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My Mom and the Bearded Lady

Jmiller20 Juggling20 Gender

The authors mother has given her an early exposure to a diverse collection of women, which serves her well as a writer and strategic activist.

I once met a fancy New York journalist at a conference who, upon inquiring about where I came from—Colorado Springs—immediately responded, “I’m sorry,” and looked at me with a pitying, blood-boiling face.

I was pissed. The way I see it I can talk smack about the mass religious manipulation and broke-as-a-joke municipal government of my hometown, but others, especially people who live in brownstones and tweet all day about their nanny problems, cannot.

Besides, she could never understand my Colorado Springs.

My Colorado Springs began in my childhood home, where it wasn’t evangelical hypocrite Ted Haggard that dictated the culture, but a bearded circus performer named Jennifer Miller. You see my mom, coming to grips with the cultural shortcomings of the hometown she had inherited, decided she was going to start a film festival.

She had never been part of any film festival committee before, mind you. She’d never even made a film. She was a social worker. But she had been to a film festival—her eyes growing dry in the dark, her imagination lit up with all the independent film plot lines and unusual characters—and so she knew this was a foolproof way to give our god-fearing, soldier-training town a little booster shot of “the other.”

So back to this bearded lady. While other kids were watching “3-2-1 Contact” and MTV videos (it once, indeed, showed those), I was scrunched into the comforting crook of my mom’s armpit, watching documentary films made by and about women. It was my mom’s job, along with a motley crew of other neighborhood mom renegades that she recruited, to screen films for the newly named Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival.

Thus, I met artist Penny Sisto, making elaborate, mystical quilts in a sort of trance. I met Madeline L’Engle, talking about what it meant to be a writer. I met Orthodox Jewish shopkeepers and girls my age living in urban public housing and learned about incest and Alzheimer’s and protest and desire. And I met Jennifer Miller, the bearded lady that was the star of a 1992 short film called Juggling Gender. I will forever remember the scene of Jennifer taking a bath—the incongruence of her bearded face made even more striking in the context of her naked female body underwater, like a mermaid in-revolt.

In a place that was increasingly bearing down on me with both explicit and implicit rules—to go to college someday means to get good grades, to be cool means to not make too big a deal about getting good grades, to be sexy means being pretty and flirty, but not too eager or easy—the bearded lady stood out as a symbol of another world.

There was a place where a woman could walk around, unabashedly, with a beard. And be a radical circus performer. And talk about gender like it was fluid and fun rather than a prescription for fear—don’t get pregnant, don’t be too uptight, don’t look ugly. As I walked through the hallways of North Junior High, awkwardly trying to appear un-awkward in my green jeans with my frizzy hair, the world that my mom was slyly imprinting on my brain in our nightly screening sessions brought me great unconscious comfort.

I didn’t realize it at the time, of course. I thought most of her weird, feminist film stuff was embarrassing. But underneath the requisite eye rolling of youth, I was ravenously fitting each image into a big puzzle I was putting together about what lay beyond.

I think about this often these days when I hear the frightening statistics about how many images the average teenager is exposed to in a day and consider how objectifying and unimaginative most of these images are. Though I was destined to be the target market for all of that toxic blah, born in the cradle of Fast Food Nation and suburban sprawl, my mom literally reprogrammed the television. She couldn’t shield me from fashion magazines and “Beverly Hills 90210” and the boys who posted up at lunch, enforcing the panoptical feeling of the cafeteria, but she could deluge me with such a wide diversity of images that those influences were diluted. In a sense, by starting a film festival—now 25 years running, the longest contiguous women’s film festival in the world—she marinated my brain in possibilities.

Set against this backdrop, my life unfolds in a pretty logical manner. As soon as I graduated high school, I went to Barnard College in New York City. Many of the filmmakers that my mom had introduced me to over the years were from there. I wasn’t so sure about an all women’s college, but when I read the bios on my favorite books, all of them said that so-and-so “lives in Brooklyn.”

I became a writer. And a feminist. Who loves film. And lives in Brooklyn. Go figure.

The other day, I was sitting in my local coffee shop, tapping away at some blog post or another, and looked up to find none other than Jennifer Miller standing at the counter, smiling broadly beneath that same beard as she ordered a cup of coffee. I forgot to breathe for a few seconds. I couldn’t believe it was her, as if she strolled straight out of my hazy, cinematic memories and right into my favorite place to work when the isolation of being a writer becomes too much.

I didn’t say anything; it seemed too hard to explain and I wondered if it might freak her out to find out that she’d played such a central role in my imagination of what was possible. But I see her around the neighborhood quite frequently. She lives here too.

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