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TV/Film Growing up meant learning to trust my taste in movies around men

May. 10, 2019
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I spent my entire childhood and teen years pretending to like movies that I didn’t—and sometimes, more shamefully, to have seen ones that I hadn’t—to appease various boys and men. The opposite also tended to be true: I rarely discussed (or even admitted to liking) my favorite movies when I knew that my conversation partner wasn’t himself a fan.  

This habit of mine wasn’t restricted to conversations with guys I had crushes on, though that’s certainly where it got the most play. It really included everyone from my grade-school classmates, to my camp counselors, to boys at church, and sometimes even to members of my own family. I’d feign interest hearing that a movie I once yawned all the way through had changed a man’s life. I’d smile, even nod along in agreement, if he explained why a movie that had been one of my personal lifelines was actually a waste of studio dollars. 

Most of my behavior here wasn’t technically lying so much as omission: I downplayed or left out information I deemed risky and instead emphasized the things that made me seem cool and chill. I made sure it was common knowledge that I liked horror movies and war movies (both true things) but was careful not to mention that it was mainly Brad Pitt’s muscles prompting my repeat viewings of Troy. I remember beaming when a male teacher asked me in front of the whole class whether I’d seen a recent slasher movie (I was ten) because it meant that my classroom personal-branding efforts were paying off.  

For some reason, I never felt the need to do this in private conversations with women and girls. It wasn’t women who I’d learned were the arbiters of good taste. And girls were the ones whose classmates turned on them once they got too “mouthy” or otherwise revealed themselves to have dissenting opinions. I was raised to be polite—not a bad thing in and of itself, obviously—but also socialized to want to stay likeable. And as far as I saw it, likeability was crucial when it came to boys: meeting boys, being friends with boys, having crushes on boys, and—where possible—getting them to have crushes on me back.  

So, as I grew up and started to care more about boys and what they thought of me, I left it to them to dictate which movies were “good” and which ones were “bad.” Their opinions never actually altered my own; they simply prevented me from sharing them. And in fairness to me, there were multiple things reinforcing my habit. I wouldn’t know or use the words “internalized” or “misogyny” for years, but I did know that boys made fun of me for the rom-coms and period pieces that lined my DVD shelves at home, while rewarding me tangibly—in the form of attention and friendship and asking me out—for watching and liking the movies that they did. I was small and pasty and a year younger than my classmates, and I realized early on that there was power in being strategic about my opinion-sharing.

 The first time I fell in love—not in the playground-crush way but in the genuine, highly inconvenient way—I watched a dozen or more movies on his recommendation. I loved a couple, hated a few, and haven’t given the rest a second thought until now. No matter, though, since I raved about every single one at the time. I gave my own recommendations all the while—cool and chill picks only—but it didn’t occur to me until we’d gone our separate ways that he only watched one or two of them. I’d put so much energy into being game for his taste at the expense of my own, and it did nothing to prevent me from heartbreak.

 The ensuing year and a half brought a great deal of change—in my love life, in my health, in politics—and by the time my 20th birthday rolled around, I’d lost most of my ability to be chill about anything, including movies. I started to assert my opinions in a way that I’d never done before, even when it put my likeability in harm’s way—and, in a weird twist, I was rewarded for it. I told a film school professor in front of our class that he hadn’t taught a single woman-directed film all semester; he appreciated the note and has since adjusted the syllabus. I wrote two thousand words on a “chick flick” I thought had been received unfairly by male critics; the celebrated author of the book it was based on thanked me personally. I rooted my next relationship in complete frankness and absolutely zero chill, especially on the topic of movies; it was him who suggested we get matching ring-finger tattoos. 

Whenever I see one of those prompts asking me what I’d tell my teenage self, I can’t help but grieve for the time and energy she spent making herself smaller, more chill. She often knew what she was talking about, after all, even if it would be a few years before there were other people who thought so, too. But that’s the lesson I would need to learn the hard way: that it wasn’t my taste that needed fixing; it was my audience.