How To Fight About "Twilight" After Your Sex Change, Part I
DANNY: Rewatching Twilight with you felt really strange; it was nothing like I remembered but I still had an overwhelming desire to defend it, possibly because I felt like I'd insufficiently defended it the first time around (defended it from what? It was a very popular movie!). It's unbelievably slow, I think was both of our primary experience of the movie. Shockingly little happens, and what does happen, happens slowly. Sort of like Twin Peaks, which is a show from your past that I liked very much, despite myself. What were you expecting going in, do you think?
GRACE: I’m not sure, but I found it quite easy to say yes to what it was. It was gentle, and boring, and broody, which are three things I like, and are all (absolutely) present in Twin Peaks, which is also a story set in a small Washington town whose name implies doubling. But, polemically, I would want also to say that the reason that you liked Twin Peaks is that Twin Peaks is very good, that it has compelling things to teach us about justice, representation, evil, pleasure, and love. Whereas Twilight has very little to teach us about anything, though one can say smart things about it if one cares to. I would want to acknowledge that the smartness of the things one could say is not, in this case, proportional to the smartness of the object. Sometimes it behooves us to say smart things about stupid things, and sometimes it behooves us to say dumb things about smart things. And sometimes one wishes to defend objects on grounds other than their smartness (I mean, I wouldn't even say most things I like are smart, really); and sometimes it is hard to be a smart person who likes dumb things, because it feels like a conflict that is going to lead one to repudiate either one's past or one's present. It would be so nice to have to repudiate neither one's past or one's present, but to enjoy the difference. I think we felt something like that with Twilight, last night.
DANNY: It feels telling, I think, that I asked you if you wanted to discuss Twilight over gchat or email and you responded thusly: "I can't really handle that, it always just devolves into yelling...which I realize is the essential format and the reason you asked." But there's something about Twilight that brings up, I think, the most complicated part of "The Toast's Mallory Ortberg, who's kind of a lot" that didn't really survive my transition (or at the very least isn't a big part of our relationship now).
GRACE: I don't think too often about the ghost of The Toast's Mallory Ortberg, who's kind of a lot, that occasionally hovers around our relationship or knocks on the windows. But of course it goes without saying that I loved her, and the reason that I met you and that we got to fall in love and be together was because I loved her so much that I confected a way to have lunch with her. It was the kind of love that wanted to be shaped by the beloved, as well as to shape him, and the ways in which I wanted to be shaped and sculpted were probably fairly obvious even at the time, but in retrospect seem so simple as to be essentially monocausal. It's less clear to me what I wanted to shape. One of the things that was immediately so powerful and unique about the way that I was drawn to The Toast, was that it really seemed to be an example of something I just didn't know how to do myself, which (being as I'm an arrogant bitch) wasn't a response I'd experienced often. Of course there was stuff I didn't like about The Toast, but that was fine too - it never felt like the kind of offer one needed to accept or decline wholesale. You could take what you liked - probably because it was free. And I liked - loved - was so moved by that I wanted to change my life - so much.
DANNY: What you didn’t, though, was something to do with 2011-era exclamation points, capitalization to denote Impact, the drive for consensus that you often experience as aggression and some women describe as "female conversation style" (I'm picturing, I think, Deborah Tannen here).
GRACE: Yes, I suppose I'd like to say something about how that argumentative style characterized by exclamation marks, all-caps, and what feels like compelled consensus, vague and menacing references to “having feelings about that,” make me feel alone and frightened. To me, this could not feel less like the conversation of women, which (and I don't have a scholarly pedigree of the Tannen variety here, I'm speaking impressionistically) seems to treat consensus as an incredibly delicate resource, to be handled with immense amounts of care as its terms are being established. Whereas the THIS IS THE TRUTH, OBVIOUSLY, where "obviously" means "with the force of a feeling," reminds me much more of distinctively macho forms of bullying. To put that more polemically, WHICH IS OFTEN HOW I FEEL IT, it is women to whom responsibility for giving or withholding consent is usually delegated. Women would then have a particular interest in ensuring that consent is never assumed or demanded. I tell my students, nothing is more important to your intellectual life than the ability to withhold assent. You never have to say yes to something until you've really sat with it. (And for this reason, incidentally, I demur from the "three yeses" pedagogy that I got at grad school - but nobody wants to hear about that.)
DANNY: This reminds me of that time you and I got into a big fight outside of Bakersfield over, of all things, A Bad Mom Christmas, how much patience either one of us has at any given moment for heterosexuality, and the unique challenges of transmasc4transfemme intimacy. Does that seem about right to you?
GRACE: Fuck a Bad Moms Christmas - and I say that as a profound lover of the first Bad Moms, and a fan of Christine Baranski who likes more or less everything she does. And I feel like we're in the vicinity of my unpopular opinion about Hustlers, so now seems a good place to stop.
DANNY: It's funny, talking about types of speech that women supposedly do or don't favor – without trying to either repudiate or justify the past, I think it's fair to say that I found that consensus-driven, waterfall-style-intensity type of speech very familiar, easy, and comforting as a woman, especially online, because I was very anxious about what might happen if I did not make sure I was part of the consensus. And at least one of the things that happened was that I transitioned.
GRACE: I had to read that back a couple of times, because to me it seems to suggest that the ease and familiarity derive from anxiety? Which feels impossible to me. I would tend to think that if one feels anxious that things will be bad if one doesn't join a consensus, then one is proportionally inhibited from joining the consensus freely, and proportionally estranged from one's own perspective? But of course it is absolutely the case that as soon as a consensus forms, I want nothing more than to trample all over it, which isn't your thing. You seem to enjoy being in the majority, which I don't. The moment someone agrees with me about something, I feel a resigned sense that it is time to go back to the drawing board, because my idea has already been banalized or misunderstood or both.
DANNY: I can see how that's confusing – I mean that I found that type of speech soothed a particular anxiety I often had. I did, and sometimes still do, find great safety and pleasure in being part of the majority. This reminded me of an old piece I wrote for The Toast after feeling frustrated by how many people (disingenuously, I thought) seemed to think they would all have been burnt as witches in the sixteenth century, when statistically it's just improbable. We can't all have been burned at the stake. But more to the point, I don't think there's only one particularly male style of conversation that's rude and boorish, nor only one female kind neither; there's lots of ways to be coercive and of a gender at the same time. (I also claim to have "quit smoking" in this 2016 piece, citing my desire to chase male approval as a solution to my problem. Readers of this email in 2019 will likely be aware that I have quit smoking once again this year and have even fewer solutions to my problems than I did three years ago.)
GRACE: I'm not sure there's not something slightly disingenuous about the "I'm one of the witch-burners" piece, though. You say that knowing that "witch-burner" is a position few people will openly avow - much like fewer people will say, "yes, I supported Ray Cohn and Joseph McCarthy" than will say, ah but it is the liberals who are the McCarthyites and/or witch-burners now. So you're taking the minority position, and disguising it as the majority. I'm reminded of the one smart thing that Slavoj Zizek ever said, which is that The Sound of Music was shot so as to make Nazis unpopular for anti-Semitic reasons: Uncle Max is cosmopolitan, rootless, urban, has no connection to the regional cultures of Austria, etc. Likewise, the witch-burners are the real witches, at least in quantitive terms.
DANNY: I think you are quite right that there is something disingenuous about the witch-burning piece, and I think the disingenuousness is part of the point, or at least I think it's very much on the surface. If you promise to stop pretending you'd have been a virtuous martyr so long as you knew you'd be seen as a virtuous martyr by future generations, I'll stop pretending I'd have been powerful and self-assured and secure in my judgments so long as I knew I'd win.
GRACE: I mean, I'm certainly not denying that the douchey male "facts don't care about your feelings" style of discourse is much worse, nor that the terms in which online discourse frames a conflict between different "argumentative styles" aligns maleness with "facts" and "neutral point of view," and femaleness with enthusiasm (indexed by all-caps and exclamation marks) and consensus (indexed by YES YES YES, etc.). I just think both those styles can easily become coercive, and it's lucky that there are many ways of building arguments that depend on neither.
DANNY: I think I am also sensitive to the fact that an early review of my new book mentioned that I was afraid to "sever my relationship" to my mother as her daughter, when (I thought, at least!) that the book made it very clear that severing that relationship, even in favor of a new mother-son relationship, was the last thing I wanted. (It was a good review, and I'm grateful for it.) But Bella was an important part of the way in which I was a teenage girl, and I wanted to show you Twilight because both of its stars are best understood now as lesbian icons, in two fairly different ways.
Part II of this chat is available on Grace’s newsletter, The Stage Mirror. My next book, which is not about severing anything, is available for pre-order here.