The story of the girl with the green ribbon was once a generic tale of horror. Now, it is about about gender.
This isScaring Children, a column by A. E. Osworth that explores children’s horror media from the nineties and early aughts through the lens of queer adulthood.
Once, there was a girl named Jenny. She was like all the other girls, except for one thing. She always wore a green ribbon round her neck.
It is October 2021. I am sitting in the British Library, in London, a place where I do not live—very far from where I live, actually, to the tune of an eight-hour time difference. We have reached the point in the pandemic where we are traveling again. Vaccinated, masked, and nervous, but here we are. Roaming the world in a way that is both the same as the Before Times and not the same at all.
The same: an entrance into other cultures, with other masculinities and femininities. Not the same: Covid tests before I fly; Covid tests after I fly; Covid tests I do myself, looking at my own open throat in a cramped WeWork bathroom and swiping a cotton swab across my tonsils while I gag; Covid tests done by strangers who tell me about how everyone’s noses are so different and sometimes they have a guess about what someone’s nose will look like, but then that someone pulls their mask down and lo, they have an entirely unexpected nose and now, now it is normal to talk about noses and to allow someone else regular access to my nostrils, swabbed so high up that my eyes water. And then, of course, the masks.
Despite the efforts of the death cult that is the religious right in the United States, I still must wear a mask when I fly. Thank goodness. That makes a plane perhaps the safest place I could be in the world. London, however, isn’t. Boris Johnson allegedly said, “Let the bodies pile high in their thousands,” regarding things like basic safety.
But here I sit anyhow. I’m not exactly sure how to handle my own vulnerability anymore. Did I need to be here? Kind of—my boyfriend is here, and I wanted to see them very badly. I thought I would be researching a new project, but that project has been pushed off. More and more it seems like I have flown across the world simply because I wanted to.
I am sitting in the rare-books room, surrounded by the hard-to-find texts, the very serious people; just downstairs sits Jane Austen’s writing desk. Across the way, Alan Turing’s Enigma machine. And I have used all the grand academic power to call up a small red children’s book that I could get anywhere else: In a Dark, Dark Room by Alvin Schwartz and Dirk Zimmer—an “I can read book.” I am, perhaps, in kind of the wrong place.
If you are my age, anywhere in the millennial zone, you probably remember the story.
A boy named Alfred falls in love with a girl named Jenny. Both school-age children. But unlike other girls, Jenny wears a green ribbon around her neck.
But Alfred kept asking, “Why do you wear it?”
And Jenny would say, “It is not important.”
They grow up and get married. They live their whole lives together. And all the while, Alfred asks about the ribbon. Jenny insists that someday she will explain, when the time is right. When Jenny is on her deathbed, she finally lets this insistent boy, now an old man, untie the ribbon. The story closes with one simple line: “. . . and Jenny’s head fell off.”
I have traveled a lot this year. Last time, before coming to Britain, it was to Key West to take part in a writing residency. I wrote. I wrote wildly, gleefully—I’d only ever done one writing residency before, and that had been interrupted by the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Key West was overrun with tourists in a season when it should’ve been empty. July into August, the air felt like the inside of a swampy mouth, and at any point a hurricane could’ve lifted the ocean up over all our heads. Folks shouldn’t have wanted to be there. But at the time, the rest of the world wouldn’t let Americans in because of our incredibly low vaccination rates and wanton public health policy; anyone who might have vacationed on farther, more pleasant shores crowded onto this tiny island to breathe on one another in bars and compete in Hemingway look-alike competitions. Really. I stood outside that particular bar, just to see. The men, with their beards and potbellies, lined up onstage. The announcer called them all “Papa.” It was an island with a lot of gender happening.
This writing residency was a month long; eventually, I needed a haircut. I am always a little bit nervous interfacing with a barber. The barbershop is a space with a lot of gender; in this case, as mentioned, on an island with a lot of gender. The one that had come highly recommended was closed for a month, so I googled up a second one and walked over to it. As I approached the door, I pulled from my pocket a white mask, one that matched my shirt.
In moments when I’m meaningfully engaging with clothes, my masculinity falls somewhere on the dandy-to-tropical-bird spectrum. I was wearing blue floral shorts, a white button-down, and a pair of yellow-soled suede oxfords. My hair was long on top and I didn’t intend to cut it; I liked the way testosterone made it curly, how different it was from what I was used to. I only wanted my sides shaved. I put the mask on, tugging it up my nose and down my chin, making sure it covered everything it needed to. I stepped into the barbershop.
Six men turned and looked at me in unison. None of them were wearing masks.
Six men turned and looked at me in unison. None of them were wearing masks.
The thing about the green ribbon is that it used to be red—it has nothing to do with gender at all. It’s a European folk motif, according to the back of In a Dark, Dark Room, where the authors Schwartz and Zimmer tell the children where all the tales originated. Red thread, worn to mark a place where the head was severed and reattached. It may have its origins as a French Revolution horror story, and it’s stuck with us through many a retelling since. Like a distillation process, what was once a generic horror has evolved into something much different.
Refined again and again, it has become about gender. Not based on the colors or symbols used, but based on who the characters are (a boy and a girl) and what their relationship is (who grow up and get married). The story has become about the relationship between people who are masculine and people who are feminine.
“Tell me about your ribbon,” he says.
“There’s nothing to tell. It’s my ribbon.”
“May I touch it?”
“I want to touch it,” he says. His fingers twitch a little, and I close my legs and sit up straighter.
Carmen Maria Machado has taken on the green ribbon, too, in her short story “The Husband Stitch.” It is another book I call up while sitting in the British Library. I avoid reading it all day. Every time I settle in, I find myself needing to get up, to go eat something, to leave the reading room and find a bottle of water, to use the bathroom, to move around anywhere but in my seat. I love this story; it also makes something in me squirm.
There are two rules: He cannot finish inside of me, and he cannot touch my green ribbon.
This version of Jenny, as a little girl, sees severed toes among the potatoes at the grocery store. Her father convinces her that this couldn’t be true because someone else would have seen them if they were real.
“Most importantly,” my father said, arriving triumphantly at his final piece of evidence, “why did no one notice the toes except for you?”
As a grown woman, I would have said to my father that there are true things in this world observed only by a single set of eyes.
“You can take your mask off, bro,” he said to me, the barber who would cut my hair.
“No,” I said. “It’s a pandemic.”
“We can’t give you Covid if we don’t have Covid,” he said triumphantly.
And it was the half science of something technically true that willfully missed something larger: that we cannot magically tell if we have Covid. Eventually, we might feel symptoms. But many will never know at all. If I had to guess at that man’s belief, it would be this: that he was king of his body, and nothing could happen in its realm without his knowledge and, in fact, his say-so. That by simply saying that he did not have Covid and would not have Covid, he must not have had Covid.
“I’m going to keep my mask on,” I said as I sat down to wait. I pulled out The Other Black Girl and kept on reading, but occasionally I looked up. The men had become wary, uneasy. They made me nervous without their masks; I made them just as nervous with mine on, because I wore one.
“You can really take your mask off, bro, it’s fine,” another one of them said. And it is only because I am a connoisseur of fear that I detected the hint of pleading he hid so well under bravado.
“No, thank you,” I replied.
Machado’s version of Jenny marries her version of Alfred as well. And on the day of their wedding, she rescinds one of her rules—he is allowed to finish inside her. When this boundary is loosened, her new husband moves in on her only other rule:
“Please,” I say. “Please don’t.”
He does not seem to hear. “Please,” I say again, my voice louder, but cracking in the middle.
He could have done it then, untied the bow, if he’d chosen to. But he releases me and rolls on his back as if nothing has happened.
To this version of Alfred, nothing did happen. Because in Machado’s version of the story, most girls and women have ribbons. From birth, even. But boys? Never. The way Machado’s protagonist understands her child’s gender upon his birth is: No ribbon. A boy.
The ribbons vary in color—one, a model in an art class, even has a red ribbon around her ankle. Jenny remarks upon the various ribbons she sees, all on women. None on men. A visible demarcation of vulnerability, a tie in the place something was severed and stuck back together, much weaker than before.
The barber asked as I sat in his chair, “How am I supposed to cut your hair with a mask on?”
“Other barbers have figured it out,” I replied.
He harrumphed and slid the loop from my ear and I wondered for a moment if he would rip the mask off my face. But no, he just began to cut my hair with the clippers. A two all the way up; I didn’t want to spend time in here for a fade. Across the way was another barber, a bald barber. He and his client were talking animatedly. In all other barber circumstances, I am a haircut chatterer. (I am a chatterer at most times.) But in this case, I was perfectly silent. Occasionally, the barber would ask a question and I would answer it, but we did not speak the same language even though we were both speaking English, and the conversations didn’t go anywhere.
I only half heard what the bald barber was talking about. Something about the military. Something about guns. And then, in the middle of this haircut, he pantomimed picking up some kind of rifle.
“Bang,” he said, and he shot his invisible rifle at the window.
“Bang,” he said again, and shot his invisible rifle at the unoccupied corner of the barbershop.
And then he turned toward me. “Bang,” he said one last time, shooting his invisible rifle at me. I met his eyes while he did so, my eyebrows raised. I did not look away.
And then, in the middle of this haircut, he pantomimed picking up some kind of rifle.
“I’ve given you everything you have ever asked for,” I say. “Am I not allowed this one thing?”
“I want to know.”
“You think you want to know,” I say, “but you don’t.”
“Why do you want to hide it from me?”
“I’m not hiding it. It just isn’t yours.”
Machado’s version of Jenny pleads for an inner life unscrutinized by her husband, a way to process the vulnerability that doesn’t include or even account for him. That vulnerability is public, but the experience of it is interior. It is her only firm boundary throughout the piece. And yet. And yet. Her husband, throughout his life, continues to press and press and press.
I am extremely bad at enforcing my own boundaries, especially when others let on that they think they’re weird, stupid, unfounded. Especially when others do not understand why I need what I need, and therefore insist that I should not need it. I am not bad, however, at putting my own vulnerability on display. I do not know if it’s because I have no choice—I am a trans masculine person, but I look, sound, and act like a very pretty pony. Being on testosterone, and thus feeling more comfortable in my body, has allowed me a much greater freedom to explore aspects of my gender and self that many read feminine.
I began to grow my hair out of pandemic necessity (I am no barber), but I kept doing it long after we could get professional hair help again because I found I wanted to. I’ve painted nails, decorated my home in pastels—and even saying any of this feels absolutely ridiculous because what on earth is feminine about any of it? What is the gender of my seafoam green tufted reading chair, my black sparkle nail polish? I’m not sure what masculinity or femininity is made up of, not anymore.
The Key West barber finished. It didn’t take particularly long; I didn’t even take my hair out of the topknot. I took money out of the ATM to silence, tipped well. As I went through the door, the bald barber, the one who had pantomimed shooting me, shouted in an exaggerated manner, “What the fuck?!” like a particularly gimmicky stand-up comedian. He did not wait until the door closed, so I caught what he said. And then I was outside, and I couldn’t hear the rest of them laugh in response. I could see them, though, through the window. Everyone laughing at me, my floral shorts and my CDC-recommended mask.
I lingered at the large window just so they knew I could see them. I realized, though, that my witness was part of the point. Part of the ritual that separates me from them, that keeps my vibe from contaminating theirs. And by vibe, I mean vulnerability. Cis men’s (the category, not the individuals) response to the pandemic has highlighted for me one component of masculinity in the US that I hadn’t much thought about before I transitioned: the insistence of invulnerability.
I remember in March of 2020, when it was clear that the United States would face Covid-19 but unclear, yet, the extent of what that would mean. I was still going to the gym, using the men’s locker room. Even with posters about handwashing and the novel virus, washing my hands was still the quickest way to out myself as someone outside the category of man. The men? Most didn’t wash their hands at all, or dipped their fingers underneath the faucet for three seconds and flicked the water off, like participating in some kind of offering to the idea of hygiene.
As someone who did time as a girl in this country, I am used to rarely feeling entirely safe; as a trans person in this country, not much has changed in that respect, though some places are easier than others. In moments like these, like the barbershop, I marveled at being a person who experienced so few consequences that they thought their actions in the face of a virus—which has no social understanding that men should be untouchable because it is a microbe—would remain consequence-less. That when it comes to illness, masculinity cannot get sick because it would be a weakness.
Building one’s identity upon a “not” means that one is threatened by that not’s presence. It is such a fragile way to walk through the world. I was so freaked out by the gun pantomime. I talked about it for weeks and now it’s an essay. I still think about it, sitting here in the British Library months later. To these men, my mask was a talisman of vulnerability, a declaration that I could get sick, become disabled, or die. I don’t think the man who pantomimed shooting me could have verbalized why he found me so off-putting; that’s why I was so upset. When people don’t know why they’re doing something, there are no boundaries on that action. It could expand in all sorts of unpredictable, dangerous ways. But nothing terrible happened. Just a quiet walk back to my studio, mask in my pocket, sweating in the oppressive Key West humidity.
I am up for a long time, listening to his breathing, wondering if perhaps men have ribbons that do not look like ribbons. Maybe we are all marked in some way, even if it’s impossible to see.
When people perceive femininity, they perceive permission to encroach. To aggress. To untie the things that are tied to us. Yes. Us. It’s about womanhood; it’s obviously about womanhood. But it’s not only about womanhood, is it? It’s about anyone who transgresses the idea that to be masculine is to be strong and that to be strong means to be invulnerable. To have no places that have been previously severed, that have needed a chance to heal.
Femininity is the acceptance of the ribbon in the first place. The idea that there is a place on one’s body that can be untied by another, that if someone wanted to, they need only pull and pull and pull and our heads will roll from our shoulders. And masculinity? There, in that barbershop and in that gym locker room and on this tube train and everywhere I seem to find myself lately, masculinity isn’t about not having a ribbon. We all have a ribbon. Masculinity is about the denial of one’s own ribbon, the ribbon of other men, proper men, and not whatever I am when I show up to get my hair cut.
A. E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit) was long listed for The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle, Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.