I have no patience for people who dismiss the appeal of “childish” things. I’m overwhelmingly thrilled with how the past two decades have been the decades of cartoons for the older set, of “nerdy” concepts like superheroes and space operas becoming massive cultural phenomena with mainstream appeal, and whole hobbies growing with their aficionados rather than expecting them to leave them behind on their way to fantasy football or whatever it is that boring people do. One of the things I will never stop being happy about is how, through all the years of pushing me as hard as they could into all the wrong molds, I never managed to lose that spark of joy that I call out of LEGOs and Transformers and model dinosaurs and anatomically-correct plastic spiders and the adorable-cockfighting-for-children simulator that is Pokémon.
I’m glad in general, because the only joy I have ever experienced that isn’t that kind of joy is the joy of romantic love, and because hanging on to that exuberance has made me a better teacher, a better partner, and a better person, and someday, it might make me a better parent. I’m glad because if they had somehow beaten out of me that ability to swell with happiness when surrounded by tropical fish or gundam model kits or stuffed toy lizards, I am not convinced that I would have survived my adolescence. I have been sustained by the sheer simplicity of that “childish” joy, able to set aside the continuous terror of a world not made for people like me because the worlds those things inhabit are neat and tidy and written out in reams, because they accept my engrossing obsession without a second thought, because I can touch and handle and feel them (except the fish…) and complete my sense of their being.
I’m alone in the office writing this, my colleagues either attending a presentation or out for the day, choking back tears, because I know another reason why this specific joy means so much to me.
There’s not a lot of room in this world for men who get outsized happiness out of beauty or cuteness. I’ve written about that before, about how much it hurt to have my sentimentality wielded against me for so long, to watch in every direction as the foremost sources of happiness I knew be derided as “weak” and “girly” and “not for you,” and my emotional displays treated as a massive dysfunction whether they were outward or not. I have only begun to understand what they were telling me to deny, how much of what they told me to set aside was not just the child but the person. Girls get to enjoy cute, are expected to enjoy cute, are rewarded for enjoying cute.
I was on the side of the room that had beauty and cuteness slapped away from it.
I found joys, all the same. What I am isn’t something that can be squeezed into a neurotypical shape no matter how hard it is held down, and I found my quiet obsessions and my holds and feels elsewhere, in places where niches of people could share in my happiness even if the rest of the world refused. But the loss of that joy, and watching as the men in my life and family struggled with how to even express that they found something beautiful in a way that wasn’t coded feminine without sounding ridiculous…
One of the subtler rewards of finally recognizing my womanhood is being freed of that stricture.
It was never mine. My relationship with cuteness and beauty was what it was because I could tell that those concepts should have belonged to me, were socially coded in ways that I should have been allowed to claim, but I was not allowed. It’s bullshit that this sphere isn’t open to men, and that disconnect between such a simple pleasure and what it means to be a man in this and so many other cultures adds to the nightmare that is masculinity. But for me, that was a nightmare that wasn’t even mine to have. That nightmare was imposed on me by force and I accepted it only because I spent my youth figuring out what it means to be human, let alone a member of a gender, in a world that refuses to understand autistic people and a family that contains too many of us to have that excuse. I trusted them, and it was unconscionable, painful, and soul-draining that what I received for my error was confusion, fear, and a lifetime of facing my own inner life with helpless loathing.
Now I am unlearning a lifetime of errors.
Here is my latest lesson: I am a woman.
I enjoy flowers and butterflies and dragonflies and perching birds and tropical fish and paintings and finely-crafted maps and the color the sky turns when the sun goes below the tree line on a clear snowy day.
I enjoy the process of putting my clothes together into combinations that make sense and work and look good together and figuring out which pieces are more and less versatile and which pieces maybe don’t work for me after all and whether a particular combination works in this or that context.
I enjoy seeing anime characters make that upward-pointed eye shape that means they’re happy or content or filled with warm feelings, because it tickles my empathy gland.
I enjoy the small, big-eyed, short-limbed, adorable pokémon just as much as I enjoy the spiky behemoths they eventually become, but it’s a different, softer happiness.
I melt inside at pictures of kittens.
And when I read the story of this little pokémon, I came apart at the seams.
Sewaddle is a cute, exuberant little larva that wears a little leaf hat in a world where wearing little leaf hats is not “normal.”
Then she gets older and starts to see what an awful place that world can be. She turns inward, until all anyone sees is a shroud, a frown, and a hint. She starts to wonder whether that sullen barrier she built to protect herself isn’t herself, whether if she lowered the drawbridge and let people in that there would be a herself there to meet them. But behind that heap of foliage that could never really protect her from her own empathy and from the intensity with which the rest of the world just cannot deal with little leaf hats, she still feels everything.
And she learns, she likes little leaf hats. She likes making clothes. She cares, maybe a little too much, about the other creatures hurting out there.
And with the same razors she uses to try to make life a little more beautiful for the creatures around her, she will cut a motherfucker.
All of that gets to be mine now, and nothing has ever made more sense to me.