I was supposed to write a review for Norah Vincent’s new book, Self-Made Man but I decided not to for a very simple reason: Books are stupid. Despite efforts in the past ten years to make books more like movies, they are still held back by their least attractive feature – words.
So why read the book when you can watch the movie? In every way movies seem superior to the anachronistic medium of the written word. Think about it – watching movies and television requires using two senses, while the inferior written word requires only one. You can’t fall asleep listening to a book. But as you’re dozing off, you can still manage to cull an additional joke or two from an episode of Seinfeld, which should fittingly be the episode in which George attempts to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s instead of reading it for a book club. Speaking of which, I saw Capote the other day, which was probably a trillion times better than taking the time to read In Cold Blood.
When I heard about this recent book, I immediately thought it would have functioned so much better as a reality show, documenting the day-to-day life of Ms. Vincent as she pretended to be a man, edited down to the lowest common denominator with vast editorial interventions and unambiguous themes. Nobody is going to read this book, but millions would have watched the show, especially if it was on after Prison Break.
As I sat pondering the dreadful prospect of reading this book, I decided to turn on the TV and almost immediately found a marvelous substitute – the 1985 cult classic, “Just One of the Guys,” which chronicles a high school girl’s attempt to blend in at a cross-town school as a guy. Perfect, I thought: a piece exploring the same theme – the gender expectations (and the difficulties and anxieties inherent to them) that face men and women on a daily basis – but without the hours upon hours of wasted time.
The film follows the conveniently named Terry, who is keen on getting a prized journalism internship at the Sun-Tribune, the local newspaper. When her article is passed over in favor of the articles of two male students who go on to represent the school in the final round of competition, she decides to confront her journalism teacher. Though probably well-meaning, Terry’s teacher can’t help but convey a sexist, almost paternalistic attitude toward Terry, as he suggests that she have something to fall back on, such as modeling.
Following this meeting, Terry decides that she has been slighted by her teacher simply because she is a woman, So she does what any normal teenager would do – she chops her locks off and enrolls at the other local high school to enter into the contest there, this time as a guy. Terry is able to do this quite easily thanks to the fact that her parents are absent from the entire film, as they are on vacation for two weeks, leaving Terry and her sex-obsessed brother Buddy (played by the extremely versatile and unceasingly hilarious Billy Jayne, who you may know better as Mikey Randall on Parker Lewis Can’t Lose).
The cast of characters in the film is very familiar to both the Brat Pack and Saved by the Bell generations – the college-age snobbish boyfriend, the Casanova wannabe younger brother, the absent parents, the Star Trek nerds, the guy who has an endless supply of reptilian pets, the outgoing girl who can’t help but throw herself at the protagonist despite his lack of interest, the new kid who gets a makeover, the most beautiful girl in school, and, of course, her boyfriend the bully – Greg Tolan (William Zabka), certainly the most recognizable actor in the film, as he played bad boy Johnny Lawrence in The Karate Kid. For an 80s film guru, a wonderfully sublime moment comes when an interested girl at the new school tells her friend that Terry (the male alter ego) has looks just like the Karate Kid.
Zabka, typecast in his pugnacious role, plays the evil bully magnificently, without projecting a bit of self-doubt or insecurity, riding the train all the way until the inevitable good guy confrontation. He embodies all that is expected of the hyper-masculine alpha male – he is an obsessive and controlling boyfriend, he hassles nerds, and lives to lift weights, a fact which Rick points out later is either meant to make up for a low I.Q. or a “small weenie.”
The film is deeply and almost deliberately entrenched in 80s Americana, a fact blatantly obvious to the viewer, but it offers a number of insights that merit our attention. For instance, Terry finds that despite her “sex change” she still cannot secure approval for her sample article. Terry made the switch because she believed that she was fully capable of winning the contest based on her talent if only her judges could get past the expectations they had for her work based on the fact that she was an attractive female who wore makeup and dressed sexily. Terry believed that her sex was not at all a hindrance, but that her feminized gender, the outward representation of her sex based on societal expectations, was what held her back with sexist male authorities.
In a clever twist, calling attention to obvious gender expectations, her new teacher tells her, “Just because you’re a guy doesn’t mean you can’t be sensitive,” which illustrates that perhaps he too has certain expectations of his student, this time because he is male. Terry’s gym teacher, upset that his new male student has brought in a doctor’s note to sit out of gym (she had to avoid the showers and playing basketball shirts and skins), yells, “What are you, a pussy?!” Her superficial boyfriend, Kevin, crudely and consistently complains about the new Terry, who has short hair, doesn’t wear make-up, and isn’t “hot” anymore. Terry eventually ditches Kevin, who clearly was only interested in her for her appearance, falling for her guy-pal and research subject, Rick, the nerd turned studly hero.
Characters are surprisingly sympathetic to each other’s apparent gender conflicts. The girl who won’t quit in her pursuit of Terry discovers a pair of socks in his pants, and tells him it’s okay because she likes him for him, and he doesn’t have to worry about that kind of thing. However, this moment of insight may be offset by a subsequent scene that takes place the same night in which sex-crazed Buddy begs his study date not to leave, asking “Would it make any difference if I told you I was hung like a bear?” The girl replies through heavy braces but with a glint in her eye, “It might…are you?” He, unfortunately, is not, and she walks out. Embracing the Wilt Chamberlain paradigm of masculinity, Buddy believes he is deficient as a male and a person both because he is a virgin and because he lacks the romantic skills to change that reality.
The film concludes with the quintessential 80s teen film event, the high school prom, which is set at the beach in this case. It is here, in a matter of minutes, that everything happens, and the film proves far more subversive than one would initially think, but I don’t want to give away anything except to say that everyone walks away having learned something about their own gender identities and about each other’s, a perfect ending in any decade.
The moral of this story? I got just as much out of this film as I would have out of some vapid book, probably more, and I loved every minute of it. The last thing books had going for them was that you could use them to engage in conversation with intellectual types, but we have shown here that movies can be just as effective in this capacity, and are capable of reaching a much wider audience. So, please, quit wasting your time. Make this the last article you ever read.