The nature of angels: Confronting the girlification of the nativity play

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.

5 thoughts on “The nature of angels: Confronting the girlification of the nativity play

  1. I seem to have been lucky with Christmas plays this year. In our youngest’s nativity there were several boys playing angels and in our oldest’s there were several girls playing wise men. It still doesn’t make up for the play a couple of years ago which had Mrs. Clause delivering the presents because Santa was ill (with ‘man-flu’) and the script had several jokes about her not being able to drive or park the sleigh because she’s a woman. I was fuming at that.

    We’ve been trying very hard not to gender stereotype our kids. Adam (7 years old) wants to play for Man Utd when he grows up, but he loves having his nails painted, and Jack (4 years old) is wild about dinosaurs but is growing his hair long and wants to take ballet. They both actively call out sexism (and racism) when they see or hear it. My mum tried to shame Jack into having his hair cut by telling him that he’d look like a little girl, but he just said (in his best “Why are you saying something so stupid voice”) “Long hair isn’t just for girls, and short hair isn’t just for boys!” I’m hoping we’re getting these messages across early enough that they’ll stick but it’s hard with all of the conflicting information they hear from other people.

  2. My son was an angel this week – he does go to a single sex school, but all the Reception boys were either angels or stars, both in white “dresses”. They were adorable, and as he has a big sister he didn;t see anything unusual about his outfit

  3. I remember in my school nativity that there were both boys and girls as angels. I was also Joseph once, so maybe I was lucky but I know that’s not the case for many children who are taught that they need to perform a gender role and have to do it in a certain way.

  4. I can’t think of anything insightful or feministy to say that you haven’t already said but “Sheep Meister” made me properly giggle. And imagining you standing up shouting “Holy Ghost rape!”

    But they definitely needed more lobsters.

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