumbo Feather’s cover for Issue 37, featuring Clare Bowditch – with flowers – was absolutely stunning.

But it’s a one-off among the Dumbo Feather covers, and that’s because it’s tailored to Clare Bowditch.

A series of covers featuring the faces of strong women re-envisioned as flowerbeds (admittedly Issue 2 actually uses fish, but the effect is, nevertheless, floral) seems counter to what Womankind is trying to achieve. I want to ask ­– Still flowers for us girls? – this is the best a brave new magazine for women can do?

In Issue 4, the connection between Frida Kahlo and bold, botanical imagery makes sense, given the imagery in her art and her self-presentation. And this cover is glorious. But despite that connection, the bee and floral decorative elements begin to feel fussy and overused. There seems to be a bee or a flower on almost every spread, in a variety of styles.

And sometimes those elements jar; for example, why on earth is there a bee fiddling across the sky in the ‘Frontier wars’ double-page photo, which shows part of the barrier between the US and Mexico, with two people behind it; the hint of tragedy? It is in complete contrast to the serious tone of the piece.

Similarly, ‘The great Australian nightmare’ is encircled with a blue bee and flower frame on every page, with whimsical contrasting images of flowers and bees appearing on both spreads. The effect is infantilising, odd.

On to rigour.

While I appreciate the magazine is not aiming to be academic, it should surely aim to achieve rigour within its own parameters of short, thoughtful, meaningful pieces which look to a range of disciplines.

Chloe Angyal’s article ‘Women as revolutionaries’ gives the impression, until well into the article, that the tens of thousands of Mexican Zapatistas are all female. If you didn’t know better, you’d think this right through until the third page, where she states ‘… of the six current spokespeople two are women’.

In contrast, Angyal refers by name to six famous revolutionaries; only one (Aung Sang Suu Kyi) is female. This would be odd in any publication, especially given it is clear that Angyal is referring to a range of different types of revolutions, not merely the kind where arms and bloodshed are involved. But it seems particularly strange in a publication aimed at women. What of the suffragettes? What of – hell, why not – Germaine Greer?

Truthfully, the whole theme of revolution feels a bit wistful. I think Charlotte Wood’s piece on ‘Cooking as revolution’ is very effectively framed by her description of her mother’s ‘undercover life as a rebel’ and her own adoption of her mother’s ‘subtle revolutionary lessons’ in the kitchen, even if there’s nothing groundbreaking in the tips that follow. But there’s no suggestion in any of these pieces that we have need of real revolution right now … not here. Actual revolution is presented more as a Good Thing, generally. Something an Australian thinking woman would value and support from afar, but not actually participate in, let alone lead.

Moving on: I am puzzled by the sheer number of pieces which blend elements of pop psychology, philosophy and spiritualism – from ‘Memories of our ideal self’ to ‘Subterranean journeys in sleep’ to Flora Michaels’ ‘Where you stumble, there is your treasure’, which references mythologist Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’; not to mention a short piece on feng shui.

To have one or two such pieces in the whole of the magazine would be simply to represent – to be inclusive of – a certain point of view. To have a cluster of such pieces, several of them written by the editor, tends to suggest that this is the voice, the perspective, of the magazine itself.

Putting aside the piece on feng shui, which along with ‘The big five personality test’ (also written by the editor) seem to be fairly standard ‘lifestyle’ fare, and putting aside also ‘Where you stumble, there is your treasure’, which is a more substantial essay on the nature of change, we’re left with the two short pieces by the editor: ‘Memories of our ideal self’ and ‘Subterranean journeys in sleep’.

‘Memories of our ideal self’ posits the idea of an ‘ideal’ self, as reflected in others we meet and remember long afterward. It’s incomplete – strangely unsatisfying – and ends abruptly on the question ‘why is this?’ which seems simply to steer us away from trying to understand the idea already put before us.

‘Subterranean journeys into sleep’ begins as a consideration of the uncharted journey of our lives, and particularly of our ‘journey in dream’. It then looks briefly at the way dreams have been viewed historically, and then veers into a critique of what science has done to the way we look at dreams today. Again it ends with a question: ‘… we mustn’t forget the response demanded by philosophers to the important question: “Why?”’ Why what, in this context? It isn’t clear.

These two fragments would not be out of place in a private notebook or blog, or in correspondence with a close friend. In such contexts, this kind of writing, despite its fuzzy thinking, suggests thoughtfulness, a questing spirit, a desire to get beyond the mundane. Its presence, however, in a magazine that purports to lift the bar intellectually for women, is problematic: it gives the ideas a credibility, a sheen of authority, they don’t deserve.

Such writing seems also to reflect a certain concept of female sensibility as being raw, naïve; explicitly valuing of multiple ‘subjectivities’ and minimal filtering or editing of those subjectivities.

While being a valid way to view what a female sensibility can look like, particularly historically and in contrast to the notion of an enshrined and exclusive male sensibility, surely these days we would not be inclined to accept it as a sure-fire guide to the kind of stuff women want to read?

I have to admit also that I was outright startled by the assertion, in ‘Subterranean journeys into sleep’, that scientists ‘continue to stifle thought with their bibles explaining how neurons secrete and fire’. Which is as good as to say, we women thinkers aren’t having a bar of this science business. Whoa! Believe me, if we were paying attention, we’d see how many scientists, many of them female, are doing their absolute best to open up our minds.

Come to think of it, we have a sociologist (Ruth Quibell) and an ecologist (Jo Immig) among the writers of Womankind Issue 4. Are these somehow the right sort of scientist? And the other sort, not?

The overall effect I come away with is of thinking lite. A wonderful, enchanting smoke-and-mirrors performance designed to make us feel we’re getting somewhere, while we remain right where we are.

* * *

What does it mean, to really think? It’s something we’re supposed to get from a decent education – or at least, that used to be the idea. The ability to take nothing at face value – to look at information from different aspects – to weed out the valuable from the irrelevant – to develop an instinct for when further information is required to understand something properly. It works towards a true understanding of a concept, a phenomenon.

Great thinking makes leaps, joins intimate understanding with creative process with the desire to understand, to solve. There’s a hunger to it. It rips through the tacit, the cozy. It’s unconcerned with getting an A in social graces or appearing to be on talking terms with surface knowledge.

Reminds me of Sherlock, really.

* * *

Alex Golub, an Associate Professor in Anthropology at the University of Hawaii, has tried to come to grips with what or who a thinking woman might be as part of his brief, and not overly serious, dissection of the term ‘thinking woman’s crumpet’. He says:

The noun phrase ‘thinking women’ seems at first cut to describe women who think, but this is not exactly right … I think that the term is meant to invoke a certain socioeconomic position and the entire set of habits and dispositions that come along with it: affluent and educated, refined enough to be attracted to someone’s personality as well as their looks, etc. ‘Thinking woman’ is just two words but for those with the cultural knowledge necessary to decode them it summons up an entire way of classifying people which is more or less systematic. In particular, it implicitly defines large swaths of the population as people who ‘don’t think’ …

Womankind issue 3

Issue 3: Nakano Takeko, the last woman samurai

Could he be right? Could being described as a ‘thinking woman’ say more about your social status and attitudes than about what you do with your mind?

Womankind, where it trips up, seems to suggest this analysis of the thinking woman (its reader) is right, in the way that it caters to certain predictable tastes and assumptions; in the way that it remains safe, and not too challenging.

Yet I am certain it is aiming at something more: substance as well as style; a genuine exploration of the world; a desire for understanding and for change.

In the belief that the woman who thinks is, after all, a game changer – a real revolutionary.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

Always have plenty of ice

I’ve been rooting through my grandmother’s recipe collection. Tucked in among the cut-out and handwritten recipes for chicken casserole, ginger fluff, orange cordial, date loaf and all the rest, I’ve found raggedy copies of The Leader Spare Corner Book, published in the 1930s in Melbourne. With ads. Here are a few, just for your enjoyment.

Ice ad Leader 1930s

Kayser ad 2 Leader 1930s

SEC ad Leader 1935

Robur ad Leader 1930sLaurel ad Leader 1933Solitan ad Leader 1935Golden Crust ad 2 Leader 1930sDried fruit ad Leader 1933Allan's ad Leader 1933
© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

Boy in pink

Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside was released 17 February 1978, the same year Carl appeared, mid-term, at my primary school. He was taller than the other boys in Grade 5, and no longer scrawny, if ever he had been. Perhaps he’d been held back a year, or had to start again. He looked lonely, and angry. Handsome, too, with his olive skin and loose, bronze-coloured curls. His eyes were green, or maybe hazel.

He seemed like a man already, with his height and broad shoulders, the way he stood apart from the other boys. Who knows what he was feeling? He was a new kid in a place where I’d always been – someone who’d had to leave somewhere. I saw him as a romantic outsider, emerging from some kind of darkness.

Though I can’t confirm it as historic fact, I have a memory of ‘Wuthering Heights’ airing on Countdown, which I watched with my sister. An aspiring boyfriend had also given her the cassette tape of The Kick Inside. Even I, at ten, couldn’t miss the lush sensuality of Kate Bush’s music.

Did I actually make a link between Carl and Heathcliff, or was there just … something in the air?

Shortly after his arrival, I saw him across the playing field – just standing there by himself, not doing anything. And what was really striking was that his shirt was pink. He was wearing a pink, long-sleeved, button-down shirt.

Many men wear pink shirts these days, but I’d never seen a man or a boy wear pink until then. The people I knew just didn’t dress like that. At school our uniforms were blue and grey, with touches of red. I guess his parents – parent? – hadn’t had time to get him one yet.

Brave boy, burning up in solitude in his pink shirt. Not for a moment did I think the colour was sissy, though I sensed others might. This aching, dangerous possibility drew me to him all the more.

Carl in his pink shirt, at eleven years old or so, was to me the epitome of manly beauty.

* * *

Carl was also the only person to ever properly kick me.

I don’t mean that to be a sinister segue from boys/men to violence. And it wasn’t all that hard, really. As kicks go.

I wasn’t a girly girl. Outside of school, I mostly wore corduroys, T-shirts or skivvies (turtlenecks), desert boots, and ‘woollies’ knitted by grandparents. None of my clothes were pink or feminised in any way.

girl with teddybear

A painting my grandfather did for me.

Though I played with dolls, many of my toys – a farm set, Lego – were what you’d call gender neutral. Books were important. Animals. Just being outside. I don’t remember ever even visiting a toy store, or caring. We had a black-and-white TV, but it wasn’t on all that much. I remember a few ads – such as Palmolive’s ‘You know you’re soaking in it’ – but they tended towards the ludicrous and pannable.

Our house was a place where things didn’t necessarily match. It didn’t matter. But it was fascinating to stay overnight with a friend who had a matching white-and-gold bedroom suite; and to play for an afternoon with another who had a full array of accessories for her Barbie. Come to think of it, every toy she had seemed to come as a complete set. I might have felt a twinge of envy, but it was only theoretical. It wasn’t my world, and I was happy to be just visiting.

At school I threw myself into each subject; considered everything open to me. I was top of the class in maths, along with wiry, black-haired Brian; wrote poetry and stories; drew a reasonably realistic portrait of a fellow student. Mr Esling’s science classes, which took place in different spaces around the school because he wasn’t on staff, actually had a real sense of adventure to them.

The only area where I felt at any kind of a disadvantage was in sports, because with my smaller size I couldn’t compete with my peers who were all both taller and stronger. After I won a white third-place ribbon in an egg-and-spoon race on sports day, admittedly only because someone else fell over, even that didn’t matter all that much. I’d achieved something in sport.

My peers took advantage of my small size in their invention of a game of tag called ‘Witchypoo’, in which I was always ‘It’. I don’t recall minding being It; but I did get very hot at lunchtime, always chasing after others. I’d get home after school with my hair worked halfway out of its ponytails, and my white cotton knee-highs all the way down around my ankles.

Somehow it came about that my physical capacities were challenged in a different way, as if I had to make up for my – hmnmn – shortcoming. Someone had the idea of challenging me to see how hard I could grip their fingers, and for a while that became my thing: proving how strong my grip was. It was quite strong. I did play the violin, after all.

At what point this morphed into something else, I don’t know; or for how long it went on. I’m ashamed to say it involved kicking – showing how hard I could kick. I only remember two incidents: one involving a boy named Stephen, and the other involving Carl.

Stephen, unlike Carl, I found annoying. I have a suspicion others felt like this as well, which may partially explain how things unfolded. We were in our classroom, and somehow Stephen ended up wriggling on the floor at my feet, taunting me in a girly high voice to kick him as hard as I could.

I thought he was contemptible – a worm – baiting me like that for attention. I was not such a fool as to think it was my attention he was after: Stephen knew perfectly well we were in plain view of the teacher. What’s more, it went against the tacit schoolyard code that such things weren’t done in front of adults, or ever discussed with them.

So I kicked him. Perhaps not fully as hard as I could – after all, I could actually have hurt him. But hard enough to feel brutal.

The teacher was appalled, and of course she told me off. An experience to which I was not accustomed.

‘He told me to’, I retorted shakily, though I had enough of a moral compass to be aware that this was no excuse at all. I felt moronic as I said it, as if I’d just morphed into a completely different person. I’d kicked him because hatred had welled up in me, and because he had given me an opportunity to do it. It was deeply shaming.

Some time after this, Carl challenged me to kick him.

He must have had some idea of how I felt. Even if no one had told him that I ‘liked’ him, I had held his hand on the bus all the way back to school from our field trip to the Botanical Gardens. (Why on earth had he let me do that?) I remember being boiling hot and exhausted after a day of running around outside, jumping in piles of leaves. On top of that, I was on fire with happiness. He just looked out the window, his feelings unreadable.

I answered his challenge. I think it was the only time he had ever said anything directly to me. My friend Cathy and I met him down beneath the school building, in a sheltered spot which was often deserted, as it was on that day. I stood opposite him, and I kicked him. The boy I was completely crazy about.

Of course, he kicked me back. Just once. Hard. It was perfect justice.

It shocked me and it hurt. I had to wash the deep, gritty scrape on my leg in one of the bathroom sinks afterwards. Cathy and I didn’t discuss it, and I didn’t tell anyone about it.

I didn’t kick anyone after that.

I wonder: did he?

* * *

On Sunday I was listening to an interview on Radio National with Cordelia Fine, a research psychologist and the author of Delusions of Gender (2010).

She says that many claims in popular science writing about the hardwired nature of ‘male brains’ and ‘female brains’ are based on a misunderstanding of the findings of scientific studies.

In some cases, studies have been conducted and/or interpreted from a gender essentialist bias, which assumes from the outset that the differences between the sexes are fixed and natural.

There are sex differences in the brain, but it’s a mistake to assume that certain biological differences necessarily lead to predictable and consistent male or female patterns of behaviour.

Fine talks instead about ‘mosaics’ of male and female characteristics – and a huge amount of overlap in behaviours – resulting from the many factors which work alongside each other to produce gender.

Given what we know of the impact of experience on the brain, and the brain’s plasticity, it is clear that the ‘gender socialisation process’ goes far beyond either biological hardwiring or the role of parental influence – even if parents are determinedly gender neutral in their approach to raising children.

Gender is one of the very first human categories that children learn, along with age. They start to recognise which side of the gender divide they themselves fall on when they’re about two to three years old.

Gender is important to children because it’s one of the few ways, early on, they can assert their identity. It’s through gender socialisation that they learn how, in their culture, male is expressed or rejected, or how female is expressed or rejected.

In other words: pink isn’t just for girls, unless boys and girls learn that it is. And they learn, as we know, like sponges, by absorbing everything around them.

* * *

I have a silk velvet scarf dyed deep pink with cochineal which, if you don’t know and haven’t read A Perfect Red, is an insect from which a brilliant, colour-fast, truly red dye is derived. It produced the crimsons and scarlets worn by kings and queens, merchants and cardinals, and was one of the most valued commodities to come out of Mexico for several hundred years.

The scarf is draped over the back of the chair next to me like a still-living thing. The colour hums. Though pink and not red, it in no sense seems to be less than. It’s as saturated as it gets.

Do I love it because I’m female, because it’s feminine?

Or do I love it as a painter loves the colour in the world?

* * *
In a letter to a man I loved, I told him that his kisses on my cheeks felt like the pink blossoms of a tree in my memory dropping onto my face.

Did this image feminise him? And if it did, would that matter?

I have learned that even tenderness doesn’t always mean what it seems to.

But gentleness in love – that’s to be adored.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015