I am a 23-year-old heterosexual male, but I often feel like a 16-year-old girl. And I like that.
I feel that special way when the first chorus hits in Taylor Swift’s “Dear John” or any time I reread the beginning of the chapter in Blake Nelson’s Girl in which Andrea describes learning how to smoke. It’s the same effect I get when I spend too much time on the Teenage Bedroom Tumblr or reread Cory Kennedy blog posts from 2006. I am enamored with adolescent self-discovery in pop culture, specifically what’s often called “girl power.” Boy stuff usually bores me.
I have a few female friends who will never let me forget the rooftop party where three equally tough dudes and I showed cracks in our totally masculine outer-layers by eagerly discussing Rory Gilmore’s love life amongst ourselves. This was years after Gilmore Girls ended.
I saw Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never in 3D. I loved it.
A lot of people in my life—both male and female—doubt the sincerity of my enthusiasm for bratty or lovelorn pop music, women’s colleges, movies about high school or Chloë Sevigny. Some see it as a pose—liking girl things to get girls or fashion blogs to look at pretty faces—but I know my intentions are pure, and even partly academic. There’s no group as interesting to think about, observe and interact with as the American girl, from what you all consume culturally to what you make yourselves.
I know that Weetzie Bat and Heathers are more imaginative and in touch with adolescence than any book or movie for boys I grew up reading or watching. Even those considered messes in popular culture—the Mileys and Lindsays—are interesting to me as more than train wrecks. I appreciate their clothes and confidence, but also their insecurities and what those say about growing up at this time in America—and about fame, femininity and family.
I always related more to the neurotic and unsure Rory Gilmore than to any of the slick guys she went out with. And the energy in Rory’s relationship with her mom is magnetic to me, far more so than the cold way most men relate to one another, on or off of television. I spent many high school psychology classes tapping the girl in front of me on the shoulder and asking her to explain what happened in that week’s episode, not only because it helped me, at 15, speak naturally to a person of the opposite sex, but because I genuinely wanted to know.
I was probably practicing with my subpar punk band when those episodes aired. I thought that’s what boys who didn’t play sports were supposed to do. As I grew into a teenager, I tried to act harder than I was and embrace the popular culture I believed boys were meant to enjoy: if not high school athletics, then guitars, skateboarding, video games and blondes in bathing suits.
The guys and I—best friends, but somewhat distant emotionally, a contradiction I’ve never felt in my friendships with women—were very concerned with seeming authentic while we tried to figure ourselves out. Things that were flashy or aimed at a mainstream audience were thought of as fake, and usually that happened to be girl things. To assert dominance, we put that stuff down. Realness, to us, was thought of as a strict code and meant playing your own instrument, acting like you knew everything and never seeming too emotional. We made mixtapes for girls because we thought it was our job to tell them what to like. Singing well and dancing were thought of as feminine and somehow lesser, although now it’s obvious to me that the talent level involved is the same if not greater than what growling while acting gruff requires.
No Doubt was the first group whose entire career I owned on CD, but I was self-conscious about it. When my dad dropped me off in front of the record store and I came out holding Return of Saturn—its neon cover complete with tubes of lipstick, pink wigs and the planet’s rings resembling a rainbow—I was scared he would think I was gay. The boys I knew didn’t understand my love for a female-fronted band either. “Just a Girl” was the first song I ever learned to play on guitar, but from then on, it was all men—my band mates said the girly stuff had to go if we were going to succeed in high school.
Among the boys, my insecurities were always greater: Did I like the coolest books, movies and music? Was I interested in the right girls? Could I play my instrument well enough? I could never convince them, or therefore myself, that power could be stylish, sexy and vulnerable, like a really good performance by Stevie Nicks or Courtney Love. So I tried to reject that kind of excitement, even when I felt it. To show I was “serious” as a teenager, I would scoff at my mother and sister for buying a copy of US Weekly or a pop record. But now Beyoncé’s 4 is my favorite album of the year (the accompanying YouTube documentary is even better), and if you gave me a who’s-dating-who celeb pop quiz, I would ace it.
Growing up, the ongoing sense of competition among boys served the same purpose as the distortion on our guitars: to cover weakness like blanket. Today I’m happy to be considered giddy, honest and sensitive.
Of course, I recognize the challenges and disadvantages that come with being a girl too. There are examples of discrimination and double-standards at every turn, and outward emotions are still too often looked down on as weak or needy. But I still envy the openness and passion that girls seem to have, and I like to tap into that with old Madonna movies, teen pop stars like Sky Ferreira and YouTube interviews with Kim Gordon.
And so I’m proud to say that my idols in attitude, and my favorites in entertainment, tend to be female. I used to be shy about it and hide my real intentions. I had magazine cutouts of Gwen Stefani on my wall, but I was scared to say why. She was not, as my mom, dad and friends believed, occupying my boyhood fantasies; I just thought she was really, really cool.
Eventually I moved away from the dudes I grew up with. It wasn’t so much that I left them—we all matured, and sometimes I miss pretending to live life like Stand By Me—but leaving the sites of my own early embarrassments and uncertainty allowed me to explore my interests without fear of judgment. The girls in college always let me watch The L Word with them.
The last time I visited where I grew up, I played Speak Now and sang along unabashedly in the car with my guy friends. By the time I left town again, they knew the words too. ♦