Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt

I just finished reading The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt, a memoir by Jon-Jon Goulian.  Goulian is a man in his early 40s who has been dressing in a girlish / androgynous fashion since his late teens.  He dresses this way because he likes the way he looks.  He emphasizes that he is not a crossdresser  "Stockings, wigs, pancake makeup and whatever else cross-dressers do that I don’t do — keep it away from me,” he declares.

So he's not a crossdresser.  Well, not as he defines it.  Still, a book published by a mainstream press about a guy who dresses in women's clothes.  Sounded like something worth reading.

I'm not sure what I was expecting.  From what I had read about Goulian. I was ready to dislike him.  He was born into a privileged life, growing up in La Jolla, California, his mother a successful lawyer, his father a doctor.  He went to Columbia then spent three years in law school, after which he decided he didn't want to be a lawyer.  His parents, while admittedly puzzled and worried about his future, seem loving and accepting of his trying to figure out who he is.  It just seemed that he had been given every opportunity, opportunities millions would kill for and had done nothing with those opportunities.

Then I found out that he was given an advance of more than $700,000 for this book.  I gather from bits and pieces I've seen on the Net that he's a minor celebrity and makes the rounds at parties in New York, but $700,000 is a lot of money for an unknown author.   I was really ready to dislike him.

After reading the book, I don't dislike him.  I feel sorry for him.  While there are parts of the book that are amusing and well-written, what comes through is a person who is afraid of almost everything, someone who's lived a life with little challenge or achievement.

I knew early on that this wasn't going to be memoir that explored why he (and we) crossdress, the special feelings that dressing give us and the complicated relationship many of us have with our need to dress. 

The whole dressing up thing seems to have just happened.  When he was 16, Goulian did relatively poorly on an achievement test.  This failure, added to the pressures of being the youngest member of a high achieving fashion, seemed to cause him to decide to stop trying, in all areas of his life.  One way he manifested this was to start dressing in girls' clothing.  He didn't try to look like a girl, but just wore the clothes because he thought they made him look pretty.

He didn't wear his feminine clothing in secret.  He wore his tank tops and stirrup pants and Ugg boots to school, sometimes adding a little lipstick.

Now I would have expected more about his friends' reaction to this change, but he doesn't dwell on that.  His friends are confused and puzzled by his behavior (including his decision to stop playing soccer after 10 years of being one of the stars of his team), but they don't shun him.  Or if they do, Goulian doesn't mention it.  The attitudes of his friends seem to be "you're pretty weird, dude, but whatever" 

He seems very brave in some ways, determined to be himself.  In other ways, he seems determined to sabotage his chances to succeed in any of the usual ways that would have been recognized by his family. 

There's lots more, some of it funny, most of it sad.  I think I would have liked this book better if I read it in small chunks.  The stories in bits and pieces are amusing but after a while, you just want the guy to grow up and take responsibility for himself.  His inability to deal with growing up is exemplified by his name - a man in his 40s who calls himself "Jon-Jon"

After I read the book, I read a review  (New York Times review of The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt) that's much better than this one and hits the nail on the head "Mr.Goulian has written a talky book with a terrier yap, one that reads like a skittish celebrity memoir with no celebrity attached. It’s a shallow, callow thing. If you dropped a penny into its well, you’d hear it click and rattle at the bottom."

So why read the book or write about it?  I'm glad I read the book.  I'd have been curious to know what I was missing if I hadn't.  It's not about crossdressing; that's a small part of it.  I think Goulian wants us to think it's about carving out your own path.  I felt it was more the story of someone who has been living with low level depression for most of his life and is seeking to be exciting, different and entertaining as a way of dealing with that.  He's an artist who doesn't seem to have the discipline to actually make art.

Reading the book and thinking about it also gives me another opportunity to reflect about how I feel about my crossdressing. 

One of the joys of crossdressing is giving myself permission to try to look pretty, to be different, to give myself over to feelings that I usually keep bottled up.  I should sympathize with Goulian's different but related feelings.  However, I found myself, at least initially, feeling like he was just too flamboyant, too interested in drawing attention to himself.

Yep, I know that feeling that way is inconsistent with my belief that society should accept and embrace our differences and that the way we decide to dress and act and be should be up to us.  Feeling that way about Jon-Jon Goulian is a lot like the way many "unsophisticated" people feel about people like me.

So, reading about Jon-Jon and examining my initial feelings about him was a good way to remember that I'm not all that accepting of diversity (especially when it doesn't fall within the apparently narrow bounds of what I consider diversity).  It also reminds me that people who don't know us don't necessarily hate us - they just don't know us.  They're not able to get past that initial reaction of "that person is weird and creepy"  Maybe they will get past that feeling at some point, but if I, who should be more sympathetic of people who are a little different, felt that way when reading about Goulian, get stuck, then maybe I need to be a bit more understanding of those who need a little more time to "get" us.

There are some funny bits and pieces but most of the good stuff can be found in reviews in places like the New York Times or NPR A Party Boy Reflects On Life, Lip Gloss   

It's not a bad book, there's just not as much there as I was hoping for.  Maybe that's how Jon-Jon Goulian's friends and family feel about him.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sparing me the trouble of reading the book! No, seriously, your review is food for thought and I guess if I had read it I'd feel the same way.
    Still, if someone offered me an advance like that I think I might be able to scrape up a shallow book too..... 8-)