Shakespeare, Young Americans, Et Al.

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So I just watched the single season of Young Americans, a Dawson’s Creek spinoff, via YouTube last week. Although the main stories are about the townie, Will, and his efforts to fit in with his richer classmates, and the townie, Bela, and rich kid, Scout, who start to fall in love and then find out that they might have the same father, my favorite plot line is about Jake and Hamilton. Jake is actually Jacqueline, who has used her computer hacking skills and gender-neutral looks to enroll in the school as a boy, hoping that her absent mother will finally notice her; complications ensue when chemistry arises between “Jake” and Hamilton.

For a show about summer session at a (very white) boys’ boarding school, there is a surprising number of women in it and most of them aren’t total clichés. Bela is a mechanic working at her father’s gas station and Jake is a computer hacker who claims convincingly that s/he hacked NASA. The males are also nuanced. Finn, their rowing coach and English teacher talks a lot about literature, and Will writes poetry (and they steal a plot device from Cyrano de Bergerac, with a love poem and mistaken identity). So first of all, hooray broader representation of women and men!

You have to hand it to the WB, the television network that produced this show: they were horrible at racial diversity but they told interesting stories. The show played around with the awkwardness between Jake and Hamilton for about three and a half episodes, until Jake finally tells Hamilton that she is a girl, but since he needs to keep her secret, they end up having to let the other guys think they are gay. In the final episode, when everyone’s secrets get revealed, there is a moment when Hamilton turns to Jake and says, “Next you’re going to tell me that you are really a lesbian pretending to be a straight girl pretending to be a guy, because I might actually be into that.” This is funny mainly because the actress playing Jake, Katherine Moennig, really was exactly that, and it reminded me a lot of Shakespeare.

In Twelfth Night, we get Viola, a woman who gets shipwrecked and then dresses as a young man and works as a page for the Duke Orsino who is in love with the Lady Olivia. Viola has to pass messages between them and Olivia falls for her/him. And for audiences of the day who knew that the actor was of course a man playing a woman pretending to be a man and avoiding the lady’s advances, this was apparently just as chuckle-worthy. But I am not sure why it is so funny.

I think some of it is similar to what happens when you tell a little kid that the sky is green and they laugh hysterically because (they might say) the sky is most definitely not green, so claiming that it is seems funny. (And I should point out that in really terrible weather, such as right before a tornado, the sky can be green. Pray you never see it.) Humor often is the result of turning expectations inside out, and the stronger and more inevitable the expectation is, the funnier it is to see it transgressed, transposed or just tossed out the window. Apparently masculinity and femininity are two such expectations, or otherwise why are we still telling these stories and being entertained by them?

I feel like this matters in part because if we could figure out what we mean by masculine/feminine, male/female, we might also begin to unpack all the irrational fears underlying these ridiculous new bathroom bills. Given that transphobia is “fueled by insecurities people have about gender and gender norms” (Serano, qtd. In “Transphobia”), and can have horrific consequences when it leads to harassment and violence, our society needs to get a grip. And this is a deeply political social problem because, as Jody Norton writes, “male-to-female transgender incites transphobia through her implicit challenge to the binary division of gender upon which male cultural and political hegemony depends” (Norton).

 

Norton, Jody. “’Brain Says You’re a Girl, But I Think You’re a Sissy Boy’: Cultural Origins of Transphobia.” International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies. 2, Number 2 (2) 1997: 139–164.

“Transphobia.” Wikipedia. 12 April 2016. Web. 14 April 2016.