I was joking to my husband that this week was Sex-Change Week! Just to lighten things up, you know. Turns out there was no need. John’s been listening to all of Chaz's interviews with some astute commentary.
However over the past week(s), I seen a dearth of Cher-fans chit-chat on Chaz’s appearances. Not one comment on the Yahoo list about the documentary. Is that disconcerting? I hate to think so...but I am surprised. Although I understand, your generic Cher celebrity obsession does not equal a Chaz celebrity obsession. This is why we didn’t send Ceremony’s Hang Out Your Poetry up the charts. However, Chaz’s current transgender story is still solidly a part of the Cher story. Honestly, my “peripherals” blog tag is just an ironic jest. Nothing is ever truly peripheral:
a) because everything Chaz or Elijah will ever do in their entire lives is still part of Cher’s story… but much more so this story because it represents loss for Cher.
b. because Chaz, in talking about his life, drops Cher-at-home tidbits. For instance, you learn that Cher once bought Chastity a Wonder-Woman jean skirt. Which is an unprecedented look behind the curtain, a unique child’s-point-of-view peek into her private life. And I don’t care what you think you know about Cher’s private life. You don’t know shit. Cher’s a master of only appearing to be seen. Her interviews are like a Bob Mackie gown, you think you’re getting more skin than you really are. And short of a for-real Cher autobiography, this is as good as it gets.
Is the topic just too difficult for them? Let me explain my non-discomfort with the transgender topic. I used to live with my bff Julie in Los Angeles from 2003-2006. Everyone but our friends thought we were gay. My siblings and parents probably did too. We were on an Animal Planet reality show created by the Humane Society (where we won the adorable Edgar Winter Dog) and some viewers there even thought we were gay. It didn’t bother me. Well it did bother me that I had such a distant relationship with my family that they didn’t know I had a crush on John Waite for 15 years. But mostly, it didn’t bother me because I thought of Katharine Hepburn and her heiress-bff Laura Harding living together and how everyone thought they were gay too…and that me being gay was probably a more interesting plotline than the love life I was living at the time…so let em run with it.
But that’s really not the point, since we’re not talking about being gay. The point is, due to this conception about us, Julie and I had no problems talking about different kinds of sex and sexuality. As young Bitch/Bust feminists, this was just part of being feminist daily. We saw TransGeneration on Sundance. And for a while we really got into graphic surgery shows about kids and adults with unusual medical conditions. I’m not freaked out about surgical procedures anymore. So I don’t find transgendering or its surgery that disturbing, even if maybe I once did.
However, when Chaz story broke, I did think immediately “poor mom.” And poor all of us who will lose that little TV star Chastity forever. Which was an irrational thought; because she existed and so will always exist.
The Poor Mom response was not irrational. A mom’s struggle, no matter what kind of major transformations their daughters will face, is harsh. And moms always get a large suitcase of guilt and loss to deal with. Most moms feel guilt; famous moms usually feel extra guilty.
While Chas was a daughter, she says she had an often rocky relationship with her mom. Cher herself has had a rocky relationship with her mother. Let me tell you, things aren’t always smooth sailing with my mom. Billions of women know this mother/daughter dynamic. Many, many mothers subconsciously discourage their daughters from self-actualizing in many ways for many reasons (their own fears, their own dreams). It’s so common it could be called natural. Except that it’s so painful. It feels structured to be painful. And no one has yet invented an effective way to deal with it.
Even though Chas is now a man, he and Cher still had 40 years of that mother-daughter thang.
I’ve been watching The Judds reality show on OWN (I got accidentally sucked in last weekend). Talk about mother-daughter DRAMA. The episode I saw started with Mama Judd sobbing over Ashley Judd’s book and Ashley’s disclosure of her painful childhood. Mama Judd felt guilty. Winona Judd felt guilty. Mama and Winona tried to have a therapeutic moment together with a therapist; but the event fell apart over disagreements in their diverging memories of their traumatic few years living on Larabee Street in Los Angeles (it truly did sound awful). The session ended with Winona storming out because her mother “wasn’t hearing her.” Sound familiar?
Add to that transgendering and it’s not surprising that the press has been relatively kind to Cher. It’s mother-daughter drama to the hilt.
It’s hard not to be engaged by the documentary Becoming Chaz, made by the guys who gave us the gems of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, TransGeneration and Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
This week, Oprah and Rose O’Donnel talked to Chaz about it for an hour each. Cher’s sister Georganne even made an appearance to talk about her initial issues with Chaz’s transgendering and how her husband, Ebar, helped her along. In the documentary, Cher also says it was her boyfriend who encouraged her to see Chaz after some time apart. So interesting that the men in Chaz’s family circle were stronger about it. Maybe because they were gaining a team-mate. Did they think, “who doesn’t want to be a dude?” Oprah was fully understanding. Rosie tried to wrap her head around transgendering as a gay woman.
But David Letterman tried to get his head around it as Middle America. His show proved to me that sometimes ignorant questions are just as important as good ones. They clear the air. His anti-depressants question was such a question.
Cintra Wilson’s review and interview is another good example of being off the rails. I was on NPR with Wilson years ago talking about celebrity obsession. We had something in common: we both think celebrity obsession is bad for society. However, I felt Wilson was either grandstanding her view for some kind of celebrity-like attention or she was authentically off the rails about it. I felt the same way about her 2000 book, A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations (Can you see what I mean?). Her review and interview of Chas for The New York Times was no different. She asked the dumb questions: “Did the toxic culture of celebrity damage Chaz’s gender identity?” and “Did Cher’s almost drag-queenlike hyper-female persona somehow devour Chastity’s emerging femininity?”
It’s hard to take her seriously. First of all, Cher as hyper feminine? Has she seen Cher on a Harley? Was she around for the androgynous 60s? Or was that toxic too?
Toxic celebrity culture does not cause gender identity issues. It may cause body image issues. It may cause our distraction from society’s real problems. Aren't these things bad enough? But Wilson’s theories are almost radically conservative in a way. In other words, wouldn’t life would be so much simpler without those dangerous moving pictures and pop songs? It’s good to get the dumb stuff out. So we can call it out for what it is.
Let’s be frank (no pun intended), people who are still anti-gay are not going to come around to an understanding of transgendering. Because these are essentially the same people who, in ancient times, would have drowned their own baby twins because twins were seen as being unnatural and unlucky. These people cannot tolerate anything unusual.
I devoured Chaz’s book in two days. He’s getting better at retelling the early stories. In fact, this book was more a complete story than the other two books, Family Outing and End of Innocence. There was a lot to digest but my favorite discussions were on gender tween-ness and society's massive need to see gender absoluteness in people. I also learned Cher’s fame takes a f*#@ing lot of work. And that everyone on Celebrity Fit Club was cheating with the Zone Diet. And that Chaz has returned to college. Which is really cool.
Oh, and I learned this too: I wanted Chaz’s childhood and the irony is he wanted a childhood something more like mine. Who knew?
Anyway, back to Mom. Because this blog is about Moms if it’s about anything, in the sense that I’m also the result of my mom’s not wanting me to turn into an adult Cher Scholar.
There’s a Rusty-Dennis-Mask lesson for us here. Wasn’t the take-home from that movie the fact that Rocky Dennis wasn’t so different from you and me, just that society treated him differently simply due to a roll-of-the-dice fluke of his DNA that made him look abnormal? Remember the ferocity of Rusty’s love in response?
What parent doesn't want a normal child? What parent doesn’t want to protect their children from an unhappy childhood? Okay, maybe your mom didn't. But Cher’s mother did. Cher did. If I had a kid, I would. Chaz would too. It’s a universal desire. So everyone can sympathize with Cher (which doesn’t happen often).
Everybody has an opportunity to stand larger today due to this Cher story. Yes, this Cher story, this mother story, this daughter story. A celebrity sensation story is probably the smallest part of it.
Cher may not see it this way. Or maybe she does. Surely she must view this story as a mother before she sees it as an iconic celebrity. But my self-imposed job here is to look at this from an entertainment history perspective, 50-years down the line. This is a good trajectory for Cher, not a negative story. Why? Because it’s something more poignant and more modern and more full of humanity than the legacy she will have from a Bob Mackie dress, from “Turn Back Time” or Moonstruck or, God help us, “Half Breed” or even the legacy of Mask.
It’s obvious to me Chaz is standing larger. Gone is that tense, awkward wrinkled brow from all his previous interviews. I’ve been watching this worried furrowed brow since 1979 and The Mike Douglas Show all the way to last years’ Entertainment Tonight story. I have not seen the wrinkled brow all week. What I now see more clearly is Sonny. And what’s to complain about that?
As if by divine messaging, while I was typing this out the Joni Mitchell song “Let The Wind Carry Me” came up on my iPod shuffle (God speaks through my iPod, no?). This song couldn’t be more apropos for this moment. It’s a mother-daughter conflict song. The lyrics tear’d me up a bit because although the daughter in the song is different than Chastity was and she is different than I am…its not so different.
Papa's faith is people
Mama she believes in cleaning
Papa's faith is in people
Mama she's always cleaning
Papa brought home the sugar
Mama taught me the deeper meaning
She don't like my kick pleat skirt
She don't like my eyelids painted green
She don't like me staying up late
In my high-heeled shoes
Living for that rock 'n' roll dancing scene
Papa says "Leave the girl alone, mother
She's looking like a movie queen"
Mama thinks she spoilt me
Papa knows somehow he set me free
Mama thinks she spoilt me rotten
She blames herself
But papa he blesses me
It's a rough road to travel
Mama let go now
It's always called for me
Sometimes I get that feeling
And I want to settle
And raise a child up with somebody
I get that strong longing
And I want to settle
And raise a child up with somebody
But it passes like the summer
I'm a wild seed again
Let the wind carry me
Mama, let the wind carry Chastity.
He is the proof God lives. And he is God’s gift to you.
(Chastity Sun, 1973)