Solving a Problem Like Maria
How The Sound of Music Made Me Gay
Julie Andrews made me gay, so I became a writer. Other things happened along the way, but not really very many. They were mostly there already in The Sound of Music. I saw it when I was 9.
She was clear-faced and clean-looking, not made-up like my big sister and her girly friends, and she had short hair and liked to run around outdoors like a tomboy. She liked to climb trees and wore sensible shoes and had to get away to figure out who she was.
I'm not saying she was a lesbian. I'm saying she was a girl who did not fit in and had to figure out why. This took time.
It also took humiliation.
When I was in junior high, my mother sent me to the Y for an acting class. I wanted to do drama in school but was too embarrassed to act in front of anyone I knew, so we thought of the Y, where nobody ever went. The class was taught by a chubby—though I didn't know the word yet—queen who looked like James Coco. He also kind of talked like him, except he was never funny. I think he was still trying to be "dramatic." His name was Dick Dotterer. (True fact.) He sighed and shook his head a lot, then flung himself down in his "director's chair" when we didn't get things, which was most of the time because all of us were terrible, terrible actors. This was always apparent because the class was very small; there was no way to hide behind everyone else.
One time, we had to choose a song from a movie musical and "block it" and sing and perform it for the class. The two other people in the class were another mousy girl and a stoop-shouldered, oily-faced boy. Dick Dotterer must have known from the start that all of us were hopeless, but he was, too. How miserable had his life become, how thwarted his desire to be a person of "The Theatre," which he pronounced the English way, if he was doing this?
The song I chose was the one Julie Andrews sings as she is leaving the convent to start her new job as a governess at the Von Trapp's: "I Have Confidence." In one hand she's carrying a carpetbag, like the one she carried in Mary Poppins—in which she starred with Dick Van Dyke, the posters of which displayed their names together in great big letters, hers above his, so if you glanced really quickly you might see "Julie Andrews (indistinguishable letters) Dyke," as I'm sure I must have, although I also didn't know that word yet—containing all of her worldly possessions. In her other hand she was carrying her guitar.
I wanted to play the guitar. I'd seen the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night the year before, and my brother played guitar and was going to be in a band. But girls didn't play guitars in bands back in the '60s. The only thing left that I wanted to be was a writer. Writers could make up things inside their brains and get back at people.
At first, Maria is tentative:
What will this day be like? I wonder.
What will my future be? I wonder.
She sings the questions but then kind of talk-sings the wondering parts. I'm not a terrible singer, but the talking part sounded more cringey than the singing. My prop was a suitcase; I wasn't allowed to bring my brother's guitar. The luggage we had was LUGGAGE, huge and sturdy for when we moved, which we did all the time, from Kansas to Spain to Texas, etc., not a manageable size like Maria's or Mary Poppins's. I heaved the huge, hard plastic suitcase back and forth from one hand to the other as I pretended to walk or run in place. We had not yet been taught this, as Mr. Dotterer pointed out to me in the "director's notes" that followed my performance. There's also a part in the movie where she jumps up and clicks her heels. I did not attempt this. The song on the CD I'm now listening to is 3 minutes and 26 seconds long. My performance at the Y lasted for hours.
Maria was going to be new to a bunch of kids like I'd been a million times, too. She was going to be a governess, i.e., a teacher, which later I became. Back in the '60s, if you were a middle-class female who needed to work, you could also become a secretary or a nurse, though mainly you were supposed be married. In the 19th century, an unmarried and unattachable woman—i.e., unpretty and/or uninterested-in-marriage, or from a family who couldn't support her—became a governess. The governess was meant to be intelligent, obedient, and plain. She taught the kids, hung out with them, maybe ate with them and the parents, but wasn't part of the family; they could kick her out at the drop of a bonnet. Nor was she part of the rest of the staff, the cooks and maids and stable boys who weren't literate and so thought she put on airs. She lived squeezed in between the titled and the nameless (they were called "Cook" or "Nanny," etc. by the rich). Did they seethe at her for having the brains that they, who had everything else, did not possess? Did they resent her "superiority"? Did she disdain their decadence? Or did she envy them their easy, rube companionship? Betraying who she thought she was or ought to be?
I'm not saying they were dykes; I'm saying they were unmarried females who did not fit in, and that simply knowing they existed, and that they sometimes even thrived, helped me exist and sometimes even thrive.
(The 19th-century governess occupied a temporary, depending-on-his-whim place at the rich man's table similar to the one the artist does today. Sometimes I feel it would be easier, and certainly less smarmy, to simply rob a bank. But none of the movies I saw as a kid ever included a female bank robber.)
Although I couldn't imagine marrying a rich guy with a bunch of kids, I hoped one day the wind would change and something—I didn't yet know what—would lift me up and carry me away.
This essay will be included in a suitcase of memorabilia related to The Sound of Music to be auctioned off at Northwest Film Forum's annual gala on May 4, along with a lengthy annotation of "My Favorite Things," also by Rebecca Brown. Also, Julie Andrews fans should take note: The actress will be signing her newest children's book, The Very Fairy Princess: Here Comes the Flower Girl!, at University Book Store on Sat April 28 (at 1 p.m.), and at Third Place Books on Sun April 29 (at 1 p.m.).