What Made Me Grin This Temperate Morning

The heavily tattooed guy with the powerful, and I mean POWERFUL, body odor waiting for the drugstore to open at 9 am. The doors swung open, I grabbed my gallons of water (they were having a sale, when can I say?) and brotherman jostled ahead of me to buy three tubes of KY jelly and an economy-sized bottle of Astroglide. The clerk and I could barely look at each other without smirking. Sexy sex sex.

My next-door neighbor, an Italian woman in her sixties, planting five pots of gorgeous purple morning glories in her tiny front yard. She was wearing a dress festooned with purple morning glories and, when she was done planting, swept her share of the sidewalk with a gorgeous purple broom. I think I love her.

You Got Served playing HBO on a seemingly nonstop reel. It’s the perfect cable movie — a dull teen drama punctuated by awesome awesome awesome dance sequences. Click on, click off. Imitate the moves in the sanctity of your living room.

My apartment boasting not one but two air conditioners. Read it and weep. Or just read my electricity bill and weep.

Ah, summer soothes this savage beast.

Singleton Talks (and Money Walks)

John Singleton lays it down in today’s Times. The director of the groundbreaking Boys in the Hood and a long line of what-was-he-thinking ventures (Poetic Justice, 2 Fast 2 Furious are but a few) has produced — and largely bankrolled himself — first-time director’s Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow, that which has set all kinds of tongues a-flapping. Basically, I like Hustle; it is formulaic but also large-hearted. But what’s most compelling about the story is that Singleton bothered to get behind it with such force — and a financial force at that.

In the interview today, he responds to interviewer Lola Gogunnaik’s implication that “he’s back” with a bit of bristle:

“My last film made $240 million,” he quickly pointed out in a recent interview. He was referring to ‘2 Fast 2 Furious,’ the critically lambasted blockbuster he directed in 2003. “Hello, I’ve been here.”

On one level, you’ve got to laugh. An imdb search reveals just the kind of no-goodnick Nick he’s been. But, then again, according to Hollywood standards, Singleton’s been up to a lot. Just: financially. And why the “just,” anyway?

With all respect to my Marxist friends, you could almost argue that financial success should matter more for a filmmaker of color (or a woman) right now than artistic merit. What most people of color don’t do is run things. (Oprah is a powerful exception.) They still rarely own sports teams though those teams are mostly comprised of brown-skinned men. They still, more to the point, don’t run studios. They still don’t have a say as to how things run and what gets made. Singleton having money means Singleton can bankroll the movie he thinks deserves bankrolling, practically Singletonhandedly (sorry). It’s the same reason that Jay-Z jumped ship on his recording career to be president and CEO of Def Jam Recordings.

As Singleton himself goes on to say in the interview:

“Very few studios have people of color deciding what films get made,” Mr. Lee said. “There’s not one African-American at a studio in a position to greenlight a film. When that happens that will be landmark. That will have far more impact than two black people winning Academy Awards in one year.”

It’s a complicated issue. The trick, of course, is not to make movies so problematic that your means don’t justify the ends. But I think Singleton is right. Even just spending the little time in LA that I have over the last year, I believe that all the nefarious agendas that we leftists and conservativos alike assign to the Hollywood powers-that-be are off-base. The only color or party that matters to them is green. So Singleton is hitting where it counts when he makes a high-grossing (if crap) movie and then turns around and uses the cash he earned to bankroll a film that couldn’t get a green light if green were the only color in the world. Obviously it would be preferable if all successful movies also boasted great integrity. And that’s where we come in as audiences. We should remember that it is our dollar which speaks the loudest when it comes to expressing our political outrage in a daily way. And not only in terms of which movies we see.

*Also check out Can’t Stop Won’t Stop author Jeff Chang’s two cents on the verysame topic over at the estimable alternet.

When One Odyssey Begets Another (She’s Not There)

I’d been meaning to read Jennifer Boylan’s She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders for a dog’s age, but having detoured from memoir, I couldn’t find my way back for a while. As fate would have it, a copy’s been floating around at Oslo, Williamsburg’s best new coffee shop, and this morning I finally surrendered my day to reading it. I am so glad.

Boylan, who used to publish under the moniker James Boylan, was already a Colby University professor and established writer of some repute when she started to transition from being a man to a woman. (People who are in or have completed this process are often referred to as MTF transsexuals.) She had two children; a real partner in her wife Grace; a strong, kind family of origin; and terrific friendships, most notably with the writer Richard Russo, who writes an afterword to this book. And she had a fairly killer sense of humor. Yet, as she conveys in her dry, spare style, she’d felt fairly sure that she was meant to be a woman since she was a young boy, and that feeling loomed as an enormous elephant right in the center of her life.

I majored in feminist/gender studies at Bryn Mawr College in the early ‘90s and, like the good postmodernist groupie I was, promptly dismissed transsexuals as the sorry victims of a world that conflated gender with sex. Long after I’d dismissed much of my academic studies as too facile, I’d always slightly turn off from FTM or MTF people I’d meet. “This is Gary,” a friend would introduce a 5″1 obvious girl, albeit one with a crewcut and the beginnings of a beard, and I’d immediately channel my inner Andy Rooney. Lesbian, gay, bi: quatever. I’d decided I was a queer straight girl as soon as I realized I wasn’t going to fall into any normal heterosexual life trajectory. I could even get transgendered persons like drag queens or kings who switched back and forth; all that flipping the constructs on their head made sense to me. But transsexuals seemed so implausible. I thought people already wasted too much time being defined by their gender. Why make so much more of a fuss over whether you were going to going to wear pink or blue, be the mommy or the daddy, be (let’s face it) the financial or sexual object? Why try so hard to fit more neatly into a paradigm that limited us all?

Reading Leslie Feinberg’s affecting (if slightly wooden) book about her own gender odyssey only validated my biases. Born on what she calls “the anatomical sweep between male and female,” she spent the bulk of her young adulthood transitioning with the aid of hormones from a woman to a man. At a certain point, though, she opted out of the whole gender program entirely and has since lived her life as what she calls a she-he — someone who does not identify with the either/or gender assignment that most people adopt. Although Feinberg herself publically supports pretty much every path that transsexuals and trangendered persons take, I embraced her own path as the “right one.”

And ideology proved thicker than blood in this case.

During a Brooklyn visit a few years ago, my old man grew uncharacteristically absorbed in a book he pulled from my shelves. It was Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors.

Suddenly he jammed the book in my face.

“That’s my cousin Mahty!” he said. I looked at the page. It was a story I’d read many times about Martin, a Johns Hopkins doctor, husband and father who’d transitioned into a woman named Martine. Or Mahty, as we Massholes will always have it. She and her wife remained legally married, though Feinberg wrote they now referred to each other as “spice” rather than “spouse,” a bad wordplay that red-flagged this person as within my bloodline. (It’s family legend that, when put on oxygen at the very end of his life, my grandfather began to sing, “Tanks for the memories…”) A call to my dad’s sister confirmed it as so. Somehow, though, I avoided any further exploration, even avoided getting in touch with Marty when in Baltimore.

But reading Boylan’s book has given me pause about my attitudes. As a person who otherwise had found her way, Jenny had no reason to want to shake up her life to the degree she nonetheless felt she had to. She passed easily as a man, for example, unlike many of the he-shes whose testimony I’d read over the years. She just didn’t feel like a man. She didn’t even feel like a he-she. She felt like a woman, so much so that she always felt that an important part of her was held at bay while she lived her life as Jim. And being a highly developed writer and human being with many tools (pun intended) at her disposal, she managed to convey both her transition and its fallout with a wry, bittersweet evenhandedness that got through to me.

That is not to say that it took middle-class respectability to finally legitimize the entire spectrum of transgendered persons, although I suppose it didn’t hurt Jenny’s testimony that she possesses all the benchmarks that other artists can either relate or aspire to: the fucked-up NYC years, the travel abroad, the Johns Hopkins MFA, the plum teaching position, the movie-optioned books. Nor is this to say that reading this book magically erases my no-doubt still-ignorant assumptions. Just that I finally felt rather than intellectualized the reality some describe of being trapped in a body of the wrong sex.

She’s Not There isn’t perfect; it’s a little long, a little too careful on the topic of Boylan’s clearly now-fragile marriage, a little too removed from a larger context of transsexualism. But that detachment also serves her story well. She doesn’t come off as a particularly politically activated person before her transition, so it makes sense that she doesn’t become one afterward. Instead, she shows how her transition took place in her continued life as the wacky college professor, father and, er, spouse.

Jenny moves me to confront my bullshit assumptions by deploying all them writerly tricks that actually work: through showing-not-telling, through specifics that render her story more universal, by writing herself as a person rather than a symbol. When Russo tells Boylan, for example, that he finds her newly constructed identity as Jenny to be “implausible,” the very word that I so often apply to transgendered persons, I started with recognition. And finally felt ashamed at how emotionally shut-down I’d been on this subject for years.

I should note that, though she doesn’t really get into an extended discussion of the cultural implications of gender-sex assignment, Boylan hardly refracts an uncomplicated notion of gender. She writes that, like many newly transitioned MTF transsexuals, when she first completed her gender transition she behaved like a 40something girl. At an age when her wife had largely dispensed already with all the obvious earmarkers of gender that younger females sometimes glom onto when they’re still sorting themselves out — the nail polish, the coquetries — Jenny was ecstatic to try it all on. Only now is she transitioning from a girl to a woman, someone who has successfully integrated traditionally male and female attributes in a way that works for her adult persona. (It’s a transition too few American females undergo for, oh, a bevy of reasons.)

So often memoirs about a personal odyssey rely on the import of the story itself to carry all the dramatic heat. Here we’ve got Boylan, a person who obviously has never sought to ruffle a feather except through laughter her whole life. But ruffle she does, merely by being specifically herself not only in her life but in her writing, too (perhaps for the first time). This is how memoir and social change most effectively entwine.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy