Clothes are so important, aren’t they? With teachers returning to schools this week, my Twitter timeline has been full of teachers with their ‘back to school wardrobes’. There’s a lot of the Harkel rainbow pencil skirts, the Popsy maths dresses and the Popsy crayon dress, among others. Clothes make us feel comfortable, or safe, or more professional. Everyone has their own quirks and preferences. An outfit that makes us feel powerful. Most men also can’t fathom the glee that comes from discovering your dress actually has pockets!!
I started my book The Lost Girls with these two quotes because they encapsulate so much about the performativity of gender and identity that we all experience. Gender is a performance – it’s made up of thousands of conscious and subconscious actions every day, built up by our experiences, biology, context, and so on. But then, all of our identity is performative in that respect.
As teachers of English we’re used to discussing this. We talk about why characters behave the way they do, how they shift their behaviour and performance depending on who they’re with, what they want, what has happened to them. Sometimes, we explicitly discuss gender performance (particularly Shakespeare – hello, Lady Macbeth!) – but perhaps more often when it challenges expectations. It’s less common to see discussions of how Juliet is performing the role of a 13 year old girl entering a potentially sexually powerful period of her life, trying on an identity to see how it fits.
At A-Level, the linguistic discussions of divergence and convergence are similar, alongside the understanding of social gropus and the way they impact our language. Find someone who behaves and speaks in exactly the same way no matter what the person, relationship, or situation, and you’ll more often than not find someone who lacks any kind of awareness of other people. Performances are all about the relationship between the performer and the audience, the expectations and the decisions about whether to meet them. Moran’s quote puts it perfectly – “who I’m supposed to be today”. Who is that, today? Tomorrow? At work, at home?
Teenage years are like that. We try on looks, attitudes, pop cultures, friends. There’s a lot of discussion at the moment around friendship groups on the return to school. Whether students have maintained or improved friendships, or found that while they could sustain a summer holiday separation, the months since March have moved them away from someone they thought was a BFF.
Often, that searching doesn’t really end and we encounter it everywhere. My husband and I have both worked at the same place a long time, him since university in the same company – but crucially, not the same job, going from lone IT support for a small team to IT manager of a company that puts tech first – me, from NQT to HOD of English with a brief SLT stint. We both sometimes feel that moving on would give a different identity or, at least, an opportunity to restate our current sense of identity without the 10+ years of colleagues who’ve known us through those first faltering years. New parents discuss it: am I mum, HOD, Charlotte? Where are the intersections of those three, and what happens when they seem to clash or unbalance?
For teaching, I think the performative nature of identity is an interesting one that we should be aware of.
For the pastoral, it helps to understand and support some of those flexing identities and social groups, particularly now. The students who have ended up ‘stuck’ in a year 7 group though they’re in year 9 now and trying to break away, or the ones who don’t quite know yet where they fit and try on everything, to the ones who seem to have it sussed and the ones who have several shifting identities already but have trouble bridging the gaps. What is our dress code saying to students, male and female, about social expectations upon them? Does it have some inherent sexism that we need to address? When students post online, what images are they trying to project about themselves and why?
In the English curriculum, I think it’s an important way into discussion of character. Starting with the literal clothing – why does Curly’s wife dress that way? What identity is she trying to project, as well as what identity does society place upon her?
She had full, rouged lips and wide spaced eyes, heavily made up. Her fingernails were red. Her hair hung in little rolled clusters, like sausages. She wore a cotton house dress and red mules, on the insteps of which were little bouquets of red ostrich feathers.
Why is it so important in dystopian fiction for characters to conform to dress codes, uniforms and costume?
There I sit in the chair, with the lights off, in my red dress, hooked and buttoned. You can think clearly only with your clothes on
Then, it becomes a broader question of identity and self-representation. Why does a character behave this way here, and that way here? What has happened to them or changed to affect the way they project themselves? What relationships or actions are they trying to achieve with their choices? What social expectations are they trying to play into or fight against?
One of the things I’m doing this year is more focus on what I’m calling the ‘macro’ techniques – rather than details of language or metaphor, for example (the micro), the whole-text or long-haul strategies like clothing, setting, behaviour and actions, and how writers harness these to play on our social expectations and experiences, to use shorthand and stereotype, in a way, to create those hooks into a story. This idea of character’s self-representation is one of the ones I’m most excited for students to start discussing.