Quite recently, I came to the really obvious realization that I’ve been handbagging it. I was standing in a Muni train, just moderately crowded enough to cozily find a leanspace that allowed me to pull out my book (Mary Gaitskill’s beautiful new anthology, Don’t Cry) and read during my ride. But getting out of the train, I was so rushed at by pre-commuters that I didn’t have a chance to put the book back. Instead, I had to awkwardly maneuver the just-closed book from my hands to one hand, then clasp one edge while pulling the pink block of papered stories to my left breast. As I stepped off the train, a sense memory: a flush of babyfaggot femininity.
There were a couple of reasons why I had this flush of faggoty feminine youth, the central one being that in those few clumsy seconds, I was carrying a handbag. Ah, the catcall of the teenage homophobe: “Nice handbag, faggot!” And please, let’s be clear about this: I was not carrying a man-purse or whatever. This was a straight-up lady handbag, and a roomy one that made me feel like a luxe grunger: a red plaid flannel tote from 3.1 Phillip Lim’s second fall collection. Here’s what defines a true handbag, which also produces its awkward bodily syntax: the handles look broad enough to sling over the shoulder, but is actually just narrow enough to prevent it, therefore forcing the gal to wear it on hanging from her fist or the crook of her arm. The over-the-shoulder model of the handbag is actually an innovation in androgyny, borrowing from the technology of army knapsacks. A true handbag, like most traditional accoutrements of world femininity, hobbles the woman wearer. Holding a bag’s straps in her hand, or immobilizing her arm in a right angle to provide branch for the bag, robs the handbagger of the use of one arm.
Of course, we have been taught that such a robbing is a handicap, when I prefer to think of it as a disability. That is: not being able to use one arm is a profound loss if you understand “ability” as defined by a sparkly healthy body. But the tenets of physical health are often tied to masculine notions of physical boorishness. The logic of which is something like, suppose a bully came after you: how are you supposed to properly defend yourself if one arm is locked in the deadly (but delicious) embrace of a designer handbag?
My answer: well, the handbag doesn’t rob you of the use of your legs, does it? Of course, running away is so un-manly, I guess. Which goes along pretty well with how the mechanics of transporting goods has been gendered: if it allows you free use of your arms, you are pretty able-bodied and more aligned with men. But running away is not the only recourse available to a poor defenseless handbagger. There is a great moment in Jennie Livingston’s film Paris is Burning in which an attitudinous emcee at a drag ball comments on the evening ensemble of a ball walker: “Everybody knows that an evening bag is a must. No lady is safe at night.” In this pretty natural conclusion, the handbag becomes a weapon—that old adage about carrying a brick in your handbag is no joke. The item that hobbles you into femininity is that which can re-arm you. In this way, I think of the handbag as a pretty rad piece of low-fi technology: it physically handicaps you, but simultaneously gives you the prosthetic by which you can transform that handicap into an empowering identity of “the disabled.” The handbag is the ultimate feminine prosthetic.
But so much for its physical prosthetic uses. The handbag is an emotional prosthetic as well, which brings me to the second reason for my babyfaggot femininity sense-memory. When my handbag forced me to clutch the book in one arm, I was sent back to junior high and high school, when there was a gender politic to carrying your books. I’d be walking down the hall minding my own business and carrying my books, and some snotty-nosed boy (always a boy) would inevitably sneer about how I carried my books “like a girl.” Boys carried their books flat against their hip, their arm straight and parallel with the verticality of their posture. Girls hugged their books. I hugged my books. This is the memory that rushed through my capillaries that day, stepping off the Muni, book to boob.
But as I continued walking away from the train, flash-remembering all those moments of teenage torture, I didn’t put the book back away in the handbag. Instead, I spent the rest of the day in that same pose, hugging book with one hand, Phillip Lim bag hanging off an arm. It was quite an epiphanic exercise, with emphasis on “exercise.” It was tricky to figure out how to rifle through racks of vintage clothes when both arms were occupied with carrying things. (Solution: tuck book in armpit, hang handbag from same arm, and make sure that arm is not your writing arm.) But it strangely felt lovely. Part of it was reclaiming that homophobically tortured babyfaggot, plucking him from out of Iowa City into lovely San Francisco with me. But the other part was that I remembered the fetishistic function books have always had for me. All through junior high and high school, I carried, along with my ghetto generic Trapper Keeper and grocery-bagged textbooks, a novel. It was never a novel for English class, but “my own” novel, a novel I had picked out of the library for my own pleasure. They were usually huge, and often trashy, with some exceptions I suppose. In those six years, I was quite a book whore. But some still stand out: Kathreine Dunn’s Geek Love, John Updike’s Witches of Eastwick, Danielle Steel’s Kaleidoscope, Ruth Rendell’s Talking To Strange Men and Collected Stories, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I remember these because I had the novels for not only story (these were great stories) but also for their beauty: books with fabulously designed book jackets. These books, unassigned by my teachers, were fetishes of my adultfaggot futurity, when someday I would leave the Midwest and have some lovely life, free. These great thick adult books were my babydrag handbags. Amid the warzone of adolescence, they made me feel simultaneously true to myself, and safe.
I do this still. I don’t leave the house without a book to read. But for so long, I’d thought of the book as a content of my handbag rather than as a handbag. In tribute to that small self from long ago, I’m going to begin this practice again. As you see above, I’ve currently been reading Boy George’s autobiography, Take It Like a Man (which I think is very apt, by the way). Boy George-as-handbag is a bit difficult, since it weighs a ton. So I thought I’d try out some other textual handbags for fun. The latest issue of my favorite magazine, French Vogue:
And my favorite art book, Karen Kilimnik’s Drawings:
Although as you can tell by the awesome outsizedness of Kilimnik’s book, it is quite dangerous to carry it as a handbag. Don’t try that at home.