How To Play Video Games, Part II

Previously: How to play video games for the first time in fifteen years.

  1. You are going to play Super Mario World.

  2. You are going to play Super Mario World

  3. You are going to play Super Mario World until you get to the level you normally handed the controllers off to the nearest boy and asked him to finish that level for you

  4. “If we take one more step, Mr. Frodo….it’ll be the furthest from home I’ve ever been.”

  5. You are going to play Super Mario World until you get to the level beyond the level you normally handed the controllers off to the nearest boy and asked him to finish that level for you

  6. You are going to die every time you play a new level

  7. You are going to scream every time you die every time you play a new level

  8. You are going to scream reflexively, impulsively, compulsively, without direction, thought, control, or intention

  9. Each new level is going to feel like the first day of junior high and also the morning of your scheduled execution as the main character in Kind Hearts and Coronets

  10. “The Death Star's development and subsequent construction ensued for years, with Lemelisk working at the Maw Installation alongside designers including Frap Radicon and Umak Leth. When the station was finally completed, it was destroyed by the Alliance to Restore the Republic at the Battle of Yavin. Furious at the fact that the Alliance had been able to locate and exploit a fatal flaw in the design, Emperor Palpatine had Lemelisk executed, and subsequently resurrected in a clone body. Palpatine ordered Lemelisk to design a new Death Star, one that did not possess the same fatal flaw as the original. During development, the Emperor executed and resurrected Lemelisk a further six times.”

  11. Get stuck on the Cheese Bridge

  12. Delete the file and start over

  13. You are going to play Super Mario World

  14. Get stuck in the Forest of Illusion

  15. Delete the file and start over

  16. You are going to play Super Mario World

  17. Your living companion has at this point played her way through Mario’s Odyssey, Yoshi’s Island, and most of Donkey Kong’s Tropic Freeze

  18. You are going to play Super Mario World

  19. Get stuck in Tubular

  20. Delete the file and start over

  21. You are going to play Super Mario World

  22. Get stuck in the Valley of Bowser

  23. Go back to Yoshi’s Island. Begin again.

  24. Begin again.

  25. Begin again.

  26. This time perfect

  27. This time clean

  28. Delete everything and begin again.

  29. You have been playing this game, with significant breaks, since 1992 and you have never beaten Bowser. Begin again.

  30. Begin again! You are the furthest from home that you have ever been!

Kate Bush's "Mr. Sandman"

Mr. Sandman, it’s me, Cathy
Let’s roll and fall on those windy moors in green
Give him a temper like my jealousy
Then tell him that he’s never gonna leave me

Mr. Sandman, bad dreams at night
Now don’t you tell me that I might lose the fight
So, please open up that fourth-floor window
Mr. Sandman, I’m coming home

Home, home, home, home
Home, home, home, home
Home, home, home, home
Home, home, home, home
Home, home, home, home

Mr. Sandman, it’s dark and lonely
Give him a pair of eyes that spark with bad dreams
Give him a lonely heart like Mr. Lockwood
And wavy hair and a cruel sense of manhood!

Mr. Sandman, Sandman, I pine a lot
(Home, home, home, home)
I must possess him, my hatred is hot
So please tell me that I’ll win the fight
Give me Heathcliff, Heathcliff tonight
Home, home, home, home
Home, home, home, home
Bring us Heathcliff
Home, home, home, home
Home, home, home, home

Hey! Sandman, I’m coming in
How could he leave me when he’s me and I’m him?
Hey Sandman, spread the word, I’m no pushover
Tell Heathcliff that his lonesome nights are over

Emma From "Emma" Discusses Women's Pajamas

EMMA: This absolutely bites, and it’s all the time a problem, every time there’s a Regency anything, in the unbelievable disparity between the relative hotness of the men’s and the women’s clothing. There is absolutely nothing attractive, flattering, or stylish about women’s Regency clothes, and I’ve looked. It bites, and it needs to stop.

KNIGHTLEY: I don’t know what you mean.

EMMA: No, but it’s universally true, even though nobody else knows it yet but me. Look at you; look at your clothes, perfect. Collars up to your ears like jawline buttresses, linen waterfalls instead of neckties, big fucking floorcoats, boot-leggings, dressed like a fucking My Chemical Romance video, but in a really fun way. Objectively, it looks good; objectively, clothing for men of this era looks really fucking good.

KNIGHTLEY: You spend so much time saying things are “objectively” something that it took me a while to realize you just mean it as an intensifier – like, you really like something, not that you actually believe other people feel the same way.

EMMA: That is just how feelings work!

KNIGHTLEY: That…also does not seem like a claim you are making seriously.

EMMA: It’s Kant’s Universal subjunctive! I don’t know, Grace is still asleep and I can’t ask her to remind me what that is again. Universal subjective, I think. It means what it means. You know? The point is that, possibly uniquely in human history, clothes for women in Regency England were bad, and unflattering, and everyone knows it, and I’m right.

KNIGHTLEY: Do you think this could possibly be a transmasculine thing?

EMMA: What do you mean.

KNIGHTLEY: Do you think maybe it’s less that “clothes for women were objectively bad” so much as you watched a lot of Regency costume dramas before you transitioned, and also you transitioned so you could wear “men’s clothes” (you know you could wear them before but also you know what I mean).

EMMA: That sounds plausible, but it’s wrong. Lots of women’s clothes are great. Objectively great, even. Just not during this roughly fifteen-year period. Fucking look at us. Everyone’s in Empire-waist dresses, the worst waistline imaginable, with tiny fussy little sleeves, everything in baby colors, wan little curly pigtails snatched up and dressed over the ears, every woman alive right now looks like she’s wearing jammies and having a tea party with baby farm animals, but not even in a fun way.

Oh, and that other thing I hate, where sometimes she’s wearing two dresses, and one of them splits open over the other one, again from that one point directly on the underwire line? We do that all the time now, and it sucks.

It just bites! Look at this! He looks good, she looks awful; he looks good, she looks like a child who’s badly dressed for bed. Like someone who failed to dress fashionably for bedtime!

And she’s a perfectly good-looking drawing of a woman!

And in just a few years, women will look nice again. 1803, bad. 1818, bad. 1826: lovely! But right now it’s Bedtime for Bonzo all the time, big sleepytime chamomile hats and too-high waistlines and baby lace and it’s awful.

KNIGHTLEY: Okay, fine. What are some examples of periods where you think the women’s clothing looks better than the men’s?

EMMA: Dressing gowns! Auntie Mame! Male dressing gowns can look, at best, a little suave, but mostly boring.

KNIGHTLEY: Oh, come on.

EMMA: What?

KNIGHTLEY: Don’t play dumb!!

EMMA: I’m not! What’s wrong?

KNIGHTLEY: You’re trying to make a claim about an entire era in dress, and for a counterexample of how open-minded you are about women’s fashion, you come up with a single fictional woman, whose will thing was that she doesn’t dress like most women. Not that she has her own unique sense of fashion; that she deliberately dresses in baffling, opaque, unrecognizable styles.

EMMA: Is that not allowed?

KNIGHTLEY: Of course it’s allowed! It’s just not much of a counterweight to “all women in Great Britain from 1800-1820.”

EMMA: Well, I think she looked nice. And I’m sure that Kant would agree with me. And I just think everyone should agree that when making future Regency dramas, the men should wear period-appropriate clothing, and the women should wear dresses from either 1770 or 1830, when clothing for women was good.


EMMA: Fine.


EMMA: Lots of clothing for women looks good.


EMMA: It’s not a trans thing!!!!


EMMA: It’s just demonstrably and empirically true that —

KNIGHTLEY: It’s not, though! Actual, demonstrable people disagree with you!

EMMA: “Demonstrable” and “empirical” mean “a lot” and “very much” and “I feel very intense about this.”

KNIGHTLEY: It’s clear that you’ve got a lot of affect bound up in this.

EMMA: Don’t condescend to me!!

KNIGHTLEY: How is it condescending to acknowledge that you feel something intensely when you’ve just told me that you feel something very intensely?

EMMA: I don’t KNOW! But it is!

KNIGHTLEY: This feels like the kind of conversation where my participation is not welcome.

EMMA: You are WELCOME to LISTEN and AGREE with me.


EMMA: God, your clothes look incredible.

James Bond and Trans Women: A Chat With Grace Lavery About Xenia Onatopp, Cis-Girl Cuck Fantasies, and Taking Out the President


You and I have been watching a lot of Bond movies the last few weeks, and something that struck us both as fairly obvious is that James Bond enjoys the company of trans women, if you're inclined to put it charitably, or is a chaser, if you're not. Maybe it's the incredibly elaborate wigs-and-headdresses of so many villainous Bond Girls (plus the punny, drag-queeny names), maybe it's just a vibe, but you just know in your bones he's said something ridiculous but also possibly endearing like "She's an elegant woman…who knows her way around a stick shift." Or like, I don't know, something about how "the most dangerous game" is actually dating trans girls. Incredibly cheesy and definitely wrong, but said with genuine affection and esteem, and he's definitely going to buy you a really nice watch or cover your rent before he leaves town. Certainly something about his cultivation of connoisseurship is part of it, as are his many passports. He can get you new travel documents in 24 hours but he's also probably going to compare you to a fine Cuban cigar, so it’s always a mixed bag. It's obvious, but like, mostly subtextual I think, until we get to Famke Janssen's Xenia Onatopp in 1995's Goldeneye. This was the first Bond movie either of us ever saw, to the best of my recollection. 

Famke Janssen, who would later play a trans woman on Nip/Tuck, gives one of the best performances of a sex maniac I've ever seen. She keeps licking Bond every time they run into each other and gives these little “I’m-coming” puppy-yelps whenever she machine-guns somebody, which she does a lot. She's introduced in this remarkable sort of scene that's – I guess you would call it a cis woman's cucking-anxiety fetish? Bond's being “psychologically evaluated” during a drive, for some reason, by this woman named Caroline, and everything about her, from her name to her hair to her “not-so-fast-James” stick-in-the-muddery, telegraphs “I cannot keep up with James Bond. I have bangs, and I ride horses correctly, not interestingly, and I don't like any of this.”


And then James sees Xenia (Xenia versus Caroline! It was never a fair fight), and it’s all over for Caroline.



I love this reading of the Goldeneye opening as a cis-femme cucking scene - it's especially interesting because it locates the erotic torque of the scene in Caroline, the cipher-secretary. I suppose there are moments where the Bond franchise attempts to look through the eyes of a hopelessly straight female dependent, in the figure of Moneypenny, but they tend to feel (obviously) like merely another moment of bro fantasy - one may question why this franchise tends to traffic in the fantasy of having an old spinster fixate on oneself, but it's not until Naomie Harris in Skyfall, frankly, that the character herself can really focalize the viewer's sympathy. Her name is odd, too - like a frugal version of "honey bunny," but also a kind of pleonasm, a semantic as well as a phonic redundancy. 

Caroline, I think, would probably be the same, except that she is seated between Bond and Onatopp, both the fulcrum of their dynamic and the lucky pierre hosting the attention of both. (I suppose, then, that the cinematography demands that Bond's car be customized for British roads, rather than for France, where the scene is set.) But I do think you're right. Goldeneye was one of the vaunted re-launches of the franchise, and at least part of what that seems to mean is that we are given a female audience avatar from the start. The real question is what difference it makes to that psychic scene that Famke Janssen seems, as you say, to code trans. What do straight cis women want from trans women? To be upstaged? Or perhaps - given that Caroline spends the scene seeking comfort and reassurance from Bond, who eventually turns his gadgetry and surreptitiously-concealed car-champagne upon her, she will find it easier to eroticize a baby role if her daddy already has a mommy - if, that is, daddy has clocked his real erotic match as the dashing, square-jawed lady in the flashy car, then she can nestle more comfortably into a position of coziness, sweetness, cuddliness. 

I have a deep connection to Famke, as you know. One of my favorite pieces in my newsletter was my open letter to her - and one time I was googling my own name and the autofill came out "grace lavery famke janssen" with "related question: is famke janssen a man?" It's interesting to think about these figures of voluptuous 90s androgynous femininity, which seem so different from the contemporary andro dyke stereotype exemplified by kd lang, etc. I had a Famke poster on my wall as a kid, obviously, and loved and desired those cheekbones. There's so much nostalgia in transition, so many primal scenes we realize that we've failed to leave. In Bond too - forever returning to lurid, obscene fantasies of post-war British imperial cosmopolitanism, while at the same time loathing any expression of cosmopolitanism. We've been struck by the degree to which Roger Moore - whom I, at least, had remembered as an arch and campy John Steed type - is really just a Brexit dad: sour, dismissive of non-European wines, and violently unfunny.

All of which having been said, I've been thinking recently about the critique of memoir as a depoliticization of history, and while I'm resistant to that idea for a number of reasons, it seems important to me that the story of my transition - routed as it has so often been through cultural touchstones - is interesting to anyone else only if it says something worth hearing about the objects involved, rather than simply absorbing them into myself. There's a way in which queer people sometimes do that - especially when we come out relatively late in life - that strikes me as wishful thinking. "I should have known I was trans... I loved Xenia Onatopp!" Yeah, but plenty of people did, who aren't, and while the ego (say, my ego) wants to personalize these stories as prefaces to my glorious self-becoming, the truth is that these codes and structures exist entirely independently of me. Which isn't to say that Onatopp isn't trans coded - I think she is - but rather, that somehow the structures themselves seem to be programming us, even in our moments of apparent freedom. So perhaps the real question is: if Xenia Onatopp transitioned, did she do so freely, or on the grounds of necessity?




Scratch a cis-femme cucking scene, of course, and you'll get a transmasculine pearl of desire, more often than not. The Moneypenny thing is odd – there's the immediate nod to “Honey Bunny,” of course, but one also leaps to “pennywise and pound foolish” and maybe mother-henning. She’s a mommy-money-honey-henning knot of complexity, which Bond has no interest in eroticizing.

When it comes to Caroline (the dowdy, plain old cis given name can't help but droop next to the chrome-coated newness of Xenia, the absolute latest model in Woman), I wonder if there's a connection to upgraded-vs.-obsolescent womanhood and the constant gadgetry enhancements Bond gets from Q-branch? By Goldeneye, Q is joking about how dumb the old new, flashy gadgets used to be ("What were you expecting? An exploding pen?"); one girl is always getting swapped out for another from installment to installment and often even from scene to scene. I haven't seen enough of the 70s-era Bond films to be sure when this tradition began, but certainly by the 80s at least (so for 20-30 years of the franchise now!) there was explicit tension between Bond as a dinosaur/hopelessly out-of-touch gentleman spy surrounded by the absolute latest in villainy, tech, and potential sex partners. And Goldeneye is just a few years after Silence of the LambsThe Crying Game, and (ugh) Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – trans woman as serial killer, as femme fatale, as animal kidnapper – now we've got trans woman as upgrade, as the only force that can drag James Bond into the 90s. “You’ll find her very much like the models you’ve handled before, Bond, only this time…”

I take your question about what straight cis women want from trans women in such a formulation, in a scene where the viewer-as-dowd has failed to hold Bond's interest and instead watches him gape at Xenia, as a kind of relief – Oh, thank God I don't have to try to keep up with James Bond, that looks exhausting. Maybe it's a fantasy of oneself as an understanding, forgiving, generous wife – James needs girls like Xenia, Lord knows I'd never let him do that to me. What sort of woman likes that sort of thing? Real women don't go in for that. Caroline gets to be soft by using Xenia as a human shield to absorb/deflect/captivate/attract Bond's hardnesses. (It doesn't strike me as a T4T formulation, by the by, Bond's body is government-issued and fully-licensed, which isn't trans so much as filtered through military-industrial body modification. He's as cis as they come.)

I don't have many strong memories of 90s-era femininity, as my interest at the time was squarely in the "soft-looking boys" camp, but I can mentally conjure up a period-accurate Famke, Kristen Johnston on 3rd Rock From the Sun, and a few other trans-resonant examples of Big, Big, Big! Femininity. Early SATC-era Sarah Jessica Parker too, although maybe her most trans-resonant roles are from LA Story and -- oh my God, of course!! Ed Wood


Perhaps unsurprisingly, I share your interest in routing transition/memoir through cultural touchstones and think of them as potentially interesting to any number of people, for any number of reasons. Maybe it's more accurate to say that Xenia Onatopp seems coded to make the viewer think about transitioning, rather than coded-as-trans herself (by the way, does “coded” mean anything other than “hints” in this context?). Strangled on her own gadgetry; Bond can't bring himself to take her over the edge, or doesn't know how. Moore's Bond is, as you say, absolutely dreadful and seems committed to ruining even the slightest moment of pleasure or intrigue – at least Brosnan gets to be a little camp, with all his pursed-lip gun-posing and Blue Steel expressions. You get the sense he wishes he'd been allowed to take Onatopp out himself. 


I would say Brosnan is more than a little camp. I was surprised by this too - which reminds me how much of my meta-sense of how adaptation works is actually derived quite specifically from DC Comics, and perhaps even more specifically from Batman. Last year's Joker made everyone, finally, sick of the whole “gritty reimagining” strategy, but it seems quite recent that people agreed that was a good thing - Tim Burton's Batman got praised for being “dark,” as of course did all the Nolan movies, the assumption seeming to be that asking a question like “what makes a bereaved billionaire dress up as a bat to fight crime?” signifies some sort of moral seriousness, rather than (as it has since Frank Miller) a wish for more authoritarian and less accountable cops. I definitely don't exempt Alan Moore from this criticism, by the way - it seems bizarre to me that Watchmen is now remembered as a critique of the superhero genre, rather than a cynical adaptation of it. I've also noticed that it appears to have passed into received wisdom that in the HBO adaptation, the cops were the good guys, and that it was therefore a “blue lives matter” recruitment video. Which, I guess, means that none of those Alan Moore stans watched as far as the sixth episode. (I'm not, like, uncritical of Damon Lindelof - The Hunt seems like a totally cynical and stupid proposition.) 

Whatever, my point is just that while campy 60s/70s Batman became serious 80s/seemingly permanent Batman, the same did not happen to Bond. Sean Connery is a macho man in a way Pierce Brosnan was not, and it seems to me that the softly-spoken Remington Steele is positively swishy next to Roger Moore, however much the latter milked his tired eyebrow in his dying decades. Goldeneye does in fact have an exploding pen. The Daniel Craig stuff is a more mixed bag, but Skyfall (the only truly good Bond movie, imo) is psychoanalysis-serious, rather than gritty-serious, which works a bit better on me. Plus the villain is straight-up gay, and Bond refuses to gay-panic at him: “What makes you think this is my first time?” So while the Batman cinematic franchise has now utterly attacked its queer roots in the service of deeply phobic, ambiently fashy, grittiness, the Bond franchise has seemed rather to lean into its classicism, its taste for epic, its relish of symbolism. The Daniel Craig years are also the years of David Cameron, all that Churchill worship, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” rather than the unrestrained, gonzo nationalism of the past few years. I wonder how Bond will deal with Brexit - or, rather, I don't, the thought makes me feel sick.

I love the notion of the bionic str8 as the opposite of the trans guy - it makes so much sense. Do we ever think of transition as weaponizing the body? I think more in transfeminine than transmasculine contexts, maybe - the hot alien blonde who is going to kill the president, etc. But maybe this is naive of me, certainly I know there are masc body builders who pump a shit ton of iron, and are generally very hot. There's a lot written about gay machismo - “the body that can fuck you,” as D. A. Miller calls it - but I'm not sure whether we need a different semiotics for trans masc machismo. 

So for me the Martian Girl in Mars Attacks is everything - another Xenia - and it's also a movie where Pierce Brosnan is in a deeply t4t clinch with Sarah Jessica Parker herself. But I have two other names to add, both deep roots for me: Jamie Lee Curtis...


...and Linda Hamilton.




That Jamie Lee Curtis still is so amazing. Do you remember developing an attachment to her before or after you learned about the "hermaphrodite" rumors? (Apologies for repeating that lumbering, unpleasant word, but it does seem relevant; that was the first time I'd ever heard anyone talk about anything even remotely connected to intersex and/or trans topics, and it struck me as such an odd, clunky word to use.) 

What does it say about the 90s that there was such an increased level of interest in (seemingly connected) cop stories and trans women? Was it a prefigurement the most classically cis4trans relationship to come, when Lana del Rey started dating that cop? Or is it just just that a cinematic interest in one creates a compensatory desire for the other? I wish I was more broadly familiar with either Watchmen or Batman comics to add much to what you've already said, but I'm still making my way through The Invisibles, so it'll just have to wait. 

The bionic straight guy is such a thing! The gadget-enhancement of Bond, The Six-Million Dollar Man, even Inspector Gadget all feel incredibly straight to me – the government loves you so much, thinks you're doing such a good job already, that it wants to join you inside your body, to bring the CIA into greater alignment with your lungs and muscles and vision. Everything is enhanced, never altered. 

I wonder what transmasculine weaponization might look like – there's Mulan, I suppose, whose (provisional) transition is still government-funded, though not government-initiated.

But it's hardly “strap on your tits and kill the president.” I'll try to think a bit more on transmasc machismo – I don't often think of myself as a macho person, but right now with my shaved head and my reckless sense of being confined I might just start doing pushups and winking at myself in the mirror. Then I'll take out the president. 

An Oral History Of Something You Liked

the problem of fannishness is every oral history of something I liked feels painful because it doesn't result in my perfect eternal union with the thing i liked, people who made it, and everyone else

Do you remember how much you liked it?

AAAA: I remember what you made, and I liked it.

BBBB [pausing briefly]: Good. That’s good.

AAAA: A lot of us remember it, and a lot of us liked it.

AAAA: Is that okay?

BBBB: Yeah. Yeah, that’s fine. We made it a while back.

AAAA: I remember that. Did you know how much everyone was going to remember it, and how much everyone was going to like it?

BBBB: No way. Well, maybe. We liked it, but we didn’t think anyone else was going to like it. We didn’t know how much everybody was going to like it compared to the rest of it. But we knew when we were done making it — we knew that part was magic. We knew it was magic but then we forgot it. But then you remembered, and your remembering made us remember.

AAAA: Do you like and remember it in the same way we like and remember it?

BBBB: I don’t know. I’m not sure. It doesn’t quite seem possible, does it? We made it, you know, and that makes things a little different. It seems important to you that we like this in the same way.

AAAA: Yes.

BBBB: Would you like to talk to someone else who also made it?

AAAA: Yes. Okay.

BBBB: CCCC also made it.

CCCC [distantly, over the phone]: I also made it. I remember the day when we had the idea for it. Right?

BBBB: Oh, right.

AAAA: Did you ever think that we’d be talking about it now?

CCCC: One of us did. One of us thought, this will be remembered, and one of us thought, this will not be remembered, and one of us thought, I am just at work today.

BBBB: But now we like it the same way that you like it.

AAAA: Yes?

BBBB: Yes, now all of us like it and remember it in the same way. Is that enough?

AAAA: Yes, that’s enough.

CCCC: Before we made this, we all met one another.

BBBB: Yes.

AAAA: Is that true? That you met?

BBBB: Yes.

AAAA: And you met one another before you made this?

BBBB: We met first in this place, and then in that place.

DDDD: I also met them, and we had many ideas.

AAAA: Did you like making the idea?

BBBB: Sometimes we knew our ideas. Sometimes we didn’t know our ideas.

AAAA: When I saw your ideas, I knew them. And I need you to know my knowing, and to feel my feeling, and to make it again, and to make it always, and to make it forever, and to make it the same, for everyone, for all times. This cannot only happen to me.

CCCC: We are making it happen for everyone.

AAAA: I liked it.

BBBB: Yes, the idea.

AAAA: I liked it to problems. Now liking is a problem for me, of liking lonely. Why am I not you?

BBBB: You are us now.

AAAA: I am not you enough, because I did not make the idea. Make me your idea. Make me yourselves.

CCCC: I am another idea now.

DDDD: I remember how we made the idea, but we are not making it now.

AAAA: Thank you for your idea, and for your memories of the idea. It is not enough.

BBBB: We are sorry for our idea.

AAAA: What did you expect for your idea? Did you expect me? Did you make your idea because you wanted me?

BBBB: We had the idea.

AAAA: Why did you have the idea? Have the idea again for me now.

BBBB: You already know how we had it.

AAAA: Have it again, but slower, and why.

BBBB: An hour has happened; the phone is finishing. This did not work.

AAAA: You are going away from me and my idea. Everyone who is reading is not you. Make us you next time, please.

CCCC: We are not having ideas now. We are remembering, and going away, and hanging up, and the idea is no good for next time.

AAAA: Okay.

BBBB: Okay.

CCCC: Okay.

DDDD: That was the idea. We did not know it would hurt you, not to be us and our idea.

AAAA: I did not know either. I will go find another idea to become next.

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