Gender is a simple concept — as long as you fall firmly into one of the two culturally defined categories. If you have a penis, you are male. If you don’t have a penis, you are female. (In our culture, gender is phallocentric; it has nothing to do with a vagina. It’s about the presence or absence of a penis.) Once biology and society have assigned your gender to you, you are expected to follow certain gender-specific cues: physical cues (body, hair, clothes), behavioral cues (manners, protocol, decorum), mythic cues (cultural archetypes), and on and on.
But what if biology assigns you a vagina, and you exhibit traditionally male manners and prefer traditionally male clothing or hairstyles? What if you identify as female but were born into a male body? What if you were born with a penis but your body type is otherwise traditionally feminine? And what if, on top of that, you prefer skirts and makeup? Are you a man or are you a woman? Are you neither? Are you a third gender? Does your gender fall somewhere between male and female?
What are you?
If you’ve never considered the possibility that your culturally assigned gender doesn’t fit you, you’ve probably never thought about the answer to that question. But like so many AfterEllen.com readers, Franky Fitzgerald was forced to think about it. Oh, society has many names; ask Mini McGuinness: “F-R-E-A-K.” Or just ask Franky; she’s heard them all before: “C–tless, dyke-like, no-breed, stutter-f–ker, spacko, lameo, s–t-headed wanker magnet, Oliver Twisted, thimble-titted, loser, loner, fugly bastard!”
But Franky is a gender atypical teenager who doesn’t just survive; she thrives. After mocking her in the ladies’ locker room, queen bee Mini takes Franky shopping and coerces her into buying a dress and some makeup. The next day Franky comes to school with tousled hair, feminine clothing and fierce eyeliner. She’s more appealing to her peers, but she doesn’t feel true to herself.
When asked to give a speech in literature class about whether a person can choose an identity, Franky says:
Right. So … f–k. Sorry. Right. Yeah. So, um, f–king … yeah. Basically, if you can, like, choose your identity — because I tried today, and now I feel sort of less like me. And, I mean, I’m not exactly over the moon about being me in the first place. But now, I think I kind of like it less when I’m trying not to be me. Because I just … I just want to, like, be.
Her sentiment is echoed by AfterEllen.com reader Bethan Harding: “Escaping the gender binary wasn’t a conscious choice, because I never had any idea how to be a girl, or a boy, or anything other than me. And the whole ‘alternative’ thing, it’s not about being different; it is about being yourself.”
Franky ultimately lights her new dress on fire and attends Mini’s party in a suit. But the most poignant moment in the episode comes when she’s standing in a field in a suit jacket and shorts, firing an antique pistol at anything and everything. After a day of public scorn and ridicule at her new school, she’s beginning to wonder if she’ll ever outrun the agony of being different. Out of nowhere, Matty comes into view. Franky threatens him with her gun and begs him to leave. He says, “You’re beautiful.” Franky says she’s not, that she’s nothing. Matty doesn’t flinch. With a gun pointed at his chest, he says, “Then why do I see a glorious f–king head-f–k thing?”
The beauty of Skins is that it transcends labels. Naomi and Emily were never lesbian characters engaged in a lesbian storyline. They were fear and they were courage. They were passion and they were despair. They were white hot love and the promise of forever. We were all Naomi and Emily. And we are all Franky, too. We are all glorious f–king head-f–k things. Some of us are female. And some of us are male. And some of us are neither.
Like Franky, some of us have one half of a map on our right hand, and one half of a map on our left hand. Only when we hold them together can we see the whole picture.
Mega super huge thanks to every AfterEllen.com reader who reached out to me about Franky. Thank you for helping me along as I researched this article, and for sharing your personal experiences with me. And, as always, thanks to my creative soul mates RophyDoes for the screencaps.