In high school, I asked a teacher why I hadn’t been cast in the teen chorus of a school musical. “You just aren’t believable as a teenage girl,” she said. I was sixteen.
It hit me hard — not because it was a surprise, but because my disembodied unease had found itself a shape. A believable girl my own age was a role beyond my grasp in some essential way, and no one seemed to be able to tell me what I could do to make the casting seem natural. Something was off. I wasn’t picking up my cues. My costuming was never right and my dialogue didn’t fall into the rhythm of the others. I never doubted that I was a girl, but it was clear that I wasn’t being one correctly somehow.
Ultimately, I blame Shakespeare and the Power Rangers.
For a long while, when I was a child, I had trouble falling asleep. I was easily frightened by movies, and at night I would try so hard not to think about the scenes that scared me that I was able to think of nothing else. I’d read chapter books far into the night and concoct endless excuses to come downstairs and see my worried parents — anything to avoid the hellscape that was my vague recollection of Power Rangers: The Movie. It was a great relief to all concerned when we discovered a collection of story cassettes that affected me like tranquilizers when administered at bedtime via Fisher-Price tape recorder. My brother and I quickly amassed a big collection of the tapes, in which a narrator with a wise-old bear voice told abridged versions of classic stories. My favorite had the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on one side and The Taming of the Shrew on the other.
I adored the Shrew tape to distraction and listened to it until I could recite it at the drop of a hat, loudly, over repeated entreaties that we were eating breakfast and my brother was trying to talk about his math test. And in October of that year, when I was invited to a costume party at a friend’s house, I considered it a matter of course that I would attend dressed as Petruchio, the swashbuckling protagonist of The Taming Of The Shrew. I had a heroic destiny as a Shakespearean alpha male to fulfill, and I wasn’t going to allow details — like the fact that I was a bespectacled nine-year-old girl shaped like a giraffe — get in my way.
I never doubted that this destiny was mine. Fed by piles of books, my imagination operated on high alert, bringing with it the benefits and drawbacks of total belief. The movie scenes that kept me awake only upset me because emotionally, my chips were all in. When I encountered something disturbing like Westley screaming on the machine in The Princess Bride, I understood on some level that it was “just a movie,” yet somehow I couldn’t manage not to feel it as if it were real life. Fictional stories were conflated with magic for me, and to the existence of magic I was utterly committed.
Nothing made me happier than burrowing into the back of a coat closet while earnestly explaining to my brother that the trick was not to think about Narnia. I possessed a glittering conviction that my Jedi powers grew every time I successfully scaled a piece of playground equipment. From A Wrinkle In Time I gleaned that unlovely girls with frizzy hair and glasses especially were meant for greatness, as long as they wanted it enough — and I certainly did. My curiosity and my bravery – well, my intention of bravery — must mean that I was cast in the role of Chosen One, and my extraordinary qualities were sure to be called upon for adventure at any moment. Unfortunately, more workaday battles called for different qualities if you were a girl, and it quickly became clear that these were qualities I failed to possess.
Being a girl successfully wasn’t just acting — it was acrobatics. Get attention, but don’t seek it out too much. Dress acceptably, but don’t look like you’re trying to copy anyone. Know the lyrics to popular songs, but don’t let anybody know that you memorized them deliberately. My daydreams were still about doing things, saving people, but I started obsessing about how I was perceived. Instead of movie scenes keeping me up at night, it was all the ways I’d embarrassed myself that day. Being a girl wasn’t about doing right, it was about not doing things wrong. Not being loud, not having hair on your legs, not tripping, not taking up too much space or time. I had to make myself smaller, neater, less annoying. It was a negation. The terror of humiliation was paralyzing and didn’t square with the way I had thought about myself before. I had considered myself prepared to face the fires of Mordor, but it was becoming clear that if one of the orcs happened to make an offhand remark about the length of my gym shorts I’d get a stomachache and have to go home.
I couldn’t abandon what I had read, or my yen for heroism, entirely. I raised my hand often in class, to the vocal annoyance of the boys. I refused to treat their inane comments as superior to mine, and ignored advice from friends that they would leave me alone if I would just stop talking. However, I did start getting easily flustered, blushing often and losing my temper in class discussions, then obsessing over the boys’ put-downs later. I liked doing the Cha-Cha Slide at school dances, but after overhearing a friend comment of my exuberance, “she thinks she’s hot shit, but she’s not,” I shrank my movements to a shuffle and tried to look bored. But when I overheard the same girl scornfully call me Hermione, I turned around, looked right at her, and said “thank you.” I apologized for everything, but I wouldn’t apologize for that.
Eventually I came to realize that no matter how hard I tried to make myself cute and neat, it would never be enough to make people like me. I grew to prefer the story I told myself about how I could save everybody if I had to. I had a persistent fantasy about what would happen if a particular bully—a girl who habitually said mean things to me that left me tongue-tied and blushing — would one day just dispense with the civilities and pull a (preferably jeweled) dagger on me at the water fountain. Humiliation made me weak, but danger would make me strong. I would fight her with the martial arts skills that would conveniently manifest in a high-stakes situation as everyone else asked me to protect them, and my true, heroic nature would be known by all.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a girl, it’s just that I wanted to be a hero. The path made more sense to me. I knew how to like and want and protect things, but I didn’t know how to be liked and wanted and protected. Complex heroines like A Wrinkle in Time’s Meg Murray were the only indication I had that these goals weren’t mutually exclusive, and I gravitated toward any glimmer of a female character who didn’t exist only to be beautiful in the impossible way that seemed so remote to me. I sought these fiercely, but they took so much more effort to find than the clever boys who seemed to be everywhere.
I liked the tricksters, the funny-looking guys who got into comical scrapes. I liked Fred Astaire, Batman at his quippiest, Marty McFly, and Riff from West Side Story. They were competent and quick. They were funny and tried hard. They seemed possible to me, safer than the female characters, the attempted emulation of whom could always result in embarrassment. I was, as always, torn. When I couldn’t connect to flat or passive girl characters, I thought that was a failing, because no matter how boring they were, they were always desirable. When I did connect with the interesting, clever men, it just reminded me that I was out of place. I knew that other people would never put me in the same league as the characters I identified with and admired — my failures as a girl would always be noticed first. In order to be seen as the kind of person I felt I was, there had to be another kind of girl to be, someone recognizable.
So I clung to the tiny handful of characters available to me — my Hermiones, my Megs, my Tamora Pierce mages and lady knights — and soaked them in as best I could. When later, I met Liz Lemon and Katniss Everdeen, the women on Buffy and Firefly and Avatar: The Last Airbender, I was thrilled to soak them in too, though my soaking capability diminished with each passing year. I was happy that the girls growing up with them had more to hold on to, more ways to see themselves and, as the characters became popular, to be seen by others. It made me wonder, with a pang: would I have turned out different, better, less afraid, if I had had them, too? Maybe a little. But until the female characters who gaze outnumber those who are gazed upon, there will always be enough false ports to wreck a girl on the rocks.
I did go to that Halloween party dressed as Petruchio from The Taming Of The Shrew. I arrived at the party sporting a blue felt hat with a feather in it from the Renaissance Faire, with my brother’s plastic sword tucked into my mom’s belt, which cinched a big shirt over my leggings. To their credit, the reactions of the princesses and witches in attendance were more puzzled than hostile, politely venturing that I had an unusual color scheme for Robin Hood. “Come on, guys! Like, ‘I’ve come to wive it wealthily in Padua!’ You know, The Taming Of The Shrew,” I said, elbowing people like I was name-dropping The Lizzie McGuire Movie. The princess’ eyes were blank, inquiring, like you might look at an animal that you had no intention of approaching. Maybe if someone had made fun of me, I would have reacted differently. But everyone moved on to play the party games without much discussion. They were being nice, and I knew it. I watched them from a sudden distance, and I thought to myself: They think I’m supposed to be a princess. I’m supposed to want to be saved.