Life in Drag

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

The first scenes of But I’m a Cheerleader depict great floods of fabric and skin. Cheerleaders somersault weightlessly through space and arrange themselves into pyramids of flesh; these close-ups are synchronized to the inverted brass of April March’s “Chick Habit.” The viewer is ostensibly installed in the gaze of the main character, Megan (Natasha Lyonne), an All-American cheerleader who happens to be attracted to girls. “Happens” is the operative word; at first, her attraction is only semiconscious. How can she be gay? She has a “smart and popular” boyfriend who kisses her from a position of petrified heterosexuality. Every time he opens his mouth it looks like he’s unhinging his jaw, a tongue leaping violently out of inanimate flesh. “Don’t you hate when they do that?” she asks a classmate. “Maybe he just doesn’t do it right.”

But I’m a Cheerleader is a dark comedy. It takes a remarkably bleak and real concept—conversion therapy—and exaggerates it until it glows with a gentle absurdity. One of the formal conventions of dark comedy is situating people and things in the center of the frame; this causes the characters to look as alienated as possible from their environment. When Megan’s family and friends confront her about her sexuality, she occupies the middle of the dull, plaid couch in her living room. They send her to a reparative therapy camp called True Directions, the main house of which swells centrally against the horizon in menacing pinks and blues.

The camera also tends to center Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty), the founder of True Directions, in its severe and oversaturated compositions. She’s presented as a calcified paragon of straightness and cleanliness, impeccably made-up and folded into polyester that gives off an alien gloss. Throughout the film she attempts to convert her transparently homosexual son Rock into an “ex-gay.” Mary screams at Rock, rage and disappointment distorting the substance of her voice. She’s frustrated; she lost her husband to another man and the bright queer infinity of San Francisco. She’s losing her son too, to some unfolding asymmetry inside of him. It’s why she started True Directions, why she works to restore unrepentant gay teens to heterosexual stasis.

Rock can’t hear her. He’s wearing headphones, from which RuPaul’s “Party Train” issues in trebly shimmers. He’s dancing to the song while carrying a hedge trimmer, ostensibly performing the “straight” activity of violent gardening, while smacking his own butt and twisting himself into some kind of gay asterisk.

*

I was around seven years old when I first saw Janet Jackson dance. I caught the music video for “If” on MTV, and I found myself mesmerized by the way she contorted herself into elaborate hieroglyphs. The song’s percussion whirled around me like a vortex. In the moment, which, if I focus in on it now, seems like its own dense pocket of time—how I imagine time is experienced by the Grand Canyon, slow and deliberate and yet packed with tremendous structural change—I knew immediately that, when I grew up, I wanted to be her. In her movements she projected a system of desire that was both permissive and uncompromised. I wanted to move like her, to glide effortlessly through space. To move as if every inch of my body were collapsible.

*

Mary brings out a projector in order to display historical examples of heterosexuality to the girl campers. Enormous heads with carefully sculpted hairstyles are anchored onto shrunken bodies and situated in a variety of straight utopias. “Here is our happy couple at home,” Mary says. “Now, it’s important to make your man feel at ease when he comes home from a long day at work.” Their faces are contorted into masks of hideous bliss. They look like artifacts of modernity, drafts for pop artist Richard Hamilton’s collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, which modified a 1950s furniture ad until the masculine and feminine statues in the foreground seemed like varieties of furniture themselves.

These are images of ghosts, optimized shapes no one can actually inhabit. But at True Directions, everything is microwaved into an optimized shape—the tables, the clothing, the plastic flowers that pulse crisply in the front yard. Every gendered object the campers engage with is painted in nursery hues. Blues dominate the axes and fake semi-automatic weapons the boys carry; the girls are variously sewed into pinks and purples, and the vacuums and brushes with which they execute their maternal chores are drowned in an olive green that looks harvested from a 1950s stove. Each object lacks texture, and tends to resemble a wax replica of the real thing.

Pink and blue, as the representative hues of gender binary, have a fluctuating history. In her book Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, historian Jo B. Paoletti studies gender and infancy and their historical associations with colors. “For most of the nineteenth century,” Paoletti writes, “the dominant color for baby clothing was white.” Babies were typically seen as asexual, and pink and blue were only used as accents, in ribbons and shoes. A Ladies’ Home Journal article in 1890 suggested that “blue is for girls and pink is for boys, when a color is wished.” Both colors were woven variously into infant clothing; they didn’t settle into rigid identities in the West until the 1950s. Now they dominate nurseries and baby clothes, signifying a kind of initial texture of gender. “Vain trifles as they may seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm,” Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando. “They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”

In But I’m a Cheerleader the colors are amplified to outrageous and unstable vibrancies, until blue looks just as vivid and alien as pink. When performed in this fluorescent drag, the chores required of the boys and girls at the camp—cleaning, child rearing, wood chopping, militarization—stop feeling like straight banalities and start to seem like their own exalted queer rituals, isolated from context and sexually reanimated. “You go in and out, into every little crevice,” Mary says as she demonstrates her method of vacuuming. The camera pans across the girls’ faces, each of which seems to apprehend a secret, grotesque joke.

*

I was around seven or eight years old when I first asked my mom for a Polly Pocket. We had stopped at a toy store on the way to a friend’s house, or on the way home from somewhere else—the distance between destinations in Las Vegas occasionally feels so vast and disconnected that memories can resemble remote islands of feeling. At the time I was obsessed with miniatures, the way they implied imaginary worlds nested within worlds, and I already owned nearly every variation of the Polly Pocket for boys, which was called Mighty Max. I had the volcano, which split in half to reveal a honeycombed internal structure; I also had an island that was shaped like the skull of a dragon, and which opened up into dramatic cells situated against the grooved slopes of its teeth. I loved it; playing with miniatures gave me the feeling of viewing the earth from space, but with the additional ability to manipulate its texture. As we drove out of the store parking lot, I opened the heart-shaped Polly Pocket compact in my mom’s car and felt a similar astral thrill, but I felt it for a space that was less imaginative than domestic. Everything inside the case was painted in pastel or in the same mutant pinks and greens that flood through the walls and clothes in But I’m a Cheerleader. All of the miniature landscapes inside were organized toward an individual purpose; I could position Polly in a living room, or in a bedroom, and settle into the idea of those places. Mighty Max would always be in the midst of some adventure, scaling walls, dispatching enemies, moving through chambers which connected to each other in a pattern only I could sense. Polly could just relax into the queer silences of personal space.

*

But I’m a Cheerleader is one of the few modern films in which I’ve seen gay people characterized as inverts. Counselor Mary Brown screams it through the phone (“Listen to me, you little inverts!”) at Larry and Lloyd Morgan-Gordan, two former True Directions counselors (and self-described “ex-ex-gays”). They’ve formed a counter-therapy camp, where the film’s characters are invited to explore the limits of who they are rather than the limits of who they’ve failed to be.

Inversion was a popular method of characterizing queerness in the 19th and early 20th centuries; I initially encountered the term in the fourth volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost TimeSodom and Gomorrah, the first part of which is dedicated to a mythical construction of homosexuality. Proust, himself a kind of unwilling homosexual, regards “inverts” through a lens of alien pity. “I understood now why…I had been able to think that M. de Charles had the look of a woman,” Proust writes. “He was one! He belonged to that race of beings, less contradictory than they appear to be, whose ideal is virile precisely because their temperament is feminine, and who are in life like other men in appearance only.” According to Proust’s narrator, these male inverts are like flowers, solitary, beholden to “sexual needs” which are dependent on “the coincidence of too many conditions, too difficult to encounter”; his narrator actually glimpses the homosexual interactions of two characters while he is studying a bee’s lazy, drunken orbit of a flower. The physical properties of the flower flow into their movements; the men bend with a floral elasticity toward each other, “striking poses with the coquettishness that the orchid might have had for the providential advent of the bumblebee.” He likens them to jellyfish as well, which he originally found repulsive when he saw them pulsing on the beach in Balbec; his lens adulterated by natural history and aesthetics, he reconsiders “the transparent velvet of their petals, like the mauve orchids of the sea.”

“Inversion,” of course, pivots on a binary, a division between male and female where only one can be inhabited at a time. But I’m a Cheerleader occasionally feels locked into this binary, though a broad dark comedy from 1999 probably shouldn’t be criticized for its inability to convey a spectrum. Regardless, the male campers appear as slight variations of single gay male cliché, their arms fluttering almost bonelessly when they try to catch a football. The girls are more nuanced; Megan, as a lesbian cheerleader, successfully contains two ideas that would otherwise seem culturally opposed. The movie works best when it lingers in this instability, where the various performed surfaces of identity rupture and open onto flexible oceans of ambiguity. One of the girls, Jan, isn’t even gay. “Everybody thinks I’m this big dyke because I wear baggy pants, I play softball, and I’m not as pretty as other girls, but that doesn’t make me gay,” she cries. “I mean, I like guys. I can’t help it. I just want a big fat wiener up my…”

The movie has its own metatextual inversions; RuPaul appears out of drag throughout the film, as an ex-gay named Mike. He becomes an ex-gay by performing straightness so inflexibly that it generates a queer aura. It’s a kind of drag in itself, a performance that prioritizes and enhances its own failure. (“Do people treat you differently when you’re dressed as a woman?” an interviewer asked RuPaul in 1999 in an article centered around the movie. “The way I see it, you’re born naked and the rest is drag,” he said.) Each camper “tries on” straightness to varying degrees of success; Graham (Clea DuVall), who spends the majority of the film variously hostile to the True Directions program, nearly graduates into heterosexuality in order to extract a withered acceptance from her father. “When we get back from Switzerland, you better have this gay thing out of your system,” he tells her on the first day of family therapy. “You fuck up, no college, no car, no trust fund.” In an attempt to convey her successful conversion to straightness, Graham "confesses" she has a crush on her fellow camper Joel. Her performance is fluid and convinces Mary, but there's an audible glitch in her voice, a microtonal irregularity, as if she’s being crushed by the strict dimensions of heterosexuality.

*

When I was in high school I fell in love with the music of Tori Amos. After a fight with my first girlfriend, I turned on my radio and heard “Silent All These Years,” and something inside me seemed to open up in recognition; the nervous asymmetry with which she struck the piano keys occasioned an equally nervous response, and it felt like the branches of my nerves were sprouting flowers. Tori’s voice and lyrics specifically seemed to clarify an inner emotional structure which until then had been an inaccessible blur to me, full of unreadable softnesses and hardnesses. A year later, after another argument with my girlfriend, I listened to Boys for Pele front-to-back on the couch in the basement of her parents’ house. The couch was old, full of oddly distributed softnesses and hardnesses, a compromised landscape through which hints of its internal metal structure occasionally surfaced. I adjusted myself until I felt adequately held by its turbulent surface and pressed play. A single piano note lifted from a digital silence; it repeated itself at the beginning of each measure, each repetition contributing to its volume and depth. It hurt, in a way. It felt like the inner pulse of a wound.

A few months later I saw the video for “Raspberry Swirl.” The song sounded weird to me, animated by an insistent throb which Tori had absorbed from dance music. Rock music tends to obey desire but also longs to control and subdue others with it. “Raspberry Swirl” and, as I would learn later, house and techno music, shrinks itself so thoroughly into the anatomy of desire that it sounds like a map of its molecular structure, a shivering constellation of ache and longing. It made me feel delirious. “Raspberry Swirl” is about loving women as a heterosexual woman (“everybody knows I’m her friend / everybody knows I’m her man”) but its internal logic of desire did not seem radically dissimilar from mine. When I looked at my girlfriend it did not feel like I interpreted her through a lens of masculinity, a curious and romantic collision of confidence and possession. The translation was inaccurate; every reflection the lens produced was blurred and unintelligible. When I looked at her the world folded gently away and what replaced it was something more fluid and shapeless. I could feel myself falling through it, into endless vacant space.

*

Megan and Graham start to fall for each other; you can tell without the aid of exposition, as Lyonne and DuVall’s expressions begin to develop their own language. Their looks, the small, meaningful shifts in their eyes and bodies seem to answer each other in code. One night, unable to sleep, they slip off into another bed, intended for simulated heterosexual sex. Megan and Graham instead simulate queer sex, which is mostly conveyed by the camera as trembling crescents of light. “I never felt this way before,” Megan says. “Except for when I was cheerleading.”

One of the major successes of But I’m a Cheerleader is that Megan does not reject cheerleading but instead learns how to translate her queerness through it. Another is this not-quite sex scene; it’s deliberately less anatomical and mechanical than the simulated heterosexual sex exercise, where the girls and boys are encased in grey bodysuits, and perform anonymous and indifferent push-ups against each other. In sections of the frame, Megan and Graham’s bodies seem to deconstruct into a wavering fluorescence.

*

What do you think of when you think of your body? I think of an orb that sprouts limbs. The atmosphere of darkness that trembles around a fluorescent light. A cloud of smoke generated by a burst of synthesizers.

Anything but the actual incidents of my flesh.

*

My queerness doesn’t really fall into a sequence. I feel like most stories of gay self discovery are assembled retrospectively, as if from the vista of your own heterosexual ruins. Memory tends to shape unrelated events into stories. In these stories, time tends to congeal, the way anything does when you assign meaning to it; it passes only in important units. Metaphors tend to have a very linear relationship to reality. Your mom bought you a Polly Pocket when you were a kid, you listened to a lot of Tori Amos in high school, then you attended college, and one day you knew you were gay. Megan’s friends and family locate her sexuality in her diet (vegetarian) and in the music she listens to (Melissa Etheridge). Members of the camp are required to manipulate their histories until they can find a reasonable “root” for their homosexuality—Graham’s mother attended her own wedding in pants, Sinead was born in France, and Joel, who is Jewish, experienced a traumatic bris. These are all hilarious fictions, stories that collapse cause and effect into a smooth, uncomplicated line. Queerness itself isn’t fiction, nor is it exactly nonfiction; the space it occupies is more unstable, both invented and irrevocable. Megan’s conception of her own queerness develops almost outside of narrative. Her journey is that she becomes herself. She thinks her desires are normal, even as she’s told they aren’t. “I have pictures of women around,” she says when she’s first admitted into True Directions. “You think that’s normal?” one of the other campers asks. “Sure,” she says. “...I’ve never really thought about it.”

I had never really thought about it. It was less something that happened than something that pulsed invisibly inside me all along. And yet, when I started considering it and turning it over, it started to grow and unfold, a toy capsule submerged in water from which a foam dinosaur blooms. It builds its own internal logic, which swells around it like fortifications, crowding geometries of identity and sexuality in which I could get lost and potentially never find myself again. Every time I try to trace its beginnings, I glimpse an even more distant source, an unresolving horizon that resembles the readout of a heart monitor—a pulse of activity between two total darknesses.

It’s difficult to analyze something that is always changing, always mutating away from you in insane helixes. William James tried to characterize the inexorable flow of identity in 1890, in his book The Principles of Psychology. “The rush of the thought is so headlong that it almost always brings us up to the conclusion before we can arrest it,” he wrote, “or if our purpose is nimble enough and we do arrest it, it ceases forthwith to be itself. As a snowflake crystal caught in the warm hand is no longer a crystal but a drop...The attempt at introspective analysis...is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.” Or, to paraphrase Heraclitus, you can’t step in the same river twice, nor can you seize and dissect it; the river and you are engaged in a kind of endless improvisation.

*

A few years ago, a friend of mine from high school disappeared from Facebook. When he returned, he had begun transitioning, had cropped his name into a shape that felt more like it belonged to him. We had talked about it often before his transition, the feeling of being caught in between opposite poles, the inner remoteness and alienation this produced—you feel like a crater on the moon, cradling an infinite emptiness. He filmed videos of himself, describing his transition, the ways it had visibly and invisibly improved and complicated his life, but behind his descriptions I thought I glimpsed something, a shift in his features which produced a nameless and indefinite expression. He looked so happy, and as if, before achieving this happiness, he had nearly been destroyed. I remember thinking, how brave and terrifying it is, to get so close to yourself.


Brad Nelson is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He is  a writer living in Queens. His work has appeared in Spin, The Atlantic and the Village Voice.