Even though I never dated boys, “Brando” was the song from Home Video that first lit me up with recognition.
“You told me to skip school/To go with you to the movies,” Lucy Dacus sings before getting in references to Fred and Ginger and Frank Capra by the first verse’s conclusion. My teen years were not lacking in drama — most of it just happened in my head or on the screens I watched. I devoured old movies, my closeted trans girl self latching onto the heightened performances of gender in the art I was told was good.
“Brando” is not a song about a closeted trans girl obsessed with movies — unless the fuckboi treating the narrator like shit comes to a realization later in life. But the movies it references weren’t about me either. The canon of cinema that I was raised on — Fred, Ginger, Capra, Brando — told similar stories about masculinity. It’s not just that they focused on cis straight white men — the hidden bisexuality of Brando and so many others excluded — it’s that the characters at their center were either brooding or blowhards. Look over the American Film Institute’s original top 100 list from 1998, and you will mostly find films like Citizen Kane and The Godfather. Even their number one romance, Casablanca, has the brooding Bogart as its male lead. There are exceptions, of course, but the first story I was told about cinema was dominated by these same types of men.
I loved these movies. I still love these movies. I’m just saying that at a young age I learned to appreciate art about people other than myself, to project onto characters with vastly different experiences.
The best of this work doesn’t assume I will care about these characters because they share identity labels with their creators. The films on AFI’s list that deserve their spot build worlds out of specificity. They find nuance in stories that others flatten. They are, to put it simply, good.
Home Video came out at a time when I was feeling most disconnected from the stories it told. I was tired of queer stories focusing on cis women, tired of the same coming-of-age beats, tired of centering this alternate life experience as normal. And yet, as I listened to the album again and again, as it became the music I drove to and fell asleep to and put on for comfort, it clarified my frustrations. The disconnect was not from the stories themselves, but from the way they were told. With Dacus’ narrative prowess and musical gift, her stories turned out to be the ones I needed most.
People love to get upset about arbitrary lists online, but only the most committed among us stay out of the comments section and actually do something about it. I could not live in a world where Freeheld — a film I loathed — was two dozen spots higher than Cheryl Dunye’s aforementioned masterpiece. I asked Riese about it that first night and then a year after having my first piece on the site, I pitched a revamp.
A new list and two annual updates later, I’ve now seen 448 movies about queer women and nonbinary people who love queer women and nonbinary people. Almost all of these movies are about cis women. Most of them are about white cis women. Many follow similar beats — a subculture of unique cliches.
Whenever I give a movie about cis white lesbians a negative review, I face more vitriol than when I write about my sex life. The idea, I presume, is that it’s all well and good to have a trans woman reviewing your movies until she tries to take them away. I promise I cannot take them away — I do not have that much power. I also promise that I have dedicated more hours to cis queer women on-screen and in life than anyone besides obsessive TERFs will dedicate to me.
In addition to my viewing for the all-time list, I have written over 50 articles about movies and TV shows about cis white queer women, including four pieces about Portrait of a Lady on Fire, excluding the Autostraddle podcast I co-host about The L Word: Generation Q, a show that ignores the existence of trans women.
When I watch a mediocre movie about a white queer cis woman or read a mediocre book or feel nothing when I listen to the next great dyke singer, there’s an extra pang of annoyance. Fran Lebowitz famously said, “A book is not supposed to be a mirror — it’s supposed to be a door.” But why are so many of these doors going to the same party, and why is the party so bad?
I don’t enjoy trans art because my story is being told; I enjoy trans art because when the barrier of cisness is removed there are so many other stories I can discover. When people talk about seeing themselves in art, I think this is what’s often left out. Even a mirror can distort, even a mirror captures the world around our image. I’m not sure people want to see their reflection as much as they want to see new people altogether — new versions of others and new versions of ourselves.
Like a theatrical revival or a really good cover, art is not so much about the what than about the how. It’s just that form often follows subject — when people are excited about seeing a new subject, they’re often getting excited about a new form.
So often we place value on queer art by saying it tells a story that’s never been told before. The highest compliment I can give Home Video is that it tells stories that have been told many times. It just does it so well and with such specificity that its comforting familiarity is paired with the thrill of new creation.
With the opening lines of the opening song, Dacus provides a sort of universal thesis (Being back here makes me hot in the face) before spending the rest of the album enmeshed in her own specificity. It’s become cliché for artists to describe their gay art as first and foremost a “human story,” but Dacus will have none of that. Home Video isn’t universal. It’s not even universally queer. It’s solely and specifically Lucy Dacus.
That’s not to say the circumstances she portrays aren’t common. “Christine” describes a girl the narrator has feelings for who instead chooses a life of hetero compromise. “Please Stay” pleads with a friend struggling with suicidal ideation. “Thumbs” captures the anger one feels towards the neglectful parents of the ones we love. And, my personal favorite, “Triple Dog Dare” is a ballad that tells a queer coming-of-age story readymade for Sundance.
But when Dacus tells these stories, when she speaks to these people in her life — real, fictional, and everything in between — it feels as if she’s letting us in on something that’s just hers. It’s the poetry of her lyrics, the magnetism of her voice, the power of her rock n’ roll. I may think of my past loves, my friends who are struggling, the people whose eyes I’d like to gouge, but it’s less about relatability and more about conversing. She tells a story. I tell a story. She tells a story. I tell a story. It’s like a late night sleepover with a new friend, every tale reveals a little bit more about who you were, who you are, and who you’re meant to be.
And then there are the songs that hit me less. That hit me more. I didn’t know what “VBS” stood for until I googled it. (Vacation Bible School.) I was raised Jewish and not very religious and this song makes me think less about myself and more about some of those friends with people in their lives who need gouging. It makes me think about other stories I’ve connected to without directly connecting to them.
The first piece I had published at Autostraddle was about a trans superhero. But the first piece I ever pitched to Autostraddle was an essay about The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Novitiate. I didn’t write about transness, I wrote about two movies that explored the intersection of faith and queerness. The former focuses on a Christian conversion therapy camp, the latter is literally about nuns. I didn’t have experience with these religious organizations, but I knew how it felt to have my reality questioned. I knew the pain of being raised in a culture where queerness was erased. They were more a part of my queer understanding than a straight trans superhero.
The attempt at universality often achieves the opposite. It results in stories that are spread too thin, that lack any sort of human truth. When artists create gay narratives that are first and foremost “human stories,” they end up lacking in humanity altogether. When artists create gay narratives where the point is simply to have gay characters, they share that same lack.
It’s only in details that humanity is found. You tell me a story about your life. I’ll tell you one in return.
“The industry is like, you have to do a bunch of other people’s work before you do your own,” she told Spin magazine. “The work that people hate. I just wouldn’t be able to do it. I couldn’t edit a misogynistic rom-com and be like, ‘Yeah, my life is fulfilling! Thumbs up!’ I couldn’t tell myself that honestly.”
When Home Video was released, I’d just started a job working on a movie in another state. The film was about a trans woman, but besides the lead actress, the rest of the cast and crew was almost entirely cis. Being on set filled me with the excitement of telling stories, being on someone else’s set filled me with an inevitable disconnect.
I listened to Lucy Dacus’ third album, feeling someone else’s nostalgia in someone else’s home. I provided feedback on the transgender experience, always aware of the gap between the character’s and my own.
Every person, every artist, is limited by their own perspective. Every queer story reflects only its own narrative voice and the collection of voices that led to its creation.
And so the goal can never be representation alone. The goal — my goal — is that more people get to make better art. I want people to have the opportunity to tell their stories — through music, on-screen — in a way that is specifically them.
More queer stories, more trans stories — these things don’t matter without specificity. Don’t stop at asking for more. Ask for better. Ask for queer art as inimitable as a home video. I triple dog dare you.
Slow Takes is a series of “belated” reviews by Drew Gregory of queer art released last year that Autostraddle didn’t cover.