Last night, I had the good fortune to attend a free screening of Pariah. Big thanks to the Boston LGBT Film Festival for hosting this and for helping me justify my addiction to social media through Facebook giveaways! I’ve been itching to watch this movie since it became the darling of Sundance, so getting to see it before its official US release date (December 28) was pretty sweet. I’m happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed, because Pariah is fantastic and the plight of the lead character Alike struck some deep chords in my butch heart.
WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
Pariah is the coming out story of a masculine-of-center lesbian teenager living in modern-day Brooklyn. Alike deals with many of the same issues that most teens face – parents who don’t understand her, an annoying sibling, and peer pressure to lose the Big V. But all of Alike’s problems are compounded by the fact that she is a masculine-presenting dyke in a world that won’t accept that. Sometimes this leads to humorous situations – a scene where Alike’s sister walks in on the budding stud trying on her first strap-on (over her boxers, bless her babydyke heart) is hilarious – but more often than not, Alike’s predicaments are heartbreaking. In one of the final scenes, Alike is basking in the glow of her first sexual experience, only to find out that the girl she thought wanted to be with her – the daughter of her mother’s coworker – doesn’t want anyone to know about their tumble in the sheets, because she’s “not gay – she’s just doing her thing.” Alike rushes home and proceeds to destroy her own bedroom, consumed by the pain that only a lover’s betrayal can cause.
As hard as that was to watch, Alike’s scenes with her mother were even worse. Some of them were all too familiar to me, from Audrey forcing her daughter into skirts and blouses to her screaming at her husband: “Your daughter is turning into a damn man right before your eyes!” I held my breath during the scene when Alike finally tells her parents “I’m a dyke” and Audrey physically assaults her, because I knew it was coming. In my experience, mothers react the strongest and most negatively to butch/stud daughters, while fathers just sort of shake their heads, say “Listen to your mother,” and try to ignore the whole thing. It’s clear that Alike’s father loves her despite his inability to address her gayness or her butchness, and I’m sure her mother does, too – though she stops saying so once her daughter comes out.
Maybe it’s a matter of no longer being able to relate to a child that you can’t do “girl stuff” with (and by that, I mean “the things our society has decided women should care about”), like shopping for cute blouses or doing each other’s nails or whatever else in the Lifetime movie mother-daughter bonding montage one might imagine. My own mother is extremely feminine and interested in feminine things, and is also acutely aware that we have very little in common. My dad, on the other hand, seems to secretly like the fact that he has a daughter with whom he can have verbal sparring matches over politics and buy pocket knives for (not that one can’t also do both those things with a femme daughter, mind you). Much like my dad, Alike’s father only gets on her back about her butchness to soothe her mother’s ire over baggy clothes and lack of makeup.
The scene that made my stomach drop the most, however, didn’t even have Alike in it. Arthur, her father, is hanging out with other neighborhood men at a convenience store when a young stud walks in. The store owner comments that there’s been “more of that” since a new lesbian club opened down the street. One of his customers immediately starts harassing the stud, demanding to know if she goes by “Sir” or “Miss” and, disgustingly, asking her if she likes the way pussy tastes. The stud snaps back with a great “ask your wife about it” line and the guy is enraged, calling her a “bulldagger” (old school insult). I was sure that he was going to attack her, but the other men stop the situation before it escalated further – but not before he insinuates to an incensed Arthur that his own daughter is one of those “bulldaggers.” In a later scene, Arthur stops by the store with Alike to get some post-driving lessons snacks, but makes her leave after seeing Mr. Douchebag whispering to a friend. I think that for Arthur – and no doubt for many parents – his disapproval of his daughter’s queerness is rooted at least partly in fear for her safety.
I realize that this review has been almost entirely about how difficult this movie was to watch, but that doesn’t mean I’m not glad that I watched it – and it absolutely doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t watch it. Because you really really should, as soon as possible. It’s an incredible portrayal of growing up gay and gender variant, and I bet you’ll see some shades of yourself in it.