Author photos, gender identity, and Bomb Girls


The following post contains profanity, navel-gazing, discussions of body image and gender identity, and SPOILERS for seasons 1 and 2 of Bomb Girls.

I recently read Mary Robinette Kowal’s Debut Author Lesson #13, The Author Photo. I read it and thought out loud in my own head, “I’m so glad I don’t need to do that.”

And then a book I co-edited was nominated for a Hugo Award.

And then a venue I wrote something for asked for an author photo.

Soooooo. Perhaps I need an author photo.

I do not spend a great deal of time pondering how I look. Or, rather, I spend a great deal of time deliberately and consciously setting aside the endlessly-sounding messages of my culture on gender performance, weight, size, sexual availability, and age. My general conscious thinking amounts to “well fuck you you fucking fuckers.”

I used to spend an enormous amount of time devoted to thinking about my appearance. I was younger and I had just figured out that I liked girls more the way Katchoo did and less the way Ilyana and Kitty were friends. Okay, maybe the way Rachel and Kitty were friends, and a pox on Mr. Clarement and Mr. Davis for the comic book Excalibur. (No, wait, a thank-you to them for that comic.) I wanted to let girls know I liked them. I wanted to let boys know I did NOT like them the way they liked my boobs. And I wanted to do all of this in a way that did not result in my being assaulted in any way.

I am watching the tv series Bomb Girls. It’s a Canadian series about women who work in a munitions factory in Canada during WWII. One of these women, Betty McRae, spends the first season very clearly telling everyone that she knows she is not like the rest of them. It was perfectly obvious to me that Betty was lesbian. And I started wondering — how were they doing it? On the show, I mean. How were the writers, directors, and the actress, Ali Liebert, portraying the covert queer identity appropriate for Betty McRae?

Part of it is her clothes — Betty wears pants. But so does Gladys, and Gladys is as straight as they come. Betty swaggers and slouches and cocks her hips. So does Vera, and when Vera does it she is attracting men. Betty doesn’t wear much makeup. Neither does Lorna, and Lorna is heterosexual and married. Betty is a cocky leader, telling others what to do. So are Gladys and Lorna. Betty is bad at flirting. So is Kate, who is unimpeachably straight. It’s almost impossible to point to the One Thing Betty Does that codes her as gay — and that, my friends, is the entire point.

Betty must maintain plausible deniability. She cannot be caught being gay. Her gay identity is spiderweb, it is fog, it is rumor and misapprehension.

In season two of Bomb Girls we see Betty flirt with and start a sexual relationship with a woman, Teresa. Their flirting is composed entirely of things that could be taken two ways. Until they are alone together, when the ultimate risk of physical contact is taken, and the truth must be told. Everything, absolutely everything in public is in code.

When I came out in 1992-1993, I was attending Macalester College in St. Paul, MN. This was probably one of the MOST forgiving environments to come out in, in the entire country at the time. Maybe, maybe there were a dozen equally openly queer communities in the U.S. at the time. Macalester was queer, St. Paul was liberal, and it was perfectly safe to hold your girlfriend’s hand as you walked across campus.

Until you got to the bus stop on the corner. Then you were back in the real world.

I recall a night when I was out with friends, walking either to a party or back from a party, I can’t recall which. Said friends and I were perfectly well drunk, progressing somewhat loudly down the sidewalk. A car drove up, full of men. One shouted a sexual invitation. One of my friends replied in obscene refusal. The phrase “fucking dykes” was lobbed back from the car. My friend picked up a beer bottle and threw it at the departing car. We then fled the scene, fearful of reprisal.

Fucking dyke.

No matter how welcoming and accepting Macalester was, it was four square blocks in the center of a city. When my date and I took the bus to the New Riv to see Gallowglass perform, we held hands at the bus stop with the largest, most aggressive FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING FUCKERS force-field we could project. It may not have been our wisest course of action, but it was the course we took. We were in lust, and maybe in love, and we were angry and we were afraid.

The first time I kissed a lover, pressed against my car in a parking lot, I was shaking from the sheer audacious defiance of our actions.

I dressed for anger and visibility, in those days. I called myself butch, a statement of gender identity and sexual proclivity. I dressed butch, writing “I am not like you; I am like those other people over there” as loudly as I could — while trying to not actively offend. I relate to Betty McRae’s attempts to show the people like her that, well, she was like them, while not causing everyone else to want to punch her in the face.

Of course, this was the 90s in St. Paul, not a munitions factory in WWII. I shaved half my head and braided electronics parts into the rest because I wanted to live a Shadowrun 2050 life. I wanted to “be a hero, with the ax about to fall / fight for the love and for the glory / for it all” as Emma Bull sang for the band Cats Laughing. I wore combat boots that hurt my feet, and button-down shirts with the sleeves rolled just so, and I had the regulation black leather jacket that was nowhere near warm enough for a Minnesota winter. When I went to the bar for dancing I wore a tie, which my partner would minutely adjust to the perfect angle.

I thought about my appearance a lot in those days. I wanted to tell the world who I was interested in and who I was not, in the hopes that the desired minority would find me appealing.

I … I care a lot less about how I look these days. I understand, more, these days how butch identity can be unthinkingly intertwined with misogyny. I understand, more, these days how butch can be use as a defense against internalized body-hatred. I don’t have the time or attention for dating anyone, so I am far less invested in attracting the romantic attentions of smart, funny, angry, determined women. I spend a lot of time cooking, working out, and cleaning up after dogs and children. I wear sweatpants a lot.

I care far less these days about how I look to others. Or I thought I did, until I was asked to provide a photo that would represent me to hundreds of strangers.

The author photo, as Kowal and other smart, in-the-know people have mentioned, is one’s presentation of self to people who one will never have the chance to impress in person. You have your photo, and if you are LUCKY that stranger will actually read your work. And from that an opinion is formed.

What do I want to say to all of those people? What do I want to say to YOU?

When I was a kid and teenager (until I came out, honestly) my entire wardrobe concept was “please for the love of god please please do not notice me or look at me in any way.” That is not a sartorial aesthetic appropriate to the author photo. When I was a young adult, well, as discussed at length above, my clothes were a compelling contradiction of “please flirt with me if you fall into one of the following narrowly defined categories, the rest of you fuck off in the most polite and inoffensive way possible.” My wardrobe for the last five years has been jeans, a t-shirt, and hiking boots, with variations for weather. That is not really the look I want to promote for myself, though it is the TRUTH.

I’m thinking the slightly nicer version of the truth is applicable here. Something a little bit dressier, maybe. But … but my slightly-nicer clothes are 1) old and scruffy and 2) don’t really fit due to two years of eating healthy and working out. So they are not, in fact, slightly-nicer clothes.

What I want … what I want my author photo to say is what I want my appearance to say to everyone I meet for the first time at conventions and the like. I want to look calm, and cheerful, and vaguely butch-dyke-queer without being defensive about it. I want to look like I care, but not like I care too much. I want to look relaxed, but not diffident. I want to look engaged and happy but not desperate.

I strongly, strongly suspect that the result of all this wanting will result in a vaguely paralyzed, neurotic, rabbit-in-headlights sort of photo. I am actually resigned to this being my fate. But that still doesn’t answer the question which I am now worrying at with obsessive intensity:

What the ever-loving FUCK am I going to WEAR?

What does a forty-year-old, never-was-actually-punk-rock-though-I-did-see-Dead-Milkmen-in-concert, fat, geeky, butch-genderqueer-do-I-really-have-to-pick-a-label, too-busy-for-a-haircut, parent-air-traffic-controller-writer-editor wear in order to say “I’m really a perfectly nice person, I hope you enjoy this work”?


7 Responses

  1. I do not have any answers for you, but I do wish you the best of luck, in a totally non-sarcastic way, in figuring it out!

  2. Dunno about the clothes, but I suggest reclining on a throne made of comic longboxes and stacks of books, with your computer of choice in your lap. 😉

  3. So…time to buy new convention-style clothes? You’re making an investment in your career, even if it is a weird, appearance-based, subtly (or not-so-subtly) gendered one.

    At any rate, I wish you luck, and I very shallowly can’t wait to see your fab pictures. 🙂

  4. I agree with Denzi that buying something new is in order. I wish you lived closer, I’d take you shopping. And if we found something awesome in menswear my husband could fit it to you. But my best advice always is, trust yourself.

  5. Thanks y’all! 🙂

  6. Agreeing with all the suggestions that a shopping trip is in order — which doesn’t help with deciding what you’re shopping FOR. Though maybe subtly pick someone whose style you want to bite? We won’t tell!

  7. @Caroline I tend to admire two sorts of style — broad-shouldered, six-foot-tall men, and angry young women with a lot to prove. I AM NEITHER OF THESE THINGS.

    Nor, more importantly, do I want people mistakenly thinking I am. Hmm.

    The group of people I physically resemble are not a group I ever look at.


    To the INTERNETS.

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