Dodge the swinging penises
Presidential penises and lesbian theory are not natural bedfellows, but they’ve come to mind of late in the same unlikely context: the release a month ago of the Annual National Assessments for grades one to six.
These showed that six million South African pupils aged seven to 12 averaged about 30% for literacy and numeracy.
But in that wasteland of results, there was one gem and it remains unremarked: the girls trounced the boys in all six grades.
This is far from the first time education data have shown superior female academic performance. Yet none of those three million girls is likely to find herself in a university senate (or Parliament or corporate boardroom) that is dominated by women.
So, in the first week of Women’s Month, it might be worth investigating (yet again) the strategies used to prevent female ability from sustaining itself to levels where it would seriously challenge the still-granite social edifice of male domination.
Lesbian theorist Adrienne Rich spoke long ago of the struggle to “resist the forces in society that say women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others and stay in the places assigned to us”.
She also argued that, “long before entering [university] the woman student has experienced her alien identity in a world that misnames her [and] turns her to its own uses, denying her the resources she needs to become self-affirming, self-defined”.
Most poignantly, Rich described what it’s like to be on the receiving end of all this: “When someone with the authority of a teacher describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.”
Here is where the first of those presidential penises swung heavily into view, after a detour via another North American dissident, Gore Vidal.
Vidal is not one to let sleeping dogmas lie—whether of gender or sexuality, politics or patriarchy. His 1995 memoir, Palimpsest, is an elegant riot of exuberant score-settling. It was the way he let Bobby Kennedy, the brother of JFK, have it (with both barrels) that brought some South African authority figures to mind.
“Between Bobby’s primitive religion [he was Catholic] and his family’s ardent struggle ever upward from the Irish bog, he was more than usually skewed, not least by his own homosexual impulses, which, [Rudolf] Nureyev once told me, were very much in the air on at least one occasion when they were together. ‘Nothing happen,’ he said, ‘but we did share one soldier once. American soldier. Boy not lie ... maybe.’
“Rudi gave his Tartar grin, very much aware, firsthand, of the swirls of gossip that envelop the conspicuous. Yet anyone who has 11 children [as Bobby had] must be trying to prove—disprove?—something other than the ability to surpass his father as an incontinent breeder.”
Ring a bell? To be sure, “swirls of gossip” with an arbitrary South African resonance hardly make the case that Jacob Zuma is really a closet queen. But you don’t have to be Vidal to discern something overstated, over-insistent, over the top - in a word, anxious - in his insistence on his own heterosexual masculinity.
So where are women and girls in the world “described” (as Rich put it) by a South African authority figure such as Zuma? Is it in the same “assigned place” Julius Malema likes them: gratefully accepting breakfast and taxi fare the morning after?
There’s the second worrying presidential penis. For here we seem to have yet another instance of that ubiquitous phenomenon—the avowedly heterosexual man who doesn’t much like women.
This, I think, was the point of East Coast Radio DJ Darren Maule’s wittily subversive satire on air recently. He reportedly suggested Malema was “so far back in the closet he has found Narnia” (there are lots of fairies in the CS Lewis chronicles of that name).
“How come there are never any women around him?” Maule mused. “And he is very close with Floyd Shivambu and they’re always supporting each other, you see that?”
Jules and Flo? What is that assault-proof dungeon intended for in the R16.5-million Sandton development that City Press has made so interesting for us?
Maule’s satire suggests another odd link with Zuma, when one recalls his fond reminiscences on how, in his youth, he and his buddies treated “effeminate” boys: they beat them up, he said. What moves a heterosexual man to beat up “effeminate” men? Where’s the threat, exactly?
In considering the future of those three million schoolgirls we cannot assume that Zuma and Malema are wholly unrepresentative in their gender attitudes.
As Vidal once said of Richard Nixon, cutting off a similarly tempting escape route for North Americans anxious to put some clear blue sky between themselves and the disgraced American president: “He is us, we are him.”
So if Malema and Zuma are us and we are them, here’s a modest proposal for Women’s Month: lesbian theory is far healthier than presidential penises, not only for those three million girls, but for the rest of us too.
That would include Zuma and Malema (if only they knew it).