This past weekend, I attended the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. During the National’s set on Friday night, as Matt Berninger sang “Bloodbuzz, Ohio,” I remembered that I was carrying my childhood Kit Kittredge doll in my backpack, and that she, Kit, was an Ohio native. I unzipped my bag, pulled out Kit, and propped her up on my shoulders the way I’d seen dads holding their small children aloft all weekend. I sang my heart out. My friend, and fellow Niche writer, Seph, snapped a photo of me and Kit, and then I put the doll back in my backpack.
The next day, a friend alerted me: Someone had filmed me during the National’s set and posted the clip on Instagram. Help me understand… they’d written, next to me and Kit, and @americangirlbrand Kirsten, is that you? American Girl’s official account shared the clip as well, adding a crying-laughing emoji. When I looked at the picture Seph had taken, I could see, clearly, over my shoulder, a person giving me a look that could only be described as side-eye.
The friend who’d alerted me about the Instagram stuff had expressed chagrin. Sympathy. “the way someone photographed u without ur consent,” she said. “don’t love that.” I wrote back that I didn’t mind. Now, though, a couple of days later, I’m not so sure that’s true. I revisited Sara Kurchak’s excellent essay “When the Way You Love Things is ‘Too Much;’ or: Why I Went to Portmeirion” today, working through some of my feelings re: the Pitchfork Fest incident. And I came away feeling jealous. Feeling like, I wish it were as a cult classic from the ’60s. I wish it were trains. Stamp-collecting. Anything more age- or gender-appropriate than American Girl dolls.
I am not, to put it lightly, the target audience for Kit Kittredge. I was, once, but not anymore. Even now, in the world of meme pages run by millennials and podcasts exploring the dolls’ stories book by book and collectors shelling out thousands for Sambers (if you know, you know), I am an outlier. I feel the same shame the grown women in these spaces feel: This is too much money to be spending on myself; these are children’s toys; I’ll just lie and say this Molly is for my niece. I feel the same awkwardness that the gay guys in these groups feel, rolling up at American Girl Place to buy the Felicity they longed for as a kid, reading the catalogue over a sister’s shoulder. And I feel what all neurodivergent people feel when they publicly indulge in an interest that’s not, like, The Fucking Avengers, or Game of Thrones, or whatever.
I feel everything, all of it, the whole layer cake, and then I feel this cherry on top: I’m trans. As in, transmasculine. As in on testosterone, growing facial hair, getting sir’d and bro’d and he/him’d by strangers with, at this point, near-constant frequency. I chose this, freely, joyfully – so why dolls? Why leave one dainty foot in girlhood?
On my best days, I can simply ignore all of these feelings and hug the doll I’ve been hugging for twenty years, since I was an eager eight-year-old on Christmas morning, already drawn to tomboy Kit with pure flower-to-sun hunger. But then I open my eyes and I’m an adult and someone is filming me, side-eyeing me, calling me a freak (or worse) on the internet.
For reasons beyond my control, and too complex to get into here, I’m kind of a cult-favourite punching bag on, like, 4chan, and the Red Scare subreddit, and other cretinous corners of the internet. The doll thing has come up, occasionally, among the death threats and the homophobic slurs and the thanksgiving that I haven’t reproduced. And my dad has caught some of this, and like, been there for me when I was breaking down due to all this harassment, and one time, on the phone, he told me that I should keep my hobby offline. It’s a reasonable impulse. You’ve seen what they say about authors who write queer books for children and teens. The names they call. The words they throw around. Why add more fuel to the fire?
And the best answer I can devise is that the fire is already burning, man. Rarely has it been hotter. And I have learned of late that I did not Cause it and cannot Control it, let alone Cure it. Building my life around appeasement of the kinds of people who tell me to die and call me slurs on the internet seems like a surefire way to feel nothing but miserable about myself – which, of course, is What They Want.
But then, who are They? Republicans, yes, and Christo-fascists, and the denizens of anonymous bully boards, but also the nice, normal girl who filmed me during the National’s set, and the nice, normal girl side-eyeing me in the background of that picture, and nice, normal people everywhere, people like you, like me, who can’t stop judging, judging, judging, pretending we’re in the high tower in the middle of the panopticon and not the tight little cells carved into its walls.
I love The National. I love “Bloodbuzz, Ohio.” I love Kit Kittredge and every one of her bucktoothed sisters. I love my friend, Seph, who was by my side all weekend at the festival, and I love all of my colleagues at Pitchfork, who I got to meet for the first time, and I love singing and dancing and being silly, and I shouldn’t have to apologize for any of this, or feel guilty or embarrassed about it, or be less openly queer or neurodivergent in the hope that someone, somewhere, will stay their hand at the keyboard and withhold the insult they’d planned to hurl my way.
Am I saying anything here that Natalie Wynn didn’t say better, thoroughly, more thoughtfully in her video on cringe? Anything not summed up by that one meme of Pepe, superimposed on the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, croaking, in Comic Sans, DO NOT KILL THE PART OF YOU THAT IS CRINGE… KILL THE PART THAT CRINGES? I guess I am just saying that I would like to love myself, to care more deeply for myself, than the people who call me a weird freak or a threat to Western civilization do, and hoisting Kit Kittredge onto my shoulders as though she is my own human daughter and singing about being carried to her home state on a swarm of bees is how I am trying to do that. I wish that for us all: pure, unbridled joy, and none of the bitter, chalky aftertaste of shame.