My Gender Is ‘Spacesuit Costume from the 90s’
by Brittany Thomas
One of the most stressful moments in my life as a small-town kid growing up in the 1990s was the minute we would reach the counter at McDonald’s and my mother would order me a Happy Meal and then the cashier would lean over the register looking for a child while asking: ‘boy toy or girl toy?’. I would emerge from behind her legs and declare ‘boy toy!’ every time to her deep chagrin. The rules were that a Hot Wheels car was a ‘boy’ toy and a Barbie was obviously a ‘girl’ toy but I wanted a Hot Wheels car and so I was forced to say ‘boy toy’. With my unruly and thick, long hair tied tight behind my head and often hidden under a baseball cap, I was regularly mistaken for a little boy anyway. I thought to myself that I might as well let them think whatever they want as long as I got the car! This very small victory always carried with it some perplexing measure of shame, coded as it was by the politics of respectability within our tiny upstate New York town.
This is only one of the many situations in which I would stress my mother out with my refusal to abide by some appropriate standard of heteronormative conduct. I was a textbook tomboy: constantly ripping through the neighborhood on my bike with a gang of friends, getting into trouble, scraping my knees and elbows, wearing hand-me-down basketball shorts and refusing to let anyone touch/cut/wash/brush my mane. I kept a growing collection of action figures in two sets of shoe boxes and carried them with me to the playground on weekends to meet friends. We would build extravagant fortresses out of sticks and gravel mounds that could all be wiped away clean like a giant etch-a-sketch when we were done, ready to build a new landscape next week. I also had a robust collection of baseball caps, but my favorite was a black Jeff Gordon hat with the rainbow DuPont logo prominent above the brim (did I watch NASCAR a day in my life? No. Was I obsessed with that rainbow car? Yes.) My other pride and joy was a bright orange pair of Old Navy cargo pants that zipped off at the knee so they could convert into shorts. Being summer and winter clothing in one article made it cost-effective enough that I was allowed to purchase them and wear them everywhere. I was a scruffy long-haired girl with thickset eyebrows in a black baseball cap, oversized t-shirt and orange cargo pants: the picture of queerness, long before I would ever have the language to understand that about myself. Only puberty (and the accompanying growth spurt) ruined my ability to keep shopping in the boys’ section of Old Navy, but not before the best Halloween I had ever had.
I was eight years old when Batman & Robin came to theatres. It consistently ranks as the worst Batman film of all time, causing director Joel Schumacher to have publicly apologized for it more than once. For nearly twenty-five years people have been upset that George Clooney’s bat suit nipples nearly killed the Batman franchise, with some critics suggesting the openly gay director purposefully queered the franchise. So, of course, this horribly camp version of the batverse was perfect for an eight-year-old girl who loved action figures and Hot Wheels cars and garish cargo pants. And that’s exactly why I begged and begged to be Mr Freeze for Halloween that year. If the whole McDonald’s ‘boy toy’ thing was enough to make my mother grimace, then this was definitely out of the question. ‘Don’t you want to be a witch? A princess? A bunny?’ – something… pretty? That was always the question and never the answer. But bless my grandmother for loving me enough to take me to one of those pop-up Halloween shops to buy me a cheap zip-up children’s costume version of Mr Freeze. It was shiny silver with the blue mock-cryogenic patterns along the chest, arms, and legs and from memory, it was an extremely poor imitation of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s on-screen character, but I didn’t care. I liked it so much that I put it on that day and ran around my grandparents’ backyard zapping trees with my fake freeze powers. One of their elderly neighbors wandered over and asked if I was going to be a ‘spaceman’ for Halloween, and I had to think about that a minute. I guess the shiny silver of the material and the zip-up-from-the-back design of the whole thing made it very ‘space-suit’ like, so I agreed that yes, I was a spaceman (I didn’t think she knew who Mr Freeze was). I don’t remember what I told the kids at school, I just remember being happy. That was the one Halloween I remember enjoying and the only Halloween that I got to be what I wanted.
It hadn’t occurred to me back then why my grandparents’ neighbour hadn’t asked if I was going to be a ‘spacewoman’ or even an ‘astronaut’, but literally said the word ‘spaceman’ – presumably because, well, what was the alternative? I had very few examples of the type of character I wanted to play in my head, and if they existed then they came with caveats about who they ought to be or would be in the future. Buffy? – too girly, too many dour love interests. Xena? Right attitude, definitely wrong outfit. There is, for nearly all queer people, a process of parody in figuring out our relationship to gender and questioning the line between people whose gender we want to emulate and those we simply want (and the clarity that sometimes comes of the answer being both things).
Fast forward from Halloween 1997 to spring 2019, when, as a thirty-year-old woman I sat nearly in tears through the entirety of Captain Marvel completely unable to understand why I was so emotional about a superhero movie. From the first moments of the film where she appears in her very own kickass space uniform, I could barely pay attention, conscious as I was of my own heartbeat and enamored as I was with Brie Larson. The first forty-five minutes of the film were a total blur for me: I think there were some green alien guys and Jude Law was there, and then Brie Larson crash-landed in a Blockbuster in a strip mall near a Radio Shack where she met Samuel L. Jackson. Honestly, I had to Google some of the plot when I got home. There isn’t a singular queer moment that stands out in my memory, but the totality with which this character is allowed to exist on her own terms is so present: never once is she forced into a skirt or a dress or put in an overtly sexualized costume (she even gets to spend a good portion of the film rocking a grunge look reminiscent of young Eddie Vedder), never once does she behave stupidly for the benefit of a man and never once does she fall into the Born Sexy Yesterday trope that so plagues so many sci-fi and fantasy stories.
Captain Marvel is a beautiful exercise in the verb form of queer. In his introductory essay ‘Fear of a Queer Planet’, Michael Warner (1991: 16) suggests that queer emerged as a preferable identity through resistance to ‘regimes of the normal’. Therefore ‘queer’ is not imagined here as the opposite of heterosexual but instead ‘queerness’ stands in opposition to normativity. If we accept that most other superhero films comprise a body of the ‘normal’, then Captain Marvel is certainly the resistance. It takes the entire normative experience of viewing the male-dominated superhero genre and throws it out with little explicit commentary. And that is what makes it so remarkable. Captain Marvel doesn’t belong to a sub-genre of ‘female superhero’ movies because Captain Marvel is a superhero. She’s got the excellent spacesuit and mohawk to prove it. On all other standard ‘superhero movie’ levels Captain Marvel fits right in, but you’ll never realize how hungry you’ve been for representation until you see something you recognize in pop culture and it leaves you breathless. When I left the theatre and my partner asked me if I liked the film, I was still slightly teary-eyed with my thoughts in a cloud. Did I like it? I must have! But what’s wrong with me?
I’ve struggled, one way or another, to describe my identity, to fix it to one place that feels like knowing and give myself a set of labels that signifies who I ‘am’. Am I uninterested in fashion, or have I just never had the freedom (or money) or develop a personal style? I can’t be said to present particularly masculine or feminine, and I have a deep aversion to identifying as a tomboy in adulthood. I am not monogamous, but is non-monogamy an identity or is it a relationship style defined solely in practice? (Therefore at the moment of writing I am monogamous.) I didn’t even succeed in becoming the one thing I felt I would certainly ‘be’ – an academic. It’s been three years since my viva and I have not begun a new project, not secured an academic job, not started on a career. I am not an academic. I am terrible at writing bios as this is a non-exhaustive list of what I am not and only qualifiedly what I ‘am’. Being queer is the only thing that has stuck. The reclaiming of the word queer allows us to read in ourselves that narrative of resistance: it has comforted me in my adulthood to think of my childhood self not as a ‘tomboy’ who had yet to grow into a respectable young woman, but as a little queer kid resisting regimes of the normal wherever they made me scratch at my own skin. As a queer person, I can get on with just ‘being’ even if I have not come to a fixed place of ‘knowing’ who I am.
I moved to the United Kingdom when I was 22, so I have spent most of my adult life abroad. Watching Captain Marvel surrounded by young British people meant I was the only one in the theatre laughing about Radio Shack, the Salt-n-Pepa soundtrack, and Koosh balls in space. The loneliness of these moments was amplified by the entire 90s nostalgia trip and only somewhere in the middle of the film did I realize what was going on in my body: I was aching to be eight years old and watching this film. I am absolutely thrilled for and also completely jealous of all of the little queer kids that get to be Carol Danvers for Halloween. With the recent announcement of a second Captain Marvel film on the horizon, I hope little girls who don’t want to wear a skirt finally see a superhero they identify with.
I hope little kids of all genders run around in their Captain Marvel outfits free of the assumption that they’re a ‘spaceman’.
Warner, Michael. 1991. “Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet.” Social Text 29: 3-17.
Brittany Thomas was born and raised in upstate New York but moved to the UK at 22. She received her PhD in Archaeology from the University of Leicester where her research focused on urban built spaces and the history of ‘the gaze’. These days she mostly sits at a desk in London where she is writing more about ‘the gays’. You can find her nascent non-academic Twitter @Brithomartis.