‘The Boy in the Sari’ is the name of a long critical essay that I wrote for the Masters course on which I am currently enrolled, the MA Sociology of Education at UCL-IoE. The whole essay is a 5,000 word behemoth which picks apart a ‘critical incident’ and analyses it in theoretical and practical depth. What I present here must necessarily be a heavily abridged version, not only so that nobody plagiarises the life out of me, but so as to preotect anonymity.
In summary, a few years ago a former pupil of mine – a self-assured Muslim boy – rocked up to school wearing a sari on ‘Wear Something Funny For Money Day’. On the day, I was struck by the commitment he made to his female alter-ego on the day, as he changed not only his clothes but his voice, his walk, his attitude and even his name. This was a socially powerful boy, popular and well-establishment as a ‘boyish boy’, who flung himself into the sari and had what he reported to be a brilliant day.
What I found interesting, and what prompted me to analyse it in such depth as my Masters long essay, was the response he got. It seemed odd to me that in a school containing pupils with very binarial understandings of how boys and girls ‘should’ be, it seemed completely strange that this boy – who I pseudoynmised as ‘Mahidul’ – could have his transgressive gender play not simply tolerated but celebrated by the other kids. How was it that in a fairly gender-punitive children’s social world, a Muslim boy could come to school in a sari and not face any negative response from his peers? This question was intensified by the small minority of other boys who tiptoed into gender-transgression (sticking on a bit of lipstick rather than wearing a full sari and changing your name for a day), and these boys were ridiculed and humiliated.
The question I was looking to write about, then, was how could ‘Mahidul’ get away with it among his peers when others suffered, and my secondary question was whether or not his actions could be deemed ‘subversive’, ‘transgressive’, neither or both.
Abridged heavily, here we go…
It was 8:40 in the morning of Red Nose Day, and the children had been instructed to ‘Wear Something Funny for Money’. From my classroom window, I could see an amusing stream of children entering the playground – a coterie of onesie-wearing superheroes, wild animals, and half-hearted rebels with their pants over their jeans. Those kids who were already in the playground were laughing at each others mutual silliness.
Suddenly, emanating from the school gate, I could hear excited yelps, more riotous laughter and shocked shouts of
“Oh my days!! Look at Mahidul!!!”
Children were running across the playground towards the front gate of the school to get a look at what was the source of the commotion. Whatever it was, Mahidul had already collected a small but giddy crowd. My curiosity had been piqued so I came to my open window just as the crowd rounded the corner, into the playground. In amidst the lively swarm was a boy from my class, Mahidul, wearing a huge smile and a sari of deep pink, shimmering with sequins and jewels.
I shouted out to him,
“Looking good Mahidul!”
He looked up, and with an affected voice full of self-assurance, he called back,
“Who’s Mahidul? I’m Miranda.”
Taking Mahidul’s decision to wear a sari as a ‘critical incident’ (Tripp, 1993; 1994) from which to begin ruminating, this essay will explore the intersection of masculinities, heteronormativity and subversion in the context of one ten-year-old boy’s gender performance and its reception. A central question to be explored is how and why Mahidul’s decision did not lead to ostracism, chastisement or Othering, as it did for other boys whose performances on Red Nose Day deviated, albeit less radically, from heteronormative masculine expectations. A further question to consider pertains to subversion: did Mahidul’s choice serve as a ‘spectacular enactment of transgression that can elicit a practice of gender dissimulation’ (Nayak & Kehily, 2006: 459) or was dressing like a girl, paradoxically, the most masculine thing Mahidul could do, given his subjective position within the social and academic life of the school?
… There followed a detailed explanation of the school context and of the particular ‘routes to masculinity’ that exist in the school context, which Mahidul has been able to capitalise upon. There followed then an explanation of the theoretical approaches of Judith Butler and Erving Goffman…
Mahidul’s transformation earned him stunned reverence from his class; Miranda is but one more incredible accomplishment to add to his portfolio, another success borne of his eccentric, intellectual confidence. Ved was late into class and anxiously peered around the doorframe before edging in. Within seconds, a boy in the class roared out “Ved’s wearing lip stick”, to raucous condemnatory laughter from what felt like the whole class. It was an immediate and uncontrollable event, as a teacher. Ved began crying immediately and ran straight to the boys’ toilet to erase all of the lipstick, returning only after around fifteen minutes, and only after the class had been warned not to embarrass him further. As Goffman theorised, ‘some sessions of embarrassment seem to have an abrupt, orgasmic character; a sudden introduction of the disturbing event is followed by an immediate peak in the experience of embarrassment and then a slow return to the preceding ease’ (Goffman, 1990a: 100).
Considering Ved’s experience alongside Mahidul’s elucidates the parameters of transgression – in order that a transgressive act becomes seen as such, the social actor need to be in a position from which their actions are accorded an attribution of conscious agency. Mahidul’s self-assured performance of Miranda could not be perceived as an error of judgement – Mahidul’s status is built upon his authority as an intelligent child, and his actions are thus likely to be rendered with more meaning. Though other children may not fully understand what Mahidul was seeking to achieve, if anything at all, it was not considered that Mahidul made himself into a girl by accident. For Ved however, the act of putting on lipstick did not take place within the ‘performance’ of a disparate self. Ved became Ved with some ill-advised lipstick on. There is a thin line between a subversive act and an odd act, and the difference lies often in the interpretation of the act and the actor; in this case, Mahidul and Ved stood on opposite sides of that line.
Transgression, Subversion and Discursive Resignification?
At a level of emotional response, Mahidul’s subversive practice was successful; he enjoyed it, he gained further esteem from his peers for his boldness and it cemented his visibility within the social world of the school. But if it is be reflected on with recourse to theories of performativity, and if the term ‘subvert’ is taken to mean ‘to undermine the power and authority of (an established system or institution)’ (Oxford Dictionary of English, 2010: 1777), one needs to take a more evaluative stance on Mahidul’s gender acts. The question becomes not one of sentimental affect but of discursive effect – did Mahidul’s actions have ramifications which have destabilised the existing heteronormative practices of the school, interrupting discourse? Butler alludes to how drag, and cross-dressing, does not indicate ‘the essential plasticity of gender’ (Butler, 1997: 145) because if the femininities the male emulates are themselves illusory, then ‘drag imitates the imitative structure of gender, revealing gender itself to be an imitation’ (1997: 145). Without an awareness of this imitative nature of femininity, Mahidul’s drag cannot be truly ‘subversive’ since it operates in obedience to the gender binary, rather than in transcendence of it.
The pleasure of feeling subversive is experienced as the main outcome of subversion, which leads some academics working in the field of gender to be ‘more inclined to see the individual benefits that arise from queer contestation, at the expense of the ineffectiveness of these strategies in changing institutional practices’ (McCormack, 2014, 45). There may be some significance in the fact that Mahidul opted to wear the sari as part of a ‘Wear Something Funny For Money’ themed day – the risk of deviant gender practice could have been justified as ultimately being attempts to make others laugh and to raise money. Understanding the structural and cultural pressures on Mahidul, however, highlights the naivety of explaining his wearing of the sari away as ‘fancy dress’; more likely, knowing Mahidul’s position within social hierarchies, Mahidul took an opportunity to act under circumstances in which he knew the ‘normativizing injunctions’ (Butler, 1993: 14) would be relaxed. Multiple interpretations present themselves. Whether the girls in the playground interpreted Mahidul’s act as a classmate engaging in gender dissimulation seems doubtful. More likely, in his crowd-rallying imitation of femininity, what was on display was a boy exhibiting the excesses of his socially powerful position, one unavailable to the girls whose subjectivities he sought to emulate.
In reflecting on Mahidul’s sari, the question that initially struck me as strange was how it could be that a Muslim boy could attend school in a devoutly religious Muslim community dressed in ‘girls’ clothes’ and to receive no social opprobrium from other children, when deviations made by other boys are policed repressively. More recently, my intrigue rests on how, despite the fervent buzz that greeted the arrival of Miranda, Mahidul came back the next day to be Mahidul again, without any further discussion or debate about Miranda. Seemingly, he was Miranda as much as he was his cxharacter in the Shakespeare play – a character performed passionately for an impressed audience, but for a very short amount of time. The answer to both questions may be explained by the idea that the accumulation of ‘masculine capital’ affords him a few irregular transgressive ‘gender peccadilloes’ every now and again.
Through embodying the hegemonic values of the school, his position means that his seemingly subversive imitations of ‘the imitative structure of gender’ (Butler, 1997: 145) are actually imitations of the imitation of the imitative structure of gender. He is boy relishing the bounties of his successful boyness, through pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl.
Rather than being in a position of subversion, Mahidul was enjoying a position of personal freedom of expression. The fact that he has committed sufficient acts designated as masculine means that he has certain immunity from the worst vicissitudes of the policing of gender – he has done enough to ensure that his masculinity will not fall under the spotlight, particularly when pupils who lack Mahidul’s status, such as Ved, take the brunt of the regulatory practices. Mahidul’s position is a luxury. “The emancipation of escape from rigid gender binaries coupled with the need for a private refuge or hideaway … was an enduring theme for boys and girls who defied gender and sexual norms’ (Renold, 2005: 147).
In discussions of subversive acts, though they depend on the freedom from inhibition, the tendencies noted by McCormack (2014) illustrate how the fetishisation of subversion focuses individuals on the pleasurable personal gains to be made by subverting established normative structures; moments of subversion emphasise the individual’s freedom to act in ways which challenge and defy expectation. Once we consider how Mahidul’s subject position enabled him to convince himself of his ‘escape from the rigid gender binaries’ (Renold, 2005: 147), whilst noting that his drag invoked rather than deconstructed binarial constructs of masculinity/femininity, it becomes clearer how it might be the case that acts of subversion, however spectacular, rarely change structural and institutional practices.
In exploring how Mahidul’s flagrant and spectacular imitative performance of femininity in a redolent sari exemplifies rather than nullifies his masculinity, one is left questioning the plausibility of children committing transgressive acts which would ‘elicit a practice of gender dissimulation’ (Nayak & Kehily, 2006: 459). In order for his actions to be rendered purposeful, coherent and intelligible – like Mahidul, as opposed to Ved – a boy needs to have accrued sufficient demonstrated evidence of his masculinity through pursuit of hegemonic practices, such that a transgressive act leads to interest from others, rather than humiliation. But, by having successfully pursued the hegemonic practices within a given discourse, the subversive potential of his acts are made impotent: the acts which he would perform subversively lose their power to resignify discourse, and instead become individualised displays of how occupying the hegemonic subject positions affords boys the individual freedom to transgress normative practices of gender without incurring opprobrium, outcasting or the denial of his masculinity.
The next endeavour must then be to identify the existence of the point along the spectrum of performed genders at which a boy embodies hegemonic notions of masculinity enough to qualify his masculinity, but not so forcefully that the subversive potential of his acts to reconfigure discourse is made impotent by the individualisation of his actions.