Role models of my childhood

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David Bowie, Annie Lennox (The Eurythmics), and Prince were huge pop icons when I was a child. And while they were far too grown up for me to take much interest in, and while I had almost no interest in their music, I found their images compelling.

I have said and will always say that it is vital for any child to see themselves reflected in the world around them. For most middle class, white, cisgendered, heterosexual children these days it is fairly easy to find appropriate role models. If you are an ‘other’, one of difference, part of a minority in any way that is fundamental to your identity, it is much harder to find an icon, a hero to look up to, someone to model yourself after.

When I was a child there were no Ellen Degeneres’s, k d langs, John Barrowmans. Elton John and George Michael were firmly in the closet.

And when I was a child I could find almost no one like me. No one, that is, who wasn’t a fictional character or an artistic construction. So those characters became, unconsciously on my part, pseudo role models for me. And I was obsessed by them.

Anyone I saw, and any character I became aware of that exhibited any genderless or androgynous traits enthralled and enchanted me. And it wasn’t until well into my adulthood I was aware of this and understood why.

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I remember very little of the TV show, The Famous Five. I certainly have no recollection of ever reading Enid Blyton’s books. But I was entranced by the character ‘George’ (centre, holding dog). I didn’t know if she was a girl or a boy, and I was fascinated. Turns out she was a girl, just a tomboy, and was played by a female actor.

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The character ‘Tripitaka’ from the Japanese/British TV show Monkey was intended to be an innocent-looking Buddhist priest. He was played by Japanese actress Masako Natsume. I had a vague awareness the character was male and the actor was female – but the resultant androgynous combination dazzled me. The show also featured occasional appearances by Buddha, a male figure who was played by a female actor, and Quan Yin, a female figure played by a male actor. To this day, this series is a much beloved and important part of my life. I sometimes wonder if I am drawn to Buddhist philosophy because of lessons unconsciously learned from this show.

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For almost my entire life I have been obsessed with the character Peter Pan – and not merely because, typically (following Pantomime tradition) the character is played by a female performer. The character as a whole has always resonated strongly with me – upholding eternally the magic and wonder of childhood, rejecting social convention at every turn, especially when it comes to behaving like a ‘grown up’, adventurous, spirited, and oblivious to the amorous spell he casts on the female characters – Peter Pan is everything I am and everything I ever wanted to be.

I came across a version of the story on TV one night as a child. Peter was played by Mia Farrow (above) and I was absolutely transfixed. I have only ever seen Farrow’s portrayal the once, but I have never, ever forgotten it.

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Although the Trixie Belden series was written in the 60s, long before I was born, and although the books are seen as poor cousins to the Nancy Drew series, Trixie was the role model that saw me into puberty. She was a tomboy, but definitely a girl, and later books saw her with a boyfriend, but sixties sensibilities meant there was little reference to anything romantic or sexual. Her femaleness was, for the most part, irrelevant, especially in contrast to her very feminine, cis best friend Honey. Because she was hidden within the pages of her books and the series was outdated and unpopular, I had her all to myself. She could be me, and the prudishness of the style allowed me to sink into an age-appropriate world without having to face what I saw as the unpleasantness of raging hormones my peers at school were beginning to indulge.

Never, ever underestimate the importance of popular culture. Low-brow as it may be, it reaches far further and often far deeper into society’s collective psychology than any other manifestation of art, mostly because it is so accessible and so overwhelmingly prevalent. Being the child that I was, the only place I could really turn to see reflections of myself was television. Unglamorous or inappropriate as it may be, it has been hugely important in the long, arduous journey I have had to take to develop a stable sense of self.

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