I like to watch the clouds roll by,
And think of cherubs in the sky;
But when I think of cherubim,
I don’t know if they’re her or him.
The Cherub, Ogden Nash
I haven’t studied theology and I’m not a great reader of the Bible. Thus when it comes to the nature of angels in a Christian context, I’d say I’m pretty ignorant. I think there’s some debate about whether they are male, female, intersex or none of the above, but I’m worried this is just me confusing Christian representations of the divine with the above Ogden Nash poem. I’m pretty sure one was called Peter Gabriel and that Satan used to be an angel before the Emperor turned him to the Dark Side or something like that. But that’s about it. If you want a definition of angels (and you don’t mean the Robbie Williams song or the 1970s hospital drama) please don’t ask me. And yet, despite my professed ignorance, here’s one thing I don’t think angels are: simpering girlies in pretty white dresses, all trying desperately hard to look like Beyoncé while swishing their hips in a saucy manner.
Yesterday I attended my eldest child’s nativity play and wow, did it provoke a lot of feminist ire. And yes, I know what you’ll say – a nativity play is no place in which to be having a feminist moment. Generally I’d agree and to be fair, it’s not as though I go around in a constant state of fury at the sexism of religious narratives. They might be sexist, but they’re also of massive cultural and historical significance. I want my children to know them, not least in order to think critically about them. Thus I did not interrupt the performance with cries of “Holy Ghost rape!” or anything similar. I watched in silence, glowing with pride at what a fucking ACE sheep my son was (man, he totally NAILED it! He was in the ovine ZONE!). But then the angels appeared. A throng of lispy, cutesy, tinsel-adorned Year 1 girls, shimmying as though they were in the final of a beauty pageant.
If I were writing for the Daily Mail (my long-term ambition, obvs) I’d make a big deal of these young angels being prematurely “sexualised”. Under a slut-shaming, victim-blaming headline – “These were no angels” is my current fave – I’d claim a scene such as this illustrated the quagmire in which so-called sexual liberation has immersed our young. But this would be bolllocks. Kids twat around being “sexual” all the time and it’s for adults to respond with the appropriate distance and refusal to over-interpret. Last week I took my two to the Christmas market at my workplace and the minute the Salvation Army started playing Away in a Manger, Eldest positioned himself in front of the mulled wine stand and performed a gyrating, crotch-grabbing monstrosity of a dance. I mean, I’d have preferred him to sing angelically, but I wasn’t particularly bothered. I don’t think it means anything. Seconds later he’d gone back to his usual whiney self and was complaining about his brother’s alleged mispronunciation of “no crib for a bed”.
What bothers me is not the apparent “sexualisation” of these nativity play angels; it’s the fact that they were all girls. All the “leftover girls” – the ones who weren’t Mary – became angels, while all the “leftover boys” – not Joseph, the kings, the shepherds or the innkeeper – had to be sheep. And all the girls were trying desperately hard to be pretty. They were learning a role and it’s one that has sod all to do with the nativity story. It’s a role they’re learning for life. Be pretty, be cute, be appealing. It did not escape my notice that the “less cute” angels – the rounder ones, the ones with glasses (we’re dealing with Enid Blyton stereotypes of attractiveness) – were relegated to the back of the throng. Nor did it fail to cross my mind that if I were six again, I’d have been right at the back, too. Six-year-old me never possessed the raw materials for cute girliness and didn’t I know it. When you’re a little girl who doesn’t “have it”, you always know.
Perhaps I’d still have wanted to be an angel. I like dressing up. I like dresses, I like make-up and I like disguise. Fuck it, I even like tinsel. But so do some boys. Not all boys want to run around being boisterous, naughty sheep. Some of them looked afraid. And perhaps some of the girls – particularly the angels on the sidelines – would have liked to swap places. Run with the lambs, play tricks on the shepherds. Be yourself, not a modern-day gender stereotype shoehorned into a narrative that needs no help whatsoever on the sexism front.
I don’t know the true nature of angels, but neither do we know the true nature of each and every child. I wish we could stop forcing them to play arbitrary roles for the whole of their lives. I wish we could stop telling them what to be.*
* Apart from my son, that is. For it turns out that he is the undisputed Sheep Meister.