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A Purloined Girlhood I: Say Anything… except Sexism?

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.

19 Comments

  1. snobographer wrote:

    The thing with those teen romances is they and the characters in them are highly idealized and unrealistic. So no effin’ way you’d have been as groovy and together as Diane Cort.
    Maybe if you weren’t trans you wouldn’t have had the same insight into dudely attitudes toward female persons. Maybe this would have left you a simpering ball of internalized misogyny. Because it’s easier, you know, to just go along and that shit is everywhere.

    Monday, December 14, 2009 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  2. pinkpillsanity wrote:

    You’re beautiful. And I say this in the non-ironic way that it’s used in Heathers.

    Say Anything is a favorite of mine because Llyod reminds me of my best guy friend and seeing his interactions with his two best girl friends really warms my heart.

    Monday, December 14, 2009 at 1:17 pm | Permalink
  3. jfruh wrote:

    JOE LIES

    JOE LIES

    JOE LIES

    WHEN HE CRIES

    That is all.

    Monday, December 14, 2009 at 1:21 pm | Permalink
  4. c wrote:

    In high school, I was Betty Finn.

    Monday, December 14, 2009 at 1:36 pm | Permalink
  5. Samantha b. wrote:

    What the hell do I know, but I really didn’t feel like my adolescence was formative in a manner all that distinct from the transition out of boyhood. Although that’s when you first really learn about misogyny, as opposed to the sexism that you are inundated with as a young child.

    But, undoubtedly you have been more attentive to the impacts of misogyny than so many, C.L. And it sounds like that was true of your adolescence as well. So it all comes out in the wash, I tend to think.

    Monday, December 14, 2009 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
  6. C.L. Minou wrote:

    @C: OH ME TOO! Or I would have been, I think, rather than Diane. IS THERE A TRANS VERSION OF BETTY FINN? BECAUSE THAT’S ME!!!

    @Snobographer: Indeed, one of the things I am paying attention to in watching these films is all the Lessons I Would Have Learned, and How They Suck!

    Monday, December 14, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  7. Farore wrote:

    Interesting piece. I’ve often wondered, myself, what life would have been like if I’d had the right body for my brain all along; however, as a genderqueer, the sad truth is that my life probably would have sucked a lot more, not being able to fit into boyhood OR girlhood. The biggest difference I seem to notice, when talking to my cismale friends (I am female-bodied, m’self) is that boyhood seems to be a lot more centered on the self than girlhood was, at least for me. Girlhood, especially pubescent girlhood, was about figuring out what other people wanted and trying to give it to them, even in my own behaviour and appearance. My cismale friends’ boyhoods, especially their pubescent boyhoods, seemed to be more about trying to make a place for themselves in the world, trying to figure out how to get the world to follow their bidding – and sometimes, getting frustrated, hurt and bitter if it didn’t. (I should note: living in the small-town Midwest as I do, all of the friends I have spoken to are white, so there’s more than one layer of privilege going on here. I don’t claim to speak for anyone but them and myself.) So, while nowadays I’m happier getting read as male (because it means I’m NOT getting read as female, which is, at least, a recognition of my not-cis-ness), I’m also pleased to have had a girlhood, as, judging by the upbringing of the cismales around me, the misogynistic pressures on a young girl do seem to prepare one more to be understanding of others, to deal with disappointment and unfairness, and to read people well. I’m curious what your childhood experiences were in that sort of a framework? Being aware of your not-boyness, were you more trying to figure out how to make the world work for you or how to make yourself work for the world? Was there even a gender split among your peers of that sort?

    Also, on a completely unrelated note, I would like to suggest that Tiger Beatdown have the author tag at the top of the post, or a note when someone other than Sady is writing, as I had thought that Sady was the only person who updated here (durr, go me) and was very confused indeed while reading the article – wasn’t until I saw the author tag did not say Sady Doyle and then went back and read it again that things started to make sense. @_@

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 7:13 am | Permalink
  8. Farore wrote:

    Wow that is a huge wall of text. Oops. More paragraph breaks next time, I promise.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 7:13 am | Permalink
  9. Sady wrote:

    @Farore: That is a totally good suggestion! The author-tag thing, that is. It comes out up top in the reader. This is going to be one of those Web Development Projects that I can never in my entire life figure out how to do, because all I know is how to type into the little box. But we will figure it out! Hopefully!

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 8:49 am | Permalink
  10. C.L. Minou wrote:

    @Farore: Wow, lemme think about what you wrote, which is full of a lot of truth, and get back to you on that (it will make an interesting frame for the discussion of Heathers)

    @Sady: I will poke around with WordPress–some advantage to being a computer professional, methinks.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  11. Taybeh Chaser wrote:

    “I’m also pleased to have had a girlhood, as, judging by the upbringing of the cismales around me, the misogynistic pressures on a young girl do seem to prepare one more to be understanding of others, to deal with disappointment and unfairness, and to read people well.”

    I am a cisgendered woman who is very much dissatisfied with how our culture defines and reenforces “female” and “feminine”. Not a unique position around here. I have trouble with this idea that growing up hampered by others’ misogynist assumptions makes you a better person. Growing up with less privilege than many of those around you *should* make you more sensitive and tolerant–though I’ll note that in my experience this is too often untrue. But I am not glad I “had a girlhood”, as the above poster puts it, at least not the way girlhood is currently concieved. I lost years of my adolescence trying to please others without losing myself, and was damaged by it. This won’t sound good, but I have often wished I could exchange a bit of outwardly imposed sensitivity to the needs and opinions of others for more self-confidence.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 9:24 pm | Permalink
  12. Farore wrote:

    @Taybeh: Oh! It did not even really occur to me that it read that way. OOPS.

    When I say I was glad to have a girlhood, I mean instead of the boyhood my male peers have told me about – it does not seem very fun either, with all kinds of weird expectations that, as a timid and anxiety-ridden person, I would have had a very hard time dealing with. Girlhood was more suited to my particular personality quirks – being a loud, obnoxious girl suited me better than being a quiet, quick-to-cry boy would have, I think.

    Childhoods tend to just suck in general, as far as I can tell. It’s a question of whether or not that suck helped you to learn and grow, or whether it held you back.

    I also do not like how our culture defines and reenforces ‘female’ and ‘feminine’ concepts. I am simply saying that the lack of privilege I had as a child and as a teenage girl prepared me for the constant struggle of self-aware transness better than, I think, a boyhood would have. I am not saying that everyone ever should be glad to have a girlhood. I am just saying it worked out for me.

    Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  13. C.L. Minou wrote:

    @Farore: I was that quiet, quick-to-cry boy. No. It was not much fun, until I learned how to pretend not to be one. That went great! Not.

    @Taybeh: I don’t really regret not having a girlhood except inasmuch as I regret having been born trans. But I am trying to understand what the experience of growing up female means to the women who did so, via the fucked up lens of pop culture. Which isn’t so absurd, because that fucked up lens is part of what makes growing up female so difficult, near as I can tell.

    Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  14. Taybeh Chaser wrote:

    Farore–That’s only one way I could read your words. I didn’t mean to jump on you. I get the point you are making about moving from one difficult situation (girlhood) to another (realizing you are trans).

    I often wonder if the transwomen I know can ever understand misogyny as experienced–viscerally, and leaving often permanent marks–by other women who had to grow up on the receiving end of it. That’s a lot more understandable, of course, than the willful ignorance and denial of some ciswomen. And it isn’t to say that transwomen don’t themselves experience and learn to identify misogyny (see C.L’s efforts right here), just that, if they transition in adulthood, their experiences with it can’t be the same as those of people who went through middle school as girls, without the (hopefully) sharper critical faculties of adults. This seems to be part of the idea behind C.L.’s project here. What she has missed is not good or healthy for most women, but it is a strong and relatively common thing. I’m betting many of us have been relieved to finally realize how sucky adolescence was for some of the other women around us, and that it was sucky in many of the same ways. We were not, after all, the lonely ugly things we thought we were.

    And, yeah, I doubt boyhood is all that much fun either, though there are clearly certain advantages to the way boys are socialized. I am not sure I would have done well had I grown up as a boy. It seems like neither gender is particularly kind to the weird, bookish kid. I remember feeling outside of gender, despite my considerable efforts to seem girly. As a girl, I was ridiculed for not being social or fashionable enough (women and girls are supposed to be charming and highly social, always knowing what to say, what to wear, whom to brown-nose and whom to laugh at). Had I been born a boy, I would have been in trouble for not enjoying team sports or pointless displays of dominance.

    C.L.–You’re right, that fucked up lens is a big part of the problem. For me, it is sometimes interesting to look back at the ideas (from friends, enemies, magazines, movies, etc) that informed my girlhood and take them apart. I was hardly brainwashed then, but I was living in the middle of something I didn’t have the strength or life experience to truly resist. When you look at the media that would have formed the backdrop for your girlhood, you get to do all the critical taking-apart (and do it well, it seems) with none of the painful memories. I could say I sort of envy that, but I realize that having been born trans, you likely have an entirely different set of painful memories. I have often joked that it might simply be kinder to place people in suspended animation during adolescence, so they don’t need to experience it at all ;) .

    Your efforts to look critically at “girlhood media” are highly interesting. I look forward to more of your co-blogging.

    Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  15. Sady wrote:

    @Taybeh: I want to caution you, here, against pulling the “my experience of The Sexism is more authentic than yours” card. For one, trans women often experience especially vicious misogyny – and, often as children or young adults, are punished especially hard for not fitting into the expectations of their perceived gender or for being too “girly,” which is a form of misogyny in its own right. I’m cis, myself, but I think I can assert that growing up trans was probably not EASIER, in any way, than my own experiences. So, I’m extending you good faith, here, but you should know that the “you’ll never really know what it’s like” trope is kind of a common form of transphobia or trans-silencing or gender-card-revoking amongst certain feminists, and we should be careful about that. Our experiences almost certainly differ from each other in many respects, but that doesn’t make one set more or less valid than the other in any way.

    Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  16. Taybeh Chaser wrote:

    Sady–Of course, all our experiences are valid. I don’t think being trans is easier than being cis. Experiences vary among all women. I hear there are even cis- and transwomen who were relatively happy as adolescents. That, too, is valid.

    I acknowledged that a trans person’s adolescence will often involve its own type of pain (albeit not a type I can comment on in any great detail, never having experienced it) which I do realize is itself connected to misogyny, and I should have said that. The discussion here seemed to be, in part, about the effects of how people are raised and socialized in our culture, depending on whether they are perceived as male or female during their formative years, not about anyone’s actual gender. I am certainly not here to hand out and revoke “Real Woman” hats (or “Real Man” hats, for that matter). Cis- and transwomen get enough of that as it is, with all the expectations associated with femininity. If possible, I’ll edit my previous comment to be more respectful. I’m very sorry.

    Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  17. Sady wrote:

    @Taybeh: That’s fine, I didn’t mean to jump on you as I think we’re both operating in good faith. I just wanted to put what I said out there, as a bit of a caution lest the discussion veer down that unpleasant slope.

    Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  18. Taybeh Chaser wrote:

    Sady: Totally understandable. I should have put things differently.

    On thinking about it, I’d advance a guess that a big difference between experiences of misogyny during adolescence and childhood might be something like this:

    With growing ciswomen (and female-bodied transmen), people point to Culturally-Mandated Feminine Characteristic X and say, “You must try your best to have X, even if it is totally unnatural to you and even though it is obviously devalued by society, because you are a girl and such is your lot. If you do have X, well, ha ha, you suck for being a girl. If you don’t have X, you suck more for being a defective girl, which is even worse than just being a girl.”

    On the other hand, they say to growing male-bodied transwomen (and, to an extent, to shy or sensitive cismale people), “If you have Feminine Characteristic X, even if it is totally natural to you, you must be deeply ashamed and try your best not to have X, because X is a girl thing and therefore obviously not valuable. If you have it, you suck because you are just like those worthless girls over there, and you don’t want that. And dog help you if you do.”

    Both are pretty shitty messages. I only know how it feels to receive the first.

    Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  19. C.L. Minou wrote:

    @Taybeh: I can confirm from my end that you pretty much nailed it.

    Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 6:51 pm | Permalink