If you had been in my living room with me this morning, you would have seen a sad girl in pajamas, clutching two Ugly Dolls, sobbing as Audrey Hepburn banged in a door with a lamp. Then I stood up, put the sour little DVD back in its Netflix packaging, and left it by my touch lamp, whose light had yet to be activated by human touch.
(Warning: spoiler alert for The Children’s Hour, but you can guess what any lesbian movie in the ‘60s ends with.)
Then I called a close friend, sobbing, saying, “I just watched The Children’s Hour, and it was SO SAD! And Audrey Hepburn’s character was crying, breaking down a door, screaming MARTHA MARTHA. And there was Martha’s shadow and the shadow of the rope, and you knew she had KILLED HERSELF.1”
The Children’s Hour was in 1961, before the women’s movement, before queer and trans movements. It’s based on the play by Lillian Hellman, a leftist and badass who is probably greeting the gays in heaven and holding them close. But still, not a lot has changed. With the recent slew of teen suicides and the weirdly trendy “It Gets Better” videos following, I’ve been thinking critically about whether or not ANYTHING gets better.
The critique surrounding “It Gets Better” videos nails white, classist privilege on the head: of course it gets better if you have money and are a white person in the United States. It gets better if you’re a dude who works in fashion– a haven for queers. It gets “better” if you’re Kim Kardashian and can “come out” as a “straight ally.”
It gets better if you’re a celebrity.
But keep in mind, also, that there’s no hierarchy of suffering. You can be a rich, white dude living a secret life in homophobic Hollywood, only to end up with AIDS, while the tabloids shower you with humiliation as you die. And you can be a white woman with money whose sexual relationships with women is eroticized by the media, turning you into an ambassador for bisexual women, as long as you make sure to live with and marry men (Angelina Jolie). And if you’re a lesbian and an actress, you better be living with your husband of twenty years if you ever want to be in a mainstream film, even if it’s an artsy Italian film of critical acclaim.
Let’s keep people alive first and then let’s deal with the socio-economic implications of capitalist patriarchal structures. Meaning, Tim Gunn had to survive to speak out against suicide and bullying. And if you want to critique his rich white dude privilege, go ahead– but individuals are not the system. They’re struggling with and against the system.
As Adrienne Rich, one of my favorite queer poets, writes in “21 Love Poems,”
this we were, this is how we tried to love,
and these are the forces they had ranged against us,
and theses are the forces we had ranged within us,
within us and against us, against us and within us.
1By the way, I left this all on voicemail. My poor friend is going to wake up, check her voice mails, get excited that she has one from me, and then feel badly. She and I still haven’t recovered from when we watched Steel Magnolias together, where we clutched Ugly Dolls and made them cry.