Women at the back please!

IHEARTCAITLYNJENNER.

I am mesmerised by the transition of Bruce Jenner, the absolutely gorgeous American decathlete in his day, from man to woman. Everything playing out in worldwide media, positioned at the epicentre of popular culture, it is a publicist's wet dream. The strange face of Bruce Jenner now makes sense. In his interview with Diane Sawyer, he said that he would use the transition to change the world. I believed him.

At high tea last week-end I had a conversation with a friend who wondered what a transsexual prostituting on Hollywood Boulevard would have thought of Caitlyn Jenner's glamorous photo shoot in Vanity Fair. Can transgender be wealthy? Are all transsexuals prostitutes? Caitlyn challenges our assumptions. I love this picture of Caitlyn in her Porsche, a gift from her ex-wife Kris Jenner. Touché!

Image by Vanity Fair

Binary gender rhetoric always been errant nonsense. Our new awareness of gender dysphoria, driven by popular culture through programmes like Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Orange is the New Black, de-stablises long-held cultural assumptions. This is something gay men have been playing with for years. When we adopted the personal pronoun 'she', it was the Black is Beautiful syndrome. We'd been called sissies and girls for years, so we owned it. Yes we are feminine. She, Caitlyn Jenner, is a father. All things are now possible.

In the Pacific we celebrate a history of gender fluidity. After speaking at the Kai Tahu Writers' Hui a couple of weeks ago, I was given a copy of the Kai Tahu magazine Te Karaka http://ngaitahu.iwi.nz/te-karaka/issue-66/page/2/ by its editor Mark Revington. In it there is a great article about women issuing wero and using taiaha, activities conventionally assigned to men. In the piece Pita Sharples argues that traditionally these roles were shared. Survival dictated that everyone fight. My mother Arapera Blank, a woman absolutely saturated in tikanga Maori, told me many aspects of tikanga are modern inventions. When she was a child you couldn't tell who was tangata whenua and who was manuhiri at the marae. Everyone sat together.

Some of the tikanga we now endure is, in my view, slightly backward, and highly colonised behaviour. Men at the front women at the back, it's what the Americans used to do to Blacks on buses. I experience heightened anxiety in the front row of powhiri. I don't aspire to whaikorero and struggle with the waiata, I feel like an idiot. 

Ngati Porou has a reputation for allowing women to speak on the marae. At Whaea McClutchie's tangi in 1992 (she was a kuia renowned for occupying this space), Koro Dewes motioned to my mother Arapera to sit with him in the front row. When she rose to her feet to speak haltingly, she stared into middle distance, as she did when she composed poetry. For thirty years, Arapera had been writing about the role of Maori women, her central thesis that Maori women are greater than Maori men because they are both mother and father to their children. And yet here, in this slightly ethereal moment, she is, like me, absolutely discombobulated in the front row, you know?

Image: Pius Blank

Go here:
http://oranui.co.nz/index.php/shop/for-someone-i-love
to buy For someone I love - a collection of writing by Arapera Blank

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