I was born an adult. Serious, intimacy at arm’s length. Only able to make friends across wide gaps in age. So at five my best friend was 10, my vocabulary and disposition on point with hers. And at 10, 11 and 12 I was already babysitting the younger kids in the neighborhood. My eyes were meek and still behind glass at the time, always fixed on my charges or else the floor. One look at me and you knew this girl contained responsibilities, distant ones, probably born of the machine in her head. This girl was just bursting with safe interior spaces, ready to be put to good use. And even as a kid I was desperate to channel some prior, historical adolescence, struggling to unbury my capacity for play and fun, to uncover a carefree state that might appear as such to an outsider’s passing glance.
Tim, I may look like a baby, but I was born all grown up.”
– Boss Baby
As a biological adult, I’ve gotten better at the digging but also the burying. My body circles its own good feelings but never quite plants there, shadow of an accessory; like a cape made useless, tucked into the waist of my jeans. What’s the use in wearing a cape if you don’t intend to fly? I think of Robert Duncan and his eccentric dress codes, his conspicuous homosexuality, his insistence, as my partner and I discussed one evening, on keeping the children’s books of his youth on the nightstand near where he slept. What does it look like to be an adult, queer or otherwise, whose want is not filtered, restricted, or buried? What if I replace “he” with “she”? Or defend aging as a metaphor?
Though circling issues of privilege and normalization I am also talking about happiness, that fleeting state that even cis-white man-money can’t buy. “Happiness doesn’t grow on trees,” I once misspoke, in a dream. But also, “happiness can’t buy money” (Shark Tank). Mass production aside, happiness isn’t the fruit itself but the tree: deciduous, operating on scales beyond human control. Going dormant for stretches of time and worrying us too-serious adult types into thinking that it might be dead forever.
But children often get it, and sometimes that’s reflected in the art made directly for them. I watched Boss Baby soon after it came out on video and was overjoyed by how it examined the corporate culture of family, in all it’s terrifying and beautifully animated ways. Company success, in the world of the movie, hinges on the production of a “Forever Puppy,” a dog that never dies, that in fact never even ages. The puppy goes on being a puppy for weeks, months, years, lives well beyond, the implication whispers, your own discrete life. Though the appeal is obvious, the film quickly undoes one’s sense of desire by showing a baby turning into a boy turning into an adult, an old man, his gravestone…all while the puppy’s tongue hangs clumsily out of its cute small puppy mouth. The discrepancy is terrifying.
Through such exaggeration, Boss Baby sets up corporate culture in direct opposition to human connection, be it love, parenthood, or singular self-determined joy. In other words, happiness or success? When I was younger, the question manifested as a bedtime ritual: if I were a singer, would I rather be talented and ugly, or beautiful with a mediocre voice? I’d lay in bed night after night obsessing over the idea that to produce a certain kind of art you might need to look strange, that effort needed an invitation to show up plainly on your face, trying and contorted. I don’t need to confess which one I chose night after night as I spent those teenage girl years hiding in toxic analogies—I had ingested one too many television shows and magazine covers and middle school conversations, where value was conflated with romance and women with objects, all that media aimed directly at me. I’d never become a good singer, beautiful or otherwise, but I was practically born a very good audience.
When corporate success and family life are so directly opposed, love, intimacy, memories, photographs, and all the things that help establish social meaning and purpose exist mainly as alternatives to perpetual youth and immortality, a dichotomy summarized and symbolized by a pet that can live forever. As such, family bonds are necessarily born of and climb toward decay, death held in the arms of reproduction and vice versa. Perhaps one can’t be happy all the time in the same way that people are not immortal, and to want anything otherwise would be to exile yourself from your social circumstances, to undo your death as quickly as your birth. “I wasn’t born. I was hired,” says the eponymous baby himself, cleaving space between existence and work, between family values and company protocol. Each time I watch the movie I am reminded that what leads to financial success is not usually the same stuff that leads to intimacy and growth, shared vulnerability, to closeness and community and family and friends, whether chosen or assigned.
It’s that sense of choice that Boss Baby highlights so well, expanding traditional family arrangements. An off-camera explanation of where babies really come from is framed as a gross joke, but rather than stigmatizing the body’s natural processes it contributes to the understanding that families are chosen as often as they are produced by blood, that in so many ways even the people who just show up in your life are kept there only through active, repeated choice. Families are like environments and benefit from biodiversity, from the gathering of different purposes and desires, different motivations and origins, all in the same place.
“You can’t miss what you never had.” In the movie, it is spoken as poorly disguised grief, precursor to a toxic male defense. But you also can’t have what you don’t see. Like so many girls, I learned that part of being a woman is keeping yourself desired and sought after by keeping yourself missed, and this is how presence can be dictated by absence. No wonder I always chose beauty over talent, I was practically inventing my own form of female invisibility; I wanted a flatness and a blankness, pure beauty that didn’t rely on ability. And I wanted, more than anything else, to be missed and thought of and worried about, to hum in the minds of those who couldn’t see me. When your constitution is held between your absence and your appearance, it’s easy to be confused about where you exist, to misunderstand invisibility as really quite appealing.
If happiness were easy, would it remain desirable? If men lived forever, little puppy dogs of strength, would women fall happily into old age? Do men seek women for the same reasons that adults seek puppies and bloodlines and babies: to locate a part of yourself outside yourself, to pretend there’s some piece of you that remains visible even when you go away? Or to present yourself, confidently, in the space of another’s absence.
The gender of happiness, but also: the gender of the pursuit. Of searching and of filling out and of looking, looking, looking. A child’s gaze is often scattered and surreptitious, until adulthood forces it to hover in one spot. When you perform adulthood for long enough you begin to confuse it with instinct, that below-sea-level murmuring that predates even the most imaginative internal monologues, the you that is both hidden and remembered. See how easy it is to make invisibility sound tangible, to forgive gender problems as problems of age?
The corporate machine, with mechanical arms that read and interpret each newborn, doesn’t recognize Boss Baby’s “tickle zones”—a metaphor for basic human need, disguised as armpits, tummies, ticklish feet—and sends him off to management. Don’t we all live some version of this story? Some of us have unrecognizable desires, or bodies that do not act the way others expect them to, or brains that don’t perform well what we’ve learned, or personalities that try too hard, or that don’t try at all. Misrecognition suggests limited abilities and expectations, rendering certain purposes (and in some cases, people) obsolete.
The turn comes when Tim, Boss Baby’s kid brother, discovers that love is not finite, that sharing is not a neighbor of lack. Though we attribute such qualities to monetary wealth, it is love, after all, that remains chaseable and pursuable, that grows without restriction, that sustains and is sustained by equity. Love, which climbs perpetually upward no matter its point of origin, for there is just always room for more.
Boss Baby disentangles the knot made of capitalism and the American family unit: nuclear, built on consumption, wherein things (babies) can be returned and products (love) are finite and tempered by demand. “If there isn’t enough love for the two of us then I wanna give you all of mine,” says Tim. It is the ungendering of love, boys and men giving everything they have, a quantity not counted by numbers, the multifaceted beating heart: full of mass though you can’t weigh it; how it’s right there in front of you, visible and saying hello, how you want it so much.