When I think about shifts within my understanding of who I am, my mind races towards Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.
In particular, the image of Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle making her grand début in British high society at the Ascot Racecourse. Eliza is wearing a dress made of white lace and draped with black-and-white bows at her legs, waist and chest. She is carrying a fancy umbrella — I somehow doubt it is effective against rainy weather — and is wearing a hat with fabric and red and pink flowers nestled on top of it, drooping to one side.
She is the picture of what a wealthy British woman should look like and yet, in a series of humorous moments, her behaviour betrays the performance to reveal her roots as a working-class flower girl who used to live on the streets of London.
The performance Eliza puts on somehow felt familiar to me. There was the desire to be someone else, the inner knowledge that you are destined for a fate much different and better than what has been seemingly decided for you.
Looking back on My Fair Lady now, there is much to discuss and critique about the depictions of women and class in the film — Henry Higgins is truly a nightmare of a man and I thankfully no longer have the desire to be a member of the British aristocracy — but 10 year-old me was more focused on Hepburn, her sheer charisma and warmth unparalleled. I remember staring right at the TV in my living room and desperately attempting to mimic her, dancing around the house and singing about feelings of joy, love and longing.
As Hepburn belted how she “could have danced all night,” I watched her with my own sense of longing too, but for what I had yet to put into words.
But even then I knew that these feelings were wrong. She was the definition of femininity and I was a little boy who should not be feeling any affinity or connection to her. I wanted so badly to take that longing and stow it inside of me, to make myself forget the safe and throw away the key. But it remained.
A few years later, I was 13 and had begun to access a vocabulary to help me understand why I was so enamoured with Hepburn. A teacher who gave me much support was Kurt Hummel from Glee.
Admittedly I am baffled and embarrassed by the degree to which I was a ‘Gleek,’ considering that it has aged poorly. Despite this, I cannot deny the importance that Kurt had in my life.
Kurt was so unabashedly different from all the other boys at McKinley High, with his love of musicals and distaste for sports, his high-pitched voice and effeminate body language, the very things I forced myself to hide so that no one would single me out from the other boys in my school. When I watched Kurt wear a divided suit — half masculine black tie, the other a glittery white with a fringed sleeve — and belt out the Julie Andrews classic, “Le Jazz Hot,” I strutted around my bedroom, partly hopped up on adrenaline and partly because I was terrified of what would happen if I stopped and realized what I was doing and feeling.
Loving Kurt Hummel, just like loving Eliza Doolittle, was something I needed to be ashamed of.
It’s ironic, then, that it was Mystique from the X-Men movies — whose comics I have not read, please do not yell at me — and Villanelle from the show Killing Eve, two Queer-coded anti-heroes, were the characters who helped me embrace my femininity.
Clearly, I was taking the mantra “Be gay, do crimes” to another level.
Mystique — played by Rebecca Romijn — and her shapeshifting powers which allowed her to manipulate and deceive her enemies. Villanelle — Jodie Comer — and her work as a high profile assassin who regularly indulges in luxurious clothes, decadent food and attractive partners. On the surface, Mystique and Villanelle are set up to be seen as additions in the storied line of openly feminine or Queer-coded villains who must be defeated by the heroes, the X-Men or MI6 agent Eve Polastri — Sandra Oh — respectively. But instead, they are adored by audiences for their skill, wit and style.
In fact, the texts of their show explicitly reveal how it is the world that these women live in that forces them to commit violent acts. Mystique is a blue mutant in a world that hates her people’s very existence while Villanelle kills with gusto as a way to fill the void in her life, partly created by psychological trauma from her youth including an affair with her French teacher. So when I watched Mystique or Villanelle on screen, I did not recoil or compartmentalize. Instead, I gradually allowed myself to embrace the femininity that made me love them so much.
I began to wear more makeup, I stopped trying to lower the tone of my voice and I never forced myself to hang out with boys for the sake of seeming like a ‘normal boy’ again.
I particularly connected with Mystique, who was proud of her skin colour and not ashamed of showing it, which appealed to me as a chubby brown boy.
Mystique and Villanelle each fight against a world that tries to limit their capabilities and desires. They attack that system and relish in every wound they inflict, embracing their femininity while they do so.
They inspired me to be brave by being myself.
In the first season of Killing Eve, there is a scene where Eve dons designer clothes and perfume that Villanelle sent her as a threat and an invitation. As Eve wears the clothes, you can visibly see her let its power overtake her as she gazes at herself in the mirror, intrigued and frightened by her beauty. It made me remember being 10, secretly modelling my older sister’s four-inch high heels, or coating my lips in a dark-purple lipstick I bought from a department store. In those moments, in pointed shoes and fancy makeup, I felt free and light like a warm gush from a geyser.
These inspirations only go so far but I think that, ultimately, I want to watch myself the same way that Eve does — finding pleasure in her femininity, even when everything around her is screaming at her to reject it, saying it’s too dangerous, ugly or deviant.
Because of Villanelle, Mystique, Eliza Doolittle and Kurt Hummel, I have learned to tune out those voices. Today, I wear lipstick to class and to parties, wrap chokers around my neck and paint my nails. I do not straighten my wrists or lower my voice.
I live for the little brown boy who could not express himself.