Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Trying on My Dude Suit

Janice Erlbaum is the author of GIRLBOMB: A Halfway Homeless Memoir (Villard, March '06), and HAVE YOU FOUND HER: A Memoir (Villard, Feb. '08). She was a contributor to BUST magazine from 1994 through 2007. She lives in her native New York City with her domestic partner, Bill Scurry, and their three cats.

I once did drag as a guy. It was for a gag beauty pageant called the Mr. Lower East Side Contest, put on by some friends of mine in a grotty, underheated theater in that once-bohemian neighborhood in New York City. I bound my chest with an Ace bandage, stuffed my pants with a pair of socks, and spirit-gummed on a beard, moustache, and sideburns. I called myself “Ray Pissed,” a terrible pun, but one that summed up how I felt about a lot of men at the time.

Ray Pissed was an asshole. He shoved the other contestants, snorted and spat on the floor, tried to shove his tongue down the female host’s throat. He kept flexing his biceps and roaring unintelligibly, chest bumping people, heckling, and belching. He was everything I find

 abhorrent in stereotypical male behavior. I had an amazing time as Ray.

Then I went back to being a woman. Which is great, you know; I love being female. I’m secretly a huge sexist who suspects that women may in fact be emotionally (and

 therefore spiritually and morally) superior to men; I wouldn’t trade my gender for all the male privilege in the world. I had a friend in grad school who confessed that she was transgendered, and hoping to transition to a male identity, and while I tried to be sensitive to her inner truth, in

 my head, I was like, “Ugh! What the fuck do you want to become a guy for?”

(This is the part of the essay where I feel obligated to point

 out that I love men, I love all

 humanity, I’m domestically partnered to a wonderful guy, blah blah blah, I’m not one of those “man-hating lesbians” you’ve heard about [which…do those really exist? Or are they a figment of the popular imagination? I mean, what do lesbians know about hating men, anyway? You want to know about hating some men, ask a straight girl. I kind of think you have to

 date ‘em to hate ‘em. But I digress.])

So, yeah. I went back to being a hairy-legged mostly heterosexual feminist woman. I wro

te a memoir about my female experiences as a young female person, with the sex and the drugs and the domestic violence and the self-esteem issues, and my publisher called it Girlbomb and slapped a pink cover on it. I continued writing my column about politics for BUST magazine, covering the rape/abortion/birth control/constant political disenfranchisement beat. That’s me – all woman, and loving it!

Then, last summer, I had an idea. I was sitting around playing sudoku and brooding ab

out this fight I had with a female friend of mine, and I realized that her boyfriend and my domestic partner had really liked each other’s company. Now that she and I were estranged, the guys’ friendship had been interrupted, which seemed kind of sad and unfair. But what if they were to go behind our backs and have some sort of non-sexual friend-affair?

I felt the thrill of a really rich premise rippling through me. A first line popped into my head – “What can I say? He did a great Schwarzenegger.” I put down the sudoku and went

 for my laptop. By that night, I’d written five pages.

It was terrific fun, writing as a guy. I felt at liberty to pontificate about

 everything, to stop the action and just blow hard about meaningless details, to unabashedly quote movies in the middle of scenes. My character never had to think about what he was doing; he just 

acted, often in a manner that was inconsistent with his goals. Through his eyes, I was merciless with my female characters – “We hate the girlfriend,” said my (all-female) writers’ group, unanimously. “She’s so unlikeable.”

“I know,” I gloated. “She’s based on me.”

But as I was wrapping up the first draft, I started to wonder if I was really doing justice to the male voice. I asked Bill, my beloved domestic partner, for some advice.

Of course, he quoted a movie in his answer. “Remember As Good As It Gets, when someone asks Jack Nicholson how he writes such true-to-life female characters? And he goes, ‘I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability?’ Well, I think you should write as a woman, and take away all the emotional awareness.”

“Ah,” I nodded. Sage advice, that.

So I went back, and cut a 40 page story down to 20 pages. It was terse, it was funny, it was completely without emotional context. Which is not to say that my narrator didn’t feel, he just didn’t think about how he felt, or why. I was ready for Judd Apatow to make it into a movie.

And then I sat on it for a few weeks, as I am wont to do with second drafts. When I reread it, I was annoyed. I’d loved my narrator in the first draft; now I couldn’t stand him. And the poor girlfriend – so unfairly maligned! Who were these two-dimensional paper doll characters, and why did they act so stupidly? I sat at my laptop, cutting and pasting, trying to reinstate all the material I’d excised. But it was too late – the body rejected the transplants, and the story died.

Now I think it was probably vain of me to think that I could write from a guy’s point of view. Men have their unique ways of experiencing the world, same as women do; slapping on a fake beard, or a fake obtuse-ness, didn’t make me privy to the realities of living as a man. But I keep thinking I’ll go back to the story one of these days, and see if I can’t revive it. I still love the premise; I even love my narrator again. Hapless, clueless, struggling to be whole, unable to express his needs and wants in a mature or productive fashion – in short, a human being.

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