Many years ago I was a sixth-former at a boys’ school that admitted girls to study for A-levels. In one of the early French classes I had to work out pretty quickly what something called ‘parsing’ was (having come from a comp where such a thing may have been practised but was certainly not spoken of). At some point the teacher would call a halt to the efforts of the boys, who were ranged on one side of the room. The schoolmaster (as he would have thought of himself), a man who wore a tweed jacket, smelled of tobacco, lived in a flat at the top of the school and had fought in the Second World War, would smile conspiratorially towards the other side and say: ‘I think it’s time to see what the wenches have got.’
Funny, but I don’t think any of us were outraged or traumatised. We were pretty relaxed about it and felt it said more about him as someone in his sixties than it did about us. It was just part of the game of growing up when one learned to handle some of those trickier aspects of language such as irony, humour, nuance, understatement, subtext. Nowadays, such a pedagogical character couldn’t exist. If he did, he’d be hounded out of the profession, possibly arrested and then given a custodial sentence, despite his gift for bringing to life Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal or making his charges laugh by suddenly slipping into the Marseille accent.
Language debate is now mainstream. Never mind Novichok or nuclear fallout, words themselves have become dangerous, and the ones that the language guardians in our schools are claiming are among the most toxic to social wellbeing are ‘girls’ and ‘boys’. Liz Coffey, headteacher of Guernsey Grammar School, is the latest to trumpet her gender neutrality credentials. She’s got rid of ‘gender specific’ head boy and head girl roles because she wants to prepare young people for ‘the workplace’, and ensure pupils are chosen as the ‘best person for the position’.
Interestingly, but regrettably, the school has ended up with two male student leaders (‘chairperson’ and ‘vice chairperson’) and three girls on the second tier as ‘student voice leadership team’. Mrs Coffey says she’ll be looking to ‘address any issues of imbalance’ and will ‘ensure there’s appropriate representation’. These words are not as comforting as she thinks they are, however. They have the sinister smack of election re-runs until voters or judging panels get it right. And you know what, they’ll probably have to introduce ‘girls only’ or ‘anything but boys’ shortlists. Except that people will be nervous about articulating what a boy or girl actually is, especially when the media start saying ‘so-called girl’ or ‘so-called boy’. Only a matter of time.
Because ‘girls’ is an offensive term, isn’t it? As with the word ‘boys’, it is to be consigned to linguistic oblivion where very soon ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘mother’ and ‘father’ will surely follow. Natasha Devon, the Government’s former mental health tsar, feels ‘girls’ is to be avoided because it is patronising and puts pressure on girls to do everything perfectly leading to ‘a lot of anxiety’. Likewise, she feels ‘boys’ has connotations of ‘being macho’ and ‘not talking about feelings’. What unnecessary contortions. Has it not occurred that it might be in the very nature of many boys and girls to behave in a certain way?
The implication is that these retrograde terms are still in use with reactionary types only because of the social construct of gender. It is wrong. Girls are called girls because that is what they are; boys are called boys because that is what they are. Most people are just not in favour of having these words expunged from the lexicon in the way that racist and homophobic words from previous decades needed to be deemed unfit for purpose.
The scrapping of the terms ‘head boy’ and ‘head girl’ at this Channel Islands school is dressed up as being about merit and non-discrimination on gender grounds. That is to say, it claims to be more sensitive to transgender teenagers. The numbers involved here however are minuscule, though growing as a result of efforts to confuse children about their gender identity. A girl who likes doing things that many boys also like doing is no less a girl. Equally, there are many ways to navigate boyhood. This does not signal a melting pot of gender misfortune and turmoil headed inevitably for hormonal overhaul and drastic surgery. We need to ask who is doing the stereotyping here?
And spare a thought for the transgender community this is designed to protect. Imagine going through the whole painful and difficult rigmarole of gender reassignment only to find once you’d reached your target, your destination gender, the powers that be had gone and done away with it. Forget that quaintly fossilised and sexist word ‘wenches’: that’s irony for you.