I Saw the TV Glow & Ignoring Dysphoria

Filed under: Personal

(Originally posted on my blog)

The other day I finally, FINALLY got a chance to watch I Saw The TV Glow with the lads. I feel like it's been kinda lowkey, but I also saw it trending on a pirate site, so there's a good chance I'm completely wrong on that. If you haven't seen it yet... oh my god go see it. It's about nostalgia, it's about dysphoria, being queer, the indifferent forward march of time, and how we see ourselves in the media we consume. As a quick aside, it's refreshing seeing a glimpse into that sort of autistic hyperfixation you get with a series that you love outside of the modern lens of fandom? Shit was different back when you didn't know anyone at school who liked the same weird show/game/comic you did, so you had to get your fix from fansites, but your love for the thing still bled out into your real life.

Anywho get out of here if you haven't seen it! Wait for my next post or go watch the movie so you can read this one!

...

Are you back from watching it? Good, good...

Let me start off by saying I've never been so upset because of a movie. I'm fairly certain I've cried at movies before, and I've gotten viscerally disgusted by movies (hello Eraserhead), and movies that try to make you sad do get the job done with me, typically. That being said, I'm known to enjoy a bad ending. I'm a bit of a tragedy enjoyer, to the point I sometimes feel elated at how well-executed the main characters' downfall was. But this? Jeez... I just felt bad when the credits rolled. Just unhappy. I didn't feel good.

Out of all the portrayals of gender dysphoria I've seen in media, I Saw The TV Glow has by far the most emotionally resonant and accurate depictions I've ever seen. As an indecisive, scared, and lonely trans person, I feel so seen in Justice Smith's portrayal of Owen, the trans woman who never came out. I'm always excited about a trans allegory, but I feel like we always get it dumbed down to where it's easy for a cis audience to understand. Think the "born in the wrong body" narrative (no shade to people who feel that describes them, it's just the prevailing explanation of dysphoria). Either that, or the themes are juuuuust vague enough that maybe it can be applied to many different things. This movie though? You can call the symbolism on the nose, but I guarantee you that there are some people out there who don't realize Owen is a closeted trans woman. Some people just see it as casting broader strokes for people who feel "out of place" in their reality.

I need to be clear that this is not a bad thing!!! Being able to appeal to a wide audience is a neutral trait and doesn't take away from the movie's message. I'm not even complaining about the fact that cis people are seeing themselves in this movie. Alls I'm saying is... this movie MASTERFULLY captures the internal, unknown struggle most trans people go through. That is what this movie is about at it's core. The fact that others can empathize with Owen is, if anything, a step in the right direction to get the people scared of gender-affirming treatment to understand what happens when we don't take the opportunity to become who we are.

That being said, I only care about the queer reading of this film. So that's what I'm going to focus on here.

So, to talk about Owen's (and Maddy's) relationship to The Pink Opaque...

I'll admit I don't think I've had the particular experience where I saw myself in a fictional character the way the two leads do. But I *did* feel this way about musicians I idolized. I don't know for sure if I'm autistic, but if I am, then one of my special interests is 90s alternative rock. As a young teen, I listened exclusively to grunge and other similar acts and was basically a walking encyclopedia of facts on the different bands I liked. I distinctly remember loving Eddie Vedder like nothing else. Particularly his 90's look. I would obsessively watch the MTV Unplugged videos to see him, I made GIFs of him, and I had a folder full of images of him. I started wearing my hair natural, parted like his, because I wanted to look like him so bad. I bought a brown corduroy jacket similar to his. I would sing Pearl Jam songs repeatedly to get my voice to lower so I'd be able to hit the same notes he does, the same way he did. I used to tell my parents I wished I could be him. (I also felt this way, to a lesser extent, about Chris Cornell and later Billy Corgan.) It drove me crazy that, try as I might, I would never be able to shape myself in his image. I'd never have a deep, unmistakably male, singing voice. I was stuck as a short, scrawny, round-faced girl.

In a sense, I think what I felt is similar to how Owen sees herself in Isabel. Well, I don't think she ever says that directly, but it's pretty obvious. There's the scene where we see a shot of Isabel, centered in frame, walking through the forest.... which fades to a shot of Owen, centered, walking down the street. Also, Maddy notices it when they reunite in high school, right after Owen stumbles around a conversation about sexuality.

> "When I think about that stuff, it feels like someone… took a shovel and dug out all my insides. And I know there’s nothing in there, but I’m still too nervous to open myself up and check. I know there’s something wrong with me. My parents know it too, even if they don’t say anything."
...
> "Maybe you're like Isabel. Afraid of what's inside you."

And I mean... it's pretty evident that she's scared. She's completely unwilling to do even a little introspection, because whatever it is, it's "wrong". Compare that to Maddy, who two years ago was talking about boys with her ex-friend, but is now open about being a lesbian.

The ending though. God almighty that ending.

One thing about me is that even though I'm a trans guy, and I try to go about my life using a different name and different pronouns, I don't pass at all. I've "transitioned" in my social life, but people don't clock me as male unless it's low lighting and I'm wearing a ton of layers. I don't know what it's like to finally get gender-affirming medical care, whether it be hormones or surgery or what. I don't exactly know the euphoria people feel when they finally look in the mirror, a year into HRT, and finally recognize themselves in the mirror. Sure, I'm happier knowing I'm a man*, but an internal recognition cannot always overpower the constant reminder that people think I'm a sweet young woman.

That being said, I still know know how it feels to realize you've completely wasted years of your life pretending to be something you're not. I've written about this before, but after watching this film, it really clicked for me that I wasted four years of my life pretending to be a cis girl all because I wanted to stay comfortable. I felt like I would lose my friends, my boyfriend, and probably have problems with my parents if I came out. The only reason I actually came out was because all those things still happened, just for unrelated reasons. But still, when I think back on it, knowing how much happier I am having come out the closet, I can only imagine how much happier I would have been as a trans teenager.

How much better could it have been? I bet I wouldn't have left public school to do independent study. I would've been more confident talking to girls. I wouldn't have isolated myself because I felt like something was wrong with me. I never would've dated the guy I wasted my teenage years on. I probably would've had better social skills because I would actually talk to other people. Who knows, maybe by now I would have gone on T...

I'm sure later on I'll feel the same way about how I'm *still* putting off the decision to pursue HRT, but just my four lost years is enough to instill gut-wrenching horror seeing the jumps in time throughout this movie. Two years is bad enough, but I get it, it took me time to accept myself too... but then another eight years? Then twenty?

Like Owen, I'm too scared to take that chance, with the difference being that she couldn't even get past the initial introspection. After Maddy (or Tara) left her life, all she was left with was the question: Did I make the right choice? Somewhere, maybe deep in her subconscious, she knows that she's Isabel. But the conscious mind can't handle that and all its implications; the idea she would have to uproot her current comfortable-yet-dissatisfying life all for the chance that maybe, just maybe, this is the right decision? And she has no way of knowing, outside of that intense gut feeling that this is the right choice, that this is FOR SURE going to end well for her?

> I found myself wondering, what if she was right? What if she had been telling the truth? What if I really was someone else? Someone beautiful and powerful... someone buried alive and suffocating to death.

Owen settles for stability. For conformity. What's familiar, and mundane, and what's normal.

And it's killing here.

Still, the movie ends on "There is still time"...

I've been seeing a little rift in opinion when it comes to this line. "Does this line make the ending hopeful?" "No, that was the most bleak ending I've ever seen in my life..."

In my opinion... it's not a message of hope, it's a call to action. We don't know how Owen's story ends. All we know is that her egg cracked sometime in high school, maybe even junior high, but she never fully broke out of it. She's in her 40s now, working at a children's arcade, lips chapped to hell, weak from worsening asthma, and she is still living as a man named Owen. She realizes that she's dying, and then, for the first time in her life, opens herself up and checks to see what's inside. And she sees something that makes her finally smile.

And then she puts her uniform back on and apologizes to a bunch of strangers who don't care. Still wheezing. Still dying.

> He’s always messing with time and reality. He wants to rule the world, to trap Isabel and Tara in the Midnight Realm. So each week, he sends a new supernatural foe their way.
> Because they’re part of The Pink Opaque.
> No, because they are The Pink Opaque.
> Right, sorry...
> Don't apologize.

Admittedly, I'm not entirely sure what to think about that last bit with Owen, but it's not looking good for her. Does she escape the Midnight Realm in the end? Does she finally bury Owen in the ground and wake up as Isabel? Will there be a season six of the Pink Opaque? If you're fixated and feeling positive about the bathroom scene, then maybe. After all, one of the most difficult things for a person to do is to really look inside themselves. It clearly was difficult for Owen, as she said in high school. But she had several female figures in her life try to rescue her, and there is no more opportunity for that now. The last thing we see of Owen is her wheezing and apologizing. She sees something beautiful inside her, and then she closes herself up and goes back to her job. We are never going to know what happened to her.

To me, this is a wake-up call. This is a warning to any and all people who even have the slightest inkling that they might be trans to start exploring that thought. Look into your heart and find out who you are. Don't just sit and ignore it, don't reason your way out of it, and don't settle for what the world is telling you is normal. Be brave. Try on that dress. Try out some new pronouns. Change your name. See how it all feels. If you've been wanting it for this long, chances are it feels pretty good. If it doesn't, that's okay too.

[EDIT: Another thing to consider is that maybe the ending being "hopeful" or "not hopeful" isn't a helpful way to describe what's going on. The most uplifting part of the ending is Owen finally realizing what's inside her. Although just because you make the realization that you're trans, it doesn't mean that your life is suddenly sunshine and rainbows because of your self-discovery. It's called a transition for a reason; maybe the realization sparked the change, but now you've got to climb the mountain of acceptance and self-actualization. There is a lot of grief to unpack on that journey.]

Anywho, I think those are my thoughts on this movie... it was definitely a really painful watch, especially after hearing about so many trans sisters we've lost recently. At the same time, it makes me want to love and support trans women even more (which is really saying something if you know me). It's also making me consider calling to plan an appointment with a local trans healthcare program. I sure as hell feel like I need to get my act together. There is still time...

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