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What’s In a Beard?

I’m traveling this week and so I’m bringing up some of my favorite old posts to keep you company while I’m gone. Circus Amok used to be one of our favorite NYC summer traditions, but I’m not sure they’re still being funded, alas. Here’s a link to last summer’s Kickstarter fund. If ever there were something worthy of being kickstarted, it’s the Amok-ians.

 

IMG_1920.JPGCircus Amok brought its chaotic carnival to city parks again this past September, culminating in two performances in Tompkins Square Park, that former battleground in Manhattan’s never-ending gentrification wars (remember the riots of the late 1980s?). Gentrification won, of course, which is why King Tut’s Wa-Wa Hut no longer stands at the corner of 6th and A, and why I can’t afford to shop in the precious wee clothing boutiques that dot Avenue B.

But I digress.  The Circus was in town and as always it was a splendid mashup of burlesque, slapstick, acrobatics, and deeply political satire. All ringmastered – excuse me – ringmistressed by Jennifer Miller, who is not a bearded lady, but a lady with a beard.

Liam and Caleb wanted to know if she is a lady or a man and if the beard is real – questions that everyone else was thinking about too, I’m sure – along with other, perhaps more prurient questions that my boys haven’t quite glommed onto (yet). Yes, I say to Liam and Caleb, she’s a lady, and yes, she has a beard.

That answer satisfies their curiosity and they settle back to watch the men in tutus, the African American “Dorothy” (in a blonde afro wig, natch), maniacal tumblers, and Jennifer herself, devilishly juggling what look like razor-sharp machetes.

What do they see, I wondered, watching them watch the juggling. Is it just juggling and funny clowns and the faint fear that Jennifer’s sharp knives will slip out of her fingers and go slicing towards the front row of the audience?

Are they in any way feeling the message of gender outlawry that pervades Circus Amok?  Could the anarchic street theater of Jennifer Miller’s circus help loosen the net of gender conventions that – all of our best intentions notwithstanding – ensnare us all, more or less?

Here’s an example: last spring, I took the boys to a family reunion of sorts, in Florida, where they had a great week romping around with all kinds of cousins and aunts and uncles.  On the second-to-last day of our visit, two girl cousins, both about ten years old, gave Caleb and Liam full mani-pedis.  The boys got the complete treatment: sparkly colors, little dots of decoration, tiny painted flowers – as elaborate as Hindu brides.  Beautiful.  And they loved it! Waved their fingers around, wiggled their toes, showed off to all and sundry.

These are Liam’s fingers – sorry about the inadvertent product-placement for Dibs –
IMG_1249crop.jpgBut after we got home, on the Sunday before Liam was due back at school, I wondered whether I should stick to my progressive guns and allow my second-grade boy to go off to school with his manicure intact or strip the polish off in deference to the unwritten rule that boys don’t have painted fingernails.

I caved. Off came the silver flowers, off came the purple sparkles.

I hated giving in to convention but I didn’t want him to be teased (he’s got enough problems, given that he’s the smallest kid – boy or girl – in his grade).  We decided to leave his toenails painted, however – but sure enough, that week at karate, a couple of boys gave him grief for his decorated tootsies.

Before I became the mother of boys, I used to think that gender codes wrapped mostly tightly around women – and probably that is, in fact, the truth. But as I watch Liam and Caleb grow up, I’m increasingly reminded that there are lots of rules about being a boy, too – and that those rules constrict just as tightly.

Jennifer Miller and her troupe smash the rules with gleeful abandon; inside their ring, it doesn’t matter who sleeps with whom, who has a beard, whose toes sparkle. It only matters that when you do a head-first swan dive off the shoulders of the burly (wo)man in the gold spangly dress…someone is there to catch you when you fall.

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2 Responses to What’s In a Beard?

  1. aeg February 14, 2009 at 10:34 am #

    “Before I became the mother of boys, I used to think that gender codes wrapped mostly tightly around women.”
    It’s my sense that the codes are just as strict–and maybe you’re already implying this. What makes the fit seem tighter is that the world is designed to accommodate the man-shape more readily. I just read and taught a fantastic book about this–“Dude, You’re a Fag,” by C.J. Pascoe. Given how deeply you’re thinking about mothering boys, I think you might like it.

  2. Stasha August 26, 2011 at 1:09 am #

    Love this post and the parallels you draw. I still don’t know if it’s me protecting my son that makes me choose very gender common things. I would not be ashamed of my son wearing glitter. But I would not like it. Then again I would not like it on me either…

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