The phrase “a rag, a bone and a hank of hair” has been stuck in my mind since I was a little girl in the early 1970s. I know now that it’s from Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 poem The Vampire, inspired by a painting exhibited that year by his cousin Philip Burne- Jones, son of the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones.
The poem is six unremarkably misogynistic verses about the way in which women consume men and leave them dried-out husks of their former selves. The first verse goes:
A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair
(Even as you and I!)
Whatever you might think about Kipling, he did have a way with a catchy phrase. A rag, a bone and a hank of hair is the title of a 1952 song by Eddie Hazelwood and His Carolina Woodchoppers. It won’t surprise you to learn that the song is misogynistic – it’s about how awful an ex-girlfriend of Mr Hazelwood looks, having committed the unforgivable sin of getting older. The song was covered by Nat King Cole in 1964, which I assume is how it found its way into a 1968 Monkees script, which is where I heard it.
My Californian cousin, who’s a couple of years older than me, came to stay with us in London in 1972, and introduced me to The Monkees. How I loved Davy, Pete, Mickey and Michael! There was something so delicious about the spectacle of fully grown adults larking about like children. The title sequence still lifts my spirits.
In the 1968 episode called Some Like It Lukewarm our heroes want to enter the Rockathon band contest and discover that it is only for “mixed bands”. What on earth will they do? One of them has to dress up as a girl, and the other three decide that obviously Davy will be the luckless victim.
Cut to Davy, standing behind a screen, and saying, “Hey look, you guys, how are you going to turn me into a woman?” To which Mickey says, “After all, what is a woman but a rag, a bone and a hank of hair?”
And they pass a rag (a yellow chiffon scarf), a bone and a hank of hair (a rather tangled-looking wig) to Davy behind the screen. Davy comes out wearing a wig (a more soigné one than the hank of hair) and a dress, with the chiffon scarf at the neck, and says “So … how do I look?” To which Mickey replies “Kind of like a raggy hairy bone.” And Michael says “Or a hairy bony rag.”
Davy is concerned that he doesn’t even know how to act like a woman, but Peter has a book called “How To Act Like A Feminine Female In Three Easy Lessons“. The lessons are as follows, and Davy tries to learn them with predictably hilarious consequences and much slapstick.
Lesson One. All feminine females must learn to walk with small delicate steps.
Lesson Two. When a feminine female walks from north to south, her hips must move from east to west. A small loud bell on each direction will help to teach this technique.
Lesson Three. The feminine female must glide like a swan when she walks with her head high, erect and motionless.
Why am I telling you this? Because the phrase “a rag, a bone, and a hank of hair” really got under my eight year old skin, and it’s been stuck there ever since. It sounds so primitive, like the ingredients for a spell, or a fetish, or something a shaman might have in his shamanic bag of tricks. The phrase’s presence under my skin was benign – why would I mind that the scriptwriter for a TV show from the late 1960s had made a joke about a woman being nothing more than a rag, a bone and a hank of hair? I didn’t take it any more seriously than Les Dawson’s jokes about his mother-in-law. None of these insults were directed at real women like me, were they?
For years, the phrase whispered itself to me regularly, usually when I saw an advertisement featuring a woman whose anatomy has been rendered impossible by airbrushing and whose eyes look dead. A rag, a bone, and a hank of hair. Not a real, live, flesh and blood woman like me and my friends and my sisters, and all the other women in the world.
And then in 2015, Bruce Jenner announced that he was actually a woman called Caitlin, ushering in a strange new world where men think they can turn into women. And what is it that they seem to think they need to do this? Why, it’s Kipling’s old three-item fetish again. I suddenly became aware that there were countless men who seemed to genuinely believe that by going behind the screen and donning the rag, the bone and the hank of hair, they could actually become women. Or rather, they didn’t actually believe it, but they wanted everybody to pretend that going behind the screen with their shaman’s fetish and then coming out again actually made them into women.