Lez Try It is a monthly column in which comedian and writer Allie Rubin picks one component of lesbian culture to try for herself. This month: attempting to learn sword fighting, from the movie Lost and Delirious.
Note: this installment of Lez Try It was written in late February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic. If I had known it was going to be one of my last times working out in public, I would have tried to lick more of the swords. Please enjoy this glimpse back in time at a pre-pandemic world.
Trying to decide what to do next for this column was very challenging. It turns out that not a lot of lesbian movies or TV shows feature scenes in which their characters go to a water park and nothing bad happens and then they eat chocolate cake and go to bed early. In reality, most lesbian movies involve people weeping and dying or weeping and staring at the sunset or weeping and playing basketball, and am I made of tears and basketball stamina? I am not. Get that basketball away from me, Harge!
One movie I knew I wanted to tackle in this column was Lost and Delirious, a movie about lesbian intrigue at a boarding school. Unlike Carol, a subtle film that eschews big, over-the-top moments, Lost and Delirious has all the subtlety of a lesbian smashing a mirror and then threatening to give herself a dramatic haircut. Also, there’s a falcon in it, and the falcon is a lesbian. This movie has always intrigued me, if only because it is so boring that I have never truly been able to focus on it. Every time I start to watch it, I instantly become compelled to do literally anything else. “A lesbian falcon?” I mused on my most recent rewatch. “All birds are lesbians now, I guess,” I concluded. Then I left the room and cleaned my bathroom for 45 minutes and forgot the movie was still on.
Anyway, I was schlepping home from therapy one day when I realized that the nondescript building I was passing was, in fact, a sword fighting gym. “A sword fighting gym?” I thought, pressing pause on my playlist of just the sad Mitski songs to imagine myself as a powerful female warrior. I could learn how to fight men and challenge them to duels and win! Never again would a man laugh at me for boasting about my Jimmy John’s reward points in public. I would fight that man with a sword and make him buy me a Jimmy John’s cookie as punishment, just like they did in the old sword times. I was so excited about the prospect of sword fighting that I immediately went home, got on my computer, became distracted by something else and forgot all about sword fighting for eight long months.
Fortunately, sword fighting swashbuckled its way back into my head when it was time to write this column. “Remember Lost and Delirious?” said the voice in my head that was extremely tired of hearing just the sad Mitski songs. “There was sword fighting in that. It’s not just a movie about speaking in dramatic monologues, embracing obvious visual metaphors, and not trusting men named Jake. It’s also a movie about sword fighting.” I thanked the part of my brain that was feeding me such good ideas and told the other parts of my brain to step it the fuck up. “Pudding!” said the part of my brain that is always thinking about pudding. It was a good idea. I ate a cup of pudding and then signed up for a trial class at the local sword fighting class. I would either become a fierce lesbian warrior or die trying, perhaps from pudding withdrawal or a lethal sprain. Either way, it was going to be dramatic.
Lez Trying It
Something interesting about me is that I am out of shape, lack coordination, and am always one inch away from death whenever I exercise. When I got to the sword fighting gym, I immediately felt out of place in the way that being the only lesbian in a room full of men holding swords can make you feel. I very much wanted to leave and became furious at the part of my brain that had decided to pitch this column. “Pudding!” said my brain, which wanted pudding. I was on my own in a gym full of men and fake machetes. I decided to act as confident as possible; I started shooting lots of knowing looks at the weaponry, hoping to fool everyone into thinking I knew what was going on. A staff member approached me, clearly in awe of my evident prowess and hoping to learn from this new master. “You’re in the wrong place,” he told me. My entire class watched me as I walked the fifteen feet across the gym to the correct location. I vowed to learn how to sword fight my debilitating sense of shame.
The class began, as all good exercise classes do, with an educational component. The instructor gave a brief lecture about sword fighting, duels, and sword culture. I listened carefully in case there was going to be a secret test (I love tests). There was no test (goddamn), but the instructor did say many interesting things about duels, including these facts that I am writing down PURELY FROM MEMORY SO IF THEY’RE WRONG TAKE IT UP WITH THE SWORD WIZARD AND NOT WITH ME PLEASE:
+ Okay, so in the old days, people dueled a lot because their reputation would be at stake and dueling was the only way to defend it. Would-be duelers could totally walk up to someone on the street and be like “I’m going to duel a person, come with me, you’re my second now” and that person HAD to go with them and help out with the duel or they would be reviled as a coward. Also, if someone wanted to duel somebody else and the challenged person didn’t know how to duel the challenger could absolutely be like “you have two weeks to learn how to duel, see ya later”. Renaissance people were petty little drama queens, just like us!
+ Both men and women dueled! Both also took to fighting topless, to show that they weren’t wearing secret chain mail under their clothes. “Of course,” I nodded sagely. Only a coward would wear secret chain mail under their clothes during a duel. This was now an opinion I held.
+ Many times, duelers would win their duel and then actually die from an infection sustained from their duel wounds later. This was not good and many people were pretty bummed about it, so they started making sure they and their swords were as clean as possible before fighting so that a stab wound was less likely to become infected. One of the people leading this charge was a female doctor who was good at sword fighting! I can’t remember her name and googling “female sword fighting doctor historical” didn’t work so I apologize.
At this point, I was pretty thrilled. This was the best exercise class I had ever been to because I was learning facts instead of exercising. If Crossfit had gentle trivia instead of truck tires and forklifts or whatever I would be at Crossfit every damn day of my life! I was riding high right up until the instructor said “Alright! Now let’s learn how to fight.” My world came tumbling down around me. I dug down deep past the urge to go home and eat a pot pie and instead decided to participate.
I learned a lot about sword fighting at this point. For example: all sword fighting is just physics. All of the stances and moves are designed to make it as difficult as possible for your opponent to hit you with their sword, and they also rely on putting as much distance as possible between you and your opponent using your sword. It’s actually quite elegant and beautiful when competent people do it.
I am not competent people. I have the upper arm strength and stamina of an eel, and my sword flailed through the air like the plot of Lost and Delirious itself, meandering and overwrought, ready to hurt anyone who got too close. My legs remained stiff and unmoving, unless I decided to move them; then, they moved jerkily, like a marionette learning to play soccer (hello Hollywood??? Air Bud but with puppets? Are you listening?!?). I determined that if I were alive in Renaissance Italy I would live in mortal fear of offending anyone because the only duel I would ever survive is like, who could eat a sandwich more introspectively.
One final note about sword fighting: swords are heavy! They’re not light and you have to hold them for long enough that your hands start to shake and everyone can see it because the sword wobbles and then they know your little T-rex arms are about to give up. I am anti-violence and I don’t believe in guns at ALL and after 30 minutes of sword fighting I was like, I understand why guns were invented, swords are fucking HEAVY. As it now says on my LinkedIn profile: please do not duel me, I appear burly but am deceptively frail!
The class ended and my arms hurt. I would never be a sword fighter, I decided. If I had an issue with someone, I would settle our disagreement honorably: by hiring an assassin to kill them in a very cool way while I stayed at home and learned new and interesting facts.
Did I feel like a sword fighter at the end of this class? No. But did I feel more like Paulie, the teenage girl who spends Lost and Delirious potentially dealing with an undiagnosed and untreated mood disorder? Also no. I felt like a 30-year-old woman who would rather eat pudding than go to a sword fighting class on a weeknight.
As I walked home in the drizzling rain (atmospheric!), I thought about Lost and Delirious. For all the grief it gets for being an overwrought lesbian tragedy, it does a good job of capturing the feeling of devastating teenage love – what it’s like to suffer a heartbreak so intense that you would risk your very life to duel a man named Jake for your love. The concept of a duel itself speaks to that depth of feeling. Having a sword in my hands made me ponder what in my life I would fight for – what I hold so close to me that I would risk my life to fight to keep or defend it. A falcon swooped in front of my face, cawing at me. I batted it aside with my arm, sending it into a tree, where it was struck by lightning only seconds later. The tree went up in flames. Of course, I thought. I understand. The falcon represents my old way of thinking, which has been destroyed by the lightning bolt of sword fighting. The tree represents a sword fighting gym. And the fire represents my love of sandwiches and just the sad Mitski songs, which will always overpower my love of sword fighting. What a perfect visual metaphor that happened right before my deadline. I give swordfighting a C.