Monday, June 26, 2017

On being both - and much more

It was Virginia Woolf who 100 years ago wrote that it was not enough to be man or woman, that we have to be both, but it is Ali Smith, no doubt with the added vision of someone who lives a non-heterosexual life, unlike Woolf, who has given that idea contemporary teeth in her extraordinary body of work, not least her 2014 Women's Prize for Fiction winner - How to be both - that tackles the issue directly,  if very creatively, and which I've just finished reading having only recently discovered Ali Smith - better late than never.

For Smith it is not just about being male and female at once but also the idea that those who die live on in us, as does their art and many of their traditions, while we all play many roles in our lifetimes, indeed more and more, and that that is how it should be and we need to embrace that idea of 'being both' much more than we do.

I won't say I understand all that Ali writes on this challenging idea, but I think I understand enough to say that she gets at the crux of what it takes to have effective experiences living in, behind and beneath all the moments of our lives, and especially in living in relationships that are not based on preconceived polarities but allow us to experiment more with open feelings and deeper connections with each other, between the generations and across cultures, as well as the sexes, which is surely the challenge of the modern age, if not of all ages.

I am heterosexual, as far as I know, but in my marriage I believe I am in a way both woman and man, as is my husband in return, and then we are neither too, or in being both we are neither as far as any kind of preconceived notions of what it is to be a man and a woman go. I mean not entirely, but in essence we are kind of both. He is a university librarian and blues guitarist (to name but two of his roles), I am a political theorist and dancer, to name but two of mine.

By contrast, reading recently about the Uber CEO and general company practice of being aggressively greedy and bullying and sexist, in other words classic macho male behaviour, it seems to me that the problem with that situation could be described as men being too male - a problem not unique to this 'man's world', indeed that which defines its essence and essential problem.

Equally, but with a little more complexity because in a man's world women's choices and options for getting ahead are generally more constrained than men's are, Kim Kardashian could be said to be too female in that she has built an industry around her appearance and the hyper-sexualised display of her womanly assets and nothing else, as if to be woman is just to be, and always to be, on show.

Thus I think the Uber men and the Kardashian women alike could learn a thing or three from Ali Smith's idea of being both, and also neither, in moving beyond the heterosexual gender extremes of learned behaviour that accentuate the innate tendencies and weaknesses of both sexes. Instead we should try to develop different tendencies to overcome those weaknesses and in doing so, it's possible that homosexual and transsexual insights can provide clues as to how we might better do this.

To being both and much more than the sum of those polarised parts.