How the bra scene in ‘Flashdance’ helped illuminate one woman’s gay identity

Jennifer Beals' performance sparked a feeling that she didn't have the words to name
By Amy Whitley  Published on 01/18/2019 at 9:00 AM EDT
Jennifer Beals' iconic performance in 'Flashdance' was a turning point for the writer.

I was in the 6th grade, sprawled out in a sleeping bag on the living room floor at Jessica L.’s 12th birthday slumber party. On the 50-inch Panasonic, Jennifer Beals unhooked her bra and slipped it through the sleeve of her sweatshirt in Flashdance, and I was spellbound. At the time, I wasn’t even sure why. In fairness, all the other girls at the party were equally mesmerized, but still I knew in that moment, that my fascination differed from theirs in a significant and fundamental way. As they schemed about how they, too, might one day perform such a suave move to impress a guy, I couldn’t even hear them, my mind wholly consumed by a baser, dare I say lustier, train of thought as I watched the scene play out. I felt myself blush.

Eating donuts the next morning, we watched the same scene again, so we could “study the move.” I looked down at the sheen of glaze on my maple bar instead, picking at crumbs. I didn’t want to watch Jennifer Beals take her bra off over and over. Well, I did, which was the problem. I didn’t have to fake the stomachache I claimed a few moments later, walking hesitantly into the kitchen to ask Mrs. L if I could go home as the girls rewound the VHS tape yet again.

I wouldn’t understand fully that I was gay for another three years, when I finally worked up the nerve to share a bus seat with my high school crush, covertly slipping my hand in hers as we wound our way along a mountain road to a volleyball game. And it would take me many more years to articulate it and come to positive terms with it. That day at the slumber party, all I knew was that something was off. That I wasn’t getting the same takeaway from the movie as the other girls. That I was somehow different.

That difference proved very hard for me to define, growing up in small town, conservative America in the 1980s. I lived in a vacuum: My parents and teachers and role models didn’t talk about gay culture or rights, not because they were homophobic, but simply because it wasn’t part of the conversation. And I didn’t have much access to a larger, queerer world. My generation, coming of age on the cusp of the ‘90s, was the last to brave the path through adolescence without the internet. Without It Gets Better and GLAAD and Google. Let me tell you, I could have used all three in my life.

Which is why, when I hear grumbling comments like, “There’s too much media attention given to LGBTQ issues these days,” or “There’s a gay pride parade every five minutes in this country,” or “Where’s my straight parade?” (yes, these are real comments), I want to shout, “Straight Pride Day? That’s just called Tuesday!”

Yes. Every day is Straight Pride Day; this is just how privilege amid majority populations work. And if people prickly about political correctness notice a pendulum swinging toward a more rainbow-hued society, I have news for them: That’s just how pendulums work. They correct imbalances by throwing their weight in the opposite direction. And yes, this momentum throws convention askew for a moment, but then, if done right, equilibrium is achieved.

I say it’s long overdue. Words are power. Labels, when applied to oneself, are power. Being denied the chance to use words to build one’s identity and define one’s self is a stripping of said power, and—I don’t think I’m exaggerating here—nothing short of tragedy.

At my long-ago slumber party, the societal space I occupied lacked all but the barest of a framework on which to erect my identity. I lacked the vocabulary required to dissect my feelings watching that movie. Had I asked my sixth grade self what “being gay” meant in 1988, I would have conjured an image from the nightly news of a man sick with AIDS. Or maybe, the slur ‘faggot’ would have spun across my mind. It had certainly been lobbed indiscriminately and often across my school playground. Essentially, ‘gay’ to 12-year-old me would have meant ‘male,’ ‘other,’ and ‘scary,’ pretty much in that order. It was so far removed from my experience and my reality, that even while watching Flashdance, I would not have attached this word to myself. It would not have occurred to me to do so.

In contrast, most kids growing up now have a working—even fluent—queer vocabulary. I’ve heard this criticized by the same “everyone’s too PC these days” camp, in an eye-rolling sort of way, but I’ll tell you something: That’s just more privilege talking.

Words are power. Labels, when applied to oneself, are power. Being denied the chance to use words to build one’s identity and define one’s self is a stripping of said power, and—I don’t think I’m exaggerating here—nothing short of tragedy.

If you’ve always had the vocabulary at your fingertips that properly defines you, if you haven’t sat, in frustrating illiteracy, watching a movie that stirs confusion within you…in short, if what you’ve picked from the provided pre-approved list of available definitions feels right in your heart and your gut, consider yourself fortunate. Many of us pre-internet, pre-primetime and pre-Pride-everything queer people had nothing but a blank slate. Without a robust and diverse vernacular available to me, my psyche stayed blank for far too long. Waiting. My very self sat devoid of the proper shading it needed, for context and perspective. Without the right words, I ended upassigning myself the wrong ones.

So when I ask my 14-year-old son who his favorite character is while we’re watching a TV program together, and he answers easily, “Probably the pansexual guy,” tears of gratitude come to my eyes. At his age, I would not have known pansexual from a frying pan. When I’m helping my high school senior fill out college applications and the list of sexual and gender identities are as long as my arm, and I watch him scroll patiently down the list to pick the one that feels right to him, I tear up again. Because he harbors no sense of entitlement that his orientation should be the first or only option listed, despite representing the majority, just as my younger child doesn’t for a moment assume every character portrayed on his screen will be straight. And well, yep, here I go again, welling up on cue. I’m really not a crier, but this, to me, is the definition of power shifting, and balance restored.

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