Sydney Bristow in Alias
Sydney Bristow in Alias / Photo: ABC

How Strong, Angry Women in Pop Culture Guided Me Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

Why do men in the LGBTQ+ community often take comfort in the feminine pop music made by strong, angry women? We’ve also had to fight for our femininity.

In the final season of the television series Alias, there’s a scene where CIA agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) has been kidnapped for the umpteenth time. In this instance, however, her interrogators proceed to torture her with repressed memories of her presumed-dead fiancé Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan) to force her to remember something crucial she saw only once years ago.

In a daydream sequence that flashes back to the series’ first season, Sydney and Michael meet at the Santa Monica pier, where she is second-guessing her ability to continue lying to those she loves most about her real career and identity, all to ensure their safety. But this time, Sydney tells Vaughn she’s not sure she can continue without him. He replies, “The truth has always been you are the one who has kept the darkness from overtaking me. You can do this. I know you can do this. I’ve seen you do this time and time again.” And there is nothing that summarizes my experience living through the COVID-19 pandemic better than that.

I can’t really recall a time when I felt comfortable taking up space. Growing up introverted and queer made me a prime target for bullies whose words would remain with me well into early adulthood. I always loved listening and singing along to music, especially the disco mixed CDs that my mom kept in the car. Growing up in the early days of iTunes also allowed me to start creating my digital music library from a young age. But the judgmental laughs and glances I got from friends led me to quickly realize that other kids my age probably weren’t listening to Shania Twain’s Up! album or “I’m Alive” by Celine Dion on a loop.

Suffice to say that, by high school, I felt so rejected and misunderstood by my age group that I began listening only to the feminine pop music of the 1980s and ’90s since it was the only place I felt my queer desires were loved and supported. In a demographic and a generation that didn’t understand me, the new jack swing of Madonna, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Paula Abdul felt like something that was entirely “mine”. And if I hid it well enough, it could never be taken away from me.

Unfortunately, it didn’t erase my internalized homophobia and misogyny that compelled me to openly hate new female pop music on the radio for no apparent reason. I was still the fifth-grader who bought a physical copy of American Idol winner Kris Allen’s debut album in an attempt to appear heterosexual, when in fact, I just had a crush on him.

Subsequently, I’ve had the privilege and the curse of coming of age between generations. I’m too young to be considered a Millennial, but I feel like a grandfather to the TikTok teens of the moment. I don’t really remember a time before the Internet existed, but I do fondly recall when it was still a thing you could log out of. I missed the Spice Girls craze by a couple of years but have had a front-row seat to the careers of Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, the first Disney Channel stars, and the height of the home video era. According to Urban Dictionary, I’m a “Zillennial”, part of a microgeneration of people born between Millennials and Gen Z.

“We’re the kids who grew up with tech around us, but we’re also the kids who didn’t come out of the womb tablet in hand,” writes Emily Warna in Medium. “We don’t really remember a time when the Internet didn’t exist or when you had to dial somewhere external to access it, but we weren’t connected 24/7 from the get-go. We remember a time when respite from the Internet existed … The Zillennial is a unique generation, one that grew up in the transition from the non-digital to the digital-first.”

I remember my pre-teen self watching the latest pop music videos during the initial years of YouTube, hoarding gift cards to the iTunes Store so I could buy all my favorite songs. But the tunes of Avril, Rihanna, Jordin Sparks, Fefe Dobson, and the Pussycat Dolls were the ones I listened to in private—although my loud sing-alongs and music video re-enactments surely fooled no one—it was already inferred that this was not the music that most boys listened to. It was a trend that continued well into college. I subconsciously suppressed the desire to love whichever music I pleased for far too long because it had made me the focus of homophobic bullying for most of my childhood.

There was another trend in the female-driven pop music of the early to mid-aughts that emerged as a result of highly feminized and overly simplistic music videos now suddenly available at everyone’s fingertips. To quote a comment I once saw on the music video for “BareNaked” by Jennifer Love Hewitt, “This is such white girl music.” It was something that inexplicably stuck with me as years passed since the concept of “white girl music” in the 2000s was often an inside joke between my neighborhood friends and me.

From “All You Wanted” to “Big Girls Don’t Cry“, the decade was composed of countless ballads performed by young, cis-gendered, straight white girls in a sudden plethora of heartfelt singer-songwriter types. We laughed at them in retrospect because we sang them at the top of our lungs on karaoke machines in our basements as children, blissfully unaware that life would start getting harder.

As I grew up and began returning to these sounds without fear of judgment, what we once found laughable and immature as snobby teenagers were now bringing me some of the most immense comforts I’ve ever felt. Fueled by a bleak and anxious societal landscape torn to shreds by the pandemic, I decided to start a playlist called “Comforting White Girl Songs from the Early ’00s and Beyond“. Maybe it was because these supposedly one-dimensional pop songs merely recalled fond memories of my youth, and revisiting them one after another during a time of profound global uncertainty was enough to simulate a safe, warm hug.

But as I continued adding to the playlist and listening to it again and again as months passed, I began to realize it wasn’t just nostalgia that was bringing me comfort. The strong and often angry women that made up this playlist gave me the strength to carry on. It was an empowering, feminized strength that I didn’t necessarily know I was seeking when younger. It was now helping me continue to become my most authentically queer self. Much like Kendall Payne, I have been everybody else and now want to be something closer to myself.

As I thought more about the label of strong, angry women on series like Alias or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I thought about how the notion of women being full of strength and angry is somehow the same for me as “comforting” white girl songs. Why do I find female strength and anger comforting? I realized it was because the concept of a woman (any woman, but cis-gendered white women still unfortunately at the forefront) being angry is considered strong because the patriarchy never ceases trying to convince women that their anger, or any of their emotions, aren’t necessary or even real.

Queer men face a similar kind of gaslighting from both the patriarchy and heteronormative cultures that shame them for their more effeminate qualities, such as playing fast and loose with gender roles or, worse, showing human emotion. I would never want to ultimately equate feminism’s centuries-long battle for gender equality with the plight of cis queer men who still enjoy aspects of male privilege. But something can be said about why men in the LGBTQ+ community often take comfort in the feminine pop music made by strong, angry women. It’s because we’ve also had to fight for our femininity in a world that spends most of our lives trying to fit our puzzle-piece selves into a place that we don’t belong.

Thanks to the advent of music streaming apps like Spotify and Apple Music, I was able to revisit and rediscover songs for my playlist that went over my head as a kid. “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks started to feel particularly anthemic during the work-from-home era. Still, nothing became quite as cathartic for me during such an emotionally fraught time as the discography of Alanis Morissette. Jagged Little Pill had always meant a lot to me growing up, but at the time I was too young and naïve to understand it fully.

Even as I had listened to lyrics like “everything’s gonna be quite alright” just a few years ago, I was too jittery and overworked to let them sink in. But in the first year of the pandemic and with nothing but time to address all my faulty, broken bits, I learned not only that unabashedly bawling your eyes out is a gift, but also that if there was ever a time for feminine and queer anger, it’s now.

“Reasons I Drink” and “Hands Clean” taught me that life is too short to be anything but honest, whether with others or ourselves. It’s a sentiment shared by Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, another strong, angry woman, when she said, “All I’ve ever done is bend my life around what men decide they need. Well, not now.” Things could get messy, but I, too, don’t seem to mind.

No list of the strong, angry women who have got me through some of humanity’s worst period on record would be complete, however, without Jennifer Garner’s Sydney Bristow. Her five-season run of having every single possible thing go wrong but remaining strong and badass nonetheless was immensely influential and the biggest warm hug of all. As Den of Geek put it in their commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Alias pilot, the only thing that held the series and its often far-fetched storylines together was Garner’s dedicated portrayal and Sydney’s “human connection to the increasingly outlandish things happening around her.”

Human connection while outlandish and unprecedented things are happening around you? Relatability is necessary. Maybe Sydney had to be strong because her government wouldn’t lift a finger to protect her properly. Or perhaps she persisted, kept the darkness out because she knew doing the right thing always outweighed walking away. As Avril Lavigne sang, “We’ll never falter, we will survive / We are warriors.”

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