by Christy Callaway-Gale
In two separate incidents during the same week, my dad was mistaken for my boyfriend and my mum was mistaken for my grandma, which told me everything I didn’t want to know, yet already knew, about society.
This is how a life-changing article on gender norms on the front page of the ‘Utopia’ issue of The Poor Print would begin. However, my relative ignorance of the meaty debates already circulating on this topic, coupled with my lack of required eloquence, will not allow me to write the article that should follow. Instead, the one ensuing will be placed somewhere on the loose inset sheet of the college newspaper – and rightly so, if it makes it in at all.
This ‘Boyfriend-Grandma’ saga, which seems like it belongs to some unpublished notes handwritten by Freud, did actually happen, which in some part qualifies me to write about what this means, from the comfort of my homegrown reflections and my college room.
I have pondered the acceptance of older men dating younger women and the equivalent ‘cougar’ label, as well as society’s assumption that women have children at a certain age. I have ruminated on the idea that men supposedly age better than women, and on the role of the media in our admission of this assumption.
In a sudden moment of ego-centrism, I even contemplated whether I had looked particularly old or young during ‘Girlfriend-Gate’ or ‘Grandma-Gate’. Had I been wearing make-up? Had I gone particularly sophisticated or childish in my clothes choice? This, in itself, then led to an evaluation of our use of visual aesthetics to affirm social norms.
But none of this was laying the issue to rest. My mind kept flitting back to circumstantial evidence. It was my notoriously liberal friend who asked how long I’d been going out with my dad, and it was young Pete in the bike shop who’d enquired if it was me or my grandma who was going to pay.
Maybe neither was evidence for gender stereotyping. Said liberal friend was just being liberal in accepting that I may have a boyfriend over fifty-five; young Pete is so young I was lucky he didn’t think I was a grandma too. Maybe he does – but I’m not taking my baby cousin in there to find out.
Both situations, as coincidental as they were, happened in the same week – almost as if Freud himself had chosen me as his unassuming successor. Yet I was left thinking that perhaps they meant absolutely nothing at all.
‘Boyfriend-Grandma-Gate’ set aside, I go along to listen to child prodigy, Alma Deutscher, play in the Senior Library – as you do. I watch as the eleven-year-old improvises a full-length masterpiece in front of us and her younger sister accompanies her in a meticulously performed duet that she, of course, composed. Age norms: take that. In the background, Oriel alumni look on.
As we sip on champagne during the interval in the SCR, a former JCR President tells us that the Oriel undergraduate community passed a motion in the sixties which would have made Oriel the first Oxford college to admit women, if it hadn’t been for the governing body that decided this was a quite shocking and undesirable idea. Ironically, as we are all aware, Oriel then ended up being the last.
I realised that ‘Grandma-Boyfriend-Gate’ was greatly overshadowed by this humdinger of a factual nugget. Perhaps some of you already knew it, but for me it was a revelation, especially in the current context of Oriel’s women’s society, The Amazons, attempting to create a women’s network between Oriel members and its few decades of female alumni.
When my grandma and my boyfriend come to MCR guest night, I will, no doubt, on seeing them momentarily return to contemplating the meaning of mistaken identity. But, for now, I sit in my room contemplating how Oriel’s identity was so nearly a different one, and dreaming of a different reality:
First in the Norrington Table; head of the river; first in acknowledgement of Gender Equality. Now, wouldn’t that have been swell.