It was 2001, and I was in seventh grade. I had a middle part and braces and I’m not sure it even registered with me that gay people existed. A nearby terrorist attack had recently rocked the Long Island suburb where I lived to its core, but the other big thing happening in my life was that I had a cool new friend who wanted me to come over and watch a show that she'd been taping on VHS: Alias.
I didn't watch a lot of TV as a kid (I was always more of a book nerd) so I had no context for what the show was or why I should care. In case this was you too, some context: Alias ran for five wonderful seasons and starred Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow, a woman who thinks she works for the CIA, until she confesses to her fiancé what she really does for a living and so her boss has him killed — that's when she learns she's actually working for the bad guys. Heartbroken and mad, she decides to become a double agent, helping the CIA track the activities of said bad guys, who are loosely described as former CIA agents who "went freelance" (haha, same).
If we're to see a metaphor in this, what is more canonically gay than the fear that if you tell the people you love who you really are, the truth will literally kill them?
My cool new friend had a TV in her bedroom (so adult!) which meant we could watch it in her bed. While there were zero vibes between us, I often opted to sit on the floor; it was safer down there, where she couldn’t see my face.
I soon learned that Sydney Bristow was a kind of a secret agent Barbie, with multiple outfit changes per episode as she traveled the world kicking ass and stealing important things. No matter what she wore or how her accent changed, though, one thing stayed the same: She was always hot. So hot that it was almost alarming.
Her approach to spying was specific. Instead of using her disguises to blend in, she used them to stand out, easily becoming the hottest person in any situation. And while it was hotness by the twisted standards of the early aughts — the people she pretended to be were super feminine and sexy in kind of a submissive way, and her thinness was glorified via crop tops and miniskirts — it worked to make it all the more exciting when she'd drop the disguise and start beating someone up and then scale a building.
I am sure that part of the overt sexiness of the show was to get more people to watch it. But whether her aesthetics were for the ratings or the plot is besides the point. The point is that the writers could have put her in outfits that allowed her to fly under the radar, and instead they had her show up, again and again, in skin-tight mini dresses. I think I understand the logic here: Surely, someone with something to hide wouldn't dress to be noticed.
This felt relatable. No one looked at Sydney Bristow in a tight dress and thought, spy! And no one looked at me in a mini skirt and thought, lesbian. (That I know of.)
In Alias, and also, my life, hotness and femininity were things that could be put on and taken off. They were tools. They weren't, say, a reflection of who you were or how you felt. They could be played up to get what you wanted and then stashed in a drawer at the end of the night. It was drag.
Sydney's drag of choice was punk. She donned cherry red hair and leather and latex and chokers; hard femme before I knew what those words meant. It was very confusing: Did I want to dye my hair red, or did I want Sydney Bristow to tie me to a chair and force me to tell her where the file was?
Did I want to be her or did I want her to step on me?
Because it was safer, I chose the first option. I decided I wanted to be her. Over the next few years, I dyed my hair purple and started wearing a black studded belt every day. My clothes got tighter as I messaged boys on AIM and tried to decide who to have a crush on. And the harder I tried, the deeper under cover I went, just like Sydney. Each boyfriend was an achievement in the mission, part of the larger plot to prove to the bad guys (everyone) that I was something I wasn't (straight). Meanwhile, I began to harbor crushes on just about all of my girl friends, and the more intense those feelings became, the more I doubled-down on my fake mission of heterosexuality.
That's not to say that Alias was without heterosexuality, but it was the kind of heterosexuality that was appealing to a closeted preteen. It was at least tolerable, mostly because it almost never amounted to anything. Mourning her dead fiancé was a convenient excuse for Sydney to turn down the advances of everyone else, namely her soft boy best friend played by a young Bradley Cooper with inexplicable frosted tips, and her CIA handler, who was also cute and young and kind of androgynous. Sydney couldn't get involved with either of them because she was hung up on someone who was dead. In later seasons, when she is able to be with them in various capacities, something always got in the way of them actually ending up together. She couldn't ever truly be happy in a relationship with a man; there was always something that got in the way. This, too, was relatable.
I know she's been in countless things since, but to me, Jennifer Garner will always be Sydney Bristow. I couldn't even bring myself to watch 13 Going On 30 when it came out. Every now and then I'm surprised to see her playing a mom in something tender. Where's the blue hair? The round-house kicks? The weapons strapped to her thigh?
Just as she's moved on, so have I. When I came out as a teenager, it felt like taking off a disguise. But at that point, unlike Sydney, my disguise didn't come on and off. Once it was off, I never looked back.