I have one list on my Letterboxd account, an inside joke with myself: “movies men made me watch.”
Some of the titles are more incriminating than others, but the assemblage tells an embarrassing story either way. Fight Club. Superbad. American Beauty. American Psycho. Birdman. Safety Not Guaranteed. Inglourious Basterds. When Harry Met Sally. The Shawshank Redemption. It. Casablanca. Garden State. Pulp Fiction. Whiplash. The Social Network. Nearly all of Christopher’s Nolan’s filmography.
The app was described to me as a film bro’s version of Goodreads, which was mostly true in the sense that I gave up after one glorious day of obsession. The act of downloading it was just another symptom of my sad affair with archivism during the early months of life on hold—I’d do anything to catch some bit of the time streaming right through all my nets. But I wasn’t really even watching movies anymore; it felt too reminiscent of the life at Brown I was freshly mourning.
My enduring memories from that first year on campus are all lit by color-changing LED light strips. The emotional contour of those nights rarely varied: the thrill of being invited into a male space, the life-ending embarrassment of fumbling with a lighter, then always the odd game of attempting to focus my swiftly waning lucidity on Mulholland Drive or The Big Lebowski. It’s not that I was reaching towards “Cool Girl” status (at least not in the terms of the infamous Gone Girl monologue: that epiphany had already come and gone for me in high school) by partaking in this ritual and humoring its arbiters. But I did very much want to be smart, and to belong. So I spent all my Thursday evenings fighting feeling too high, or wishing I was more high, and protesting whatever was on our watchlist just enough to prove I could think.
The quarantined summer after that, though, I discovered a new world of possibility. It was July, not the sticky, awful Jersey City version I grew up in, but a glimpse of the kind of high summer I’ll romanticize forever: one set on water, with windows worth looking out of, and an abiding sense that everything worth doing can be done on a porch. After five months of unlearning (the hard way) how to look forward to things, I made plans that actually happened: an entire week with one of my female friends in somebody’s family’s empty lakehouse. It was my first time seeing her since being co-conspirators for all those dorm room movie nights. Both of us owned our own weed now. We joked about this character development, declaring that we’d seized the means of production.
And then we did what we’d always done: smoke and watch something. I think that hour and 52 minutes of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was the highest I’ve ever been, but even more than the colors and noise and lights, I was transfixed by how much I now despised the movie.
"Wait, why was that so awful?” We just sat there as it ended, slack-jawed at the desecration of a mutually beloved story. But in our shared recognition of a shitty male directoral gaze, we recognized one another, somehow. The shock dissolved into delight—we gleefully mocked Scott, reveling in an unfamiliar freedom to criticize without performing. And something else was seeded, too: the singular joy of smoking weed without cis men.
This still feels like a wonderful secret. Sometimes getting high with femme people feels simply like softening my own edges, being sanded down to a self with fewer anxieties and a higher threshold for giggling, or else like diverting the fragile raft of myself from its home on rapids to some gentler, easier channel. But the other effect is to make my mind slippery, seal-like, briefly unaccountable for all the learned fictions that tacitly rule my sober logic. The omnipotent self-doubt voice goes quiet. In other words, smoking weed now feels like the closest I get to knowing how I might think in some parallel universe without a gender binary.
Here’s the other thing: it’s in the context of movies that the theory really proves itself. Take that rare mental elasticity to the fabric of any film, and you’ve found yourself an awfully sharp blade.
What I’m trying to say is I just find it ridiculous that I’m still kicking that earliest habit of needing men. What I’m trying to say is I’ve spent almost every chapter of my life learning and forgetting and learning again that I like almost everything better without them. But as a beloved female film critic puts it, this is a problem that kneecaps me constantly. When you write against something, you lend it strength and space and time.
The more I hold these questions—the more they hold me—the less I can separate any of it from being queer. That is the original fantasy of female queerness, after all: what if it could be just us, no boys allowed? Lately, I can’t stand the way that maleness operates, and is wielded, and is always, always about positionality; I wonder if that’s enough to decide I’m uninterested in men, full-stop. If sexuality isn’t a choice, I still get to be intentional about who I give my care to, though the lines between these things feel blurrier than ever. But I had a Bisexual Pride! button pinned to my backpack until a few nights ago; I’m clearly still arriving to all of this.
I can already feel myself backing off from such a ledge, and not just because I know a few male people I plan to keep around (though I must admit a lot of those people are related to me). Nevertheless, I now know at least one kind of utopia.
Like this past weekend: magic. Eight of my favorite femmes and I made a break for it, flung ourselves as far southeast as we could. The whole trip felt suspended in strange new rules, or maybe the absence of them. What if male characters didn’t have to be part of the story? What if they didn’t lend legitimacy or weight or anything else? We filled a kitchen with market share vegetables and put our naked bodies in the Atlantic and danced and danced and danced, and nothing was missing. The very quality of light was different, warmer, more generous. Maybe that’s what it means to feel held by the people around you instead of examined—I’m still learning to notice this. And when we smoked and watched Rocky Horror Picture Show, I decided to start another Letterboxd list.