I’d just made an offhand comment in the pub, when I saw it. Nigel did an actual eye roll. And it was a good one. I’d barely met Nigel, a friend of a friend, so don’t know what he does for a living, but the guy could be at the Emoji Academy of Facial Acting. If they ever made a film about, say, a CGI panda who reads The Spectator – and Andy Serkis wasn’t available – they’d hire Nigel to do the motion capture.
The 4G in the pub was bad, so in the absence of Twitter I’d made the mistake of being too vocal about something with a real-life stranger. I’d just noted that my son has many clothes featuring cars, trucks and dinosaurs and my nieces’ options were all flowers and fairies. I wasn’t being judgmental about it, but Nigel – a friendly, chatty dad, but the type you could imagine attending a taping of Top Gear – knew I wrote a column for the Observer and probably presumed I’d come straight to the pub from a dolphin séance. His anti-PC alarms all started ringing.
‘Surnames,’ I said to Nigel. ‘If I said to you: “Just last week, Doherty and McLaughlin went to the funfair,” you’d imagine two blokes, wouldn’t you?’
‘You would – because unless otherwise indicated, surnames denote men, even though last time I checked all women have a surname. And it’s not like going to the funfair is gendered. Even if you change it to “Doherty and McLaughlin went for mojitos,” I still think of two blokes. Because we’re the default, Nigel. You have to add a qualifier for a woman to even be connected to the surname she lives her whole life with.’
‘You’ve thought about this a lot.’
‘Well, yeah, because, putting aside the rights and wrongs, I’m just confused. I mean, what are the rules? With toddler clothes, I kinda get fairies and princesses being for girls because fairies and princesses are girls. But why are so many neutral things for boys? I mean, all sexes drive cars, and they’re a boy thing, too. More men throughout history have caught butterflies and studied flowers than women, so why are those girly? Is it because they’re colourful? Then why are rainbows unisex? Why are dogs and cats unisex, while dinosaurs, big or small, carnivores or herbivores, always coded as boyish? I just don’t get it.’
Nigel sipped his drink then said, ‘What about Cher and Madonna?’
‘You said all women have surnames. What about Cher and Madonna?’
He had me there. Since it’s best to quit while you’re ahead in the offline world, we shook on the fact that gendered clothing was weird, and some women don’t have surnames. Just then our mutual friend returned to ask why I’d been ranting at Nigel for five minutes. ‘Well, you know,’ I said, as if it was obvious. ‘Twitter was down.’
Follow Séamas on Twitter @shockproofbeats