Friday, November 18, 2016

Courtney Milan's HOLD ME

My first exposure to transexual identity came, as I'm sure did many cisgendered folks' of my generation, via Neil Jordan's 1992 film The Crying Game. IRA volunteer Fergus promises to seek out the girlfriend of a British soldier his group has kidnapped if the soldier should be killed. The soldier does die (although not at Fergus's hands), and he eventually does seek out the girlfriend, who is named Dil, in London. Of course, Fergus begins to fall for Dil. Only when they are about to make love (about midway through the story) does the film reveal to both Fergus and the audience that Dil is transgender, in a visceral visual way.

The "big reveal" as spectacle, and the reveal/revulsion of the hero (and viewer)
Marketing for the film positioned this secret as the heart of the film: "The movie that everyone's talking about, but no one is giving away its secrets." Though the film itself is far more subtle, its structure cannot but help construct transgender identity as a secret, a secret so shocking (at least to the cisgendered) that it makes the viewer (identifying with seemingly straight Fergus) throw up in revulsion. It also positions transgender identity as a spectacle, a display that titillates even as it shocks. Even though by film's end, Fergus sacrifices himself on behalf of Dil, thereby validating Dil's identity and existence, it can never quite overcome the distaste of that initial moment of reveal/revulsion. What reviewers talked most about (or tried not to give away) was the secret of Dil's trans-ness; the shock of the big reveal, rather than the film's story as a whole, was what made the movie worth talking about.

Romances featuring transwomen often struggle with that burden established by The Crying Game's precedent (see for example Brian Katcher's YA Almost Perfect). How can you depict trans lives without turning them into spectacle, without making the romance at its heart be about the big secret, the big reveal? Which is why I found Courtney Milan's latest contemporary, Hold Me (book #2 in her Cyclone series) such a pleasure to read. Milan blows right by this "cis-person's burden" of trans-ness as spectacle by making the central problem for her heroine not the revelation of her trans identity, but instead the problematic ways other peoples' responses to that identity have shaped her, and her ability to trust in love.

The first meeting between sexy, gorgeous Maria Lopez and super-brainy physicist Aroon (aka Jay) na Thalang is a definitely meet-cranky. Maria comes to Berkeley in search of her brother, who has just joined Jay's lab. But the driven, demanding Jay has no time for distractions, especially one who looks as hot as does the stranger knocking on his door. "What are you selling, anyway? Lab supplies? Amway?" Jay's sexist rudeness catches Maria a bit off-guard, but when her always-late brother Gabe finally appears and formally introduces her to his friend/boss, her sharp tongue returns with a vengeance:

     "Did you know Jay's working on a top secret project for the Department of Defense? He uses invisible radiation to turn himself into an asshole."
     Gabe looks at me, then at his friend, then back at me. "I'm missing something."
     "Don't worry, little brother." I pat Gabe's shoulder. "His terrible transformation only happens around women. You're safe." (Kindle Loc 171).

Maria is used to having to deal with Gabe's "good guy" science friends, friends whose unthinking sexism leads them to dismiss or condescend to her, assuming that she's an intellectual lightweight. But unbeknownst to Gabe or to Jay or to any other male in the academic community, Maria is the writer of a science/fiction blog that is de rigeur reading for anyone with scientific chops. The blog, built around the premise that its writer is someone from the future who sends instructions back to the present to help people avoid apocalyptic events that threaten human existence, was Maria's way to keep her brain engaged between high school and college, during the years she was working to save up for surgery and hormones. Obnoxious Jay, who tells her during their first meeting that she needs to stop "distracting" her brother so he can focus all his energies on scoring a tenure-track job: "And look at you. You took a selfie with your brother. You're a girly-girl. You care about hour hair and clothes and pop culture. I've seen too many of my good friends struggle to get jobs. You don't know this market" (231). But Maria is proud to be a girly-girl, and won't let Jay reduce her to merely a "distraction," especially not to her brother, who was the only family member who has stood by her during her gender identity journey.

Enemies in person, lovers in print:
James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan
in Ernst Lubitch's Shop Around the Corner
Needless to say, Maria and Jay's in-person relationship only continues to go downhill as the two end up running into each other at every turn over the next few months. But in a Shop Around the Corner/You've Got Mail trope-move,  the commenter on Maria's blog with the moniker "Actual Physicist," the commentator with whom she's been corresponding and flirting with offline for the last eighteen months, is none other than her brother's boss, Jay na Thalang.

Milan not only rejects the big reveal of Maria's trans identity (Jay has had both boyfriends and girlfriends, and seems pretty unfazed when Maria tells him about her parents' rejection of her after she announced her desire to live as a girl at the age of twelve). She also rejects the secrecy that the Shop Around the Corner trope often demands: that even after one party discovers the real identity of their "pen pal," they must keep their own identity hidden from the one who has yet to learn the truth. For ultimately, what is keeping Jay and Maria apart is not the secrets they are keeping from one another, but the past traumas that have disrupted their relationships with their families of origin, traumas that have made both wary of trusting others with their most vulnerable selves.

Learning to trust is not about keeping secrets, and it's not about any big reveal, Milan's story suggests. Instead, it is about recognizing one's own blind spots (Jay coming to realize his own unthinking sexism; Maria recognizing her refusal to rock the boat so that she won't be rejected by those she loves). And above all, it's about the long series of small reveals, the everyday sharing of self with other, that builds a foundation of trust.

Photo credits:
The Crying Game: Deep Focus Reviews
Girly Girl t-shirt: Busy Bus
Shop Around the Corner: Film Forum

Hold Me


  1. Looking forward to reading this one.

    My husband and I had the same reaction to "The Crying Game" -- *what* secret? I guess a lot depends on where you grew up...

    1. Yes, and whether transgender identity was recognized by the community in which you were raised.

  2. I've been looking like for a place like this for some time. I am an avid fan of romance, but I have lately been thinking about the negative aspects of romances, especially the harlequin ones. Every time I read those horrid rapey romances I am reminded of the SVU comment "no means yeas and yes means anal." I read an article that said romance novels cultivate women to think abuse is romantic and makes it difficult for them to escape such relationships or even recognize them to begin with? I wonder what your thoughts are regarding that?
    Two series I would like to recommend to anyone out there are the Elder Races and The Dragon kin series. They are really amazing.

    1. Hi, Sana, and welcome! Thanks for stopping by, and for adding your thoughts. I agree with the article you mention, that many romance novels "cultivate women to think abuse is romantic." But there are a lot of other romances out there that do not follow that pattern. Which is what this blog is all about--highlighting those books that engage with feminist ideas, rather than encourage women to be at the mercy of their romantic others.

      I read the first book in the ELDER RACES series, but didn't care for its passive heroine and uber alpha hero. Have you found later books in the series offer more active female leads?

    2. Jumping in to say that while I have a love/hate relationship with the Elder Races series overall, mostly because of the over-the-top alpha heroes, I ADORE Oracle's Moon (book 4). It does a great job addressing class within the paranormal setting, and the ramifications of ultra-rich immortal beings storming into mortal lives, expecting them to drop everything to help with whatever supernatural crisis and leaving chaos (and, often, expensive damages to repair) in their wake. I found the heroine of that book to be absolutely stellar. You may want to give it a try.

    3. Thanks, Elena, for the info. I'll give it a try!

  3. I am a longtime reader of C Milan, and have had nothing but praise for her work. What tripped me up in Hold Me wasn't the physicality of trans aspect of the story. It was that character being presented as an advocate for and example of women's capabilities in the STEM fields.

    I am unreservedly thrilled when a female character, especially in the romance genre, is shown as someone capable of intellectual rigor. In this case it was set up as a major part of the plot - that's the aspect Milan uses to ignite and escalate the conflict between her and the professor - so when she revealed the trans aspect, it felt like bait and switch. I don't think that was the author's intention - maybe I was supposed to examine my assumptions about where gender originates (in the brain or body), but it felt like instead of a brilliant and capable STEM woman making the point, her brother stepped out from behind the curtain. Somehow my brain blew a fuse over that. I felt sucker punched, like my chair at the table of STEM was pulled out from under me just as I sat down.

    I hesitate to say anything critical about Milan's work, because she is my gold standard for intellectual, politically aware, diverse, courageous, and believable female characters. Above all, I want her to keep writing. That said, this has really bothered me, and I appreciate a venue to comment on it in a thoughtful manner.

    I've read your blog for some time now and I'd like to take this opportunity to say how much I appreciate your search for equality in romance, and for leads on writers and books that will appeal to me.

    1. Thanks, Virginia. I hadn't thought of the book in terms of it being a betrayal of sorts in advocating women in STEM. Because, I think, I didn't think of Maria as a man at any point in the novel, even after her trans identity was revealed. But I can definitely see how one might find the revelation troubling.

      My two most recent posts are about women in STEM; hope you check them out!

    2. Virginia, I do understand where you're coming from, but I have to point out... believing that Maria doesn't count as a woman in STEM because she's not *really* a woman is a form of transphobia. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if Milan wrote the situation in that way specifically so some of us would have to face our internalized transphobia.

    3. Willaful: Thanks for bringing up this issue. You've certainly made me think harder about my response to this novel, and my response to Virginia's comment, in terms of internalized transphobia. I'm still working out in my own head how to incorporate trans issues into my feminist beliefs about non-binary constructions of gender. Lots more thinking and reading and discussing to be done for me, for certain.

      I'm wondering if there are meaningful distinctions to be made between trans-ignorance, or lack of knowledge/familiarity about trans identity & issues, and transphobia? One (lack of knowledge) can certainly lead to the other (fear), but must/does it always?

      Or does this distinction in intention not matter, since the actions that stem from ignorance and those that stem from fear are too often similar?

    4. I did wonder if transphobia was the most accurate word to use, but couldn't think of a better one. But I do think it's more than ignorance. We can learn a lot without being able to completely rid ourselves of our ingrained cultural biases.

  4. Jackie,
    Your response ‘I didn't think of Maria as a man at any point in the novel,’ helped me realize that part of my confusion was that her identify had not been as seamless for me. As a reader coming from an exclusively cisgender experience, my brain bounced around as I tried to grapple with the questions it raised. My inner dialogue ran something like ‘She’s female, formerly male? Wait, she’s a continuum, born with a male body while identifying as female, who became by choice with surgical intervention congruently female? Is that right? How does the trans community define this? How does this work with the notion male brains are somehow wired for math?” At which point it all crashed into the author’s positioning of Maria an advocate of woman with a capacity for STEM. For me, as a reader, the ‘fictive dream’ aspect of the story collapsed under the weight of these different elements.
    I appreciate the civility of your tone and am grateful you assumed benign intent on my part.

  5. Willaful,
    I Googled up transphobic to be sure I understood what you meant and the first definition is ‘Intense dislike of or prejudice against transsexual or transgender people.’
    I qualify as ignorant, not hostile. I am still unclear regarding if and how the brain is wired for gender, and what this means regarding aptitudes for math (or nurture for that matter). Whatever the current scientific opinion/facts may be, we can perhaps agree that they are unlikely to be the irksome societal prejudices, expectations and assumptions that have cast a pall over my lifetime.
    I’m open to learning more.

    1. Look beyond that first definition. Prejudices aren't necessarily hostile or even intentional. We are all products of our society.