Are you a boy or a girl? Why are you ashamed of your body? What do you expect people to think? You don’t want to be a man? Why doesn’t your girlfriend just date a dude? It’s just the way it is.
Keagan Anfuso, a woman and creator who just happens to feel comfortable rocking loose fitting clothes and a “boyish” haircut, copied these quotes from memory onto index cards. In preparation to pitch their film, co-director Drew Brown suggested Keagan write down all the comments she could remember: anything funny, hurtful, or outright confusing someone has said to her about her gender or appearance. She passed these index cards to Drew, who taped them to the office walls. Card by card, blank space filled with words Keagan herself was unaware she’d held onto, words said to her by family, friends, strangers, and, reading the cards back they realized, Drew himself.
“Oh my god. I’m the person who said this to you. I thought it was a compliment.”
It was in this office, confronted visually with others’ judgement and misunderstanding of her, Keagan felt the weight of what she was setting out to create, felt that she and Drew were doing something important.
Over the next five days Keagan and Drew pitched their film, The Grey Area, at One Spark, a since discontinued local idea festival for creators. Their film would be about Keagan’s experiences as a woman who rejects the gendered expectations placed upon her.
Attendees listened to Keagan’s past: how she was reprimanded, bullied by classmates, and constantly met with aggression for dressing in what feels comfortable to her. In these stories, they saw themselves and the ways in which fear of judgement or even safety led them to change themselves. As the festival progressed, The Grey Area crowd grew, ultimately winning the pitchfest as the jury’s award selection for the art category.
That was in 2015. The film, seven years in the making, had its first showing recently at the Jacksonville Film Festival, where it took home Best Short Documentary. Good things take time. And good things take good people wanting to make them happen. Without the Jacksonville community, Keagan says “I don’t think we could’ve made this film what it is.” Some volunteered money, the local film community volunteered their time and expertise, and businesses volunteered their spaces and sustenance. Without any of which, the film wouldn’t have been made.
The film’s positive reception is due in large part to calculated choices Keagan and Drew made. The Grey Area is void of any political commentary and doesn’t include the traditional story arc. Instead, it’s simply a perspective film, aimed at making the audience feel as though all of Keagan’s experiences are happening to them.
Keagan received some pushback when sharing this concept with others. Other film makers said viewers would be uncomfortable when confronted with “awkward” and “ugly” close up shots of actors reciting those hurtful messages Keagan had written down on index cards. Her response, “it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. People aren’t going to like it.” With the singular focus on influencing the audience’s feelings instead of building a satisfying plotline or convincing viewers of any political beliefs, the film is effective in inciting empathy and understanding.
I, myself, often live and die by fact based evidence when trying to convince others of a perspective. There’s a time and place to delve into the Western erasure of other cultures’ recognition of gender fluidity, a time and place to discuss biological sex determination isn’t black and white and that even in recent history the color pink and dresses were considered masculine. The Grey Area has found its time and place in addressing these complex and historical issues through the lens of simple connection to one person’s experience.
Keagan is a woman comfortable in clothes that society deems masculine. We might think this means she’s uncomfortable in her body or gender, that she deserves ridicule for not conforming to what a woman “should be.” But, do we stop to think why this clothing isn’t offered in women’s sections in the first place? Why is being worn on a woman’s body not the qualifier for what is considered women’s clothing? Trying to separate everyone and everything into two strict boxes ignores the complexity of the human experience. Words like feminine and masculine are helpful descriptors, but harmful when employed as rules to adhere to. Keagan’s film highlights the ways in which such dichotomies are faulty. Not every woman fits into the same box, nor does every man. These labels are instead adjectives to help describe someone’s experience. Keagan is a woman, filmmaker, parent, climber, partner, friend, runner and so much more.
“If grey is comfortable,” she says “embrace that.”