Ariel Schrag started her career making autobiographical comics in high school. In a deft style, her comics exploring her life and queer identity articulated what it feels like to grow up as a misfit. Her debut text-only novel Adam (out this June from Houghton Mifflin) is also about a nerdy teen who doesn’t fit in. But in a departure from her earlier work, this time the self-conscious protagonist is an adolescent boy.
Schrag’s series of high school graphic novels—Awkward, Definition and Potential—started out as sweet teen coming-of-age stories and grew in to darker and deeper terrain as her autobiographically inspired lead character (also named Ariel) began to explore her sexuality. Now 34, Schrag lives in Brooklyn and identifies as cisgender and gay. Adam takes place mostly in a Brookyln queer scene, as seen through the eyes of a dorky, 17-year-old straight male who finds himself exposed to a lot of new ideas and identities when he spends the summer before his senior year living with his older sister, who is a lesbian.
Like young comic book Ariel, young Adam is obsessed with girls. He has little luck with them… until he is mistaken for a transgender man by a lesbian redhead named Gillian who he’s convinced is the love of his life. He spends the summer trying to navigate his presumed identity as a transgender man while he awkwardly figures out who he wants to be in the world.
"Adam is mostly me," Schrag told me in a recent interview. "I like the idea that someone reading Adam would find my depiction of a male teen to ring true and that this implies the differentiation between male and female is perhaps less stark than some believe.”
The idea of gender as deception is of course familiar from the catchphrase, not quite correctly attributed to Judith Butler, that "gender is performance." Cis-Adam pretending to be trans-Adam can be seen as a kind of dress up. But it can also, as Schrag says, be seen as a kind of truth, since Adam is really Schrag identifying as Adam. Or, to put it another way, you could see Adam as an authentic performance of Schrag's masculinity.
Schrag suggested to me that this was how she sees the character:
"When I was a teenager and in my early twenties, masculinity was very important to me. My hair was cut short, I dressed like a boy, and was often mistaken for one. The primary kind of sex I had with women was using a strap-on and I was always the one to wear it. I would go to strip clubs and get lap dances. I would tell people about going to the strip clubs and be thrilled by their shock and amusement. Acting ‘masculine’ made me feel powerful, and more importantly, cool. I do not have these feelings anymore. Not that I’m anti-strip club, but I don’t think it’s especially cool when women—opposed to men—enjoy them. Much of Adam is about exploring my own relationship to masculinity and the way I observe it functioning in the world."
In the book, Adam winds up essentially dressing up as a trans man rather than tell Gillian she’s mistaken his identity. At one point, he tapes down his penis with Ace bandages and wears a strap-on around the city.
"As someone who has sex using strap-ons, I did take a certain delight in forcing this teen boy, all his equipment in working order, to have to use a strap-on as well,” says Schrag.
What's best about that last comment is the multi-layered way in which it performs masculinity all by itself. The touch of competitive vindictiveness, the amused-but-still joke about whose penis is better (if not bigger)—those seem like recognizably male tropes.
At the beginning of the book, Adam is a virgin and a loser; he becomes hip and cool and gets a girlfriend when his penis is uselessly strapped down with an Ace bandage and he has to use a fake instead. To be manly he has to not be manly, because not being traditionally manly is what being a man is all about. That contradiction is painful and ridiculous and sad and sweet, much like Adam itself.
Related Reading: Senior Moment — An Interview with Ariel Schrag.