Smile, by Jeremiah Moss

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From Feral City, which was published last month by W. W. Norton.

As a child I was told I didn’t smile enough. Adults pinched my cheeks, trying to force it. Happiness can be an instrument, says the queer theorist Sara Ahmed, a technology of discipline, a way to straighten people out. This coerced version of happiness can feel like submission to a regulatory authority. Don’t you like this doll, this dress, this lipstick? “Don’t you” implies you should and what’s wrong with you?

I’m maybe six years old, it’s 1977-ish, in a five-and-dime with my mother and her younger sister. I’m whining as they tease me about buying a doll I desperately do not want. I’m whining because I’m not permitted to say no. The doll I do not want is Shirley Temple, in a white dress with red polka dots, blond hair curled into signature ringlets. She is smiling, doing the simple thing that everyone is always telling me to do. I’m supposed to be lighthearted, but I’m not. Shirley Temple is my nemesis because everyone says I look like her. Fuck Shirley Temple. I am supposed to be like her, but I’m not, I’m all wrong, and I hate her perfect girliness, her successful acceptance of compulsory femininity, everything at which I am failing because I cannot be what I am not. The doll is purchased and placed on a shelf in my bedroom with all the other dolls I do not want. When we are alone, I take Shirley by the ankles and bash her head against the floor.

What is the shape of transmasculine rage? Does it look like Frankenstein’s monster, the form that the trans theorist Susan Stryker gave to her transfeminine rage? She dressed the affect of her “transsexual monstrosity” in the “genderfuck drag” of 1993: combat boots, Levi’s, biker jacket decorated with handcuffs and stickers that said fuck your transphobia. There’s something inward-turning about transmasc anger, something seething, mostly hidden. It’s the haunted sensation of phantomized flesh. It’s brooding over a cigarette. It’s sitting in my first car, age seventeen, reading The Well of Loneliness and seeing myself in Radclyffe Hall’s gloomy trans-mannish invert, that open wound of unrequited everything, trying to be good, nursing sweet bitterness. Transmasculine rage blisters and seethes. Is it ever allowed to explode?


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