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Sunday, June 4, 2017

This is not silly

Some men are really pissed off about all the girl cooties that have been contaminating their action-genre movie and TV franchises lately. Granted, most men I know are not like that. Most want nothing to do with the bitter, disaffected minority of male fans who fill up online comment sections with vitriolic misogyny (and racism — which, not surprisingly, often comes with it). But those vocal yahoos are just a super-concentrated distillation of something bigger and more pervasive: the sense that women are, at best, guests in a man’s world.

To more "enlightened" men, we are welcome guests — but guests nevertheless. When they look at Fury Road, The Force Awakens, Rogue One, Wonder Woman, or Star Trek Discovery — not just women-led stories, but installments in beloved male-dominated franchises — and think, That’s nice, let the girls have some fun too, they are trivializing something that is, to me, Earth-shaking and paradigm-shifting. No doubt, they feel pretty good about their broad-minded acceptance of the female presence, oblivious to the fact that we had to break down the door with a battering ram to get in. What is petty to them is profound and validating to us. And the fact that, the moment I typed that, I felt silly — afraid that someone will accuse me of being melodramatic and overemotional — is actually what I want to talk about.

I am a child of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The coolest things on TV aimed at girls my age were The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, shows that incorporated pop music and fashion, but basically just slapped a fresh coat of groovy paint on the same old gender roles. Moms nurture, dads work. Boys play sports, girls do art. Boys sing lead, girls sing backup. And anyway, I was a tomboy, with little use for domestic stories about family, friends, and dating. I wanted action, adventure, and excitement. I wanted courageous feats of derring-do performed in pursuit of noble goals like honor, exploration, and justice. I wanted bravery, brains, and heroism.

I wanted Star Trek.

I fell in love with Star Trek when I was about ten, and in no time at all, I had hooked my best friend, Rifka. Soon, all of our playtime was spent pretending to be the characters we admired in the fiction we loved. I was Kirk, she was Spock (I’ve written about this before, here.) While Star Trek was our main gig, we play-acted other stories as well: Bonanza (I was Little Joe, she was Adam); The Hardy Boys (from the books — the TV show was still several years away; I was Joe, she was Frank); Lost in Space (I was John Robinson, she was Don West); Hawaii Five-O (I was Steve McGarrett, she was Danno Williams); Batman (though rarely, because neither of us wanted to be Robin). Always men.

Though there were women in some of these stories, we never pretended to be them. Of course, now, with adult hindsight, I can appreciate characters like Uhura, who pushed the boundaries not only of gender, but of race as well. (Whoopi Goldberg was famously inspired to ask Gene Roddenberry for a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation after having been profoundly affected by Uhura as a child — so much so that, the first time she saw Uhura on TV, she excitedly told her mother, "There's a black lady on television, and she ain't no maid!") But at the time, with a child’s eyes, I wasn’t interested in gray areas, fine distinctions, and historical context. The women were never the bravest, the toughest, or the most important. And we saw ourselves as the bravest, the toughest, and the most important. Period.

Then one day, everything changed. Or more accurately, a gradual change that had been percolating in the background came to a head. We must have been about 12 or 13, an age when we still played pretend, but were vaguely embarrassed about the childishness of it. Whereas we used to play openly during recess and after school with large groups of friends, now it was just the two of us — our little secret. But I was growing more and more uneasy, torn between my love of being in the stories and my sense that I was getting too old for this kind of thing. And something else; something I couldn’t put my finger on, but that made me feel kind of squeamish.

As it happened, we were playing Hardy Boys that day. It was all going as usual; we’d agreed on some mystery to investigate, and we were making up the details as we went along — until I called time out. That’s when I dropped what I was about to realize was a bombshell.

“I want to be a girl.”

I can still see the look on my friend's face. It was as if I’d said I wanted to be Robin. No, worse. A villain. No, even worse. A lamppost.

“But you can’t be a girl,” she said. “Joe is a boy.”

I saw my mistake too late and tried in vain to make it right.

“I’ll be exactly like Joe, but a girl. I’ll do all the same things. Only my name won’t be Joe. I’ll pick a girl’s name.”

Eventually, Rifka reluctantly agreed, and we gave it a shot. But basically, that was it — the end of our pretending. We may have made a few more half-hearted attempts to get up a good game of Star Trek after that, but I’d pretty much put the nails in the coffin and handed out the hammers. It was the end of an era.

Looking back, it’s easy for me to see exactly what was happening. That little voice of heterosexual puberty had entered my head — the one that whispered, “If you want boys to like you, you need to be a girl. A real girl.” I guess Rifka hadn’t quite gotten there yet, but I suspect she did eventually (I would love to ask her, but alas, to my great sorrow, I can’t, as she is no longer with us). I also know exactly what Rifka heard the moment I said, “I want to be a girl.” It was, “I renounce and betray all our shared values. I settle for second best. I give up my hopes and dreams. I strike a bargain with the devil.”

Yes, it was really that stark and simple. Black and white. Girls didn’t fight the good fight, or any fight at all. They didn’t get the grand missions to save humanity, explore new frontiers, or pursue truth and justice. Ever. There was nothing in our world, real or fictional, that said they did. Girls weren’t heroes.

“I want to be a girl” meant “I don’t want to be a hero.” I understand completely now the look of betrayal on Rifka’s face. To be honest, I understood it then, too. I just didn’t know how to find another way.

I am 55 years old now. When I sit in a darkened movie theater or tucked up in bed watching Furiosa, Rey, Jyn, Wonder Woman, Melinda May, Peggy Carter, Natasha Romanoff, Buffy Summers, Kathryn Janeway, Aeryn Sun, Dana Scully, River Song, Zoe Washburne — such a long list now, I can’t even name them all! — I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the magnitude of it, knowing what those characters would have meant to me if they’d existed half a century ago. I am downright giddy at the thought of a new series in the Star Trek franchise promoted with a trailer that features two female characters as the unambiguous leads — a trailer that opens with the words, “Ten years before Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise….”.

I believe that, because of all these fictional women — heroes — when my daughters say, “I want to be a girl,” it won’t mean, “I surrender.” It will mean only whatever they want it to mean. And if there are men out there who think that’s silly, I will try hard not to care, because this isn’t about them.