Why we need Stonewall

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Out from Stonewall, FIT, a movie for schools to help combat homophobic bullying.  And from me, a related rant.

To help with an essay on gender, music & ballet, a friend helpfully passed on a link to a short  film called Boys in Ballet.  I couldn’t have wished for anything better.  My favourite part (from a gender & music point of view) is the fact that when they show boys dancing, they erase whatever music was really going on, and overlay it with an upbeat soft-rock soundtrack, so that those grand pirouettes are accompanied by electric guitar and drums, the most masculine-gendered of instruments you can think of.  So it’s all right – ballet isn’t about dancing to music (feminine) – especially not the piano (even more feminine – there’s a glimpse of a pianist, but we quickly move away). No, it’s about jumping and turning like an athlete, while the music inside says urban, masculine, heroic.

The message of the film seems to be: it’s OK for to do ballet, because it’s strong, it’s not feminine, it’s definitely not girly. And look, here’s the proof: there’s a big Russian teacher saying ‘strrrong’ a lot. The Russians had an empire, Stalin, a communist regime and a nuclear threat, and they beat up Peter Tatchell  so they must be butch. Good old-fashioned masculinity like Mother Russia used to make.

There’s a lot about how much boys have to jump. Well of course they do, they have to jump so that they don’t look like girls.  It’s good for boys to train together, because then they can compete against each other – and that’s not girly either. And what a wholesome lot they are too: as the small ads say, no fats, no fems. I notice they didn’t give the story to a pretty male reporter, however.

Looking at the guys here, there’s no doubt how hard they’re working: every muscle in their body is straining to look not-gay, but still balletic. Muscular, but not like a squaddie. And then there’s the business of denigrating women, girls and femininity with a caring, manly smile.  No wonder they have to train so hard.  I borrowed that thought from an article by  Mark Simpson titled “Walk like a man”:

“For men, the whole point of walking is not actually to get anywhere, but to demonstrate that they never for a moment forget the deadly seriousness of what they are doing.

This is why new recruits have to spend so much time square-bashing. In being taught how to walk like men instead of boys, recruits are taught how to move like they mean business – that’s to say, how to look like they have rather fewer joints than females and pansies”

Mark Simpson, “Walk Like a Man” from Sex Terror, p.47). For more Mark Simpson, see his blog.

This film – and so many other bits of popular journalism like it – misses the point.  The problem here is misogyny and homophobia,  and a tendency (as Virginia Taylor said in her wonderful 1999  paper  “Respect, Antipathy and Tenderness: Why do girls “Go to ballet”?”) for wider society to regard ‘girly’ as a pejorative term, while ‘boyish’ isn’t. Making men’s dancing more ‘masculine’, as closeted Ted Shawn tried to do (with the result  that it looks like modern day gay porn), is surely veiled misogyny and homophobia, even if the homo that you’re phobic about is yourself.

It’s not just about sex. Stonewall recently published a guide for teachers on homophobic language in the wake of the whole ‘calling something a bit gay’s only a bit of harmless fun, isn’t it?’ debate.  Teachers themselves reported that pupils most affected by homophobic language are the following, in descending order:

  • pupils who are thought to be lesbian, gay or bisexual
  • boys for behaving / acting ‘like girls’
  • pupils who are openly lesbian, gay or bisexual
  • boys who don’t play sports
  • boys who are academic
  • girls for behaving / acting ‘like boys’
  • girls who do play sports
  • pupils whose parents / carers are gay
  • pupils who have gay friends or family

From Stonewall’s  Challenging Homophobic Language, p.5

Yes, we need Stonewall. And strangely enough, I think ballet companies need to address the issue as much as Premier League football, for the sake of their straight dancers as much as the gay ones.

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