The importance of representation and seeing yourself on screen.
I cringed a little bit going into the theater, looking down and avoiding stares for some sense of comfort in the wonkily patterned cinema carpet, knowing I wasn’t really gonna be into Twilight or the boy I was watching it with, but I figured that out much later. He was a mouth-breathing fellow pre-teen who meant well and was relatively harmless, if not a little boring, maybe a bit shy. I read the source material two years ago when my friends from my all-girls exclusive Catholic private school were into the series, and I tried to find it appealing in the hopes of being able to talk to other people about it, but I eventually gave up, finding myself concerned by the protagonist’s choices; and the behavior of her love interest seemed sketchy, sociopathic and unappealing. Shifting in my seat, I wasn’t paying much attention as I was nervous about how I was behaving, if my breath was a bit stale, if the sour cream popcorn smelled weird, and whether I knew I was ready to be out on a “real date” with a boy.
I met the boy through childhood friends who lived in the more affluent part of southern Metro Manila. To me he was like a unicorn; I didn’t understand him. I owe it to the difference between the worlds we lived in, even if I didn’t know as much then. His voice cracked through snarky commentary and his palms were sweaty when he tried to hold my hand. I was shifting my focus to the screen where Bella and Edward were lying down on fluffy grass in a meadow in gloomy Northwestern America. I couldn’t bring myself to force my sense of kilig, but I was trying, looking to feel something for the boy beside me, who was laughing almost at random. This was a good time to show how uninterested and cool I was, and I laughed with him. He subsequently leaned in to kiss me while I leaned back instinctively, our heads looking like magnets of the same pole, I was equal parts repelled and repulsed, and I found it odd. It felt like an out-of-body experience, since I was willing my body to kiss him back but I just couldn’t do it.
I steeled myself and closed my eyes. I had some sort of a weird and compulsory flash-forward montage of what I thought being in a relationship with a boy meant according to my 2008 Tumblr feed and Taylor Swift songs, i.e. watching him play video games wrapped in a large sweater he let me wear, not wanting to hang up first, screaming and fighting and kissing in the rain, being driven home with the windows rolled down, a flash mob declaring his everlasting love, slow-dancing to Snow Patrol and whatever kind of ideal romantic situations from books and movies my friends and I would discuss, situations I’d mostly try to imagine myself enjoying — I was digging really deep and I wanted so badly to enjoy lovesick daydreams of kissing other boys my age, but I came up empty until I switched this boy’s face with that of an upperclassman three years senior who smelled really nice and loved to fix my hair, straighten my tie, and talk to me about music I really liked.
She’d occasionally ask me if I wanted to talk over the phone, and I was content listening to her ramble on about old cartoons we both enjoyed, and she would lend me books over lunch breaks. I distinctly remember finishing Friday Night Lights’ first season and sending her a message at 9 p.m. asking if it was too late for me to call her landline. I emailed her an MP3 file of Your Hand In Mine by Explosions in the Sky and asked her if she wanted to listen to it over the phone with me, and the silence was comfortable although I felt like my heart was going to explode in my chest, and I didn’t think I would ever feel that way about anyone else (I was wrong) — helpless and unable to articulate my feelings, and I couldn’t admit that I instead dreamt of real moments over and over, talking about mundane things sitting and waiting in the parking lot, how her company automatically made things look, feel and sound cinematic. I looked for that same feeling when I watched popular coming-of-age rom-coms, but I always thought the inability to enjoy it much was because I was pretentious, not because I liked girls instead.
It felt like a glitch, because my friends would ask me about the boy from the south that I liked, and in my fear of judgment I would instinctively replace her name with his, and it goes without saying that it satisfied their curiosity, and greatly pleased them that I’d asked for their advice. I would write long entries on Livejournal about the “boy” I liked, and I would find myself unable to keep up with my own deception, in the hopes that I would deceive or believe myself. One day, after opening a conversation by asking if I liked Metallica, the actual boy asked me if I wanted to watch Twilight with him. I agreed, and stupidly enough, I told her about it just to see what she’d say. I wasn’t able to reach her for weeks after that. Before that particular exchange, she had given me a stack of nice watercolor doodles meant for me, bound by a binder clip, and I guess I did take the hint — I just didn’t know what to do with it. I wonder what I would’ve done if I hadn’t spent so much time caught up in what other people thought and went with my gut and told her exactly what I felt then, not much later on. It was only after I sidestepped the chance for a first kiss that my actual one happened behind a parked bus at 6 p.m. That’s when I told her the truth.
I spent my 21st summer extensively watching queer coming-of-age romances back to back, trying to make up for my adolescent denial. I probably wouldn’t have understood very much, though, as most of the good ones are nicely shot European art films like Water Lilies, Summer of Sangaile, and Show Me Love. I binge-watched an LGBT web series called Carmilla heavily geared towards queer teens and noticed it had the same archetypes from Twilight, except the dark Byronic hero vampire and the doe-eyed, bookish protagonist were both girls, and I found myself actually rooting for and seeing myself in the characters, like I was 13 again. I haven’t seen the boy in almost eight years, but I see my first love in everyone I’ve ever dated so far, whether boy or girl, and I still extensively yearn for the same kind of cinematic, post-rock-scored moment of comfortably talking about nothing in particular, and I still have a problem truly allowing myself to feel it like I did the first time. Examining my past decisions hasn’t brought me a lot of closure, but the importance of representation and seeing yourself on screen is not lost on me. I was a very guarded teenager, and I wondered if growing up with non-heteronormative pop culture would’ve opened my eyes much sooner to what I was trying to ignore. Somehow, I figured that writing about it would help some other young teenage girl figure her feelings out for herself.