If the author of the email I received had known me a little better, he might not have recommended to me the autobiography of a comedian. A book published in 2017 no less. An autobiography by someone younger than my mother.
I have never seen The Peep Show, and if you had asked me a few days ago the first names of the comedy duo Mitchell and Webb I might have shrugged, and then frowned. The frown clearly conveying my general feeling about people who try and manipulate me into laughter. It’s not that I have a low regard for all comedians, or all humour, it’s merely that I feel reluctant to join in.
I don’t know the author of the email’s views on comedy. And they aren’t relevant. What I do know is that the author of the email introduced the book as one that he’d strongly resonated with. The main topic being that of masculinity. Actually, he sobbed. Within the first chapter.
My curiosity woke up. Since I’m abroad I’m currently reading on my ebook reader, which has the delightful option of downloading a preview of any book. I figured I would read the preview, make an informed decision that the book wasn’t for me and then move on to something more… pretentious.
I read the preview and bought the book with a couple of taps. Then I finished the book, only really diverging from it when faced with the whine of the dog who needed a walk and the big, brown eyes of the non-English speaking six-year-old trying to express his need for me to play volleyball with him in the garden, Puss-in-Boots style.
First, Robert Webb knows how to write. Second, he has a story to tell. Third, he’s got the guts to tell it.
Fourth, his story is the story of all of us. How we grow up with certain beliefs, dictated by the society our parents and grandparents were raised in, and inadvertently pass down to our children. Despite the simple fact that these beliefs tear us through when grief hits, when loneliness clings or when we become afraid.
I promise I am not being wilfully dense about this. I don’t know what the words ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ have to offer. Avoiding them, we still have a massive language of more precise words to describe individuals and their behaviour which somehow manage not to come pre-loaded with a steam tanker of gender manure from the last century.
‘How Not To Be A Boy’ is a book about screwing up. I can’t imagine anyone not relating to something within its pages.
This is another account of me admitting to being changed by a sport – played on broomsticks – that I do not play.
1. When the ball goes through the hoops, raise your arms
On a chilly Saturday in November, at the Northern Cup held in Sheffield, which, if you’re too muggle to know, is a quidditch tournament for those teams who are based in the north of the United Kingdom, I was a goal referee.
It was only for a couple of minutes as the previous goal referee was needed off-pitch. The snitch was already on pitch, held in its sock, bouncing off the bum cheeks of the snitch runner. The seekers were fighting over it. The beaters were attacking with their bludgers (dodge-balls) to disrupt the battle for the final snatch. The quaffle (a soft volleyball) had already leapt through the hoops thirty-eight times. All thirty-eight times being at the other end of the pitch to the three hoops which I monitored.
Now, if you know me well, you might think that I chose the hoops that had been so neglected because the chance of me having to wave my hands in the air to indicate a goal, or at my knees to indicate no goal, was slim. But no. I had no idea who was winning (or even playing) when I went on pitch. The low, incredibly bright, winter sun was my bigger concern. I didn’t want to screw up the first time I did anything quidditchy. I needed to be able to see.
There was one moment, when a chaser had the quaffle (I only really watched the quaffle as it was the only ball I was responsible for knowing about) and seemed to be heading in my direction. I tensed ready, determined to know with certainty if the ball went through a hoop (forwards or backwards, both count), but the chap was tackled before he got close enough to lob the ball in my direction. I was kind of disappointed.
Then the sock was pulled out of the snitch runner’s shorts. The snitch was held up in the air, and the game was suddenly over.
If you’re overly interested, there are some excellent photos depicting the role of a goal referee on the QuidditchUK website. Goal refereeing is apparently something that anybody can step in and do, and when these big tournaments happen, there’s always a great demand for referees. Which brings me to the weird realisation that even I, with my unexplained aversion to team sport, have managed to find something that possibly makes me more than just an awkward person sitting on the sidelines. I wore a skirt and boots. I didn’t have to dress up strange or demonstrate my inability to throw a ball. And it was all kind of nice.
2. They/she/he… a gender rule violation
Quidditch is a mixed gender sport, with a maximum of four of any one gender playing for a team at any one time. When I first, sceptically, discussed this rule with my sister, I assumed that, because life’s unfair, the team on the pitch would almost always contain four guys and three lasses. Watching one of the matches though on Saturday, I heard the whistle blown and it was announced that there was a gender rule violation. Too many women on the pitch at once. I laughed at myself, and shook my head. Wrong again.
I’m learning a lot about gender through quidditch. Gender is not the same as sex. Sex is biological. In most cases it’s binary, but not always. Gender is a choice.
If, like me, you are privileged to never have needed to actually think about what gender you are, because you’re quite comfortable being the gender that matches your sex, it’s likely that, like me, you’re lacking the mental flexibility to really get your head around the genders represented on the quidditch roster. It’s not easy. There are many players for whom gender identity is not what was originally written on their birth certificate. All those normal indicators that we cling to for defining gender, and not just long hair and pink nail varnish, but the contrast between a bobbing up and down walk and a wiggling side to side walk, have to be put aside in favour of the individual’s preference. Which you aren’t going to know unless you’re explicitly told. Some people define and own their gender for themselves. The rest of us accept what our elders assumed.
On the quidditch pitch, whatever you feel your gender to be is how the others are willing to see you. That makes a quidditch tournament somewhat unique. I asked my sister how the referee knows who counts as what: the captains tell the head referee before the call for brooms up. Simple really. I don’t know why I felt it would be more difficult that that. No, perhaps I do. I like to think of myself as an open minded, inclusive person, but the truth is, that much like everyone else in this world, I am inclusive when it regards things I know. What I don’t know, and aren’t comfortable with, makes me feel uncertain. I naturally gravitate towards people like me.
Until recently, nobody has ever asked me what it means to be a woman. For me, gender and sex have always been one, interchangeable idea. When it comes to talking about being female I’m at a loss. I’m missing the vocabulary. Looking at my nails, which are practical nails, a guy recently remarked that I wasn’t very girly. My soft hands are apparently rough. There’s a callus on my finger. I’d prefer to be chopping logs to painting my nails, but that, I’m sure, makes me no less girl. Are girly and feminine synonyms? Clearly not. So when people talk about gender, what are they actually talking about? Is it more about perception? Could someone be female in one culture and male in another based on how they are more comfortable dressing and working? Ancient Egyptian men wore jewellery, make-up and excessive perfume. They didn’t have trousers. Three and a half thousand years ago, Hatshepsut gave birth to a daughter but was portrayed as a man. It was what fitted her role and the needs of her people at that time.
So maybe what I really took in was this: I don’t need to know the gender of the person I’m sharing brownies with or gossiping about the game with to share brownies or gossip about the game. If in doubt, I can always use peoples names instead of assuming they/she/he or whatever other pronoun is in the mix. The captains and the head referees need to know peoples gender to make sure that the game is played to the rule book. But really, what difference does it make to me?