Two stories on gender, playwork and play

I am lucky enough to live in a small town where different is fairly normal.  One of my favorite moments was noticing a thrift store’s racks of coats labeled not ‘men’ and ‘women’ but ‘butch’ and ‘femme’.  It was so pleasing, such a small thing that felt like recognition.  It makes room to celebrate these clothes as costume pieces, loose parts for grown-ups.
Gender can be a topic for play, and tightly policed.  It’s something that children can be acutely aware of and are often fascinated by.  Over the years, some kids have carefully explained the ‘rules’ of gender to me.  Pink is for girls.  Boys are always stronger.  I’ve usually nodded silently, not wanting to push my agenda – a choice which is not easy, let me be clear.  My feminism is not usually a silent practice.  But I’ve also seen moments of organic realization that made my heart sing, like the shock of a girl at Parish when she heard that the inimitable Jill Wood was in charge.  Eyes wide, she asked “a girl can be… the BOSS?”
For years, children were also the only people to ask about my gender.
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
Any nearby non-playworkers would usually laugh awkwardly and tell the child to hush, adding some version of “that’s rude to say.  Of course she’s a girl!”.  Most folks seem pretty attached to the gender binary, or at least view an unclear presentation as failure or shame.  I don’t think they realize that they are the ones being rude.  Usually I ignore the adult, and speak directly to the child.
“What do you think?” I might say, or “right now, I’m a helicopter”.  Once I looked at the child asking me, a solemn face peeking around her well-intentioned grown-up, and said “I’m mostly a girl, I think”.  She nodded solemnly and went back to her plastic truck.
Children have asked me about gender when my hair was cropped short, and when it hung down past my shoulders.  Whichever side of the store I’ve bought my clothes, eyeliner or no, they’ve asked me just the same.  Interestingly, those markers never mattered much to adults, who relentlessly called me ‘ma’am’ no matter what.
I wonder if this is connected to how, on projects without male play workers, I get sought out first for rough and tumble.  Is it the way I walk, the set of my shoulders?  I have been cast as the groom in so many weddings, I probably should have registered for gifts.  What cues am I sending?  What affordances do I provide?
Since reflection happens alone and with colleagues, I’ve been lucky enough to have gorgeous conversations with some other playworkers on exactly this topic.  It’s even part of my PhD research!  There’s one story to share tomorrow, and I’d love to hear yours, by comment or email.

Winter care, for ourselves and our communities

December can be a rough month for folks. We’re with family or we’re not, and both of those options can come with heavy baggage. The world, by me at least, is getting colder and there’s a definite bite in the air. Color is seeping out of the landscape like a Polaroid in reverse.

Are you looking after yourself?

The phrase ‘self-care’ has been heavily co-opted by companies selling complicated skincare products to white ladies, but the case was argued by women who knew their shit. Like Audre Lorde, for example, who wrote that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”.

More radical still is the current reframing around community care. Instead of privileging stoic self-reliance, community care reminds us to open ourselves to caring for one another, and to bravely ask for what we need.

Unsurprisingly, I think play deserves a place in this conversation.

Valuing play reminds us that survival isn’t enough. The smallest among us need chances to thrive, to celebrate and explore and express. To dare, in and with all their senses. Play can form a bridge, between people and one another, and each of us with the world. Play can remind us that we are not alone.

In our darkest months, how can we shine a light for one another? How can we take care of ourselves, and lend a hand to others when they can’t?

Men in power

There’s been lots written lately about sexual abuse by men in positions of power. My Facebook feed is packed with women saying ‘me too’. It’s a start, breaking silence and raising hands, seeing the numbers. But it isn’t enough – I want more stories too, of shock and complacency, choked-down rage and whispered warnings. I don’t only want to know about the women who have left situations as they turned nasty, but also those who stayed and the terrible bargains they were asked to strike. I want to hear from women who watched and said nothing.

Because, me too.

For the past decade I’ve been in a majority-women field. It thinks of itself as progressive or radical, dedicated to subverting systems of oppression and with a whole vocabulary around reading cues and responding appropriately. But the stories of sexual abuse and coercion coming out of other industries are not aberrations but expressions of a deep misogyny that pervades all corners of our lives.

Including the playwork profession.

There are those at the thin end of the wedge, the men who talk to your chest during meetings and look surprised when you force them into eye contact instead. There was the man who pulled me out of a circle in the pub to tell me, in excruciating detail, of several sexual experiences and then leaned back to grin at my horror.

It can be hard, to meet your heroes.

There were the ones who told me to smile more, who said I “shouldn’t have any trouble” getting speaking gigs because of being “cute enough”. I’ve been interrupted, just before speaking with the conference keynote, to have my own haircut described to me. Even writing this, I keep typing out reasons why my experiences aren’t as bad as other people’s. I keep making excuses. That’s partly because I have seen worse done to other women and stood by silent, angry and ashamed.

Look, this is a small field. People date and flirt within it, and that needs to be navigated carefully. That’s not the same as the evasive dance that women are tasked with, the laughing and dodging that says “no, I don’t want this, but I might need your good opinion in order pay my rent one day”. When a self-professed radical sniffed that “it must be nice to have a rich husband” when he heard I was going to IPA (I didn’t, but had saved up for months), when young men get their hands shaken and young women get lingering wandering hugs, when men listed in my bibliography wander events grinning like sharks, I know this field is not separate from the world.

Playwork has meant so much to me, and I’m incredibly grateful for the friends I have made through its exploration and practice.  That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, and some men have always showed up to remind me and other women that we are ever-open to interruption, that our value is based on looks and likability, that we are expected to stay “cool” with things, and to keep smiling.