Waiting to be a pretty girl

Natalie wood as Gypsy Rose Lee, holding open curtains as she steps forward confidently.

I don’t know if you’re aware of the 1962 movie Gypsy, whose title is a slur and also eponymous for the main character, burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee. The value of it as a movie, for me, is weighted in such a way I couldn’t tell you if it’s worth watching or not. It’s a musical with currently a 69% (nice) on Rotten Tomatoes and here’s the trailer on YouTube. Like a lot of big ol’ musicals, it’s based off a stage play, which is itself based off Lee’s memoir.

It’s got Natalie Wood in it as Lee, who went by Louise until she made her stage name. I loved Natalie Wood as a kid partially because I thought she was a white passing Latina, thanks to West Side Story. I also thought that was her singing voice in West Side Story, because I’m a simple person.

All you really need to know about the film is that Louise is never the pretty one or the talented one. She’s the support, the awkward one, the other one. And there’s a scene at the end of the film where she has to put on an evening dress and long gloves, do her hair up, all these things she’s been denied or not interested in. She looks at herself in a mirror when she’s dressed and barely recognises herself. She reaches for the mirror and whispers, “I’m a pretty girl, mama.”

Natalie Wood reaching toward mirror, in blue satin dress and long white gloves. Text on bottom says "I'm a pretty girl, mama"
Screencap and caption I made for Tumblr in 2013, when I couldn’t find one that existed.

The larger story is she’s got to go do a striptease and honestly, it’s a weird situation and story all together (jeez, the TVTropes page sorta drags it) but that’s not what I focused on watching it as a kid. This was like all of those “take off her glasses and let down her hair and she’s pretty” scenes, but more believable to me, because not only was there a dance number after, but a whole montage of Louise gaining confidence in herself as a good-looking dame.

Louise was never treated as ugly, just not beautiful. It’s not so much that she’s finally pretty, it’s that she likes the way she looks, her outsides match what her brain wanted to see and yeah, it’s a heteronormative desire but she’d been denied her femininity her most of her life, and honestly let a bitch want what she wants.

I know a lot of women, and cis women, who are waiting for this moment. When you get a new haircut, you’re wearing a special dress for a special occasion, you get your ears pierced. And it doesn’t happen. Even if you weren’t looking for it, specifically, it’s a thing that is missing and makes your femme moment ring hollow because this was supposed to be The Thing, dammit. You were going to look into the mirror and realise you were a pretty girl.

Natalie Wood in a pink satin gown, with a feather boa. She's standing on an empty stage, next to a blackboard that reads "Wardrobe Prod No 869," along with other details.
Louise wardrobe test. 1963. Photograph. IMDB.com. Mervyn LeRoy Productions Inc. Web. 2018, February 04.

I spent a lot of my girlhood waiting for it and honestly, identifying as non-binary doesn’t erase it. Aggressively denying femme things as an attempt to ignore the feeling doesn’t erase it. I’m also sad to report that hoop earrings larger than my bicep don’t erase it either.

It’s not so much about being a “pretty girl” it’s about being complete. God, don’t you just want to be done, sometimes? Our stupid bodies and minds are like when you fuck up your Jello water-to-powder proportions and it just never sets. You can keep gently poking every hour, give up and come back the next morning, but it still don’t jiggle.

Things like those hoop earrings get me close though. And face filters on photo apps, printed sheet masks, YouTube rabbit holes of makeup tutorials that always end up with me watching baby chameleon hatching videos. There’s no end. We’re never done. And that’s horrible but also there are the days where you do make finger guns at the mirror because hey, lookit you. Those moments are probably better to chase.

Also published on Medium.