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Prescriptions of Proper

Four illustrations on a light blue background of a woman’s silhouette wearing a pink cape in different, traditionally masculine poses.

Performance and sexuality do not stand alone, isolated from the other aspects of ourselves.

Performance and ‘proper’ go hand in hand in an often mindless search for some pre-determined, or other determined, understanding of perfection.

I believe sexuality and ‘proper’ have an angst ridden relationship. So where does this leave performance? Or us?Trotting about on a swiftly hardening patch of ground, our own personal, emotional version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, cement caking our shoes, weighing us down, till trot is an impossibility and we become like the tiles and stars rooted to hardened cement, wishing perhaps that we’d stepped off the edge when it was still possible! So that’s sexuality, proper and performance to me.

Old friends were over recently, for an overnight stay with me in Pune. They’re in their sixties, married for forever. We cooked together, ate and drank together and spoke of everything we could, past, present and future.  ”Do you know,’ he asked me, “now that I am a senior citizen, I get discounts on train and air fares?” I told him I’ll get there soon, and save some pennies. “I have something even more interesting to tell you,” said he, “you know she’s older than me by four years? Well, if I get my train tickets done through someone else, they always look at the ages we’ve written and they add six years to mine because they think I’ve made a mistake, how can the husband be younger than the wife?!

Shut up!” said I in disbelief, “over an age gap of just four years?

Yes,” growled she, “and people tell me, he’s kept himself very fit for his age, since I’m in my mid-sixties, he must be in his seventies! I tell them he looks exactly as he should at his age and that he’s younger than me!

Performance and sexuality do not stand alone in an isolated relationship together. They intersect with other dimensions of life that include age, ability and gender at the very least.

So a husband, which is a relationship role, and with role comes performance, can’t be husband if his wife is older. If he is, then his role performance is called to question. Can a marriage be a marriage if marital partners defy rules about age? Gender roles? This same couple, my friends, defy many things. Both of them cook, quite as well as each other. He makes her tea. Omelette. Kofta curry. She used to travel the highways of India in a jeep, sometimes alone, sometimes with a group of women. She could fix a punctured tyre and she can do it still. If it’s something she can’t fix, she’s confident enough to ask a trucker, highway police official or taxi driver for help. He doesn’t drive. He never did.  He has the cut of a stereotypical commando from an action film or comic book sketch, and actually, so does she.

Age is not the only intersecting factor. There’s gender. I was scrolling down Facebook posts yesterday, when I came across this TED Talk by Reshma Saujani (CEO of Girls who Code, a not-for-profit that supports and advocates for increasing the numbers of women and girls in computer science), ‘We must raise girls to be brave, not perfect’.  She says, of how girls are raised, “We’re taught to smile pretty, play it safe, get all A’s. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then just jump off headfirst.” This is about performance and sexuality, intersecting with gender, and each of us will identify with connections such as this in one way or another.

As a child, I climbed trees with, what I believe was, the skillful performance of a monkey. Others said it was the skill and ease of a boy, which I wasn’t. Born a girl in the late 1960’s, my tree climbing wasn’t looked at as part of being either me or a monkey.  I had to be a tomboy, a bit of both in the binary box. This coloured everything I did in the same hues, a girl who was like a boy, in performance of her role. I performed girl, like a boy performing boy.  But am I then a ‘proper’ girl? Or boy? Or monkey?

I will not focus too long on the horrible years of effort well-meaning, loving, and sometimes controlling, friends and family put into the way I look and dress, walk and talk. Oh the danglers, the make-up, the skirts, salwars and heels! I always felt like a painted puppet, in performance, but for the longest time, I believed I had to be this to be right. Something somebody else thought was perfect. Ah my long legs and my large eyes and my beautiful fingers. What a pretty girl I could have been. Sheesheeshee. Also hahaha! Angry? No. Do I have reason to be? This and similar stories I have heard many times from other voices. Some have had the courage and support, or the sheer desperation that it takes to break out and be who they are, and perform life as comes naturally to them. Others at the extreme end of bullied submission, perform as others think is perfect for them.

Performance and ‘proper’ go hand in hand because every performance has rules and prescriptions, so you can tell whether it’s a good performance or not, whether it’s skilled or not.Otherwise, it appears, you can’t understand or appreciate performance – or know if you’re doing it right! Or being it right. This is why if a person with a disability, for example, takes up dancing, there are at least two ways of looking at this performance.  The one, to see how closely this person’s performance matches dance performances we are familiar with and expect to see. The other, to see this person’s performance for what it is, to accept and to appreciate it for what it is. Which would also mean that we would need to accept the person for who they are. Perfect, not according to rules and prescriptions of proper, but perfect for the person. I have worked on issues of care-giving for many years and when I see a natural performance, as opposed to perfect, my breath stops for a bit, mostly because my goodness, that is so fresh and new. Like this video of this father and son dancing I came across on the Net. Take a look.

So I began to search for this pair out of curiosity, to understand more about their life and their experiences of living with autism. I didn’t find them, and instead, I found this blog, by a mother who describes the heartbreak of being a fourteen year old boy with autism, going to a school dance, without a partner, and dancing alone. She says, “My son’s autism doesn’t make lonely suck any less for him. Lonely still hurts. Dancing with yourself is still terribly painful…” and “when you want a friend and need a friend and you find yourself alone on the dance floor, it hurts like hell. My son’s autism isn’t a buffer for that pain or any pain. Read ‘What I Learned After My Son With Autism Went to an 8th-Grade Dance Alone’.

Performance and sexuality go back to the time that we are born, if not generations before that! If sexuality is about more than sex, and is about the way we feel, the way we are and the way we experience life and relationships, then it is very possible that performance is not always in sync with this. In a world of prescriptions of performance and perfection, there isn’t truly that much space built in to risk non-performance, not being perfect, or to risk not fitting the prescription.

To end with a question, since I began with answers! What is performance? Is it about the way we breathe, talk, walk, run, play, work, study, dress, kiss, produce progeny? Everything is about my performance as a person, sexuality too. To me, performance is the voluntary and involuntary, conscious and unconscious me. Too important to be left to the decisions and prescriptions of another. Just like sexuality.

Cover Image: Pixabay

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