It starts with a man in a corset on TV. A slight, white, heterosexual man on Lip Sync Battle in a black pleather top and ruffled shorts strides out to the opening beats of Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’. I know the drill – this is usually played for laughs – but as I watch, something happens. He’s indefinably sexy. He arcs his hips like he has some and turns around, the halter top ending in a low v-cut at the small of his back. He walks up to his competitor, a woman dressed as Bruno Mars, and tosses back the side of his black bobbed wig. Rain and star lights explode from the studio heavens as he splashes, jumps, spins and body-rolls in the sexy, sexy water. But even as LL Cool J gapes from the sidelines, the pleather man doesn’t perform a phony imitation of girlishness. It’s a genuine femininity.
I learn, after hours of re-watching on the internet, that the pleather man is Tom Holland, the latest on-screen incarnation of Spider-Man. He has approximately 20 million followers on Instagram – I scroll through his profile like I used to comb through TV Hits for Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m long out of high school, but I find myself having conversations in my head with @tomholland2013 – during breakfast, on the bus, as I shave my legs in the shower.
‘What’s your secret?’ I ask. We’re on the set of his latest movie, and he’s prepped for questions about his Spidey powers or what it’s like to be a teen heartthrob. But I want to ask him something else.
How do you know how a woman moves? How do you know it’s okay to move like that?
We walk with our old selves inside us. At thirteen, I figured out how to round my back far enough so the boobs emerging from my chest would hang as vertically as possible. This was necessary. We were in the car park, on our way in to the Sri Lankan Food Fair when my friend Ramila came over to say hi, her spaghetti-strapped cleavage filling up the lower third of my side of the car window. ‘That girl always has her divider out,’ my mother muttered. I maintained my concave posture for a good year to avoid my ‘divider’ committing the same sin.
The next weekend, I went to a family friend’s house. We were at the age where we self-segregated by gender, like our parents in the living room. Ramila was there, and her sister Punchi, who had recently acquired a bowl-cut hairstyle similar to mine. Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Whatta Man’ was on the radio and we wanted to dance. Punchi was shy; ‘Switch off the lights and I’ll dance!’ Fine, I said. I don’t think I even took off my coat. In the dark we flapped our arms around with abandon, did the running man, made the gunshot motion for the line ‘One shot for the rest of the night’ (We didn’t really get the song).
I want to ask him: How do you know how a woman moves? How do you know it’s okay to move like that?
On the way home my dad was silent. But as we pulled into the driveway he swivelled around and said to me, ‘You’re too much. What do you think you’re doing, dancing with a boy in the dark?’ I couldn’t figure out what he meant until I realised he was talking about Punchi, my bowl-cut companion.
From the moment womanhood appeared, I learned that it came with restrictions. I learned that the unconscious meaning of my movements, my existence in the world, was often ‘shame’. And so I rode up my shoulders and hid the bits of womanhood threatening to escape.
But Tom Holland – on my first watch, my fifteenth watch, my fiftieth – I could see that Tom-Holland-as-Rihanna didn’t have any of that shame festering inside him.
I wasn’t alone in my Insta-stalking. The Lip Sync Battle video went viral and has been viewed millions of times. After the performance the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum tweeted: ‘currently Googling “who is Tom Holland I love him forever”’. The Washington Post described it as ‘an excellent and utterly un-self-conscious drag performance that neither mocks drag performers or women.’ I’m not even convinced that this was Tom Holland’s intention – his interviews, post-Battle, have centred around how he needed to go down the ‘funny route’ to win.
I know what that means, the ‘funny route’. It’s Lip Sync Battle’s standard formula for laughs, which has justifiably led to the show being described as ‘a watered-down version of drag culture’, one that appropriates and ignores the significant history of lip syncing. Terry Crews at the piano, over-smiling while singing Vanessa Carlton; Channing Tatum on his knees and slapping his butt, his bulk squashed into a Beyoncé outfit. It’s been around all our lives, these men writhing around in positions of submission for laughs. I remember my high school vice-captain at our leaving assembly donning fishnet stockings and leopard print, gyrating on stage to Shania Twain’s ‘Man! I Feel Like A Woman’. Isn’t it funny when men – strong, capable, muscular men – pretend to be weak and useless women! Not to mention the exclusion this assertion of narrow gender norms creates for anyone else – including gay, lesbian, trans or non-binary people.
It’s been around all our lives, these men writhing around in positions of submission for laughs. But Tom-Holland-as-Rihanna didn’t have any of that shame festering inside him.
Despite his best (or worst) intentions, Tom Holland’s Battle wasn’t this. (In contrast to the other battles, the floor-writhing part of Tom Holland’s routine is so hot I almost broke my laptop watching it.) Maybe he underestimated his own ability – he is a trained dancer, after all – and the effect of his commitment to the performance. And maybe part of its success was his absence of awareness.
A few years ago, when Ramila got engaged, I went to the shops with my parents to find a sari for her wedding. My dad, who’s interested in how the family presents itself, said I should get the yellow one. I bought it reluctantly, though in hindsight it was a good choice. At the wedding the bride glinted from every angle in the room, the silver beadwork on her sari ricocheting off the light. She was beautiful, polished; her ‘divider’ tucked out of sight.
At one point I went to the bathroom with my mother. Zigzagging through the sea of covered chairs, she looped her arm in mine, uncharacteristically. My mother is – has been, all my life – beautiful: demure, modest, womanly, the right mix of softness and shape. She told me she felt happy today. The aunties told her I look like a true Sri Lankan girl. Things like that always come too late; when you realise they don’t mean what you want, and they mean something else instead.
I have fairly poor posture, now, from years of rounding my shoulders. They ride up higher and higher, and I can feel the sinews taut like chicken tendons on the sides of my neck. Sometimes they are so tight they get stuck there. From looking down day after day, making myself smaller. My muscles of acquiescence.
On @tomholland2013’s Instagram feed there is a mixture of staged and ‘authentic’ photos. Staged, like in a suit on the cover of a magazine, wet hair and T-shirt, brooding, pouting. Who am I kidding, the ‘authentic’ photos are probably staged too. Sometimes I wonder what his mother thinks when he’s smouldering at the camera in a wet Ralph Lauren shirt. But when he puts up a shaky video of himself opening a bottle of champagne with a knife and gawking, fish-mouthed at the camera, ‘That was siiiiick,’ I can’t stop myself from laughing. Especially when he runs in to show his mum.
I accepted Holland’s conviction that he could be a pale, beautifully toned, muscular woman before I could accept my own version.
Last year my friend emailed me a link to a Zumba class at the local dance centre. ‘Let’s see if it’s just a fad,’ she wrote, and so we went. I still go, every week. There’s a looseness to the movements, a casualness that feels comfortable to me. The more jiggling, top and bottom, the better. For an hour I stick out my chest, strut and stride. My instructor bounces from one end of the room to the other. ‘It’s my third class of the day, I’m tired!’ she yells.
When I first started going, I tried to share my enthusiasm by dragging friends along. But each time they did, I’d notice my movements become smaller, jerkier, more guarded. I couldn’t take up the space I normally did when someone I knew, someone who knew who I was, was in the room.
So now I go alone. I don’t talk to anyone, and after the last song, I slink out. A little bit straighter in the spine for fifteen minutes, the walk home.
I know the problems with Lip Sync Battle. What does it say about me that I needed a straight white man to tell me it was okay to move in the world – why not Rihanna herself? But I needed it to be Tom Holland. I accepted his conviction that he could be a pale, beautifully toned, muscular woman before I could accept my own version. I know I’m still like that. I know it when I’m walking in the streets and I step aside for a man to go ahead of me. When I paste on a smile while asking for a favour, so it doesn’t seem like it matters.
If you go back far enough on @tomholland2013, there are photos of him with flat hair and a mole on his chin, before he succumbed to the training program that bulked him up for Spider-Man. But you can see it in his face even then: his wicked, cheeky smile and direct gaze at the camera. He’s always had that confidence; he was born with it. And in Lip Sync Battle, he didn’t curl inwards to hide any part of himself. And I want that, I want that too.