Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Fictioneering: The Turbulent Term Of Tyke Tiler

[Fictioneering is a very occasionally occasional series in which I say pretentious things about the novels that were monumentally influential on my developing psyche. In other words, blame these books.]

N.B. I'm going to spoil the crap out of this book, because nothing I'm about to say will make any sense unless you know the twist at the end. If you care about remaining unspoiled for a 35-year-old children's book, find a copy somewhere and read it stat; otherwise, consider yourself fairly warned.

I loved this book. At age ten or eleven, I checked it out of the school library (because, in the course of five largely friendless years at a school with a fairly small library, I read most things in the school library), and I loved it so very, very much that I needed a copy of my own. However, I didn't dare ask my parents to buy it for me, for fear that they might ask me just why I loved it so. Inspired by my also-beloved copy of Chinese Cinderella, I ended up copying the entirety of Tyke Tiler by hand into an exercise book with a magenta cover.

Of course, my situation was in no way similar to Adeline's in Chinese Cinderella. Abused and neglected by her stepmother, Adeline finds hope in a friend's copy of A Little Princess. She copies it out by hand of necessity, because she knows her stepmother would never buy her anything that might give her pleasure. My parents, on the other hand, encouraged my obsessive love of reading and kept me well supplied with novels. In retrospect, there is absolutely no reason why they wouldn't have bought me a copy of Tyke Tiler if I'd selected it next time we went to the bookstore: it's a Carnegie medal-winner, and, even if they'd never heard of it, they knew that my taste in literature has (unlike my taste in film) never run to the trashy. They had seen how dog-eared with rereading my copies of The Hobbit and Anne of Green Gables and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry became. They knew of my disdain for Goosebumps and Sweet Valley. A few years later, they would witness my first feeble attempt at teenage rebellion sputter and die when I discovered, much to my disappointment, that the reason they disapproved of my reading Interview with the Vampire was not because it was eye-openingly salacious and grown-up, but because it was not very good literature.

My parents trusted my taste in books. They would have bought me a paperback of Tyke Tiler if I had only asked for one.

The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler is a very British school story, chronicling the fairly episodic adventures of Tyke and BFF Danny as they get themselves into and out of various scrapes. As such, though it's entertainingly written and the child's-perspective narration is pretty convincing, there is nothing too remarkable about it – until the very end.

Throughout the book, there is a running gag that Tyke's real name is unbelievably terrible. Tyke runs around with Danny, climbing all over school buildings, fighting bullies, pestering older siblings, and refusing to disclose the dreaded real name. Then, right at the end of the book, Tyke is climbing on the school roof, about to ring the old school bell, when hated teacher Mrs Somers shouts: “Get down at once, Theodora Tiler, you naughty, disobedient girl!”

I loved that. I loved that. The revelation that Tyke, headstrong and physical and with male best friends, was actually a girl, was really, really important to me, and I had no way of articulating why. Of course, it overturns the reader's assumption that a character nicknamed Tyke, especially one who acted in this way, would be a boy; and it's a sadly rare instance of a gender-non-conforming girl who doesn't have an in-text femme counterpart.

Those are things I could, even at the age of eleven, probably have at least attempted to articulate. But there was something else going on – something I instinctively knew must be kept secret from my parents, my peers, and even to some extent from myself. And, since I've already been kicked out of feminism for violation of Internet Feminism Bylaw #5712, “everyone is cis unless explicitly noted,” I might as well just say it, and yarbles to the haters: the text does support a reading of Tyke as trans*.

(You don't have to agree, a cis reading is just as valid, blah blah covering my ass trying to appease the unappeasable.)

And no, I don't think that every character who ever acts in conventionally masculine ways must be a guy (and believe me, if I ever find a reason why I think I might be one other than “I just kind of do” I will surely let you know); but the framing of the narrative sets up the gender revelation as an unexpected twist, and at the very least that should invite some Deep Thoughts about the nature of gender (for those of you who haven't been having Deep Thoughts about gender every single waking moment for the last twelve or eighteen months). (And, while Tyke's appearance is never described in the book, have a gander at the androgynous moppet who stars in the rather charming mini-series.)

One of the weird things about trans*liness is how you find yourself recalibrating what you believe about gender to align with what you need. A website that default genders you as male doesn't anger you quite the way you know it should, because you spend so much of your time trying to get gendered male. You suddenly find that you have a use for some of the traditional gender roles you've so long rejected, because they're a societal shorthand for your embryonic masculinity. And you infuriate the Internet Feminist Hivemind by reading gender-non-conforming characters as trans*, because you need the fictional worlds you so dearly love to reflect and affirm you, and unless you project that onto them they just don't.

But I think I've always read Tyke Tiler as a trans*man, years before I had the words or the processes or the self-confidence or the independence to know what I was doing. I think that's why I loved this book so profoundly, and I think it's why I had to keep it a secret.

I believe that magenta exercise book is still in a drawer in my old bedroom in my parents' house. Through all the years, the transcontinental moves, the periodic Throwing Away Of Old Notebooks, the later-regretted donations of Childhood Novels I Am Too Grown-Up For, I hung onto my handwritten copy of The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, keeping it safely squirreled away in a messy drawer. Now, finally, at the age of twenty-three, I am opening it.


  1. In Max's world, every interesting character is a man ;)

    What I'm actually interested by when you talk about this book is the kind of structure of it, and how that structure is used in trans* narratives by cis people. I suppose there might be differences with it being a children's novel and all, but I think that the 'reveal' aspect of the novel is something that recurs a lot in things having to do with trans* people or perhaps gender roles.

    The reveal that goes on is revealing that the character was in fact, born a girl. What is interesting is the ambivalence the author seems to leave with that. It's not condemnatory or voyeuristic (well, perhaps a bit voyeuristic: we do after all, learn the original name). In fact, it seems to be a little bit celebratory. After all, none of the book would have happened if Tyke hadn't been boyish. Now, once again, this is a children's book and childhood is a time that girls are allowed to be masculine temporarily without as much social punishment, but the reveal is one that is supposed to give us (as you put it) Deep Thoughts, or perhaps even make us happy.

    The other side of that reveal is trans feminine revelation; which is typically monstrous, sickening, and isn't a platform about thinking about gender but rather a way of reaffirming assigned gender. The list of examples goes on and on. So why would this same trope function so differently?

    I think that the reveal is primarily cisgender in its use of understanding trans people. I can't think of a single trans story by a trans person that utilizes it. Since it comes from cis people, it also reflects cis understandings of gender, which typically hold masculinity as either default or superior. I wonder how many other 'reveal' scenarios there are for trans masculine/gender divergent people beyond this. i can't really think of one that implies the same feeling of horror that typically accompanies the 'she is a man' reactions of revelation in trans femininity.


    1. "In Max's world, every interesting character is a man ;)"

      All except you, Joel! :P I'm afraid I am kind of a broken record about doing trans*masculine readings of ostensibly female characters, because this is where I'm at myself, so obviously I'm going to project it onto everything I read or see.

      But you definitely raise valid points, esp. w/r/t transmisogyny. Like, have you heard about this show called Hit and Miss where Chloe Sevigny plays a trans woman? It really bugged me, especially when I read this interview where she talks about how she cried every day she had to wear the prosthetic penis and it was SO UPSETTING and she felt like a FREAK and now she TOTALLY UNDERSTANDS HOW TRANS PEOPLE FEEL.

      And I thought about Boys Don't Cry, and it seems like every time you have a trans male character he's played by a cis female actor, and every time you have a trans female character she's played by a cis female actor, and it all seems like part of a whole process of Othering where transness and femaleness are lumped together as inherently inferior to cismaleness.

      So that's one issue; and there's also the fact that, as we've talked about before, transmisogyny and the elevation of masculinity is a HUGE problem in queer circles. And thank you for bringing that up, and please do keep calling my attention to it and calling me out when I'm erasing the problem or contributing to it. Because even happy trans-ish things from my childhood do not exist in a vacuum.