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‘I Saw The TV Glow’ Unfurls The Great Trans Unknown

A24

Scratching the inner recesses of my mind, an early memory rises to the surface: I’m celebrating my seventh birthday party at JoyRides Family Fun Center, a generic arcade and entertainment complex like so many others dotting suburban America. I see myself playing air hockey with my friend Kline, peering out the window over the prize counter at the go-kart tracks, sadly inaccessible for my mid-November birthday. Then I go home and watch The Wacky Adventures of Ronald McDonald, one of those cursed bits of corporate synergy media that shouldn’t exist but has somehow racked up 70 million YouTube views in its afterlife. 9/11 had occurred just two months earlier, another moment I can recall, yet one that’s obviously been reinforced by decades of images played on a loop, blurring lines between what I might have understood then and what I’ve experienced since.

Images of this 7-year-old self floated to the surface as I watched I Saw The TV Glow, the masterful second film from Jane Schoenbrun, when one of its protagonists, Owen (Justice Smith), snaps at a birthday party just like mine. As their boss of too many years, played with a maniac’s glee by Conner O’Malley, howls “Happy Birthday” on a loop, Owen finally cracks, screaming at the empty shell of a life they’ve wheezed through for decades. Owen’s anguish is distressing, yet the response from everyone around them is far more bleak. The party guests slump forward, as lifeless as a malfunctioning audio-animatronic band on a darkened Chuck E. Cheese stage. In a film that emphasizes the ways that time and memory pass through us in distorted waves, made all the more unreal by a world that wishes us to surrender to the fugue state of endless labor and a steady march towards death, this scene’s jagged break from an untenable reality is hard to touch—full of rage both enlivening and abject.

This pivotal moment comes in the film’s closing minutes. Yet out of inattention and tardiness, my friends and I attending the movie at New York’s Angelika Theater last Monday managed to catch these scenes at the tail end of the 7:30 screening—our 9:00 p.m. booking just a few doors down. One is obviously not meant to watch movies in this way, and there was something uncanny about witnessing these pivotal moments out of order. Still, it worked. For a film that’s fundamentally about time, presence, and inhabiting our bodies in ways that allow us to experience the richness of this life, this circularity was almost too appropriate.

“Do you ever get confused, like the memory is not quite right?” It’s a question you ask yourself a lot as a trans person, and it’s one that Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), who we meet as a ninth grader on election night in 1996, puts to Owen a decade later, eight years after she disappeared from the suburban town that had trapped them both in its hopeless embrace. Maddy and Owen’s kinship begins over a shared love of The Pink Opaque, a monster-of-the-week program uniting two teen girls who first bond at sleepaway camp, then meet again on a higher spiritual plane to defeat foes concocted by Mr. Melancholy, a moon-faced “big bad.” In a world where “reality” is as numbing and unfeeling as a '90s suburb full of abusive parents and vapid distractions, where Owen sits on the football field bleachers and names a yawning emptiness where their heart should be, it’s no wonder that these characters should seek refuge in the fantastic world of the screen. “Sometimes, The Pink Opaque feels more real than real life, you know?” Maddy muses. Even without the words to respond, Owen feels it too.

As I’ve grown older and progressed further into my transition, I’ve become aware of how I’ve scattered pieces of myself across time and space. As a teen, especially one held at a remove from the world by dysphoria and the stress of a parent’s health scare—something I share with Owen—I know I began squirreling away pieces of myself even then, tucked away to be reanimated later in life. In the film’s scenes at a school carnival, I felt my body return to the boardwalk amusements of Ocean City, N.J., a beach town I visited several times as a child, a place where dysphoria began to sink its tendrils into my pubescent flesh, my flat boy chest too exposed, my red swim trunks ill-fitting and inexplicably incorrect.

In adulthood, we’re meant to cherish these childhood keepsakes, treasuring a kind of naive, simple beauty that appeared in clear flashes of pure, novel encounter. But if Puberty One deadened these seemingly joyous moments—drained them of their vitalizing essence—a trans adulthood, and a roadtrip with friends to the boardwalk two summers ago, brought all the frivolous joy back in Technicolor splendor. The muted sense of inexplicable absence disappeared entirely. Doing poppers and taking broad, looping arcs on the swing ride; devouring Shriver’s saltwater taffy and Mac and Manco’s pizza; basking in the vast expanse of sand and ocean—everything was there to greet me once more, emerging in present awareness, open to a body ready for the encounter.

As will surely be true for many trans viewers, I Saw The TV Glow manages to capture the broad-brush tragedies I remember while digging into the specificities of our lives and stories in ways I’ve never before experienced onscreen. Maddy’s escape, and the idea of The Pink Opaque as a kind of heightened spiritual plane, is one that held a particularly eerie resonance. On the night between Halloween and Day of the Dead in 2019, I dreamt of a woman who walked up to me and said, “I’ve known you on different planes of existence,” to which I simply replied, “I believe you.” This woman has returned once since then, the night after I took in a piece by British trans artist Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley—one in which I reanimated the spirit of a departed trans elder in the form of a digital avatar. In a moment where the simple essence of transness feels imperiled everywhere, seeing Schoenbrun and the rest of the cast and crew make such a bold assertion of trans people's divine spirit feels nothing less than miraculous.

I Saw The TV Glow’s repeated insistence on the fallibility of memory is an act of generosity. As people who cannot help but feel doubtful about our pasts, unsure what to make of the selves that once encountered the world underneath a kind of staticky sheen, there’s the luxury of permission in this approach. No matter what you recall or don’t, there’s nothing like starting again, right now. There is still time, scrawled in DayGlo sidewalk chalk, is another image that I saw at both beginning and end, just as I witnessed Owen, retreating from the lifeless birthday party, wield a box cutter to find a great glowing force pouring from their chest, a radiant energy always close at hand. Perhaps my memory has grown sharper in the past five years, able to pick out more details as I look back on what’s changed. Far more fundamentally, I’m simply living each moment with greater awareness. Memory is a pleasant background to a pure and beautiful present.

I cherish these moments: accepting the wracking sobs that convulsed my frame as the film wrapped for a second time in 90 minutes, my ability to ease from the world on screen back into this plane only possible by focusing on popcorn spilled onto the curving, navy blue and crimson red carpeting at the Angelika; watching the film a second time this weekend with my partner, who gave me my first pink-orange nightgown eight years ago, and crying again into their arms as Maddy helped Owen try on their first dress, a furtive smile alighting on Maddy’s face. I have no record in my journals of that life-altering moment in my own trajectory—an instance too embryonic, made meaningful in all the changes it begat from there, to register properly at the time. But under the film’s comforting glow, the lines between fantasy and memory, true experience and cinema-screen magic, soften and fade, becoming as vague and hazy as that Scooby Doo-themed birthday more than two decades ago. Just as Maddy explains her foray into The Pink Opaque under the radiant light of the school’s inflatable planetarium, constellations projected and rendered as the mythic tales that have grounded human life for millennia, I Saw The TV Glow casts trans life in similarly grandiose terms. It’s a process made meaningful in the specificities, yet it’s always a journey that’s resolutely pointed towards the great, glowing unknown within us all.

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