All attempts at theorizing social life are, at the same time, works of autobiography
– William Simon, 1996
As we read a text. . . we produce something different, another text which is a translation
– Ian Parker, 1999
I was watching a re-run of the Australian version of Changing Rooms, one of the many home improvement shows conveniently gathered together on one Cable channel. An ‘expert’ was initiating his acolyte into the mysteries of the jig-saw. The expert explained ‘It’s like a sewing machine only a bit more manly’. I was immediately struck by the similarity of the sewing machine and the ‘more manly’ jigsaw. However, both are essentially power tools.
Thinking about the arbitrary nature of gender labels I recalled two questions from performance artist Laurie Anderson‘s film of her show Home of the Brave. In it she asks ‘Which is more macho: Pineapple or knife? Which is more macho: Light bulb or school bus? I’ll let you ponder those questions for a while. Read on. . .
At about the age of four or four and a half I was watching my mother on her sewing machine. It all looked a little space age to me, like something from a science fiction film. I was enthralled by this alien contraption with its roaring engine,and the sense of danger and excitement it evoked, and the little spotlight on the side. I remember saying to my mother ‘When I’m a girl, I’m going to have a sewing machine’ to which she replied quite flatly ‘You’re never going to be a girl’. Boy! She sure knew how to spoil the fun. I took this to mean that I would never own a sewing machine of my own. I was destined to a be one of life’s spectators. Now I cherished this little story for my years as early evidence of my gender transgression. It helped to explain why I never liked football. As Oscar Wilde says’ It’s a game for rough girls not delicate boys’.
Fast-forward fifteen years and I found myself drawn to Yoko Ono‘s ‘Painting for a Broken Sewing Machine’ in her book Grapefruit:
Place a broken sewing machine in a glass tank ten or twenty times larger than the machine. Once a year on a snowy evening. place the tank in the town square and have everyone throw stones at it
At the time I was working in a very dull insurance office and decided to impart the sagely wisdom from Grapefruit. One person got very annoyed trying to understand the ‘sewing machine piece’, of course, fuelled by me re-reading it and placing the emphasis on a different word each time and nodding in a ‘knowing way’. Eventually I was told ‘just get on with your work’. I suppose with the ‘sewing machine piece’ you either get it or you don’t. The people who did get it at the time were perhaps the ones who realized there wasn’t really anything to get. Writing this now, I’m struck by how the work I get on with and the time-wasting have in many ways traded places.
Over the years I’ve told my ‘gender transgression sewing machine story’ countless times. However, it wasn’t until I realised that it might be read as ‘text’ and therefore capable of translation that made me begin to question my interpretation. My original translation was based on my prior conviction that my behaviour was somehow inconsistent with my assigned gender. It was time to take my sewing machine story out from under the glass (gender lens) or at least throw a few stones at it.
Having studied gender in great depth I realized how the concept ofgender constancyputs a very different spin on things. It’s not until about 5 to 7 years that children realize that they are stuck in a particular gender for life. Up until then they think it’s possible to cross back and forth.
I tried to remember what I liked about my mother’s sewing machine and I realized it was all about the speed. I liked the foot pedal and how it revved the engine. I remembered shouting ‘go faster, go faster’ and getting very excited by it all. Hey I was four and we didn’t have a car, so what’s a boy to do? So, far from being evidence of my gender transgression, the story could equally be one of gender conformity. Boys like fast cars, don’t they?
Still glued to the home improvements channel, a guy referred to the sewing machine foot pedal as ‘the accelerator’ and then another asked ‘where’s the clutch?’ In an episode of Naked Chef, ‘new lad’, Jamie Oliver justified his preference for his turbo-charged six-burner cooker over his mother’s ‘old-world range’ on account of ‘being a boy’.
The need to ‘re-gender’ our power tools says a great deal about the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes. Such attempts re-iterate the deeply ingrained belief in the sanctity of binary gender and are, to a degree, apologies for gender transgression. Part of gender conformity is to learn the art of knowing what is macho and what is not. According to Laurie Anderson, a pineapple is more macho than a knife and a school bus is more macho than a light bulb. Of course they are arbitrary distinctions and I have tried these questions with students. The ‘correct’ answers are usually met with an indignant ‘who says so’? Invariably when attempting to ‘gender; objects, the discussion most often centres on the similarities to the penis. So that long, sharp, pointy powerful thing must be a boy. This exposes the societal blueprint that objects and emotions are gendered by ‘virtue’ of their similarity to the shape of genitals. Think about it: men are seeing as more ‘outgoing’, and women are seen as more’ inward looking’ or men wield and women yield, according to the stereotype. Are we just trying to live our lives according to the contents of our pants?
So, given that both the sewing machine and jigsaw are both power tools, which is more macho?
To this day I have never owned a sewing machine nor a car, nor a jigsaw. Furthermore, I’m happy to say that I still don’t like football!
The fabric often tears along ragged, often hastily sutured seams
– William Simon, 1996