When I was a very small person, my very best friend in the entire world was this kid up the street whose mother had been the first friend my mother made when my parents moved to town. The kid and I didn’t make friends so much as find ourselves in the same playpen while our mothers discussed volunteer projects for the Junior League. And by the time my actual memories kick in, I think we were about three and running in panicked circles around his living room to the opening credits of “American Bandstand.” This was all part of some game/ritual devised sometime in our shared toddlerhood, the rules of which I’m sure I’m much too old now to understand. The kid had a problem dancing and he’d be haunted by that unintentional catchphrase until roughly puberty. At neighborhood picnics and cocktail parties, I would hear it repeated by grown-ups, who found it hilariously funny for reasons I’m sure I was much too young to understand. I found the kid’s reluctance to bust a move frustrating, but I also recognized, from a pretty young age, that other people could not be all the things I wanted all the time.
My neighborhood was mostly boys. A clear liability to my way of thinking. I was about four the first time I tried to convince my parents to move so I could live near more girls. Also, could we move into a house with a tower? And an indoor pool with a floating bed shaped like a swan or a lily pad? My mother was obsessed with real estate. She never seemed to look at houses with turreted bedroom grottoes or with guaranteed girl neighbors. She thought our neighborhood was fine, better than fine even, because the view of a lake and mountains from her bedroom window reminded her of Europe (but not, she assured me, the part of Europe full of volcanoes that buried towns or cartoon mountains that turned into demons). And, it should be noted, no one expected her to play with the neighbors Except for the kid and a couple of his friends, they were all dirty and smelly and collectively obsessed with the most inane things? Balls? Guns? Trucks? I mean, what is fun about a truck? Also they had to wear the most depressing clothes. When I wasn’t annoyed by their single-minded determination to turn all games into something about guns, I pitied them.
I remember trying to have a conversation with the kid about it when we were approximately five. At the time, I was wearing a strapless, pale blue debutante dress with rows and rows of tulle ruffles over a mustard yellow crinoline from Nana collection, circa 1954. Both pieces were filthy and ripped to smithereens, but I looked gorgeous. The kid was in shorts and a striped golf shirt and he had the same haircut as every other boy in our grade. He looked devastatingly square. I said something like–“Does this whole compulsory performance of masculinity ever get you down?”—except in a five-year-old sort of way. He looked confused. I continued: “I mean the binary construction of gender is so boring, right? I mean, I know plenty of tomboys. But if you started wearing my tutu around, I think people would flip right the fuck out. Do you figure it’s because the world can understand girls wanting to be boys, because boys are viewed as intrinsically more valuable, but that the opposite is just unthinkable. Or is it just that our Puritanical society is particularly squicked by the idea of a boy in a dress? Incidentally I’m not saying it can’t be both. In fact, I think it probably is both.”
The kid considered all of this. He was thoughtful and surprisingly intelligent for a male. It was one of the things I liked about him. He reckoned he hadn’t put a lot of thought into the tutu issue—he avouched genuine preference for shorts and polo shirts– but agreed it did seem a bit of a double standard. He had his own problems with other boys as well, as they were apt to mess up his impeccably ordered Star Wars figures and track dirt across his bedroom floor. Of course, I did this too. I was a walking disaster area. Girly, but not at all prissy, an important distinction, when finagling the viney corridors and that connected the backyards on the street and the brambled hillside behind the kid’s house that tumbled down to the lake. I was more than willing to drag my ballgown into some muddy kudzu bog so long as it served the narrative and I could wear a tiara while doing it.
My mother had expected me to be a boy. She mentioned this whenever she told of my own babyhood. Your name was going to be Thomas Butler Fields, she said. We called you Tom when I was pregnant. In a completely unsurprising twist, I was the only girl born in the hospital that weekend, and thus the only girl in their nursery.
My parents called me Alison, because of something to do with bells in the Alps, but it always felt a bit like an afterthought and certainly too pedestrian for my ambitions. My mother eventually came around to this—we probably should have called you Alexandra or Victoria, given your personality—but day late, dollar short.
I used to wonder about Thomas Butler Fields, if I had been Thomas Butler Fields, if I could be Thomas Butler Fields, should circumstance demand it. I liked stories about adventures and explorers. I liked stories about clever, brave people who figured their way out of impossible situations with humor and panache. In most of these stories, the protagonists were boys. Occasionally they were girls pretending to be boys. Girls dressed like girls were relegated to the sidelines, squealing props waiting to be saved and married. I wasn’t at all interested in the latter. As to the former, well, my mother’s best friend had a daughter who pretended to be a boy. She had a buzzcut and an army jacket and liked to roll around under cars pretending to assassinate communists. She was fond of brutal ribbing and the word “fuck.” I found her both terrifying and utterly magnetic, but I was no more tomboy than I was Thomas Butler Fields. Her path was not for me.
History offered a few potential models. Women who achieved great things without having to be a distressed damsel or a crossdresser. Women who could be full of contradictions, who could be girly but not prissy. Women who could wear armor with lacy ruffs and dazzle the naysayers with their ambition and cunning. It didn’t always turn out well for them, of course. I would stand in my mother’s downstairs powder room and stare at this tiny, gold framed print of Mary Stuart hanging beside the sink and think that an awful lot of my personal heroes wound up burned to death, decapitated, poisoned or singing duets with Lionel Richie. I wanted to avoid as many of those fates as possible
If anything, fiction was worse. Fairy tales were chock-full of girls, but they didn’t actually do anything. So Sleeping Beauty just sleeps and gets married to a stranger? I mean, she’s already a princess, so it’ss not even like she needs the money? How is this a happy ending? How do you even know she’s happy? Whenever I would address these concerns to the other women in my family, I would encounter a lot of patronizing smiles and empty talk about true love and rings without even any supernatural powers. The more interesting characters by far were villains—wicked witches, evil queens, puppy murdering psychopaths—or deus ex machine. I used to puzzle at “Cinderella,” at how it included a fabulous woman with the power to create great magic out of thin air and yet it featured as protagonist some chick whose only significant attribute was being able to fit into her own missing party shoe.
The kid and I came up in a childhood governed by the laws of “Star Wars.” When we played, I was always Princess Leia because I was the only girl. The kid was always Luke Skywalker. We were delighted by the sibling revelation because it meant we could avoid uncomfortable kissy stuff and, more importantly, I had canonical justification for the Jedi powers I’d been claiming for years.
Less successful was my spirited campaign to upgrade Leia from Princess to Queen. I couldn’t shake the suspicion that princess was a second string position–100% b-team. She might have spectacular eveningwear and fancy hair, but she had no real power. With enough power, a girl could have as many swanky updos and sumptuous ballgowns as she wanted. But without power, all the dresses in the world would add up to little more than an expensive dry-cleaning bill and probable arranged-ish marriage to an inbred narcissist with abnormally large ears.
My contention was that once Vader destroyed Alderan, any reasonable order of succession would thereby make Leia Queen. Common sense, really. But only the kid and our weird other friend, a slight, chatty boy who always wanted to play “Stock Exchange” or “State Department,” would accept my sterling logic on this point. But that’s not in the movie, they would say. I could barely stomach their lack of imagination. If we were going to save the universe from the Dark Side, we didn’t have time to be so goddamn literal about everything. I ordered them to ambush the invisible Imperials behind the lilac bush. And they ran off with such unbridled enthusiasm at the possibility of pretending to die that they didn’t quibble over taking orders from me. I directed the battle with a souvenir fan from a Chinese restaurant and heard out the stockbroker kid’s proposals about a new intergalactic tax policy. I would not pretend to die. The first rule of staying in power is staying alive.
I had to change the story I knew because I knew I could never abide by the actual rules. Life is too short be constrained by the limitations of someone else’s stupid plot. Besides: What if Maid Marion and Robin Hood lead the merry men together, equal partners? What if Wendy defeats Captain Hook and takes over his pirate ship? What if Indiana Jones were a woman? Indiana could totally be a girl’s name. What if the Hero’s Journey in “Star Wars” is Leia’s? What if the movie doesn’t end with a wedding? What if the Rapunzel is like, “So Prince, now that I’m out of that tower, I’d like to go sail around the world and see things and do things. You can come with me if you want, but I’m not ready to settle down and I’m not sure I’m at all interested in being a mother. Dig?”
Sometimes I skipped that step and started from scratch. My childhood sketchbook has three pages labeled “Girl Heroes,” full of drawings of girls in various costumes labeled with everything from the fantastic (Emily, Defeated the Evil Queen Maribel and Liberated the Prison, Octavia, Fought Through the Dark Forest and Saved Fairyland) to the faux historical Molly, Revolutionary War Spy or Elaine, Assassinated Nazis to the more prosaic (Cynthia, Reporter That Became Editor of New York Times) and a teenaged girl named Stephanie that I always envisioned as a kind of female Ferris Bueller.
Necessity is the mother of invention. I wanted characters that could be more than one thing at the same time. I wanted role model that looked like me and liked thing things that I liked. Overtime, my stories became longer and more complex, with drama and nuance and veritable stables full of supporting characters. I could never get the boys on my street to participate. What need did the boys have for new stories, because all the stories were already for them? My suspicion was that making up stories was only a thing that girls did, and a thing that all girls did. Because how could you endure the tedium otherwise? How could you just accept the part they gave you? How could you not want to know what might happen if Princess Leia became Outlaw or Empress or Editor –In-Chief of the Endor Times?
My mother, a formidable woman in her own right, had always told me that, with hard work and perseverance, I could be whatever I wanted. I planned to be Queen of England and puzzled at the reactions of adults when I told them so. That sounds awfully difficult, honey. Wouldn’t you rather be a ballerina or a veterinarian or a mommy? I just laughed at them. Those jobs were for suckers and the kind of girls that always wanted me to play “house,” the only game worse than “trucks.”
My closest girl friend at the time had a load of castoff eveningwear and a literal treasure chest full of bejeweled accessories. Despite this, I could never get her to play Diana Ross: Superspy! or Fabulous Pirate, because she just wanted to fill a bald, plastic infants with water so they could pretend pee on things. She would then change the diaper, roll Ol’ Baldy around for a while in a rubber shopping cart while pretending to buy diapers. Then she would start the whole vicious cycle over again. Whenever I would, say, recommend we pretend her baby was kidnapped by terrorists so we would have to get dressed up and infiltrate a hostile embassy to figure out with faction had it, she’d cling to its fat plastic arms and stare at me in horror. But who will change its diaper? I sighed. It seemed to me that person who could imagine managing incontinence as fun could certainly imagine a terrorist cell with a helpful nanny on hand. She never went for it, probably because she didn’t have a baby sibling. I did. I found having an actual baby around to be an extremely weird experience. They didn’t do much worth talking about. That was for sure. Nor were they much for talking to, though I tried.
I would stand in front of my sister’s high chair and stare at her. “Babies are dumb. Babies are boring,” I would say. But what I meant was you’ve got to hurry up and get big. I’m lonely. And I can make a heaven out of this hell of a neighborhood, but we’re going to have more girls. I’m counting on you.
As I grew older, my neighborhood and my social life expanded to include a lot more girls, I was flabbergasted to learn that an awful lot of them of them didn’t seem any more interested in creating a new version of events than the boys. They accepted the limitations. They seemed to enjoy them. They wanted to play wedding. They wanted the story to end with babies. They were content to be saved. They would indulge me a few moments as a I tried to sell them on a “Let’s pretend we’re princesses and then we run away to join the revolution and lead a rebel army against the injustices of our own father’s tyrannical reign,” but they never really got past princesses. Let’s pretend that Matt C. is a Prince and I get to marry him. They wanted to talk about boys, the very boys I’d played with my whole life. The girls didn’t think they were stupid or boring, but fascinating. Don’t you think Ben is cute? I thought Ben smelled like Bugles and was endlessly amused by fart jokes. On the other hand, he was pretty good shot with a water gun when you had to get a sleeping bat off your screened porch. But seriously, no Cary Grant.
Like, you’re really weird. You know that, right?
I didn’t yet, but it was starting to seem that way.
I was disappointed, but at least the girls were interested in seeing mmy fancy dresses. And I recognized, from a pretty young age, that other people could not be all the things I wanted all the time.
The kid and I grew apart. His family moved off the street. Our daily play dates turned to weekly, to monthly and then maybe I’d see him in the halls at school, maybe I’d see him at the swimming pool, maybe I’d see him at a cookout, where he’d sit with the boys and I’d sit with the girls and past the occasional knowing I’ve missed you, friend smile we’d go our own ways.
He would outgrow our childhood obsessions faster than I would, or at least, those that remained were more acceptable amongst his friends than among mine. He took up sports, became handsome and popular and dated pretty girls. I saw him at a wedding a few years back and I can report with confidence that he’s since conquered his problem dancing.
I stayed weird, still girly, but not prissy, still making up stories. Some of them are even about boys in tutus. All of them are about girls who know they can be more than one thing.