Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Last Book I Loved?

Well, I'll admit it, I’m an enthusiastic person. I can’t help but function like a six year old when I get excited about something. You know, I jump up and down and wave my hands around and speak very loudly and animatedly about the thing of the moment--be it a book, a movie, a play, a character, an author, a story in my head, a celebrity, a friend, you name it--I can be the fanboy to end them all. Which means the last book I loved is always the last one I’ve read.
I have torrid literary love affairs all the time. I get so into something I see my entire existence through the lens of that world. I try on characters like suits of clothing and walk around in them for a time. I map my own life onto the journeys the characters take. I talk about what I’m going through in my life by employing the metaphors used on the page. I don’t just read books, I live them. Like an actor in a role. Except I take on the entire story, not just one character.
Most of the time, like an actor, when the story is over (or shortly thereafter) I will step outside of that world and go back to my everyday life. Aspects of a good book will stick with me like fog does as the sun comes out, lines of prose like wisps of smoke trailing behind, clinging to me, long after the rest has burned off. Pockets of inky text clinging to the low-lying areas--the shaded parts of my mind-- where I can stumble across them at calm moments and remember that life I once lived.
But once in a while there is a book I fall *in love* with. Those are the ones that even halfway through it is abundantly clear that the world I’ve entered is not one I will be willing to discard--not even parts of it--that this story is one that I need to actively incorporate into my life and my being, allowing it to reside in my imagination in perpetuity. Sometimes it’s a character I need inside me to become the person I want to be, others it’s the way a world was created that I’ve needed to understand how life is to be lived. Sometimes it’s the story itself that I require to pattern some aspect of my own journey upon.
And rarely, it is more a function of how the story is being told and how that melds with the world of its telling that get me. One such as this will capture me and make me its creature--both the reader in me and the writer. It will burrow deep into my self--both selves, intertwined--and take root in my gut, incorporating my insides into its new growth, and blossoming into meaning and purpose and the drive to create. And if I’m lucky, later comes the fruit of a story of my own.

Such a one is The Book of Flying by Keith Miller. The story looks simple enough--a young poet/librarian falls for a winged girl who won’t have him because he can’t know what it’s like to fly. And so, he heads off on a quest to acquire his wings. The epic journey to the legendary city in the east where the Book of Flying awaits is a varied one, full of new people, places, and stories, new ways of seeing, being, writing, dying. In short, revelations abound. Pico is gorgeous--familiar and flawed and working to incorporate into himself and his poetry all that he experiences--his companions are bright and bold and well drawn, each of them very different from the last. You feel as though you have lived many lifetimes with him in the course of his journey. The language is poetic and appropriate to the telling of a tale such as this, whether you want to call it a fairy tale, a fable, or a fantasy. But it’s not simply the language of the story in this book, it’s the language about the stories and books encountered within that hooks into me and makes a home.

I feel we're all trying to find a story, like treasure buried beneath our city, and all the feeble stories we live are patterned after that pristine story whose shape we almost know. Sometimes just after I wake or before I make love I'll think, This is the story, I'm living the story. But the world always rushes in with its clash and anguish.

Stories are important in Pico’s world. And in all of the worlds he encounters and the lives he lives on his way. He comes from a place where people don’t read but succeeds in collecting at least one story from each person he encounters. Many of them acknowledge that telling their story brings meaning to their life. The time he spends in a rainy city full of books and readers and writers and artists becomes a formative one where he learns to love both a woman who is a writer of worlds made of language, as well as himself as a wordsmith.
But let us not forget that our hero’s quest is to find a book. Not just any book. As it turns out, he finds The Book to end all books. Or, more accurately, The Book from which all books begin. Like in the quoted passage above, The Book is that pristine story. The one you have had glimpses of in every other book you’ve read. Those passages that transport you and then never leave--the fragments and glimpses of truth you carry with you through life--all of those gems are bits of The Book. It is a patchwork of all these bits and more, stitched together into a tale worth losing yourself in. A tale that transforms you as a chrysalis does a caterpillar, forever on a new level of being.
I was unaware of how hard I believed in the existence of said book until I read the scene where Pico opens it. That is when I knew this book in my hand, The Book of Flying, by a man who must have seen deep inside my self at all the wisps and whispers I’ve ever collected, was the one which had a larger portion of The Book (or at least the one that I’m questing for) than any other story I had yet encountered.
And yes, I’m prone to hyperbole. Yes, I use words like ‘best’ and ‘most’ and ‘perfect’ with abandon. In the heat of a good story I’ll say almost anything. (Flings are designed to be effusive.) However, it’s been more than a year now and I will tell you straight: I haven’t had this kind of experience--the one where words knife into the center of my being and take my breath away, leaving streaming eyes in their wake and my heart simultaneously full to overflowing and hollowed out with yearning--in a very long time. Not for myself as a reader--and writer, and lover of story--anyway. I've felt like that for a character, maybe, a narrator for sure. But to find myself coming across such truth about the word that began inside me, was reflecting my innermost writer-self onto the page, only to then shine back into my eyes as revelation? That was new. And I will be in love with this book until I die for the gift of that experience.

[crossposted at]

Monday, February 20, 2012

what we talk about when we talk about reading/writing

"I love this idea—the way any story is an amalgam between the written version and your own experience. We could have a contest where people draw the kitchen table in my story, or in Carver’s, and everyone would depict it differently. The round table you had growing up, or plates on the wall in your grandmother’s kitchen—these details work themselves into the way you imagine the story. And that was what I was working with: not Carver’s story specifically, but my memory of his story."

- Nathan Englander, talking to Joe Fassler of The Atlantic about the new collection. Full interview is here.

and this, of course, makes me go back to the quotation from jeanette winterson at the top of my blog as another example of this. the 'weak signal into the outer space of each other' is the text we strive so hard to make clear to our readers, and yet they are just 'stray words on crumpled paper' and no matter what i say, you will hear it like only you can. because your brain works differently than mine, has different images and experiences stored in it.

but in both cases we are talking about the same phenomenon, which Englander spells out a little more in this paragraph:

"This is something that's particular to fiction. You watch a movie and it becomes a movie in your head, but you don't remember it and mistake it for a memory. Only with writing do people say—when did that happen to me?—and then realize they read it in a book. It's because you construct what you read in your mind, and if a written reality is successful, it becomes a memory. Not remembered, a memory. That's how story functions."

and the thing is, this phenomenon is the exact same in the process of acting. what a reader does from page to imagination is what an actor does from page to body. (which means we, as readers, are all actors in our minds, loves.)

because an actor takes what is given in a script, and by their director, (they don't get to choose the table, but they do get to decide how they feel about it) and then they get to move around the space and flesh out (literally, with their own flesh) all the action that is to take place. not just the action, but every movement, and every emotion--exactly how to express the look of disgust they must give their partner at that one moment. in order to know that, in order to have a grasp of the physicality, one must be in total control of the mentality. in order to give the motivation that lies beneath every last thing portrayed on stage some real, truthful meaning, many actors take what is known about their character and infuse every bit of that--and every bit of back story they can come up with--with their own thoughts and emotions and maybe even experiences. they decide who in their own life their character's dead mother looks like, what the incident that started them on their emotional journey actually looked and felt like, where and when that one vacation that is briefly mentioned in the first scene was taken. they basically set design and storyboard the character's entire life.

so it's actually a super close and active reading of the text. but no two actors will interact with the same role the same way, which is just what Englander (and Winterson) is (are) talking about. and which is why watching a movie of a book is hard when the set designer and director can't see into your head and they get it all wrong.

i've thought for a long time about what would happen if technology ever develops to the point of us being able to download the thoughts and images and emotions in our heads (and hearts and things) into the head of someone else. wouldn't art then become unnecessary? wouldn't closing that gap between our heads make our starships redundant? wouldn't we all just have access to everyone's images and not feel the need to express them to each other anymore? i fear it, i have to admit, i do. because, then what?

i feel on some levels that my purpose in life is to make connection with other people through my words. if words become unnecessary, will i be able to function anymore? what will i do with my time and energy? if all the challenge is taken out of making yourself understood, is it worth trying?

because right now, the joy i get from trying is the one thing i've got going for me. and the challenge is something i'm willing to put a lifetime's worth of energy into. to have the power to put clear and (hopefully) compelling pictures into other people's heads (or to induce them to create pictures in their own heads), even if they look nothing like the ones in my own, that is worth so very much to me. and everyday i'm trying to nurture and strengthen that power. and right now i have faith in that power, not just mine but all artists', being a source of real and lasting good in this world.
(which is why i can't start talking about writing without getting to a meaning-of-life moment, i guess. :P )

Saturday, February 18, 2012

my dream boy

a bit of fiction i wrote this week:
[ed: Saunia Powell]

my dream boy

One day the most perfect boy I've ever seen showed up right out of nowhere, and then just started being 'around' all the time. It took me a little while to realize it, but it was always the same boy, always just on the periphery. Once I noticed him, however, I couldn't stop seeing him everywhere I looked, as if he suddenly liked all the same people and places and things I did. And it was disconcerting how utterly beautiful I found him. I mean, it's a little unnerving when you are just minding your own business, going about your day, and then, bam! your exact ideal of what a boy should be is just standing there, looking gorgeous, being cool, smiling faintly—-not necessarily at you, just generally—-and you have to figure out how to catch your breath and remain calm. Act like nothing extraordinary is happening to you. It was hard to get used to.
But then I started expecting to see him. And over time I took note of the little things about him that his perfectness had all but blinded me to at the outset. Simple little things that you can observe from afar, like his stellar wardrobe and how well he wore it, the always pleasing variations in how his hair looked day to day, messy or done. How he held himself with such poise-—sitting, standing, at rest, in motion-—I took special note of his gait and ever after could recognize him coming from a mile away.
We circled round each other for a time, never getting close enough to meet exactly, but taking the measure of each other, assessing the possibility of...something. Or at least I was, of course I didn't know what he thought, if anything. Also, this was all new to me, acknowledging this type of attraction, this inability to look away, this desire for a guy like this. I mean, he was exactly my type--to a T--but I wasn't quite ready to deal with the consequences of what that meant. Because I hadn't yet come to terms with the fact that I had a type--at least in this sense--until he showed up. But he was just magnificent. And it did things to me to witness this magnificence and not be able to come close to it somehow.
It was tantalizing, seeing him around almost every day, watching him stand, coat collar up, smoking a cigarette outside, noticing the way he ran his fingers through this hair, witnessing a half-smile break slowly over his face, imagining what it would be like to look in his eyes, to know what his handshake felt like. It bordered on unbearable at times to not know him, inside and out.
I finally gave up any pretense of indifference, which I had been feigning for some time, and decided to make his acquaintance. But I didn't know how to do so. I agonized over it for a long time, trying to figure out the best way to go about it. How do you approach your ideal boy and introduce yourself? Saying something to the effect of, “I've been staring at you from across crowded rooms for what feels like my whole life, and I can't stand being that far away from you anymore” would probably not do, even if it was the truth. (and yes, I was that far into this infatuation, fascination, obsession...whatever you call it, I was in deep.) I was hooked. Addicted might be too strong a word, but only just.
Because then he got a hold of my dreams. And he wouldn't let go. Whether I remembered the dreams or not, every morning I'd wake up with his image behind my eyelids, as consistent as the sleep crud in the corners, as if I'd been staring at him all night and his figure had burned itself onto my retinas like a flashbulb. A lot of them I did remember, tho. Dreams of walking through houses or subways or dormitories or museums together, dreams of picnics and playgrounds and dance parties, of couches and cars and cabins in the woods, of food and drinks in restaurants and bars and kitchens and bedrooms. But always with him. Or it always ended up as him. Sometimes the person I was with would start as a friend or an old lover, but at some point it always morphed into him. I'd look away for a second and my ex-girlfriend, or my old roommate or my co-worker/crush would vanish and in their place would be him: my dream boy. I started calling him that in my head—-my 'dream boy'—-once it became literally true. But then I feared I'd never be able to hold his gaze in waking life. How awkward my crush had become. (I will call it a crush, even if that feels inaccurate to some, because otherwise the word 'worship' would be considered)
I had almost resigned myself to worshiping him (there was nothing left) from afar forever, when one day I turned around and there we was, right behind me. He'd sneaked up and come close to me of his own accord. I was shocked and delighted, but understandably scared. We shyly introduced ourselves and began getting to know each other close up. And, wonder of wonders, he seemed normal and happy and perfectly fine with spending time with me. I was in heaven. Still somewhat nervous, of course, not really knowing what I could do with him, or what exactly I wanted with him, (I'd never really done this before) but enjoying his company to the utmost.
I made a habit of studying him. All the little details one can collect as being the personal traits of someone—-mannerisms, the ways of being that each being possesses that are unique unto her- or himself—-how each of his facial expressions was formed and what they indicated, the way he chewed his food or held his lips when putting on lip balm, how he checked his pockets for his keys/wallet/phone, the tone and timbre of his voice (he had an exquisite voice), the way he leaned on things-—walls, railings, streetlamps, door frames-—yes, i admired the way he leaned. how his hands moved when he lit a cigarette; how he used his hands generally. They were expressive but not fidgety, square but not thick, long but not spindly, and he used them to the utmost effect, bringing attention to their grace and surety without ostentation. I admit was a little bit in love with his hands.
I became a connoisseur of my dream boy, committing to memory every angle of his face, every line that he cut in his well-fitting clothes, every movement and attitude of his body. it was everything I could do to keep myself from resorting to the adult version of teenage fandom—-like tacking pictures of him all over my bedroom walls-—whatever that would be.
And slowly, surely, we got closer and closer. We spent time together everyday-—we were fast becoming inseparable. We spent hours at at time hanging out together, sharing everything with each other. I never got tired of his company, in fact, I increasingly required it as much as possible. He, bless him, was happy to comply. It was remarkably easy to be together because we were actually (surprisingly, to me) very similar. Soon, I thought I knew him well enough that I could look at the world through his eyes. I had been able to get inside his head—-had been allowed entrance—-and I felt comfortable there. It was a novel but not altogether foreign viewpoint. It felt really good to see him this way, to take on his frame of mind, it was intimate and safe, somehow. And I was welcome. I started to spend more and more time inside his head, getting a feel for it, coming to rely on his viewpoint to inform mine. And I was grateful for it.
One would think that knowing him so well might mean a falling off of my worshipful stance, but not in his case. The more I knew about him, the more highly I regarded him. Yes, it's possible that this was a dangerous predicament to have put myself in, but I had not a thought for myself, for the safety of my being, I had abandoned all thought of going back at this point. There was nothing for it but to continue on. Toward what, I was still unsure.
I had by that time become closer to him than to any other person in my life, and still I wanted to know him better. It was 'As if increase of appetite had grown /By what it fed on'. I wanted more than anything to get at, not the trappings of his being, but the thing itself. I had an insatiable desire to 'pluck out the heart of [his] mystery', to discover the pure essence of this perfect boy. This ideal specimen of the masculine gender. This meant I had gotten to an emotional place I had not expected to be: in the throes of the desire to plumb the depths of his heart, to penetrate into his inner core, to mine every inch of him, and make it fully known to me. The natural progression of this thing I can only call a relationship, was to bring him home with me. Since he had shared my head every night for months it seemed only fair to invite him to share my bed.
And then the real exploration, and epiphanies, began. It was appalling how turned on I could get by looking at his body, my gaze a caress he welcomed with apparent relish. Touching him was a whole other level of pleasure, and we took our time with each and every sensation. The first time I felt his body on mine, my head exploded—-ecstasy of the highest order yet. His hands on me sent a thrill through every nerve, his chest on mine made me want to weep, his hips, his ass, when they met my own, begot a joy unspeakable, a need unmanageable, a drive unstoppable. I'd thought I enjoyed being inside his mind, but the first time I was inside his body, desire bit into me so hard it hurt, and I almost couldn't bring myself to come out again. How had I not known that this was what I had been needing? Everything made sense for the first time. I felt whole. Replete. Content. And, dare I say it, at home. I had lost myself completely in him.
At that moment I knew, finally and without a doubt, that I had to let go of my fears and love myself enough to take the final plunge. To let go of who I thought I was and embrace the new possibility this perfect boy had engendered.
And so i became committed to grappling joyfully with the image of my dream boy, striving with my whole self to learn how to be inside of him. I’m learning that he is a good fit, and he comes easily to me. There is just one last thing left to do.
I need to tell you. To make you understand. To ask you to not come looking for me as the girl you knew, because she is gone. All that's left is this boy, the one whom I've brought from fantasy into the flesh. My flesh. The boy I've dreamed of being.

Monday, February 13, 2012

narcissism and self-loathing in one convenient package

this set of images, which originated *here* (please go look at the originals because they are actually gifs that don't seem to play on blogspot and the movement in them is important to what follows) and had this caption: "I just wanted to point out Benedict’s phone answering dance, now documented in two very different films." sparked the below conversation with a fellow trans-masculine person who is also somewhat Sherlocked:

me: i can’t even begin to express how happy it makes me to watch this. especially the swing of his hips in the second frame. yes, i’m entirely too sherlocked for my own good, and yet, this is still a jd’s eyeliner moment. thank you, benedict cumberbatch for doing your (not so small) part to bring a touch of femme-sexy back to men’s roles on screen.
wt: I love it when you find an actor's quirk that is so ingrained it shows up in every character. I worked with an actress once who always added a hitch step/ball-change step when changing direction during arguing or angry dialogue. not sure why I love it so much but yes, there is pointed smiling going on over here. also, it makes me think that's how he answers the phone in real life which is a very satisfying idea.
me: my thoughts exactly. like, since he was young he has believed that it is always necessary, if you are going to be using only your voice to communicate, to readjust your stance so it's at least 4 inches wider than normal.
wt: clearly it's a business to be taken seriously. also, apparently a hand in the pocket is key.
me: ‎(oh, god. why is he so perfect?? how do we become him? *despairing sigh* ) ... you know, the other thing that is fantastic about this is tho the dance is clearly necessary no matter who he is playing, it takes on a different form depending on the role. peter and sherlock do that dance very differently. it is so clearly a bit of b. cumberbatch shining thru, but it is still refracting thru the lens of each of his characters. ♥
wt: this is one of those times when I wonder how you have enough time on your hands to think so deeply about a fan crush. :)
me: heh. it's the product of visual multitasking while aurally working and spending my life obsessed with (mostly masculine) presentation on and off screen/stage. the fan-crushing is just a byproduct of my super-objective. :P
wt: see now you have a purpose, I just develop intense fan crushes from time to time. more often of the "be you" variety than the "do you" variety. I suppose it's a byproduct of having to intentionally cultivate and groom my personal presentation of masculinity, having missed out on 24 years of socialization.
me: exactly. it's the same thing for me, really. it's just that the writer in me analyses my process of crushing (which is actually fubu-ing*) and makes it into an essay about masculinity and gender and presentation in society. over and over and over. :/
but because we have to do it intentionally as adults, i have to believe we are in the perfect position to articulate it for others, yo.

this conversation highlights two points:

1) the last thought is bordering on my manifesto for 'johnny depp's eyeliner', or it's at least the founding thought process. if i, at 30+, am figuring out what range of masculinity i want to fall within, and am using images in popular culture to pinpoint it, i might as well write about it and show the images of what i'm trying to articulate. namely, that there is a range of masculinity out there and the part of it that have at least a hint of the feminine are incredibly compelling. as someone who is unable to deny the feminine parts of my masculinity, i delight in finding the same things in cis-men who have found where they are comfortable on the gender spectrum. (yes, i'm basically a teenager looking for role-models. but in a postgrad gender theory/media studies kind of way.)

2) because i think a lot about the performative nature of everything we do in real life, when watching actor's performances i tend to be able to zero in on the moments and glimpses when they aren't acting, they are just being. and when they are being, they are, at least in some measure, being themselves. these moments totally exist on screen, and i am a big fan of the directors who know how capture them. i agree with coatcollar that benedict cumberbatch has figured out the most important rule in acting: to be as truthful as possible in imaginary circumstances, which has the corollary of: the only way to be completely truthful is to bring yourself into the role. so yes, the phone dance, different for each role, but nonetheless there, because it's his own.
this concept strikes so deeply into the heart of my love of theatre/film, says so much about my own writing, even speaks to my asterisked comment below on attraction, that i don't quite know what to do with myself. i'd say more if i thought there was a clearer way to elucidate my feelings, but i don't know that there is.

(and yet, of course, i must at least attempt):

it's those little bits of truth, those moments of a person's true self shining thru, that i live for, generally, in my life. with everyone i know, and everyone i see. cuz we are all playing roles, we are all acting for someone, everyone, (ourselves...?) but we are all humans, each with our own self inside, which so much of the time is hidden from sight. some people would say that actors are the worst at showing their true selves, being in the business of performing, but i believe the opposite. i believe they are the ones most able to understand how to let themselves--their true selves--be seen thru the characters they take on. and by extension, by our witnessing of their efforts, to teach us how to do the same. this is why theatre and film are so important, they create the imaginary circumstances for truth to be brought forth, as an offering in the service of bettering humanity, to us.

*f.u.b.u is the dilemma of being unsure whether your attraction to someone is due to your desire to fuck them, or to be them: ef you / be you = fubu. it is also called the 'frank sinatra complex', as referenced by wt in the form of 'do be do be do'.
for me, becoming someone--getting inside their body and their mind--is such a sensual, all-encompassing process, so similar to fucking them, that i don't think i have a difference in my desires between one and the other. if i am attracted to someone, i almost surely want to both be them and do them (and yes, i'm very aware of how problematic this can be, trust me).
in the case of mr. benedict cumberbatch, this feeling has manifested as a physical ache in the pit of my stomach, and an alternating blind belief in the possibility of being somewhere close to his perfection, and a despairing realization that there is absolutely no possible way of even approaching it. this is my life as a transmasculine genderqueer with body dysphoria and a certain taste for beautiful men. and this, my friends, explains the title of this post.

Monday, January 23, 2012

mad men (make me)

oh my god, i want this.
and by 'this' i don't mean 'him' (tho i want that too, obviously). i want everything about him. i want his style, his body, his eyes, and the way he uses these to interact with the world.

just like i want daniel craig's casual grace (can't get off the masculine grace thing).

and johnny depp's humor and lightness.

and jgl's unapologetic confidence in his performance being enough.

i want to be able to pull off this kind of swagger,
but my body won't cooperate with me. i could never look like that in a vest (tho god knows how much i want it) because even when i bind them, my breasts aren't flat. my jeans will never hang on me like they do on d. craig (above) because my hips and thighs (and butt) are a lot bigger (thicker, rounder) than his.

my chest will never be concave like james mcavoy's is here
because i'm not willing to cut off chunks of my body. i'm not ready to completely reject parts of my self. but i gotta tell you, it hurts.

it hurts to look at this masculine beauty and know it's not something i can attain. and yes, i know many other people have the same thoughts without the GID (tho maybe just as much body dysphoria) when they look at someone skinnier, or taller or more handsome or what-have-you. but the physical pain of wanting something that you feel should be yours, something you see in yourself tho no one else (or few others) do/es, something you actually forget that you lack until it's pointed out to you by a mirror, can be exhausting.
the envy is extreme. and then jealousy joins in the game too. it's not just about being fascinated by (and sometimes resentful of) celebrities, either. this happens with men i know and ones that i run across in my everyday life too. and the feeling quadruples with some transmen, knowing they have felt these same emotions and did something physical and irretrievable about it.
but there are things i'm not willing to give up. identities i refuse to deny. functions my body is capable of that it seems ungrateful to dismantle. but is this reticence to change just rationalization for my inability to make any kind of permanent decision in my life? or am i too enamored with the concept of fluidity and too married to a concrete view of reflecting flux and grey areas in my own self? and/or am i seeing the choice to avoid physically invasive changes in the wrong light? maybe doing something drastic is actually a way of staying in flux. maybe being my genderqueer self without boobs but without testosterone is actually more gender-bending than the way i present now.
and who's to know, except myself? and how can i know when my thoughts and feelings on the matter are never in the same place twice?

all i know is that this

feels a lot better than this

but if i could pull off this,

i'd be a very happy little fox.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

boy, girl, girl, boy.

i assume we have all seen this routine. or if not this one, maybe something like it. men dressing and acting like women is a standard comic device that has been used in popular media for a long time. if you've never seen the classic version like some like it hot, you've at least seen bosom buddies or tootsie, or mrs. doubtfire, or, god forbid, big momma's house #whatever. in all of these examples (except for bing and kaye) at least one man tries to hide his identity by dressing up and acting like a woman.

this situation is 'comic' for three reasons:
1) it subverts social convention (which was more true when women weren't wearing pants, but still applies because very few men would be caught dead in a dress)
2) it creates dramatic irony (where the audience knows something that a character doesn't--namely that those who interact with the cross-dressing character are unaware of his true identity and therefore treat him differently)
3) it banks on the belief that a man in women's clothes is funny in and of itself because what man would want to demean himself by dressing as a woman? (sentiment not my own)

now, i'm all for subverting convention, and i think dramatic irony is one of the most compelling ways of bringing tension into a scene, but there is a fine line between laughing because someone thinks they are dealing with a woman when in fact they are interacting with a cross-dressing man, and laughing because the idea that a man to would want to be treated as if he were a woman is absurd.

and god help me if i'm going to sit here and let you tell me there is something inherently amusing about a person dressed in the clothes of the 'opposite' gender. i'm not even going to address the fact that i do it everyday, mostly because at this point in history, it's not in any way outrageous for a woman to dress in men's clothes. (also, talking about the transphobic consequences of this sort of 'comedy' is more than i can handle right now. i'm just gonna stick with the misogynist ones here)
however, society has some really strong negative feelings around men putting on women's clothes. why is that? is it because most men would find it absurd to dress in revealing and uncomfortable clothing only so they could be thought of as attractive by other people? if so, why do those same men want nothing more than for women to do so for their enjoyment? (and why are we still having this argument 50 years after second-wave feminism started?)
if you were going to make a show about such a thing in this day and age, i feel it would be highly irresponsible to not consciously address this double standard of gender stereotypes. (among other things)

abc, however, seems to disagree with me. they just started airing a new show called work it which is described on the website as a "high-concept comedy [that] centers on two unrepentant guy's guys who, unable to find work, dress as women to get jobs as pharmaceutical reps. Not only do they pull it off, but they might just learn to be better men in the process." yes, we are back in the 60's, folks. in the pilot episode one of the women who works in the office, when asked by the main character if he could apply for a job, says, and this is a direct quote, "we're kinda just looking for girls...we've had some guys, but the doctors seem to want to nail them less." and this, friends, is supposed to be funny.
it's 'bosom buddies' all over again, except one of the guys is latino and their boss is an african american woman (at least they can do better with race than they can with gender, which isn't saying much).
the main character, lee, is a straight white male with a wife and daughter both of whom he doesn't really understand--thinks taking his wife to the bar with his drinking buddies is 'going out'--you know, standard network sitcom man.
the best friend, angel, who also dresses as a woman for work, is a single, blue-collar latino man who, of course, is billed as "a hot-headed ladies' man" (direct quote from abc website).
there is not a round character in the whole bunch. (granted, two 20 minute episodes doesn't give one much to work with in character development, but still) the wife has a nasal voice and is usually annoyed with her clueless husband, the daughter freaks out when they have to shut off her cell phone to save money, the women at the office fall safely into the 'bitch', 'ditz' and 'nice one' categories.

the main dramatic arc of the second episode is lee trying to figure out what kind of saleswoman he is. angel knows nothing about the drugs he is selling but is good at flirting with the doctors and does just fine. lee knows so much he lectures his clients, which they can't handle coming from a woman, so he tries the sexy approach (which includes a red bra and thong), which also fails. finally he goes for promising good customer service--always answering the phone, always 'being there' for his clients. which means we have gone from being too smart, to too slutty, to too maternal--the last of which, for a male doctor/client is just right.
and you guessed it, no analysis of the 'sex sells' situation. in fact, his wife even tells lee that when she asked for a raise at her job (she is a nurse) she didn't wear a bra. of course, angel's flirting bites him in the ass when a doctor wants to take him out to dinner because they hit it off so well. he says yes, and is squirming about how to get out of the situation without it getting intimate, when lee comes sweeping into the restaurant and pretends to be angel's boyfriend. yep, the man saves the day once again. we are going backwards in time, people. not to mention the jokes about food (lee brings a huge sandwich to work while the other women are eating salads) and fashion (the 'ditz' wants to help lee with his frumpy and outdated wardrobe) and size (the 'bitch' harps on lee being an 'amazon woman').
but i guess this is just what network tv is like. i forget. i've gotten so spoiled with bbc and hbo shows and miniseries that i have lost track of what advertisers feel 'middle america' is ready for when it comes to social conventions. which seems to be nothing but stereotypes. excuse me for saying so but i don't think "i guess there really *is* more to being a woman than makeup and high heels" is a legitimate family sitcom lesson to come away with.
thank god for subscription based and nationally funded programming that creates things like 'queer as folk' and 'hung', the latter of which actually cast a trans woman to play a trans-feminine role in at least one episode. (btw, hung is about a regular family man (sound familiar?) resorting to prostitution to support his kids. why? because he is, ahem, 'well hung'.)

but i digress. 'work it' is only one of many shows/films that have used this device for laughs. the thing i'm trying to get at is that it's not funny. or shouldn't be. if there was a mistaken identity situation and it led to both romantic mix-ups and teaching moments between people in different gender roles, without all the crazy misogynistic societal baggage, then we would have something interesting. actually, then we would have shakespeare. which is why i love twelfth night, or what you will so goddamned much. of course, it helps that the story is of a woman dressing up as a man and not the other way around. takes the 'absurdity' factor out of things. (in fact, movies like Shakespeare in Love and victor/victoria aren't thought of as comedies at all. think about that one for a bit.)
cuz the common theme of all of the men-dressing-as-women performances that i mentioned above is that the cross-dressing situation only happens out of desperation. the premise is set up that no man in his right mind would do such a thing unless absolutely necessary; that he is stuck in this predicament against his will (or at least against his preference) and he has to figure out how to deal with the consequences of this action. it's a 'fish out of water' routine, really. and of course, through learning how to make it as a woman, the cross-dressing characters learn how to be more sensitive men, which is a 'walk a mile in her shoes' routine.
all of these are old hat, sure. and you can argue that tired shtick is still shtick and can still get laughs. but at what cost? because the part that really upsets me is the undeniable yet disconcerting fact that once you get to 'a man dressed as a woman is inherently absurd' you are spitting distance away from saying 'women are inherently absurd'. and that, my friends, is what this is really about.
cuz again, if it was just a 'fish out of water' routine coupled with a 'walk a mile in their shoes' routine, without all the gender baggage, i would be entertained. however, that insidious third reason up top, the one that you can prove is fucked up because scenes where women dress as men are not as 'hilarious' somehow, that reason does not make me laugh.
this image below, however, this makes me smile a mile wide.

ps--if you want to see a good, non-comic movie about a man dressing up as a woman (but with slightly too much of a hetero-hollywood ending for my taste) watch stage beauty. billy crudup treats his female role as the pinnacle of artistic expression. totally worth a viewing. or better yet, there is a phenomenal movie directed by neil jordan called breakfast on pluto about a transwoman in the u.k. and cillian murphy kills it in the role of kitten.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

the spiderman effect

so, let me paint a picture for you. well, a moving picture, actually. but let me just bring this image to mind real quick:
spider-man is crouching down, perched on the edge of a building, high above the city streets. most likely on a cornice, or the rounded tip of something that reaches to a pinnacle, so his feet and hands are all occupying the same 2 sqft of space. he looks around and finds a building across the way to shoot a web at, then does so.
and then comes the brilliant part: he launches himself into mid-air. now, attached to his web, he begins swinging directly toward the side of a skyscraper with 20 times the momentum of a kid on a swingset, cuz his pendulum is 20 times longer. the velocity with which he is approaching a large expanse of metal and glass is extreme and nothing can stop it. however, halfway thru that arc, he has spotted the next edifice on which he can attach his web, and he shoots, letting go of the first web the moment the next one can hold his weight and redirect his path. now he is hurtling at nose-bleed speed toward the next massively large and incredibly durable building against which he could easily dash his brains if he didn't find another pivot from which to swing. and this happens over and over till he's home, or has overtaken the bad guys, or has landed in the alley around the corner from the diner where mary jane works.

it must be a hairy business, this sort of travel. takes quite a bit of knowledge of physics, i'd expect. at least the kind that pool players have--angles of incidence and whatnot-- it's just that in this case it's about changing something's course by pulling in a different direction, not pushing. and that 'thing' happens to be one's own body, of which, i can only assume, one would be terribly fond and not want to mangle or destroy.
it is, however, one of the most exhilarating ways of getting around possible. or at least, i can only imagine. and extrapolate. and that's what i'm going to try to do here. because i would like to posit that many of us have actually felt the exact same feeling that spider-man has when he is swooping thru midtown manhattan on his web strings.
it's the feeling you get when you are in the middle of a performance and you stretch out past your self, and maybe even your abilities, to a place that has only two options: complete success or complete failure. you have made a choice bold enough to realize there is no going back, and if the audience doesn't come with you, you will land with your face smack against the glass of some board room 73 stories up.
these are the greatest moments on stage ever. this is where the tension of live performance comes from. you don't have to crowd surf to feel it, tho that is theoretically this same thing, in physical form.
you can argue that succeeding in this 'spidey launch' is a major triumph for the performer, but i think success is as much due to the behavior of an audience in one of these moments. cuz we've all seen it, that moment when you are sure everything is about to fall apart, and then it doesn't. musicians do it, actors do it, circus performers do a really good job of making you think they are doing it, and comics definitely do it (some with more success than others). and i think it says a lot about a person individually, and an audience as a group, by how they respond. if they see the jump and reach out to the performer, or wait and see if the performer can reach them. i've said before that i'm a generous audience. if i like a performer even a little bit, i'll do what i can to make that jump successful, but i'm only one person in a crowd.
cuz i'd argue that the scariest thing about live performance is the fact that each audience has a different length of arc to the pendulum swing, a different distance between pivotable buildings, and you don't actually know how dangerous your jump into mid-air is, how far you are going to have to reach out before the next pivot site is visible and even then you can't be sure whether the web you throw out will stick to it.
we have prolly all seen a performer fall apart. maybe they land one or two swings after the first spidey launch, but at some point they make the fatal error of misjudging a distance (which happens to be the distance between themselves and the audience) and they slip. there isn't a laugh where there should be, or the reverse. and that first grazing of a building can make the performer lose confidence in their next swing. if that happens, it's the death knell. soon, not one of the webs they shoot will hit their targets and eventually the pendulum will swing them into a brick wall of derision. which is the roughest of all places for a performer to be. there is a way of saving the performance after that first miss, but it requires not showing fear, and throwing things--lines, jokes, melodies, webs--out with confident belief that someone out there in the house wants to help keep you alive. that somewhere there is a friendly building that you can attach to and pivot from. cuz when it comes down to it, not many people would prefer to see a performer bite the dust. that is, until the crowd mentality kicks in, and the survival of the fittest concept of weeding out the weak and sick takes over. that's how people get booed off stages. cuz fear on stage is like blood in the water. and it will cause a feeding frenzy.

this exact thing is why i hate, with a towering passion, when anyone says "i'm sorry" on stage. no matter what it's about, it's like signing your death warrant. even if it's cuz you broke a string and have to take 5 long minutes to change it mid-set, it's not worth it. don't say it. just do not say "i'm sorry". ever.
cuz i wasn't sorry i was watching you on stage until you thought to apologize for being there. my time wasn't being wasted till you said it was. and if you are going to betray yourself like that, what's to stop me from betraying you too? it's basically shooting a web out into the ether without the thought of trying to attach it to something. and it kills a performance on contact. or, on the lack of contact.

there are, however, some performers that have no concept of apology in them. ones that have almost completely fooled themselves into believing that a spidey launch has no chance of failure. that the only way to interact with an audience is to throw themselves as high and far as humanly possible, knowing that there is no other way even though there is no certainty of a place to land on the other side. some people make their entire careers out of jumping into the thinnest of air and either being given support by the audience who will follow them anywhere, or by falling, crushingly, into glass or concrete.

now, this post was originally inspired by a conversation with my friend ed who is working on a piece that describes r. kelly as having this sort of career, even when he turns something like the slow and sexy r&b song 'feeling on your booty'(which normally goes something like this) into an opera. like so. (please, god, click on the second link. it is so worth it.) he knows he has the audience eating out of his hand, and then he just goes off on the most random trajectory possible, and they are all right there with him, totally led by the nose wherever he wants. it's a brilliant moment of stage performance. it's a spidey launch of epic proportions. and i gotta say, it makes me kinda love him.

cuz the true triumph for a performer in a spidey launch situation is knowing how to feel for that sweet spot when the audience is most receptive to your reaching out and are ready to open up the opportunity for you to jump. sure you might not know what it will look like to swing along their rooftops, but you can judge the right time to start the pendulum swinging. and, as in the case of r. kelly above, you can give them a heads up. in fact, he even asked permission first, smart man.
and yeah, since i've practically already said it (must be r. kelly's influence), this process is kinda like having sex with your audience, so you best be doing whatever you can to make them feel good and be paying attention to when they are ready. and for god's sake, don't you dare say you are sorry in the middle of it.