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Tomboy Time! An Interview with mars.tarrab

2011 November 14

This week I went along to see Tomboy Blues: The Theory of Disappointment at South London’s Oval House Theatre as part of their “Lady-led” season. The play is a two-hander written and performed by nat tarrab and Rachel Mars. Together, they form the cunningly named mars.tarrab.

I got an insight into their work, and into their minds, before I’d even gotten into the auditorium. Alongside the programme (with its photo of a barbie doll shoved into a pair of boxer shorts worn by an androgynous figure) was something that looked like one of those ghastly tick-box questionnaires. Except it wasn’t. Instead, it presented a whimsical but pertinent checklist about the performers (tall/small), the show and how you could get involved to help them (cake baking or pant sewing) with future projects.

Two women in white lab coats

Scientists. For Science!

The play is an hour long and it’s about tomboys. Hurrah! It’s also about the challenges of growing up feeling confined by limited gender options, and the accompanying problems of underwear, of going into the “right” toilet, of working out who you are, who you want to be, and how to fall in love and be yourself. The pair use pseudo-science, white labcoats and some strange experiments alongside clownful vignettes, sad stories and bizarre situations that describe accurately, and often painfully so, the experience of  “disappointment” – how our hopes and expectations of life can fall short when we’re confronted with the brick wall of “what is expected”.

I especially loved the physicality of the two performers, their deft ownership of the space, as well as the glimmer of the personal at the edges of their characterisation. It’s funny and very, very heartfelt – I found myself watching bits of my own childhood and teenage experience onstage. The awkward, clumsy, strangeness of having a cis female body but not feeling especially feminine, and not feeling sure that was allowed, or sure of how to be “in-between”.

Everyone else had come out as these beautiful butterflies and I’d come out as a kind of butterpillar

Tomboy Blues

The show ended with a discussion with Gendered Intelligence, who work to help improve awareness of gender issues in the public sphere, especially amongst young people. We talked about the word “queer” and what it meant, about how tomboyism might sit under the queer umbrella, and about anxieties of perhaps not feeling “queer enough” sometimes as a person happy within their body yet unhappy with the social requirements of being feminine.

Two women in vest tops pose like muscle men

Photo: Kevin Clifford

I also managed to catch up with nat and Rachel via email, to prod them a little further about their work and their ideas.

 Tell us a bit about yourselves and your work so far.
“We met four years ago at a live art performance workshop, and were immediately intrigued about each other’s work, histories and bodies. We made our first show, 27 Ways I Will Never Fuck My Mother by mashing together our two solo shows, then made a spoken word piece called Trauma Top Trumps. Tomboy Blues is our third show.”

Why did you decide to do a piece on tomboys? 
“Our work comes, foremostly, from ourselves and our experience. When we were getting to know each other we found places of similarity and difference, and the common tomboy childhood (and adulthood) was ticklish to us to explore. nat’s friends were having kids, she was looking again at childhood and was alarmed at how often it still is ‘pink for a girl and blue for a boy’ even in these supposedly broken open gender dialogue times. It was also the time of Caster Semenya and her disqualification.”

What kind of research did you do – did you find anything that surprised you?
“We talked to paediatricians, psychologists, tomboys (big ones and small ones), family, friends, mothers and fathers, and ourselves, and we looked at current consumer trends (and their attackers, like Pink Stinks). We were surprised that 50% of women identified at tomboys in childhood, and also at the amount of confusing and conflicting information about tomboys and queerness.”

There’s a bit in the show that talks about the “missing tomboys” – women who identified as tomboys when younger and now do not – why do you think that is?
“We think its a combination of wanting to conform, interest in boys/feeling like you should have an interest in boys, family pressure, high heels, bars and thongs for 7-9 year olds, and negative perceptions of any kind of femininity that isn’t ‘classic’. Plus, there isn’t really an accepted identity that is ‘Adult Tomboy’ – most often it is just ‘lesbian’, which doesn’t take into account straightness, or other kinds of gender queerness at all.”

The full title of the show is “Tomboy Blues or the Theory of Disappointment”. Do you think that being a tomboy has the potential to be a positive as well as a disappointing experience?
“Absofuckinglutely. The title is intended to be playful and provoke thought rather than suggest conclusion. The whole exploration of the piece is about that positivity in all its challenges both from within and without.”

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