ADD/MTV: Christina Aguilera – “Beautiful” (2002)

I am outside, and I am wearing a dress. This is a new experience, wearing a dress in public, and it is exhausting. I’m the third wheel of a bridal party, carrying bags and coats through a cold Chicago afternoon, watching people who aren’t in the group as they take me in, look away, and look back. Some of them never stop looking. I’m chatting to these friends of one of the brides, who is the friend of the person who invited me here, about myself. There are strangers taking pictures of the bride and the bride, one in a tux and another in a dress, and there are two photographers who have been paid to do the same, but with tact. I am off to the side, feeling the wind on my legs and watching those strangers take their pictures. We’re at a zoo. That’s not a metaphor. I guess that’s a metaphor.

At 8:30 a.m., I pulled a dress on over my head and did my make-up. Unlike the scene in Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” where a trans woman puts on her make-up and clothes to face the song’s hypothetical bullies whose words, Xtina presumes, will try to bring her down, there is no special drama to the moment. “Beautiful” played on Total Request Live for 50 days, from December 2002 until February 2003, and even the least kind edit of the video had to include her, the trans woman. Or the gay couple, kissing in public. Or the black girl ripping out the pages of an all-white beauty magazine. Or the rail-thin boy lifting weights. Or the girl who is beaten and bullied by other kids. Or the girl looking at her starved frame in a mirror. Or the punk kid sitting alone on a bus. Or Xtina herself, on the comedown from “Dirty,” fighting something though she’s no longer dressed for a literal fight. Squeezed together in four minutes on MTV, the disparate bodies of MTV are one revolutionary body. They receive a GLAAD Media Award. They could appear on one of the Human Rights Campaign’s brochures, handed out by a well-scrubbed believer. One of the bridesmaids at the reception says something about how love between two people should never have been branded illegal. She’s straight, so for her it never was. I try to appreciate the sentiment. My friend squeezes my leg. Between her fingers and my thigh there is a thin layer of lycra. I watch the light bend in where she squeezes and out when my leg expands and enjoy the certainty of my dress, which I have been wearing for hours. I try not to think about love.

Before re-watching “Beautiful,” I misremembered it as a music video where Christina Aguilera sang while naked in a claw-foot bathtub, scrubbing clean the exquisite grime of “Dirty.” That’s a very specific invented memory, so I trace it some, waiting for my plane at Chicago O’Hare. There’s that cover of Rolling Stone from 2002, from when Stripped dropped and announced the birth or Xtina, or the rebirth of Christina, one body bursting forth from the expired image of another. Is this what transitioning is like? Yes and no. To my friend, I mention my old name, call it my dead name, and, in a way, my new name sprung from that. But my body has always been my body, and, no matter how radical the changes I make to it are, it will have been my body before those changes and after. It is only not mine when I encounter a gatekeeper. Mine, thus far, have been sympathetic.

Remember the clean girl who appeared in the music video for “Genie in a Bottle,” cooing that she had to be rubbed the right way. Remember me as I was. Remember the bride through this inexpertly curated slideshow of childhood photos. Someone close to her remembers her pagenting past, but tonight she is wearing a tuxedo and the word “butch,” to her straight relatives, is a known unknown. My friend eventually sheds the corsage that has been stabbing her breast all evening and changes out of her bridesmaid’s dress into a pair of pants and a flannel shirt. We go outside for some air, and I am still wearing my dress. An older woman from the reception makes a comment about the flannel and I joke that my friend is my butch girlfriend and the woman says She’s not butch and I say There’s a spectrum like an idiot and Kind of, like, soft butch? like an idiot and She’s more butch than I am, but nobody is listening and everybody is seeing what they want to see, which is a man wearing a dress.

I’m not sure it’s possible to place the weight of revolution upon the Xtina character, not when Christina Aguilera’s current reinvention sees her acting as a mentor for singers with half her talent on a reality singing show. Call it phase two in the commodification of young, talented bodies, bodies like hers and Britney Spears’, the two always locked in a battle for supremacy that neither wanted or much commented on, but which was (and is) the kind of thing our culture invents for women who are successful at the same thing. Spears, who once sang of how she “cried, cried, cried with a lonely heart” while perched on a paper moon, was, in 2002, only just beginning to show the vulnerability of a real artist when Xtina spring from the forehead of Christina, winning the war. Her transformation was exciting to me, but I didn’t know why: I disliked her music and disliked her music videos and had valid critiques for neither of those products. Really I just hated anything with which I could not affirm my masculinity, which required affirmation. But fifty consecutive days on TRL is a lifetime—I watched the clip for “Beautiful” frequently. If I hated these music videos in the early Aughts, and I did, it had less to do with the songs than the images that accompanied them, the way they explored feminine artistry or, yes, confronted the patriarchal policing of a body or a career. Where Spears would later harness live performance as a weapon, Xtina had the music video, the allure of a good-girl gone bad. As Jonas Akerlund’s video intercuts from the singer’s face to intimate scenes of personal ruin begetting strength, Xtina’s voice unfolds them gently, lovingly. Her voice is expansive, cinematic, but the words, written by 4 Non Blonde’s Linda Perry, have the unvarnished appeal of a journal entry, a woman finding strength in herself and clinging to it.

I forgot about the trans woman in “Beautiful” because I probably didn’t read her as trans in 2002. Today, watching the music video on my iPad the day after the wedding, I wonder if I’m reading her as trans because I want her to be trans, because I need to see some piece of my experience reflected in culture this morning. You might read her as a drag queen. I need to read her as a woman, readying herself for the day. Note the tenderness with which she puts on her bra. The weariness of her routine. Her make-up is a little aggressive, but this is a music video with a central visual metaphor of a dead sunflower that, through the miracle of film editing, is alive as Christina finishes the song. I need to see a trans woman because last night, drunk and eating a slice of re-heated pizza, I was sobbing into the shoulder of my friend because I couldn’t let go of the aggressive niceness of one of the wedding’s guests.

The people I talk to in the wedding party are queer and proud to be that way. The officiant is a gay man, and he, freezing in an H&M blazer that he once thought “too gay” for his body, asks me how long I’ve had my name. Since April, I tell him. That it’s only been five months since I started doing this, doing whatever a trans woman does, surprises a fair number of people I meet in Chicago. Later, I dip outside again. I don’t know how it happens, but I’m in a conversation about myself with some older, straight, members of the wedding party, and they, too, want to know about my life as a woman.

“That’s awesome, man,” this one dude says to everything, jumping into my pauses to give me some affirmation. “Whatever makes you happy, man. Fucking awesome, man. That’s so great, man.”

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His wife asks me where I went to high school and asks, of my mother’s decision to send me to an all-boy’s Catholic school in the middle of Detroit, whether she was trying to pray the trans away and if I was bullied much. My mom knew that I was trans five months ago. My high school class, those who keep up with me online, have known for two, maybe three weeks. Total shock. The husband and wife don’t know how to process my rejection of their narrative, so the husband offers, “he’s too big to be bullied.”

“Actually,” the wife offers, turning to her husband “she’s too big to be bullied.” She then looks back at me. “Bring it here.” She totters over on her pumps and hugs me, really buries herself in my person, and whispers into my ear. “You’re so beautiful. You’re so brave. You’re so beautiful. You’re so fucking beautiful.” She spends two minutes doing this and disappears into the party, where she blends in with the rest of the aunts and uncles.

This is the curious thing about being trans in public, about meticulously preparing for the day ahead, then going out and experiencing it, that even someone who thinks that what you’re doing is fucking great can bring you down just by reiterating how fucking great you are. Occasionally, a person on the street will call me a faggot or a freak, but that is garden variety transphobia and, I don’t know, maybe I really am too big for someone to consider attacking me. Christina hits the bridge now, opens her throat and pours out some notes that are rather unexpected for a video that begins with her whispering “Don’t look at me.” How could anybody do anything else but look at a woman who can take a non-word like “Yeah” and turn it into soaring uplift? Her protagonists are overcoming their struggles, too. The black girl throws her beauty magazine into a fire. The anorexic smashes a mirror. On and on. The trans woman, though? She puts on a wig. That’s it. “We are beautiful,” Christina reiterates, Ackerlund cutting to the trans woman, who smiles on “in every single way.” A smile is what my strange woman tried to get from me, hugging me and saying over and over again how pretty I was before dissipating—she meant it as an affirmation.

I see Christina Aguilera all the time and only see the people in “Beautiful” as they hit bottom. That woman in Chicago saw me at my best and treated me with the sympathy one affords a wounded animal. I didn’t want to be brave that night, didn’t want to be someone’s prop. Of course I cried; I had a knife in my back—the word beautiful—slipped into a kidney during an embrace.

Colette Arrand lives in Athens, Georgia, where she is a student at the University of Georgia. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from No Tokens, The Atlas Review, CutBank, and elsewhere. She's much less sad at her website, fearofaghostplanet.com.

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