In retrospect, there were a lot of signs that I was a woman.
Though identified as male at birth, my actual gender was apparent from the get-go, albeit only with the benefit of hindsight. The fact that I took every chance I could to play a woman in my High School theater productions, that was a dead giveaway. Then there were the countless times I suggested only half-jokingly to my Mother that I wanted to dress up as female characters for Halloween. Don’t’ forget about all those times that I thought to myself in High School that, if I was in ever a heterosexual relationship, I’d be more of “the girlfriend” in the dynamic. Backwards thinking about gender roles? You bet. But nestled within that thinking was also a signal about my identity that was about as subtle as a lighthouse during a foggy night.
Given that I’ve always been so obsessed with movies, it shouldn’t be surprising that some of those early signs of my actual gender would come from how I connected with certain pieces of pop culture. Perhaps the best example of this is in a 2007 Disney musical by the name of Enchanted. For those unfamiliar with this delightful project, Enchanted is about Princess Giselle (Amy Adams), a princess living in a hand-drawn animated world preparing to be wed off to Prince Edward (James Marsden). On her wedding day, though, a disguised Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) transports Giselle to another realm entirely: the real-world. Now stuck in a live-action landscape she can’t even begin to comprehend, Giselle must rely on the help of jaded lawyer Robert Phillip (Patrick Dempsey) if she wants to have any hope of getting home. Turns out, though, Phillip might just need Giselle more than this wayward princess needs him!
Now, obviously you don’t need to be a Trans woman in the making to love Enchanted. Many of its very best qualities are universal in their appeal. For one thing comedy is sharply-written. Though emerging in an era where every family movie was lampooning fairy tales, Enchanted still manages to deliver humor that distinctly sets it apart from Hoodwinked! or the Shrek sequels. For another, the musical numbers are a delight, Alan Menken & Glenn Slater really delivered the goods when it came to delivering tunes with melodies straight out of a classic Disney musical but with some super witty lyrics. That Happy Working Song alone is so full of clever pieces of rhyming! Then there are the performances from the likes of Amy Adams & James Marsden, both of whom wring so much comedy out of juxtaposing broad animation archetypes with the harshness of the real world.
Yes, there’s plenty of elements in Enchanted that anyone can adore. But among the many joys of Enchanted is a lead character that ended up resonating with me deeply as a Trans woman as well as a woman on the Autism spectrum. Many of those elements stem from the protagonist, Princess Giselle and not just in the sense that Amy Adams immediately cemented my desire to be a redhead! Something much more deeply personal ran into how I connected to this fictitious character. Giselle is far from the first fantastical cinematic character to experience being a fish-out-of-water in New York City, but she is the only one of these types of characters where I saw myself in her experiences. Specifically, her experiences resonated with me in terms of how I’ve navigated my gender identity.
My own experiences with exploring my gender heavily mirror the experiences I had growing up as a child on the Autism spectrum. As a youngster, I was always self-conscious of what unconventional behavioral traits I had that stemmed from my Autism. Thus, I was always determined to act in a manner that was considered “normal” by the people around him. This process is known as masking in the Autism community and trying to mask any piece of behavior I felt was “too Austistic” ended up generating a lot of anxiety in the adolescent version of myself. It’s something I still struggle with as an adult, even if I know understand how my Autism isn’t something to hide but rather just another part of who I am.
That nuanced approach to a part of my personality can get lost when confronted with the anxiety of adhering to societies standards of what constitutes “normal” and is an approach I also struggle with in regards to my gender identity. When I started to fully realize that I identified as a woman, well, suddenly I began to engage in behavior that brought back all those childhood experiences of trying to push down who I was. This time around, though, I was self-consciousness about matters related to gender. Did I appear femme enough to identify as a woman? What would other people say when I told them I identified as she/her considering my outward physical appearance? And then there were the terrors related to presenting as a woman in certain environments. The prospect of getting harassed or attacked on a train ride if I presented myself as too externally femme led me to now masking my own gender in much of my life.
For a whole lot of my life, I’ve struggled with presenting myself as the person that I am, whether it’s in regards to my Autism or my gender. I’ve always wanted to embrace who I am but that’s much easier said than done considering the societal pressures to conform to one narrowly-defined vision of what it means to be acceptable. This means, whether I’m a twelve-year-old kid watching Enchanted for the first time or a twenty-four-old turning to an umpteenth viewing of Enchanted for comfort viewing, I’m taken away by Princess Giselle. Throughout Enchanted, Giselle clearly doesn’t act like the other real-world people around her. She’s always perkier than everyone else, she uses pigeons to clean up an apartment and she doesn’t always understand certain common phrases said by characters like Robert Phillip (oh do I understand that final trait!) Of course a woman terrified of being ostracized for being different would be swept away by Princess Giselle, a character who throws caution to the wind and just acts like herself. Judgement of others be damned! Life is too short to let what’s thought of as “normal” shape who you are!
All of the masking I’ve done in my life, whether to conceal my Autism or my gender, that’s something that never even cross Giselle’s mind. It’s truly exciting to watch! This particular personality trait of Giselle’s is especially exciting because of how she’s a woman. Though that may be stating the obvious, it’s a quality that helps to make Giselle truly unique in pop culture. Whether you live in the world of Enchanted or in the real-world, there’s a societal double-standard that states that men can act as eccentric as they want and still be thought of as a genius. We’ve all seen countless movies where dudes act like assholes but are still thought of as valuable contributors to society because “they get results”. Meanwhile, women, whether in pop culture or reality, who act even the slightest bit unorthodox in their behavior are written off as “difficult” or “impossible”. It’s behavioral-based nonsense that leads to endless challenges in society,
including being a likely culprit in why individuals AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) aren’t more frequently diagnosed with Autism.
In that respect, Giselle truly is a wondrous creation. Here we have a female lead character who acts immensely unusual and, in a sharp contrast to how such individuals are usually treated in mainstream cinema, is never once shamed or painted as an antagonist by the film because of this behavior. Taking this empathetic approach to the character leads to Giselle not just being an entertaining character in her own right but also somebody who resonates with me on a personal level in so many aspects of my life. Whether I was an Autistic child grappling with how to act in society or a Trans adult navigating how to embrace being a woman, Giselle in Enchanted provided comfort in being a woman in cinema whose unusual traits are shown to be an asset, not a drawback.
As someone whose primary issue with identifying as a woman for so long was that I didn’t look like societies default image of femininity, it’s no mystery to me why this idea stirs my soul. Because of how deeply both this movie and its lead character resonate with me, I turn to remembering Giselle from Enchanted whenever I’m wracked with anxiety over my gender and/or my Autism. Specifically, I remember how Princess Giselle is a reminder that the qualities that make individual women unique are the ones that also make individual women amazing. Lord knows that keeping her in mind doesn’t make all my concerns and insecurities go away. However, the lead character of Enchanted has served as a comforting go-to reminder throughout my life that women can come in many forms, including Trans individuals and Disney princesses thrown out of their animated domains.