You have an odd relationship to the past when you’ve transitioned.
There’s barriers, thresholds, hesitations. Things Not Wanted To Be Said. Occasionally, misdirection and dodging. It can get…complicated.
You see, I am a woman in her thirties Without A Past–or at least, Without An Adolescence.
There are times I don’t regret not having had a girlhood; from what I’ve observed, and from what I’ve heard from my friends, it can definitely be one of those things that is Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be.
But at the same time, I feel, sometimes…a loss? A lack? A missing connection between me and other women? Adolescence is such a key experience for so many of the women I know, so my lack of a girlhood sometimes leaves me feeling–still–like I’m on the outside, looking in. It’s difficult to pin down, exactly, especially because doing so sometimes brings back all the pain I felt during my childhood: the pain of having a boyhood I never wanted thrust upon me, the pain of watching others have the life I wanted and not being able to figure out what to do about it.
Since I transitioned I seem to be in a process of reconsidering a lot of the things I knew, and looking at things I’m learning today in a totally different light. And one of those things is the depiction of female adolescence in pop culture–perhaps, because now I identify with the young women of the story.
In some way, I know, I’m trying to fill in the gaps of my past: not, I hope, in a creepy, appropriative, making stories up about myself way, but more by wondering how I would have felt in that situation, had I been female; wondering what kind of girl and young woman I would have been; looking for those women who might have been my role models, and trying to puzzle out what a female adolescence would have felt like, what it would have meant to me, had I actually had one. These films are my purloined girlhood.
It’s dangerous territory, not only because I run real risks of being an insensitive ass, but because it can also tear apart some psychic scars I worked hard on healing. Good thing a lot of these movies have happy endings, I guess.
For this first series, I’ve chosen three movies: Say Anything (1989), Heathers (1988), and Ginger Snaps (2000)–a romantic comedy, a dark comedy, and a dark comedy about the horror of being female, or at least a female werewolf. As an added bonus, two of them are from the era I went to high school, though oddly enough I hadn’t seen either of them before last weekend.
Say Anything: There But For The Grace of…
Two things struck me almost immediately about Say Anything: first, it was directed by Cameron Crowe, and I didn’t hate it! (This is remarkable, as I’m not a huge fan of his dudely self-myth-making efforts in other films.) Second, this is a fairly feminist Hollywood film, for it’s time.
Now, of course, a “fairly feminist Hollywood film” normally means that it is not actively, constantly, and annoyingly misogynistic. But Say Anything is more than that… mostly because Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) is really not an asshole. And, unlikely as you might think it would be, that seems to be the point of the whole movie. (I know! A movie marketed and aimed at young women turns out to be–surprise!–all about men!)
Say Anything proves to be most effective as a meditation on what it means to be a “good man.” Not to take anything away from the marvelous Ione Skye’s Diane Cort — wonder of wonders, a woman in a studio movie who is smart, without being unattractive, unpopular, or unpleasant — the movie is centered mostly on the various modes of contemporary masculinity. What makes Say Anything different from just about every movie about masculinity today (and to be fair, a large chunk of movies from the ’80s) is that it sides against the Path of Greatest Jerkiness.
Lloyd’s best two friends are both women, a fact that is not only uncommented on, it is never once used in the film to demean his masculinity. He lives with his single-mom sister (Joan Cusack) and helps raise her son. He convinces Diane to come out on a date with him for the first time not just because of the movie-cliche “he made her laugh” but because he actually listened to her speech, including a joke that fell so flat she thought nobody had heard it.
Even after they break up, Lloyd simply can’t be a jerk. He goes down to the local convenience store to hang out with the other jerks (including his friend Corey’s douchey ex, Joe), but finds no answers there — he won’t bury his feelings or exploit other women just to make his ego feel better. (This is perhaps the biggest difference between Say Anything and modern films: today, the movie would be about the guys Lloyd talks to, and Lloyd would be played by Ed Helms.)
Actually, all the men of Say Anything have their moments of vulnerability: the dudebros at the convenience store reminisce with him about having their hearts broken, Diane’s father (John Mahoney) listens carefully and non-judgmentally to everything his daughter says (even when she is telling him that she’s had sex with Lloyd), and in a scene that would be remarkable even today, he crouches in the shower crying while his life crumbles around him–the IRS is on his trail for defrauding the patients in his nursing home.
For me, Say Anything ended up being a painful film to watch, because it brought up a lot of might-have-beens.
Because I could have been a Lloyd. I was a nice guy with a lot of female friends. The casual misogyny of the boys around me appalled me. And like Lloyd I wanted a girlfriend who was smart, who was someone I could talk to, who was someone, like me, who tried hard not to give a damn about what other people thought about me.
But none of that happened, and I have to wonder if that was because of my transness: because of the ways I existed in a confusing mix of desires, not quite sure that I wanted to be a woman and not quite sure I wanted to stay a man, not even sure about which gender was I was attracted to. (The answer turned out to be both, so some confusion there was understandable.) One of the things I’ve discovered since transition is just how much that constant emotional churn sapped my energy and my emotions, left me often times bitter, oftentimes depressed, and almost always operating well short of what I was capable of.
Likewise, there’s Diane… and while I doubt I would have had the fortune to be as pretty as Ione Skye (in passing, I should note that 1988’s movie-star thin would get you playing the “fat friend” in today’s movies), in other respects I have to wonder: had I been “born right” the other way–had I been born the way things ultimately turned out–would I have been able to be as smart, strong, and capable as Diane? Without the weight of my transness pressing down on my neck, would I have been able to succeed like her (maybe not valedictorian or fellowship recipient, but intelligent and relatively unscarred by adolescence — or would I have ended up with a whole set of problems that were just as bad and just as likely to weigh me down? What, in other words, was harder — being Not Quite A Boy among boys, or being a girl among girls?
We’ll look to the next film in this series–Heathers–for answers.