Take It Like a Man

Take It Like a Man: The Autobiography of Boy George (1995)
Boy George with Spencer Bright

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In the 1980s, one of the most common descriptors applied to Boy George was “gender bending”. It was a phrase meant to encapsulate a look that many found to be shocking at the time. His name was “Boy George” yet he looked like a girl! What I found while reading his autobiography, however, was that “gender bending” was not the intention behind his hair, makeup, and fashion choices. He wasn’t trying to look “like a girl” but was rather just trying to be pretty. Prettiness wasn’t something Boy George thought belonged exclusively to women and he liked the way he looked with makeup on better than he did without it. Thirty years later, we understand that gender doesn’t exist in a binary and a whole new set of terminology has developed in order to accommodate individual experiences along the gender spectrum.

We know that makeup and beauty aren’t exclusive to cisgendered women but this was a more radical idea in the 80s (I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read in the last year that mention the use of “guyliner”). As Brian Peters argues in his article, “Androgyny, Masculinities and the Re-Gendered Aesthetics of the New Wave: Duran Duran and the Second British Invasion”, eyeliner and other “feminine” fashion choices were originally seen as the purview of British bands in the Second British Invasion of the 1980s. He compares their fashion to that of the disco era: “The new man of the early 1980s [was] a far cry from his hairy-chested and moustached disco-other: a new dandy […]. Further, the first wave of British new wave bands embodied a desire to respond to the immediate past, as the various bands revealed a new agency that accompanied representation/signification, gender, desire and the aesthetics that epitomized the early 1980s” (298). There is an important distinction between the “new dandy” fashion of Duran Duran, however, and the “agency” Boy George asserted through his aesthetic fashioning beyond the gender binary.

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Culture Club in Sue Clowes’ designs. The use of the Star of David as well as fabrics and patterns from other countries and cultures became a part of how Boy George played with categories of identity

Before he was in Culture Club, Boy George (and others like Marilyn and Pete Burns) used gender as one aspect of the self that could be manipulated as a fashion choice, seeing it as a way to outdo others in the same club scene. How far could one obscure one’s identity behind a veil of make up? Among the folds of kimono or beneath a Boadicea helmet? When do I stop being me and start being a character, or have I been some version of a character all along?

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Marilyn winks while Boy George sports his Boadicea helmet

Boy George emphasizes throughout his autobiography that he was constantly changing his look; he always viewed his physical identity as mutable and he changed his fashion according to mood or what was inspiring him in the moment. It started — as has the fashion choices of nearly every postpunk man I’ve written about — with Bowie. A sampling of Boy George’s musings on his relationship to Bowie:

I put Mum’s makeup on, blue and green eye shadow, salmon lippy, and I pranced about signing into a hairbrush, “Metal Guru is it you. Yeh, yeh, yeh,” Mum had the minimum of makeup, she never really used it. It was there just in case someone decided to get married. I was only eleven but I wanted to dress like Marc Bolan and David Bowie (29).

Bowie was like an alien. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. The crowd were screaming, “David, David, over here, me, me, I love you.” I was screaming too. Everyone was singing. I knew all the words, “Suffragette City,” “Jean Genie,” “Life on Mars,” “Five Years.”

I walked home singing into an empty Coke can. No concert I have seen since has had the same effect. (31)

I jumped on the bus to Beckenham. That was where Bowie lived, at Haddon Hall. I spent the day standing outside with the rest of the fans. Angie Bowie opened the window and told us to “fuck off.”  I was really happy. […] I got home about nine. Richard [George’s older brother] and Mum went mad. They couldn’t understand the pleasure of hanging around outside someone’s house. I didn’t get to see Bowie. That wasn’t important. I met other people like me. I felt like I was part of something. (32)

Discussing David Bowie’s visit to the Blitz to find extras for the “Ashes to Ashes” video:

I badly wanted to meet Bowie but it just wasn’t the right moment. It was odd being so close after all the years of trying. I wondered if Bowie liked people sucking up to him. A week later he came to Hell. I said hello, and he told me I looked like Klaus Nomi, the freaky operatic singer from New York. I was insulted. I was an original. I decided Bowie was better as a concept than a reality, an ordinary bloke with crooked teeth and a funny eye who happened to change my life. […] It was true that Bowie swept into the Blitz scene and soaked up all the ideas, but he was the reason that most of us were dressing up in the first place (141)

The Blitz scene was also aided by, as I discussed in my post on Steve Strange‘s autobiography, a general malaise that had set in among many of the London punks. For some, like George, once the public had a name to call all of those “weird” kids like the Sex Pistols cursing on the TV, punk was over. He explains: “The Sex Pistols appeared on late-night TV and then on Thames Today effing and blinding at Bill Grundy. Suddenly the whole thing exploded. Before that people smiled at us benignly, thinking we were going to fancy-dress parties. Their tolerance soon turned to intolerance. Now we had a name. We were spitting, snarling punk rockers” (70).  For George and his friends, punk was initially about the music and the energy of the scene as well as the possibility of upsetting the general public. Punk showed George the possibility of fashion experimentation but it wasn’t a subculture to which he felt a particular kinship as time passed. His experience of being a punk was became one of being targeted by angry teds who beat punks up for wearing draped jackets and brothel creepers, clothing that was once the exclusive domain of the teds. Adam Ant and Billy Idol also have stories of being beaten up by teds after punk shows where teds were lying in wait outside the venues.  As Boy George clarifies, “The rivalry between punks and teds attracted idiots spoiling for a fight. The Kings Road was divided. Teds on one side, punks on the other, police in the middle” (71). When violence spilled out into the streets and was coupled with the knowledge that punk had now gone mainstream, it was time for George to get out.

Punk had become a parody of itself, an anti-Establishment uniform, attracting hordes of dickheads who wanted to gob, punch, and stamp on flowers. I got beer thrown on me at punk gigs and called a poser because I wore makeup and frills. It was sad because I loved the energy and music of punk. In the beginning it was screaming at us to reject conformity but it had become a joke, right down to the £80 Anarchy T-shirts on sale at Seditionaries.

Punk was safe, we were spinning forward in a whirl of eyeliner and ruffles. Getting a reaction was the ultimate goal. (118)

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Boy George as a punk

Though George was drawn into punk in order to explore his interest in disruption via personal fashion choices, he didn’t ascribe to all of their ideology: “Punks wanted to destroy the past, they jeered at nostalgia and called Elvis a fat pig. I loved Elvis, he was the world’s most beautiful rock and roll hero” (71). In considering his soon-to-come transition into the New Romantic scene, this rejection of the punks’ hatred for the past is important. The New Romantics, as I’ve written about before, rummaged through the past for sartorial inspiration and in doing so, broke free from the class bifurcations that besieged England in the 70s and 80s. By donning historical clothing that the working class would not have worn in the era in which it originated, the primarily working class New Romantics overcame the flimsiness of class divisions and exposed them as artificial and problematic.

Reflecting the New Romantic interest in the past, George described the scene as eclectic and competitive:

Like sheep we rushed to gigs to check out the next big thing, bands like Spandau Ballet, Blue Rondo a la Turk, Funkapolitan. They hired out boats and discussed cinemas to turn their gigs into happenings.

The fashions were nostalgic and theatrical: showgirls, Dior girls, top hats and tails, kilts and cassocks. […] Everyone had their own idea where fashion was going. Spandau Ballet were sporting a romantic Highlands look designed by Simon Withers. Blue Rondo a la Turk were decked out like Latin gangsters with zoot suits and goatee beards. The real stars of the scene took notes but always added their own touch (147-148).

Other bands like Hayzee Fantayzee and the JoBoxers also used the fashions of the past to make a statement about the future. This experimentation with looks as well as the dissimilarity of the bands which sprung from the scene caused the New Romantic movement to founder. Once Boy George was “discovered” by Malcolm McLaren, who was looking for a singer for Bow Wow Wow before deciding Annbella Lwin was a better fit, he was off on his own adventure. Culture Club would not have happened without the New Romantics but the band quickly joined the ranks of New Pop as detailed in Dave Rimmer’s book, Like Punk Never Happened.

I recently read an article about the newly relaunched version of Queer Eye called “The Queer Art of Failing Better” by Laurie Penny which ends with this amazing sentence: “Give a man a makeover and you fix him for a day; teach a man that masculinity under late capitalism is a toxic pyramid scheme that is slowly killing him just like it’s killing the world, and you might just fix a sucking hole in the future”. The article uses Jack Halberstam’s book The Queer Art of Failing as a device through which to read Queer Eye’s makeover focus as a vehicle in which straight men are gently told that it is okay to be a failure.

The queer art of failure, as Jack Halberstam writes in his book of the same name, “turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable.” Halberstam imagines queerness itself as an alternative to the punishing model of success imposed by the straight world. Instead of striving relentlessly for the brutal, homogenous perfection, the queer art of failure “quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art.

I’m drawn to the idea of imagining “other goals for life, for love, for art”. This question of failure or losing has been hovering at the edges of my thoughts as I’ve been contemplating what distinguishes postpunk from other genres of music. More specifically, given my interest in the New Romantics, I have been contemplating how they altered themselves in order to say something about the culture they lived in. This thought came to me after reading an article on queer pop music in the 1980s. In this article {“‘Luring Disco Dollies to a Life of Vice’: Queer Pop Music’s Moment” by Lucas Hilderbrand), the author offers the following thoughts on the New Romantics:

A short-lived postglam new wave movement called the new romantics featured mostly straight men dragging it up in heavy eyeliner, pale foundation, and tribal- retro clothing. Even in the gay press, however, they were not taken particularly seriously. Although Adam and the Ants would be the leading figures of the new romantics movement, the band would soon be outdone in popularity and androgyny by Boy George of Culture Club and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics, as well as outsexed by Soft Cell. The new romantics would fade just as synthpop exploded. (426-427)

I take issue with a number of points made here (tribal-retro?!?) but I do agree with Hilderbrand about the New Romantic movement being a failure. This is a common argument about the New Romantics given that there was no real organizing feature embedded in the movements. Everyone dressed crazy but in different ways. Lots of people were in bands but they were all doing something different. There was nothing other than outrageousness and a general dislike for the uptight, conservative rich to unite everyone together.

Take It Like a Man, is equally about success and failure, as was George’s career beyond the book.[1] As with many rock autobiographies, George’s story is one of redemption after a battle with drugs. The book jacket emphasizes that he was on an “unfinished journey” and in 1995, he truly was. Though clean at the time the book was written, George continued to struggle with drugs until 2009 or so. As Ake Oksanen explains in the article, “To Hell and Back: Excessive Drug Use, Addiction, and the Process of Recovery in Mainstream Rock Autobiographies”:

Drug-orientated rock bands and artists often start their autobiographies with drug-related statements; for example, Steven Tyler, the singer of Aerosmith begins Walk This Way (2003, 1) saying: “Hey, man, you wanna know how I got sober after twenty-five years—gacked to the nines?” After the introduction story, the books usually describe: (1) childhood, (2) youth and struggle for fame, (3) commercial breakthrough, (4) problems caused by fame and constant touring, and (5) recovery or survival. In the autobiographies, the artist has to hit rock bottom or a crisis point before survival begins. This is often the important middle part of their story. This nadir is when concepts such as “addiction” or “alcoholism” come into play. (149)

This format is common in celebrity autobiographies even if they do not deal with addiction. The celebrity must confront a waning career or comes to the realization that there is something “more” they want from their lives. The loss of fame or the desire for something fulfilling beyond it allows the celebrity to heal from the damaging effects of Hollywood or the music industry. Excess – whether in the form of sex, drugs, or money – proves to be the road to ruin and it must be healed through a reckoning with the “true” self.

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Boy George revealed his heroin addiction in 1986.

Oksanen notes that rock autobiographies discuss recovery in a set number of ways, though the most popular mode was the “cycle narrative”. In this narrative, the narrator is caught in loop between addiction and recovery: “The identity of the narrator is so much tied to the role of the rebellious decadent rock star that it is almost impossible to let go. The journey […] becomes a labyrinthine circle. The self is portrayed as being lost or confused. It is an identity that has never been truly free of addiction” (152). The evocation of the labyrinth resonates with me in thinking about Boy George’s autobiography not because of a return to addiction but because of the complicated identity he presented to the world. In George’s labyrinth, he isn’t “lost or confused” but his identity is one that cannot be truly free from the addictive qualities of gossip, bon mots, and an assertion that there is a real self beneath the inventively decorated exterior. Though he does bounce back and forth between addiction and sobriety, this labyrinth is also indicative of the variety of things he found himself addicted to and unable to shake free from: whether from his tumultuous affair with Jon Moss, his love/hate friendship with Marilyn (nee Peter Robinson), or his burgeoning belief in Eastern religions.

The labyrinth of the self also returns me to the idea of failure (and to capitalism but that’s a topic for another post!), though I am not suggesting that Boy George was in anyway a failure. It was his willingness to risk failing that positioned him to be the gender/identity disrupter that he became … and remains!

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[1] Boy George’s second autobiography, Straight, was published in 2007. It covers his life after the end of the first book but is arranged in thematic chapters rather than following a strictly chronological timeline.

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