Round Peg in a Square Hole

A repository of reference material on a variety of subjects

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Importance of Being Abby

For Halloween this year, despite the fact that I’d been on my new project for less than three months, I dressed up as Abby from NCIS at work. The responses were about evenly split between a short pause when someone first saw me, then an exclamation of, “Abby!” and, after a full explanation of who I was, the comment, “Oh, I don’t watch TV.” With one of these latter folk, I got into a discussion of just who Abby was, and was really caught off-guard by his question, “Is it a comedy?” The comment distressed me, so I’ve been thinking a lot about it ever since, and I have come to the conclusion that Abby’s work here is not done.

When I was a kid, the roles women played on TV were pretty limited: mom/wife, nurse, school teacher, nun…and that’s about it. Maybe bank teller and crime victim, screaming and needing to be rescued. After a while, we made progress: there were women as cops (in an evolutionary spectrum from Charlie’s Angels to Police Woman to Cagney&Lacey to Law&Order), lawyers, doctors; usually a small, but present percentage. SF/F shows have had a little more scope, ranging from Uhura, to Willow and Buffy, to Xena, to Captain Janeway and Belanna Torres from Voyager, and Zoe on Firefly. But in looking at Abby, and why she appeals to me as a technical woman, it occurred to me that she is pushing a boundary I’ve been battering for years: what is a smart, technical woman allowed to look like?

For years, I’ve given technical talks at SF cons in a variety of outfits, from a saloon hall girl to Victorian underwear to a silver lame Star Trek gown to alternate universe Star Trek characters. I’ve heard that it can be very surreal to see one of these talks; one friend likened it to seeing the picture from one TV channel and the sound from another. The important thing is that every time someone saw one of these talks, their idea of what a technical woman looks like was broadened. And that’s not just important for people who deal with technical women—it’s vitally important for the little girls, and not so little girls, who may one day grow up to be those technical women.

If the only role model you saw for a scientific/technically ept woman was Scully or Bones (of the show of the same name), some subset of girls would be very comfortable with that. (I know I would have been, had they been around when I was impressionable.) However, more of them would feel that that sort of career wouldn’t be good for them because that’s not how they see themselves, nor how they want to see themselves. Abby is important, not because I think all little girls with a technical bent should grow up to be goth forensic scientists, but because that should be within the realm of possibility. Because what music you listen to, the color and style of your hair, and what clothes you wear do not affect your abilities in logical/deductive thought and thus should not keep you from a technical career. Because you shouldn’t have to always be serious, always be straitlaced; you should be allowed to have fun, to enjoy your job; to be enthusiastic and perky without having to fetch the coffee.

Being Draco Malfoy

I wrote this post after first wearing my Draco Malfoy costume at Baycon (May 2010), but did not post it then, as I wanted to surprise the Convergence folks with the costume the following July. After that, Life(tm) happened, and I didn't get back to it until now.

Though I’ve been costuming for most of my life, I have never happened to want to portray a specifically male character: gender neutral or “mannish” women, along with a host of femme fatales, but no actual males. Even when going to a con whose theme this year is villains, my first thoughts were of bad girls and witches. And, indeed, I did one: Maleficent, the witch from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Very much in my typical style, if my past costuming-all-over-the-map can be said to have a style.

But then I got a bee in my bonnet to do something from Harry Potter. The obvious choice would have been Bellatrix Lestrange; definitely within my “idiom”, similar to things I’d already done. For some reason, however, I was reluctant to go with it, in part because I hadn’t seen that movie (still haven’t, though I’ve read all the books). But there was something more, something else, that made me keep looking, and somehow I got the idea that I could do Draco Malfoy. I have a pointy nose and chin, and am fairly petite, so I thought I could pull off an adolescent boy role. Was worried about the wig, as I remembered Draco’s hair from the first movie; with it slicked back like that, you need a pretty expensive wig to fake it. A friend suggested I go with Lucius instead, as the hair would be easier, but I didn’t think I could pass convincingly as an adult man. I even considered cutting my hair drastically short again, and bleaching it, just to simplify matters. However, pictures from the later movies show a lovely tousled mop, complete with bangs, that would be MUCH easier to do, so I started really warming to the idea.

The costuming, per se, wasn’t that challenging: shirt and pants from the thrift store; wand, tie, robe and sweater purchased(!) from a specialty store, even the wig was bought online and dressed by a friend. The first time I put it all on, to try it out at a con before the main event, the effect was really striking. Particularly while standing still, the quick first impression of “Draco” was very strong. But when I started to move, it quickly became clear that this would be one of the most challenging parts of the characterization. I believe I am something of a mimic, and my dance training allows me to really see how people move, and copy it better than most. In addition, for all my “sexy” costumes, it took me a long time to self-identify as female, and for many reasons, I still see myself on the tom-boy end of the female spectrum, but I was stunned at how much “girl” was in my body language. I knew that I let the girl in me “come up” more when at a con than I regularly do at work, but I hadn’t realized how different “not-female” movement was from “male” movement. I had chosen clunky boy’s shoes, which were not recreation-ist accurate, but weren’t completely out of character, which helped, but I found myself horribly conscious of my hands and stance, the tilt of my head and my use of personal space and precedence. Very, very strange. I soon became overwhelmed with trying to be Draco, and settled first for the male identity, figuring I could graft on the English accent (the voice was the other hardest thing that I doubt I will ever get right, as that is usually how folks identify me in a new costume; apparently, it’s pretty distinctive) and more of the character later. That helped, and I was able to draw on interesting sources for ideas and inspiration, most notably, the movie “Victor, Victoria” and the passages in Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign where a character returns to a strongly chauvinistic society after female-to-male transgender surgery, and is coached on proper male body language, attitude, movement, stance, etc. Also, Heinlein’s Double Star and Georgette Heyer’s The Masqueraders were helpful in identifying crucial points in this sort of characterization. (They say that, for a writer, anything you’ve ever done/seen/read becomes research. Didn’t realize this held true for costumers, as well.)

Oddly enough, it was pretty daunting to actually step out in the costume. I was much more anxious than I anticipated, which probably interfered with the characterization, as well. I had actually intended only to wear the costume for the afternoon, but became fascinated by the challenge. I sat on a technical panel where I was the only woman, and tried to project male while keeping up with the flow of the panel. I also found myself, then and afterwards, covertly studying the men around me, noting how they moved, stood, made (or didn’t make) eye contact; I was taking notes, copying, modifying, internalizing what I saw, seeing how I could make use of it.

Then I took an even bigger challenge and went Regency dancing! Messed with my mind a bit; not just having to dance the man’s part, which I had done before, but having to dance it as a man. Here, my dance training was both a help and a hindrance: on the one hand, I can control my body and movement; on the other hand, I had YEARS of experience to undo. I wanted to come off as a man, but not as a klutz, and it was really, really difficult. The worst part was holding hands in the dance, as I could never remember whether my hands should go on top or not (on the bottom, if I was holding a woman’s hands; with a man, it depended on who was the lead man), all while trying to sneer and not “sway so much”, as one of my friends who was critiquing me put it. Interestingly, I had little trouble remembering to bow instead of curtsy; maybe the slacks helped with that, though I’ve never had any trouble curtsying in jeans.

All in all, this has been a fascinating experience. I’m really glad I was able to “test drive” the costume in advance, as I have a childish need to see if I can really shock the folks this summer. This has all been a much bigger step out of my comfort zone than I anticipated, but I’m really glad now that I didn’t go for the easy solution. And I suspect I will be having fun as Draco for some time.