The death of David Bowie, which in my world cannot be ignored, is an interesting event in the early landscape of 2016. Interesting because of the manner in which he died, in a world which is increasingly focused upon the sharing of every last intricate detail of daily life. For a man who spent his youth in the spotlight, his dying in private and thankfully in peace, brings food for thought. It would seem that even in the last days of his life, David Bowie was at the sharpest end of cultural change leading us back to a place where our own private experience of the world is what matters most of all.
Back in the early seventies, Bowie's androgenous challenges to gender identity were my first glimpse of the constraints of being born a boy or a girl. It seemed to me back then that being forced into the strait jacket of a gendered life was quite the worst that could befall a teenager. With all the tragic urgency of youth, David Bowie's refusal to be the man he was supposed to be, seemed like a beacon of hope and a light in the storm of my hormonally charged days. If Bowie could be anything he wanted to be then so could I. And from there a lifetime of fascination with gender and the role it plays in shaping the landscape of our lives was born.
Looking back from today, where gender may be quite literally anything that we want it to be, David Bowie's trips through gender identity seem naive and unsophisticated. After all, this is a man who identified as a man, even when he was playing with aspects of his sexuality. In a world where identification of gender can be fluid and the issue of trans-gender is central to concepts of equality, those days of portraying a different kind of masculinity seem like echoes of a past long gone. And yet, for me, they remain a central part of what thinking about gender and the impact it has upon our lives really means. Gender shapes our thinking, our choices, the opportunities open or closed to us and our eventual settling for whatever feels comfortable for us. For David Bowie, after an early start playing with concepts of gender, married life as a man (to a woman) was what felt right. For me, from my early days as a feminist challenging all of the gendered constraints of my upbringing, my midlife as a happily married woman (to a man) felt like coming home.
Which leaves me wondering whether challenging concepts of gender is for young people because of the manner in which when we are young we feel like a square peg being forced into a round hole. When we are young we have so many choices about what to do with our lives, so many opportunities and so many roads to travel. Little wonder we don't want to settle for this concrete identity or that. Is gender fluidity, like the modern day cult of sharing every daily detail of our lives, something for young people. The need for which which we abandon as our impact on the world and our agency grows stronger throughout our older years?
The legacy David Bowie leaves is not in my experience, simply in his music but in his early open and youthful challenges to concepts of being male or female and the impact that had on a generation. A generation now largely past those experiments with self and the need to be fluid in identity but a generation nonetheless, still interested in the impact of cultural expectations. In this world where the personal is not simply political but part of the brand of who we are and how we present ourselves to the world, David Bowie scored another big hit for me as he headed off to explore new worlds beyond his death. He kept his dying private and he spent his last days in peace with his family. Though we have glimpses of some imagery from work released in the days before his death, which tell us that he was playing with his experience of dying, his actual death was lived quietly and privately. Something which in this world of celebrity is different, is healthy and which harks back to a time when the camera was not part of our daily routine.
For a man who spent his youth in the spotlight playing with concepts of gender, David Bowie's death perhaps teaches us something about what happens to us all as we grow older. That what matters most in our lives is to be true to who we are and be at peace with ourselves. In his last days, this man who taught me much about challenging the constraints of my life has shown me that being a rebel is the work of a whole lifetime.