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Diego Luna Owes Me New Panties: The List of Five, the Female Gaze, and the Politics of Desire

2 Nov

I recently read for the second time at Atlanta’s Bleux Stockings Society, which is a live lit series featuring female and nonbinary voices. This month’s theme was “attraction.” 

There is a concept in some monogamous relationships called the List of Five. The idea is that each of you have a list of five people, typically celebrities, that you are allowed to sleep with, guilt-free, should the opportunity arise. I don’t know where this idea originated or where I heard of it, but I this it’s a cute exercise and I’ve had one for ages. Since this a show about attraction, here it is.

Diego Luna


I discovered Diego Luna in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. I’m not proud of that, necessarily, but I’m not ashamed either. Discovering Diego Luna in the Cuban-revolution-era sequel to Dirty Dancing is like meeting your significant other online prior to about 2005. Nowadays your grandma is on Tinder and Diego Luna was in Star Wars, but once upon a time we didn’t talk about where we met our partner, or where we first discovered Mexico’s most beautiful export.

I have a lot to say about this man but only 7 minutes, so let me just sum up: there is nowhere on earth I would not be willing to have sex with him. On a beach, in a hotel, under the sea, in an actual coffin, on the moon, in a stadium bathroom, I really don’t care, I would fuck him anywhere in the universe, Diego, do you hear me? Call me.

Diego Luna is the only person who has been on this list since its inception.

Tom Hardy


Speaking of Inception, did you know that Tom Hardy is in Marie Antoinette? He totally is, and he looks just as good in 18th century French attire as he does in a suit or whatever he’s wearing in that movie where he’s a convict.

Tom Hardy recently bumped Joseph Gordon-Levit off this list, so if JGL wants to join, and they want to engage in a little Arthur/Eames roleplay, which I like to believe they do anyway, I’m totally into it.

Chris Evans


Not only is he doing his level best to live up to Captain America’s mantle in his public life by calling out institutional -isms and vocally supporting good causes, his shoulder-hip ratio is the perfect demonstration of the inverted Dorito shape. I once saw him call President Trump a liar on Twitter, and it caused me to spontaneously ovulate.

Sebastian Stan


I have watched a couple of truly embarrassing movies because this man is in them. In one of them he’s a witch! And another guy punches him, and Sebastian Stan looks up from the punch sort of smirking like [here I demonstrated my best attempt at a sexy smirk] and it’s just OH MY GOD.

Daveed Diggs


Other than his ability to spit rhymes, I have little evidence to support my theory that he is great at dirty talk, but I believe in the scientific method and I would be willing to test my theory over and over and over again until the scientific community is as satisfied as I am.

Speaking of science, here’s a scientific fact: when Daveed Diggs smiles, the sun goes dim, realizing it has been tragically outclassed, yet the amount of light in the solar system remains the same.

The List of Five is ever-evolving. If you’d like to see some of the people taken off the list over the years, see me after the show.20181102_131646

[image reads:

  • Ryan Reynolds – plantation racially insensitive AT BEST + Deadpool sucked
  • Ryan Gosling – grew gross mustache for that movie I didn’t see
  • Kaidan Alenko from the Mass Effect video games – turns out he is not real :( 
  • Kara Thrace from Battlestar Galactica, Eomer from The Lord of the Rings, Tor from The Hero and the Crown – same problem
  • Steven Tyler – leftover crush from childhood. PROBLEMATIC AF
  • Aaron Taylor-Johnson – still would, but ONLY in Quicksilver costume from Age of Ultron
  • Seal – I would be overwhelmed with feelings and cry the whole time
  • Keiffer Sutherland – it is no longer 1987; he no longer looks like he did in The Lost Boys
  • Jason Momoa – eyebrows are more expressive than mine and I cannot abide that
  • Former President Barack Obama – disrespectful to Michelle to even consider this
  • Taylor Hanson – still would]

In the interest of equality, my husband Chris also has a List of Five:


[List reads:

  • Shakira
  • Shakira
  • Jennifer Anniston
  • Queen Elizabe II (“Power is sexy”)
  • Shakira]

I know this is a silly exercise. The idea that I’m ever going to have sex with Diego Luna is so far-fetched as to be ridiculous—and I probably wouldn’t even if I had the opportunity, list or no list, because I don’t like to share and I shouldn’t expect Chris to be OK with something I wouldn’t be if the situation was reversed. But fantasy is important, I think, especially for women, because so much of society is geared to the idea that women are to be objects of desire rather than subjects who desire. I can’t count the number of straight cis men who have told me, with great authority and confidence, that women should be objectified because women are just more attractive than men, as if the experience of straight cis men is not only more important than mine, but actively invalidates it. One time a routinely inappropriate coworker cornered me by the drink station just so he could tell me, “You have to admit, there’s nothing sexier than a woman when she comes.” Probably he was just trying to express to me how very concerned he was with female pleasure, as if that would magically make me stop being interested in my boyfriend of the time and be interested in him instead, but it sat wrong with me then and it sits wrong with me today. For one thing, hello, that’s wildly inappropriate work conversation. More to the point, though, my orgasm may be sexy for someone who’s attracted to me, but my partner’s enjoyment of my orgasm exists as a distant second to my enjoyment of my orgasm. Positing my pleasure as a creepy turn-on puts the onus on me to feel pleasure no matter how I feel or what my partner is doing, and to do so in the same performative way I am expected to do everything else in my life: for the consumption of men.

Are women beautiful? Yes, of course. So are men, so are enbies, so are agenders. Turns out the human body is a masterpiece of skin and muscle and fat and nerves and thoughts and feelings all bundled up into one incomprehensibly incredible package. And it turns out that sexual women are perfectly capable of feeling deep, overwhelming, stomach-churning, lip-biting, nipple-tightening, panty-soaking desire, despite modern US society declaring that we are “not visually stimulated” or “more invested in emotions” or whatever the fuck. Positioning cis men as the attracted and cis women as the attractive, with no room for deviation, not only invalidates trans and NB people altogether, it also places women as objects in our own lives, as passive vessels to be acted upon. And it creates a system in which, while women have lifetimes of beauty work to engage in and emotional baggage to carry around, cis men require so little effort to be seen as presentable, put-together, and attractive. Imagine that Chris and I put the same amount of effort into doing the same beauty routine. After washing our faces, brushing our teeth, dressing in khakis and a button-down shirt, and applying deodorant and a touch of scent, he is dressed in business fucking casual, whereas my low-maintenance ass is barely comfortable going to the mall. And DON’T get me started on prepping for a performance day. Now, is he attractive to me no matter how much effort he’s put in? Hell yes. Does he consider me attractive no matter how much effort I’ve put in? Yes. Does the rest of society consider us equally put-together given we spent the same amount of time on ourselves? No. Is that fucked up? Yes.

I’m not going to posit that wistfully fantasizing about the way Diego Luna bites his lip when he laughs is going to fix the gender gap, or stop sexism, or change the world. The Female Gaze is not an answer to institutional kyriarchy. I accept that. But I am going to posit this: reclaiming the right to feel attracted rather than just attractive, the right and ability to desire, is important. And it’s fun. And maybe it’s time more straight cis women started expecting straight cis men to put in a little more goddamned effort.


To Your Union, and the Hope That You Provide

4 Oct

Recently, as in two weeks after Dragon Con, my best friend got married. This was a big deal for many reasons, both obvious and not-so-obvious. There were rainbows. It was pretty great. I have a lot of feelings about the whole thing, but zero emotional power to parse them, so instead, here is the text of the speech I made.

I’ve known Caroline a very long time—long enough that I am used to calling them “Indigo,” the nickname we used when we were high schoolers whose idea of “delinquency” was skipping church youth group to hide in the bathroom and write stories. It seems fitting, then, that we each partnered up with the appropriate-gender version of the other: my husband is much like Caroline, in that both are subdued introverts who like solitude, tools, dogs, and obscure facts, and I call Kate “Mini-Me,” because we are, respectively, the Fun Sized and King Sized versions of the same enthusiastic, glittery, anxious candy bar.

Not long after Kate and Caroline started dating, I went to meet them both for lunch one weekday. It happened to be the day that Oberfell VS Hodges was decided, which effectively struck down all same-sex marriage bans in the US. The three of us gathered in Woodruff Park, eating our respective lunches—spoiler alert, Indigo had tacos—and enjoying the sunshine and celebrating the federal recognition of civil rights they should have had access to all along. I seem to remember that people around us were celebrating as well, but I may be misrembering based on how monumental a moment it was for us. As I sat there in the sunshine across from my best friend in the world and the woman they really liked, who I also really liked, celebrating the day that had sometimes felt like it would never come, I had what you might call a wild fancy that someday we might all be at this point. It would be a mistake to say that I knew we would. I didn’t. It was too soon for that, and I can’t see the future. But I hoped. And on the day of the solar eclipse, when I got what I believe is the first notification text, and ran around the Seattle airport crying and telling people “my best friend is getting married!” I couldn’t help but feel a little bit smug about being right. 

It hasn’t been an easy or a fun road for Caroline to get here, but here we all are, gathered together to not only share our love of these two, but also to eat tacos. So please raise your glass or your tortilla chip to Kate and Caroline. I’d like to quote a great philosopher: Nicole Cliffe, formerly of The Toast, who recently said on twitter that the secret to marriage is to always react like a cartoon wolf when you unexpectedly see your spouse without a shirt. I hope you will take that advice to heart. May your household never run out of your preferred drinkies and snackies, and may your marriage continue as your partnership has: in joy and respect and healthy communication and great love.

On Decluttering

19 Nov

A few months ago I finally pulled all my WIPs from my old computer, and spent an enormous amount of time reading through and sorting them out. It was a ton of fun. It was also a little surprising, because I didn’t hate most of them! I was baffled, though, because I remembered writing quite a bit more on most of them. I spent a lot of time looking for them: searching every conceivable turn of phrase through every device, swearing, moping, and feeling REALLY MAD about having lost all this stuff, but today it finally dawned on me to check my old journals. I dug them out of my hope chest, and lo and behold, I found everything I’d been looking for. I just never typed it. Some of this shit is really good! There’s at least two novels in here! I’m so excited!

And that, gentle readers, is why I’m never throwing anything away ever again.

Love Stories: I Love Them. But.

24 Oct

I like romance in my media.

It feels a little bit odd to type that like it’s revolutionary, because it’s hella not. Stories of romance have been around since the first cavelady got a prehistoric crush on the clan leader. Most of modern media is full of romance. Much of that romance is shitty, unhealthy, underdeveloped, and/or totally nonsensical. Much of it is aimed at female audiences to the exclusion of all other stories. There is a boatload of really valid, really good criticism and scholarship about this problem. Far too often, female characters only exist to be part of a romance. I totally understand the desire to see female main characters exist in stories without romantic components. I am super glad that neither Moana nor Jyn Erso ever kissed anyone on screen. I only ship Katniss Everdeen with years of intense therapy.

But I also really like romance, ya know?

I have a great husband who I not only love, but also like and respect. He loves me, and (tragically rare in heterosexual relationships) he likes and respects me too. We support each other in our separate endeavors and work together towards our joint goals. We play video games, harass our cats, share stupid jokes, eat too much junk, and sometimes even go to the gym together. We’ve been through some rough shit together. We enjoy each other’s company. We ease each other’s fears and take care of each other. Having him around makes life easier, better, and more fun for me. Plus? Also? I like sex. Getting down with myself is pretty swell, but having sex with another person is just the bee’s knees. Like let me tell you about the other night–wait, no, my mom reads this.

Again, I totally understand the criticisms levelled at the vast swaths of media where the single female character only exists as a prize for the hero. That trope is bullshit. As Princess Jasmine once said:

Fucking right you’re not, Jasmine. You’re a strong, independent princess who keeps a fully-grown tiger as a pet for some damn reason.

But what I’m saying is that I like having a good romantic life partner. It makes me happy. And when I’m enjoying the exploits of fictional characters, I want them to be happy too (eventually, as much as possible after much turmoil). To me, being happy included having a good romantic life partner. That’s not true for every real person, I realize, and it needn’t be true for every fictional character. But for me it’s true, and that’s what I tend to want in my fictional characters.

As a consumer, I seek out media with female main characters*. As a creator, I create female main characters almost exclusively**. Whether I’m consuming or creating, I want female characters that I can desperately and deeply relate to, and I want them to do several things:

  • have a goal (save the world, get tickets to a sold-out show, find her glasses–whatever it is, something that feels important to her)
  • fight like hell to achieve that goal, even if it changes
  • move the plot along in interesting and dynamic ways (related to point 2)
  • do something pretty cool (related to point 3)
  • have deep, important relationships with interesting and varied female friends
  • wear attractive but comfortable footwear (THAT MEANS NO GODDAMNED SPIKED HEELS IN ACTION SITUATIONS)
  • engage in consensual, mutually satisfying sexy-times appropriate to the audience

That seems like a long list, I guess? But it’s really not. Han Solo does most of these things. So does Peregrin Took. So does Sebastian the crab. None of them are even the main character. Most of this is just par for the course in creating a well-rounded character***. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Too many female characters in movies, books, TV, video games, comics, plays, whatever, are straight up not well-rounded. They are one-dimensional objects who exist to give the hero something to achieve, and the creator/audience something to project their fantasies on.

So yes, if that’s all your heroine is doing? If she can be summed up in one word, whether that’s “princessy,” or (God forbid) “badass,” “kickass,” “strong,” or any of their nonsensical ilk? Then fuck right off. I will take well-rounded, three-dimensional female characters who never go to Bone Town over some cardboard cutout of The Hero’s Reward any day.

But I really like romance in my adventures, and I don’t feel like I should have to pick one or the other. I want stories where the interesting, flawed lady protagonist gets to do interesting, awesome things while falling in love with an interesting, flawed other character. I want lady characters who fight to save the world/their friends/the MacGuffin/10% on car insurance while standing back to back with their supportive, competent, blisteringly attractive lover, both of them wearing sensible but flattering footwear.

There’s no fucking reason consumers should so often have to choose interesting female characters OR female characters who fall in love. I am sick to fucking death of it. Creators have got to do better.

Related: I should be working on my WIP.

Continue reading

Still Mad

29 Jul

In 6th grade, I placed into the gifted program.

The gifted class necessitated a couple of us leaving the regular Social Studies class halfway through*, which was its own special brand of hell for me: I placed in midway through the year, and was never convinced that everyone else knew I was supposed to be going with those kids now. I lived in abject terror that I was going to get up one day and people were going to ask me what the hell I thought I was doing. I missed a couple of classes because I was paralyzed with this fear.  When I finally managed to get there it was fine, mostly. I liked the regular teacher of the gifted class. She was tough but fair, she loved history as much as I did, she kept a handle on the other kids. Unfortunately she got sick, and we had a long-term substitute for a while. I don’t remember much about her–middle school was a goddamned chaotic time, all bullies and raging anxiety and terrible decisions, and my memories are not clear–except for two things.

The first is that she did nothing to stop the other kids from harassing me. Kids are mean. Kids who have been told they are smart are brutal. I was probably a pretty weird kid–I have no real frame of reference because everything seemed normal to me, but I was the third tallest person in the whole school, I carried my D&D Player’s Handbook around and tried to get people to read it so we could learn to play, I had a bad perm, I talked to myself**, I read all the time, I daydreamed constantly, I still sometimes chewed on pencil erasers when I got nervous. I was probably pretty weird. At the very least I was pretty visible. Because I had not yet learned that my size and strength give me power, they made me a target. This had been a problem for many years, and some teachers handled it better than others. The normal teacher in the gifted class handled it well. The long-term substitute teacher in the gifted class did not handle it at all. There were only like 8 or 9 students in the class. I don’t know if she didn’t realize or just didn’t care.

The second is that she made me read my story out loud.

For some reason we were assigned to write short stories, potentially as part of a unit on epic storytelling. I being, 10 or 11, crafted a wish-fulfilment first person fantasy tale wherein I had a talking dragon, a magic sword (with a name!), a handsome boyfriend, and an important quest. Was it good? Hell no. I was 10 or 11 and had attention problems. Stylistically it was a pastiche of the books I valued most at the time: Pern***, The Hero and the Crown, and the Sweet Valley/Girl Talk/Babysitters Club genre of Cool Older Girl Does Stuff books. It switched from 1st to 3rd person by the end, which I realized but was too lazy to fix. It opened with the main character yelling “MOM! WHERE IS MY MAGIC SWORD?^” I’m sure I tried to rip off Gone with the Wind at some point. It was a hot mess. But it was ambitious, and it was an assignment I completed on time, which put it well ahead of most things I did, and it made me happy.

I was nervous, because I wasn’t sure it was an OK story to write, but I was ready to turn it in anyway. Well, the long-term substitute did not want us to turn the stories in. She made us read our stories out loud, standing in front of the class. I don’t remember what this was supposed to teach us. I remember standing in front of peers who hated me trying to read a story with character names I couldn’t pronounce, I remember stammering and stumbling and paraphrasing so much the sub told me to sit down, I remember people staring at me with naked hatred on their faces, or openly laughing. I remember that two other kids had made me the bumbling antagonist in their stories. I thought one of them was my friend, but in her story I was not only a monster, I was half a monster and the other half was one of my biggest tormentors, a guy nobody liked. I remember the long-term substitute didn’t say a goddamed word about any of this. I remember she made me get up and read my story out loud again after everyone had read theirs. And I remember people laughed.

I didn’t even turn it in. I think I threw it away, but I was pretty dramatic; I might have flushed it down the toilet.

Everyone gets nervous when someone reads something they’re written, right? Right. It’s not a secret. I’m old enough and have practiced enough that by now it only makes me want to die a little bit. Maybe I could lapse into a coma until they’re finished and have come up with something good to say about it? That sounds perfect. Of course, I have to actually show someone what I’ve written first, and that doesn’t happen often^^. I don’t trace all my Writerly Insecurities back to this moment–don’t be ridiculous, they began much earlier–but I can tell you that It Did Not Help, and Yes, I Am Still Mad.

I remembered this today when reading a Facebook thread about school-age humiliations, and realized halfway through typing an abridged version that I was shaking with rage. Healthy? Probably not, but healthier than crying in the corner, I think. I just wanted to be the hero for once, rather than the butt of the joke. Yes I’m still mad. I’m mad as hell.

I’ve been reading a lot of old stories today, and writing a lot of fiction in the last several weeks^^^, and finding most of it good. I even revisited a WIP I’ve been struggling with for years, found it good, and found a lot of new energy for it. I get paid to write nowadays. It’s my job. I have a lot of hobbies and pastimes that let me be the hero AND the butt of the joke, because it’s not a bad thing to be both. I wish I could go back and tell that poor little kid who was me in 6th grade that it’s going to be ok.

Mostly though, I’d have a few words for that long-term substitute.


Continue reading

Musician, love thyself

7 Jan

The first song I learned to play on the guitar is a love song.

A friend of mine wrote it for the wedding of some of her friends, and then recorded it on one of the five albums she has filled with mostly original songs over her life so far. And then, when I was 32 years old and decided that I wanted to learn to play the guitar–for real this time, not like when I was a kid–she sat me down in her living room, handed me her battered old backup guitar, and taught me to play four chords as her kids ran around us. I dutifully wrote them own in the little notebook I had selected for this purpose–A, E, D, and G. I wrote down the order. I wrote down their fingerings–not in tab, but in a jargony shorthand of my own devising, based on nothing but the general sense of how things make sense to me, developed over 32 years of learning who I am and how that differs from who other people are. I wrote down everything she said about how to hold the guitar, how to press my fingers to the frets, how to hold the pick, how to strum. I wrote down the order of the strings, making a crude diagram where one side said “I am here” and the other said “this is my lap,” as if I am distinct from my lap.

I went home with her old guitar and I practiced diligently. At some point I started to hear an arrangement wanting to come out, and sitting on my bed in my peaceful bedroom with the blinds open to let in the light, I started to write it down on a piece of purple paper with a purple owl in the upper left corner. My notes are probably meaningless to anyone else; I don’t know, nobody else is allowed in here while I’m playing.

I’ve been making music since I was barely old enough to read. I started singing in a choir before my eight birthday. I took piano, I played the handbells and the flute all through school. I taught lessons for a hot minute (I was bad at it). I’ve sung professionally and semi-professionally, in college and in the community, on stage and on the street and in homes and in concert halls, with operas and sacred choirs and folk singers and theatre troupes, solos, duets, trios, quartets, sextets, ensembles. I even did karaoke. I hate karaoke, but that’s neither here nor there. Singing is as easy to me as breathing nowadays, but it wasn’t always–I struggled and worked and paid buckets of money to train to get where I am. I fought raging allergies, asthma (undiagnosed until my 20s), stage fright, bad technique learned from a bad director, attention problems (still undiagnosed, but I have my suspicions), crippling anxiety and depression, a world that wants everyone to belt for some godforsaken reason. I still fight those things, but they no longer stop me opening my mouth. I’m good at it.

But I don’t consider myself a musician. A singer, yes, sure, but that’s different somehow. Over the sixish months I’ve been playing guitar, I have explicitly invited mr. biscuit in to hear me play a song maybe twice. I have spent the rest of the time pretending he can’t hear me on the other side of the wall. Over Christmas my parents came to visit, and both they and my husband, the three most supportive people in my very supportive circle of loved ones, begged me to play something for them. I refused. Flat out. No. Don’t ask me to play music for you. I’m not good enough to show anyone. I will not be one of those youtubers making a video in their living room and earning pity likes. I will be amazing or I will sit in my room and cry over this battered old guitar while I try to play loud enough to drown out the voice telling me I am so bad at this, I’ll never be any good, I started too late, I have terrible technique, my hands aren’t strong enough, I don’t practice enough, I have no work ethic, I still have zero idea what to do with my strumming hand–how even do you strum pattern?–just shut up, shut up SHUT UP.

A few months ago, I played the first song I learned for the friend who wrote it and tauht it to me. I arranged it differently than she did–at first to cover the fact that I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around the strum pattern, but then after a while I realized I had taken a beautiful song and added beauty to it. When I played it for her my hands shook so hard I almost lost my grip on the guitar. “This is the lowest stakes environment imaginable,” she said to me, as we sat in plastic chairs in her backyard while her kids played on the swing set. I got through it. She smiled. She said she loved my arrangement. She said I was doing well.

mr. biscuit says I am doing well, but he’s biased–of all people he has spent the most time picking up the pieces of my depressive spirals, he probably just wants to make me feel better (a wretchedly unfair assessment, both to him and to me and our trusting, loving partnership). Intellectually I know that I have progressed, but is “better than when began” really something to be proud of? It would be difficult to be worse at guitar than I was when I began. I came to it with some advantages: two decades of musical training; long fingers with all the strength and dexterity of two decades of typing; muscle memory and ear training from playing the flute (half forgotten, but only half); hunger to create music that I hear in my head and my heart. But still. I’m better than I was–so fucking what. Spare me the “compare yourself to the artist you were” sentiments–they only apply to other people. People who are hard working, persistent, diligent, who didn’t waste all their talents and opportunities when they were younger. People I like. People who are worthy of being liked.

There is a moment in any given guitar practice when my heart breaks and I start to cry, my head sagging over the body of this battered old guitar as I struggle to keep moving my hands against the tide of doubt and self-hatred that is choking me. It doesn’t always happen. It happens enough, though.

I’ve started practicing with the door open*, though, and that’s something.

*not today. Today it’s 30 degrees outside and the central heat is borked, so I’ve got the bedroom door closed to help the space heater along. It’s toasty warm and bright in here; mr. biscuit is happily ensconced in the dark, cold living room. He is at least 30% cave bear.

In Defense of RENT

19 Feb

The other day I heard someone compare RENT to politics, to wit, “If you don’t love RENT when you’re a teenager, you have no heart; if you don’t identify with Benny when you’re an adult, you have no brain.” Just like being a liberal versus being a conservative, apparently continuing to believe in art, love, friendship, and diverse representation in media after the age of 25 makes you an idiot.

People of the internet, I will not have it. If you find yourself identifying so strongly with Benny as an adult, maybe you need to take a step back and look at why your priorities changed.

RENT was huge. RENT was a phenomenon, like unto Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis in scale and cultural reach. Unlike those shows, though, it puts its money where its mouth is. Let’s look at the diversity of the cast—of the eight main characters, three are women, five are people of color, one is Jewish, four are living with HIV—and then there’s Angel, who is either trans* or a drag queen, but either way is a male-born individual who uses female pronouns. The casting breakdown requires actors of color in the roles of Angel, Collins, Joanne, Benny, and Mimi (while leaving Roger, Mark, and Maureen open for interpretation), and specifically calls for further diversity in the chorus. There are three romantic relationships, all of them are interracial, and only one of them is a “traditional” male/female coupling. RENT passes the Bechdel test (which, for instance, Hamilton does not). It passes the Racial Bechdel Test (is there a better name for this?). It passes the Sexuality Bechdel Test (there must be a better name, seriously).

From where I’m sitting as a former suburban teen, RENT helped open the eyes of suburban teens. Along with a lot of other media of our youth, I credit it with our generation’s increased/increasing acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, AIDS awareness, diversity, and representation. Of the dozens of visionary figures cited in La Vie Bohème, only seven are straight white cis men, and of those, Bob Dylan is culturally Jewish, Václav Havel is Eastern European and therefore not historically considered white, and Pee-Wee Herman is Pee-Wee Herman. RENT also said, loudly and repeatedly, that it was ok to prioritize love, friendship, and art over money. It was more than ok—it was important, and good for us, and we were good people even if we weren’t getting an MBA. Music, dance, film, theatre, writing, painting, sculpture—all these things are worth studying, worth practicing, worth time and energy and effort. This is the beginning of the argument for paying professional artists a livable wage.

Is it dated? Of course it is; it came out 20 years ago. Is it perfect? No, of course not. From either an artistic or representative perspective, RENT has problems. Maureen exists so Jonathan Larson could take pot shots at an ex-girlfriend—it pleases me to see the immense popularity of the character as a giant middle finger to men who feel the need to eviscerate women who leave them. Angel veers into moments of walking, talking symbolism. “Contact” is fucking terrible, and cutting it was the best decision they made in the terrifically bad movie. The ending is treacly nonsense. A number of changes that should have been made in previews didn’t get made because the creative team was too devastated by Larson’s tragic death to see clearly.

But RENT is not, as some would have it, a naïve fantasy of bullshit where Benny is secretly the hero fighting against the stupid artists trying to muck up the world even farther. Let’s look at Benny, actually, since you’re all so keen to ally yourselves with him. At the beginning of the musical we learn that he used to live with Roger, April, Mark, Collins, and Maureen, sharing a giant industrial loft in the rougher parts of NYC circa the late 80s. He married into money, bought the building, and magnanimously declared that his friends could remain living there for free. A year later, at 9:00 PM on Christmas Eve, he calls and demands a year’s worth of rent immediately. “Rent, my amigos is due, or I will have to evict you. Be there in a few,” he threatens them. I’m in a two-income household with no kids, good credit, and some savings, and I couldn’t come up with a year’s worth of rent in a few weeks, much less a few hours. Is this legal? Yes, because apparently verbal contracts aren’t legally applicable in real estate (you learn something new every day). Is it sleazy and dickish and horrible? Why yes. Yes it is. At this point Roger and Mark are the only people still living in the apartment, though there are plenty of others in the building. They are broke. Roger is HIV positive, is a recovering drug addict who has just come back “from half a year of withdrawal,” and is clearly suffering severe depression from when “his girlfriend, April, left a note saying ‘we’ve got AIDS’ before slitting her wrist in the bathroom.”

Can we talk about AIDS? Nowadays, if you live in a first world country and have the money and/or insurance, HIV is not a death sentence. It is possible, with the correct medicinal cocktail, to have an undetectable viral load. It is entirely feasible to contract HIV, live for decades and die of old age. In the late 80s, when RENT is set, that was most assuredly not the case. Where we live now, we’re fortunate enough that AIDS is more like contagious diabetes–dangerous, expensive, a giant pain in the ass, but survivable. In the 80s and 90s, it was more like getting attacked by a polar bear. You could manage for a while, but you were going to die, slowly and painfully and probably alone. I draw your attention to the refrain at the Life Support meeting, repeated over and over:

Will I lose my dignity?
Will someone care?
Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?

Roger is going to die, very soon. Under the multiple handicaps of poverty and the lingering scars of drug addiction, as well as the self-sabotage not uncommon in the sort of severe depression that keeps a person from leaving their home for a full 12 months, he has a few years left to him, maybe, and how many of those will be good years, as opposed to years racked with the disease that ravages your body after HIV leaves it defenseless? He’s in his early to mid 20s, and his imminent death looms over him every second of every day.He is probably also the one who gave April the virus, given the mechanics of the way the virus passes between heterosexual partners, so he’s drowning in guilt for that too.

Knowing this, Benny shows up on Christmas Eve and demands his friends pay him a full year’s rent immediately, lest they be evicted. That night, after they refuse his demands, he has the power shut off and locks them out of their apartment. In the middle of the winter. In New York City. After promising them they could stay for free in the building he owns. This would be a dick move for anyone, much less a guy whose friend who is literally dying.

Does Benny have his good qualities? Of course, just as Angel has his faults. Benny pays for Mimi to get the inpatient rehab she desperately needs, and he pays for Angel’s funeral when Collins can’t. He also has vision for Cyber Arts, and the cleaning up of the neighborhood. “Do you really want a neighborhood where people piss on your stoop every night?” he asks in the lead up to La Vie Boheme. Nobody wants that, of course, and I hear that a lot as justification for his actions when he clears the tent city next to the building.

Riddle me this: where do the homeless people there go when they are forcibly removed from their makeshift shelters in the dead of winter?

I’ll wait.

Homelessness is not solved by shoving homeless people into a different neighborhood anymore than you’ve cleaned your room if you hide all your stuff under the bed. It’s true, as Benny says, that “Any owner of that lot next door has a right to do with it as he pleases.” When Collins replies “Happy birthday Jesus,” you’ll note that Benny shuts down and starts yelling. He’s defensive and angry—because he knows Collins is right. He knows he’s not solving anything. He’s not finishing his vegetables, he’s just moving them around his plate and then asking for dessert. And so do you. Benny is not shy about using his money to do good on a personal scale, but he either can’t or won’t see the big picture here.

Benny has turned into the kind of person we all bitch about—the guy who comes in to a neighborhood, tears everything down, and builds condos nobody can afford, with zero regard for the people who are already living there. Benny has lost his way. He has a ton of money and influence, and rather than try to really improve the city in which he lives and the lives of others there, he is kicking out people who have no recourse, no money, and literally nowhere to go. If you love that character so much, I have great news—he’s everywhere! Check out any major US city! He’s buying homeless people one-way bus tickets to other cities, putting spikes on the ground in doorways, removing benches, locking public restrooms, and arresting people who give out food in city parks! He’s even “remodeling” Manuel’s Tavern! Benny’s tactics for cleaning up the neighborhood are short-sighted. They are harmful. They are bad.

Mark and Roger get a lot of criticism for the way they live, for their insistence on making art that is legitimate and fulfilling and true to them rather than, in Mark’s case, keeping a shitty job at a tabloid shilling such journalistic excellence as “vampire welfare queens who are compulsive bowlers.” If you’ve never had a job that made you feel sleazy, or like you were making the world an objectively worse place, or just bad, I don’t know what to say to you except “congratulations,” and maybe also “screw you, you lucky shit.” Roger, as we covered, is actively dying. Mark isn’t, but he deeply loves several people who are, and two who do. He is just as aware of his mortality as they are, and wracked with survivor’s guilt, and in light of that, his priorities make perfect sense. If you were staring at a clock ticking down your remaining time on earth, wouldn’t it change your behavior?

You don’t have to like RENT. You don’t have to like anything. But you don’t have to stop liking RENT because you are older now than you were when you first loved it. You can see Benny’s point without agreeing with his tactics. You can shake your head at Mark for disregarding his family’s concern, or roll your eyes at Maureen’s theatrics, or whatever you want, but nowhere is it written that being an adult means we have to stop prioritizing love, friendship, compassion, activism, art, caring for people other than ourselves and our immediate circle.

And finally, let me leave you with some of the closing lines of Act 1, which are still some of the most important in my life.

Revolution, justice
Screaming for solutions,
Forcing changes,
Risk, and danger
Making noise and making pleas!
To faggots, lezzies, dykes
Crossdressers, too!
To me!
To me!
To me!
To you, and you, and you, you, and you!
To people living with, living with,
living with
Not dying from disease!
Let he among us without sin
Be the first to condemn!
La Vie Boheme!

Viva La Vie Boheme!

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