So I’m running late on the full edition of the newsletter this week, thanks to the Golden Globes and an especially busy Arden production weekend. (We’re starting to get the first edited segments of the new season in, and I am just agog at how good our cast is.) But I didn’t want to let a Monday pass without putting a little something in your inbox, so here is something cut from a recent article.
I’m extremely proud of my piece on culture in the 2010s, which focused on the ways that community building amid the ruins of older, more toxic communities was one of the big themes of the decade. I examined this theme via the movie Midsommar, the video game Night in the Woods, the novel Pleasantville, the third season of Twin Peaks, and the musical Hadestown. I also wrote a bit about Fox News and about the internet’s role in our understanding of community.
But the piece you read was missing an entire section, one that we cut about 18 hours before it published. My editor and my wife both agreed it didn’t fit, and they finally convinced me. They were right. Without this section, the piece flows. What I couldn’t see was how this section — which contained some of my favorite writing of the piece — stood in the way of everything else, because it had been present in the outline from the first.
The section was an attempt to, I guess, throw water on the conclusions I had already drawn by admitting that a lot of it might just stem from the fact that in the 2010s, I had been longing for community and then unexpectedly found it when I came out. It was an elaborate way of saying the whole essay just might have been my opinion, and for the longest time, it preceded the Hadestown section. (You can still see vestiges of that in the way this section ends and the way the Hadestown section starts.) But my editor was right — why give the reader room to doubt me, just because I wanted to make a personal point?
Too often, I use this sort of writing as a crutch. I’ve gotten much, much better about it since working at Vox and especially since working with Jen, but those old A.V. Club “it’s 3 am, and this Glee recap has to be about something” muscles are very well developed. Anyway, my thanks to Jen and Libby for convincing me this didn’t need to be in the piece, but I wanted y’all to read it anyway. So here it is, direct from the cutting room floor.
All criticism is, ultimately, a personal essay. Even the driest, most pedantic movie review ultimately exposes the critic’s very personal feelings on that film. And the best criticism invites us to take in a work through someone else’s eyes, to sit next to them in the movie theater and hear their urgent whispers as they watch the flickers onscreen.
So it felt natural to ask: How much is the idea that pop culture of the 2010s filled with a longing for community driven by my longing for community? How much am I reading in to the culture I loved my own scramble to find myself, a process that happened in fits and starts and only ended in 2018 when I finally admitted to myself I was trans?
For most of this decade, I didn’t feel comfortable anywhere. And then, abruptly, that was no longer true. Perhaps that’s the reason I was so drawn to stories of communities being shattered and rebuilt. The moment of Dani realizing she can communicate with the other Harga women utterly destroys me every time I watch Midsommar because I spent my whole life looking for a place where I belonged. And then one day, like a fairy tale, I learned it had been around me all along.
In China Mieville’s great 2009 allegorical crime novel The City and the City, a detective investigates a murder in a place where two cities exist atop each other in separate realities. The detective slowly comes to realize how arbitrary the boundaries between are these two realities, and by the end of the book, it’s strongly hinted they do not actuallyexist — instead, they seem to be a shared fiction that the citizens of the two cities have agreed to because the idea of co-existing is so fraught.
Mieville’s vision of these two cities living on top of one another works better as a metaphor than as a plot device. I understand the metaphor this way: Every single one of us moves between and among multiple communities in our day-to-day lives and online. I walk past so many on my way to the train — communities built around gender, around race, around shared interests, around having the same purse. But we too often teach ourselves not to see these communities, because seeing them can mean seeing the inequalities baked into our society.
The act of coming out as a trans woman was an act of learning to see again. I had been living in one city and teaching myself not to catch glimpses of the other one all around me, even though I could sense how much more at home I might feel there.
In the time I believed myself to be a man, I had an inexact tongue. Men had social structures and peer groups, but I felt a little like I was learning how to exist within them by reading a video game walkthrough. Then, suddenly, I woke up. I knew what to say all of the time. The things I had to give up — privileges afforded to me by society, certain relationships and friendships, the ability to ride the train without some creepy guy shouting “HEY!” at me the second I get on — felt trivial in the face of speaking a language I had grown up knowing and forced myself to forget.
One summer night in 2018, not long after I had come out to myself and a handful of friends, I hung out with my dear friend Caroline, one of the very first people I what I saw then as a potentially life-destroying secret. I was still interacting with the world almost entirely as a man, but Caroline could see me, could speak to me in the right language, could hold the door open to the other city.
At the end of the evening, I gave Caroline a hug, and I said, without thinking, “Love you!” The part of me that had trained itself into never expressing this sort of sentiment to women tensed. But she relaxed and said, “Love you, too, Em,” and I could feel that this was not some horrible faux pas but just the way that I, another slightly drunk American woman, talked to her friends at the end of a long night.
Somewhere along the way, I had paused my life, and then, by an inexplicable act of grace, I got to resume it. For a long time, I worried only I had been real, but suddenly, everybody else was too.
I’ll be back with another newsletter later in the week, probably about the Mr. Robot finale (though I’m also mulling something on Letterkenny). I have some exciting plans for this newsletter in 2020, and I can’t wait for you to get to check it out.
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