Movie Review: I Saw the TV Glow

Spoilers follow. Content warning: death, transphobia, homophobia

I don’t review most things I watch. I’m a writer, not a reviewer, and most things just sort of pass by having been consumed and thought about in a way that I don’t feel the need to share with others. I’ll be upfront: I Saw the TV Glow did not land for me. I think it’s a good movie for the people that it resonated with, but I find the disconnect interesting, because it’s perhaps the first time a horror movie has failed to hit me so completely that I’m left thinking that I just don’t have the fear button it’s trying to hit.

I Saw the TV Glow is a trans allegory. I’m not entirely sure that it can be read as anything else, but I’ll try to make some comparisons later on.

In 1999 I was in eighth grade, and was the token boy in a group of girls who had all been friends for ages. I enjoyed hanging out with them, which went on for about two years until they started getting older boyfriends and I drifted toward spending time with other friend groups. There was one particular party where they talked me into dressing up as a girl and putting makeup on me, and when they had eagerly accomplished this they told me what a pretty girl I was. This was pretty much a non-event in my life, something that made close to zero impact on me and my self image. I had no gender feelings about it. I am cisgendered, in a way where I have sufficiently explored my feelings and found this to be true about myself. (Similarly, I have sufficiently explored my feelings to understand that I’m straight: in high school I kissed a few boys during games like spin the bottle or truth or dare, and it just did nothing for me. I’ve watched gay porn for the sake of science and don’t get anything from it.)

The horror that I Saw the TV Glow taps into is idea of hiding your true self and not accepting who you truly are, running away from these realities of your personal identity because you deeply fear either that truth or the consequences of that truth. It’s not a fear that I’ve ever had cause to experience, as much as I have (at times) been a disappointment to my parents and a social outcast. This is almost certainly a form of privilege, but it means that I was watching the movie at two steps removed, understanding what it was trying to get at but not feeling it, trying to run a janky simulation of a main character I did not at all relate to.

In the late 1990s there were a spate of movies about white men who were being slowly killed by working in cubicles, their True Nature repressed by the corporate hellscape. Fight Club, American Beauty, Falling Down, The Matrix, Office Space … they really had a moment. Most of those movies worked for me, and when I was a teenager, some of them really worked for me. Fight Club and The Matrix came out in the same year, 1999, and both had similar messages of “you are trapped by this bullshit corporate life that demands you be weak and without purpose”. As a fourteen-year-old white boy living in the Midwest, this really resonated with me. Fuck the system! Rage against the machine! But neither of those movies was about the how and the why of being trapped in a life that doesn’t suit you. The Matrix has its own refusal of the call, but it’s very brief, and not central.

There’s a recurring theme in tons of movies about being an outsider and an outcast and hiding your true self, but eventually you can’t keep up with the lies, and it all comes spilling out, and the people who you thought would hate you have to confront their prejudice or whatever. We got Luca and then Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken and it’s really something all over the place. I genuinely think that “I am different and no one understands me” is one of the stock experiences for teenagers. But the lesson imparted by those movies (and shows and books) usually starts with the premise that our protagonist is clearly and obviously different, and the message of “shine your light” can only really work if you’ve accepted that there’s a light to shine.

Owen refuses the call over and over. Uncharitably, he’s a coward. If I’m to be charitable, I think I would have to make a case for cowardice. It’s scary to defy social expectations. It’s scary to have this truth inside of you that demands you leave everything you’ve known behind, which is the explicit thing being asked of him during that first refusal of the call. I can relate to the fear and self-doubt. Owen has more to lose than Maddy, at least at that point. Later on, there’s another refusal of the call, this time with more excuses that are transparently denial, and it’s less easy to understand, though the imagery is that of death: buried in a hole in the ground, the burial of the old self to become the new. And at the end, it’s just sad brokeness, understanding yourself and deciding that it’s too late, even if the street chalk says that it’s never too late.

(The character’s name is Owen, who I have seen referred to with she/her pronouns as Isabel by some people, but I’m going to go with what the end credits say rather than attaching an identity to a character who has explicitly rejected that identity multiple times.)

In 1998, a year before The Matrix came out, a year before I would be dressing up like a girl for the pleasure of my friends, Matthew Shepard was beaten and tied to a fence, later dying of his injuries. I feel like I’m old enough now that the name Matthew Shepard has been replaced by other names in the collective consciousness as “the face of anti-queer violence”, but at the time it was huge in the news and deeply affected me. This is the era of nostalgia that I Saw the TV Glow is harkening back to, and I think if you’re hearing about a gay man being beaten to death in Colorado, watching something with ambiguous queer rep like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Xena: Warrior Princess would easily be a lifeline, much more than something that’s explicitly queer. That’s my guess, anyway, at what the movie is trying to model. The Matthew Shepard thing has always stuck with me as one of the news stories that defined my teenage years, and I cannot imagine how much more it would have affected me if I were gay.

Even in that context I find Owen to be awkward and unsympathetic, and I don’t necessarily feel like this is an unendorsed reading of the film. If there’s a lesson that the film wants us to take, it’s “embrace the you inside”, and if there are two lessons the second one is, “it’s never too late”. The reason it’s a horror/drama is that the protagonist teaches us these lessons by suffering for not embodying the lessons. They’re lessons I generally endorse. But the horror doesn’t land for me because I’ve never been in that situation of holding back from some personal truth I wasn’t willing to accept. I’ve always freely probed at the edges of my identity.

The other major theme of the movie is finding yourself by way of media, and sometimes artistically questionable media. Here, I think the movie works a little better for me. The show-within-a-movie is The Pink Opaque, which we get to see a lot of, and which represents … probably a few things, but I think the major one that fits best with the overall themes is “queerness”. Maddy escapes the world the film is set within, which is actually Mr. Melancholy’s “midnight realm”, and comes out in The Pink Opaque, which is then inferred to be the “real world”. Maddy comes back for Owen, trying to help him escape, and the metaphor here is someone openly queer trying to help someone who’s still in the closet. (This is also the subtext of Maddy leaving Owen behind.)

There’s a bit later in the movie where Owen finds The Pink Opaque on a streaming service and finds it to be much more childish than he remembered it to be, and what we’re shown of it also conflicts with earlier depictions. I don’t know what this means from within the logic of the movie (probably that Mr. Melancholy’s plans are working), but within the metaphorical logic of the movie, it’s a comment on how the thing that was real was the way it made them feel and what it revealed to them about themselves. I think that’s sort of neat, and there’s definitely formative media that I haven’t gone back to specifically because I worry that it won’t hold up to what I created in my mind. My guess, from reading a few things, is that Buffy was the main inspiration, but I think for a lot of teenagers who grew up around the same time it might have been something else: something with subtext rather than something gay. Xena, maybe. There’s probably something about the deniability of it that helps people who are questioning: when you’re at the point of watching every season of Queer as Folk on DVD as it comes out, I think you’re past the point where you’re pushing down these feelings. (Note: I did watch every season of Queer as Folk on DVD as they came out, it was a high school ritual with a friend of mine.)

I thought the movie was interesting, but I didn’t like it. I think it’s personal in a way that some media is, not just personal to the people with the creative vision, but personal to the people it’s meant to speak to. It’s not a movie for me, and I’m left trying to engage with it by reconstructing some of the emotions from first principles. There are probably bits of imagery and dialogue that will stick with me, and it was cause for reflection, which I think is the mark of a good film, even if I didn’t enjoy myself or feel any kind of personal impact. Some of this is just privilege on my part.

If you’ve struggled with identity issues and self-acceptance … I don’t know. I can’t imagine that watching this movie would would feel good, given the ending, but that seems to be who the movie is squarely aimed at. I recommend it overall, even if I think the hit rate will probably be low.

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Movie Review: I Saw the TV Glow

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