The Doctor dances

A thought occurs to me: The Doctor (Doctor who?) has spent a lot of time in England. Has he ever taken up morris dancing? Is he a member of a morris team? A men’s morris team? If so, now that the Doctor is a woman, they have a decision to make.

I’m being, or trying awkwardly to be, whimsical, but with serious purpose. The Doctor’s sex changing regeneration of course has not occurred in a cultural vacuum. It reflects profoundly different understanding of, and attitudes toward, sex and gender that society has undergone since November 23, 1963, and is continuing to undergo. Not that that understanding and those attitudes weren’t already under challenge before then. Christine Jorgensen was front page news in the 1950s, and of course had predecessors extending back into prehistory. Still, the evolution has accelerated greatly in recent years.

Born in 1955, I grew up under the implicit understanding that sex is, or is supposed to be, gender, that children are either born with a penis or with a vagina, and that determines one’s definite, lifelong sex. Morris dancing grew up with that understanding too. If you’re not familiar with morris dancing and its history and traditions, this isn’t the place to go into it — there are whole books on the subject — but in a nutshell, in the heydey of traditional Cotswold morris, it was almost exclusively done by men. There were a couple of women’s teams in the 19th century, and a few women who danced with otherwise male sides, generally only when they couldn’t find enough men to do it, but these were the exceptions. Nowadays, of course, it seems most plausible that this was for the same reason women didn’t play rugby or practice law or join the Navy: they didn’t because it Wasn’t Done, it Wasn’t Proper For A Lady. Morris dancers were known for drinking and fighting. Of course women didn’t do it.

But when the morris revival came along in the early 20th century, women took a leading role at first, and Cecil Sharp and his male associates evidently felt a need to supply a reason why women should not be doing it. Sharp promoted an entirely groundless theory that morris dancing was a remnant of an ancient pagan fertility ritual, carried out by pagan priests who were men, because of course they were. And that, evidently, wasn’t quite good enough, because other excuses came to be cited as gospel: women are incapable of doing morris dancing correctly, for instance, due to biological differences between the male and female physique.

Somehow that didn’t stop some women from trying. Morris dancing in England was very much dominated by men’s teams, but women’s teams got going and women’s teams were among the earliest in North America in the 1970s. Then there were mixed teams, on both sides of the ocean, though many of both the men’s teams and the women’s at first seemed to regard mixed morris as an abomination. In many cases the feeling was mutual.

Things have changed somewhat. Coexistence seems to be the norm these days, though one of the three English umbrella organizations, the Morris Ring, at this point still accepts only men’s teams (and last I heard, that meant all men, musicians included), and while there may not be open hostilities, there certainly are plenty of people with strong feelings for or against men’s, women’s, or mixed morris.

Some 15 years ago I wrote this:

But only the obtuse would dispute that there is a different dynamic between men’s, women’s, and mixed teams. For fundamental biological reasons, men tend to move differently than women; of course, there’s wide variation in the way different men move, too. But in addition, there’s a fundamental difference in the way groups of men, groups of women, and mixed groups interact. “Male bonding” is a cliché, but has a basis in fact, and while the behavior of a bonded group of men may not always be what outsiders would approve of (not that men have any monopoly on that), that bonding is a force that can be directed toward great good and creativity. So can mixed group bonding, but it’s different, and lacks some of the qualities I like about a men’s group.

In our culture, especially, this phenomenon of creative male bonding is rare. We are not a society that encourages men to join together for creative purposes. Unless you consider hockey “creative”, and I don’t. I guess the main exception is music: all-male musical performance groups from (at one time) the New York Philharmonic to Guns N’ Roses have always been a part of our culture. (And, oddly enough, no one ever seems to ask Guns N’ Roses why they don’t include women.) Outside of music, I can think of few American male creative groups. Men’s morris is thus an anomaly — an anomaly to be encouraged, as a way of channeling the male bonding impulse toward something wonderful.

All of which is fine, I guess, aside from the cringeworthy ignorance. Ignorance and willful blindness about sex, and gender, and about the history and perpetuation of male privilege, male dominance. It’s humbling to realize I am almost certainly as ignorant now about something important as I was then about those subjects, but at least on those subjects I have made some headway.

What would my team do if a trans male approached us, wanting to join? I suppose in principle this may already have happened. We don’t require new members to drop their trousers, or to show us their birth certificate. But if a newcomer said “I’m a trans male, and I want to join”? I’m reasonably confident we all are evolved enough that we’d say “welcome!”.

I’m a little less sure what we’d do if an androgynous person came along, introduced themself as Pat, and asked if they could join.

I’m not at all sure what the response — or responses — would be if I were to (I won’t, this is just for purposes of discussion, work with me here) announce to the team that after long consideration and consultation with friends and professional advisors, I’d come to the conclusion I am a woman, that I’d begun hormone therapy, and that I’d be undergoing reassignment surgery, but that I truly loved dancing with them and wanted to continue to do so.

And that disturbs me. That I don’t know what the response(s) would be I think indicates there’s something fundamentally wrong with what we’re doing. If they’re happy to dance with me as a man, why would they not want to dance with me as a woman?

It means we’re asking the wrong questions. When we accept a new member, we choose to do so based on their personal characteristics: their dancing skill (or potential) and style, their attitude, their personality. Do they fit with what we as a team are? Are they someone we want around? And those questions ought to be asked and answered one person at a time. When we define a category of people as ones we don’t want on the team, and especially when that category is a social construct not based in genuine characteristics, we’re acting unfairly out of ignorance or worse.

Is there still a case to be made for gender solidarity? When the Alamo Drafthouse stages a women-only screening of Wonder Woman, part of me wants to cheer. The other part of me is asking, “wait a second, how are they determining who’s a woman?” But the reality is that, while we as a society are working toward better understanding and acceptance of sex and gender as spectra, we still do and will for a very long time have basic cultural institutions rooted in a sex-binary viewpoint. And within those institutions, men, or to be more precise, those who function and are accepted as men, have a privileged position — this is beyond any dispute, if you don’t choose to disregard the lived experience of millions of non men. In that context the women-only screenings arguably serve to counter that privilege. But clearly there’s no symmetry here: There is no virtuous purpose in a men-only screening of Dunkirk. (Unless it’s to temporarily sequester insufferable men’s rights activists in a separate room.) Likewise, perhaps, a case can be made in favor of women’s morris teams — though really it’s the women, not me, who should speak to that question. But to me, in 2018, the arguments for men’s morris seem unpersuasive.

So am I leaving the Binghamton Morris Men and the American Travelling Morrice? Certainly not. I like those guys too much. If I thought they were complicit in something evil, I’d refuse to participate. But right now, I don’t see men’s morris as evil; I see it as anachronistic, something that hasn’t yet caught up with where society is going. The Doctor is long-lived, and anyway she has a time machine; I think she’ll see men’s morris fade away. If she also sees men’s anything and everything fade away, I think we’ll be better for it.


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