Manifest Pussy: Why don’t we just let Shakina Nayfack speak for us all?
A transgender activist has seized the pussy agenda with both hands. Let's let her run with it for awhile.
By Emily Jordan of Salon.com
At first glance, Shakina Nayfack’s shaved head appears naked without the platinum weave she usually wears to play Lola — the radical trans waitress on Hulu’s “Difficult People.” At six foot two and sporting patterned athleisure, she’s the most noticeable person at FIKA, the Swedish café in the theater district where we’ve met to chat about her life as a trans activist in the otherwise stale, male and pale miasma of the entertainment industry.
Her embrace upon recognizing me is all-encompassing and sincere, like the magna mater meets Barry’s Bootcamp. She’s just finished rehearsal for a new Go-Go’s musical (!) slated for a possible Broadway run — Thank you, Lord! — so she apologizes as she tears into a veggie wrap. We exchange some of her infamous lines from “Difficult People,” such as, “Fuck you, Marcy,” a line from arguably the best scene on TV this season, and discuss what it’s like to have a line you wrote and uttered meme’d over the face of Mother Theresa — um, glorious.
Shakina’s chosen name (pronounced Shakeena) is derived from the Hebrew wordShekhinah, meaning dwelling place, a noun that conveys the manifestation of God’s femme counterpart, the loving mother who feels the pain of her children and rescues them from the boogeyman under the bed. Thus the observant Jew’s Friday night ritual bath to cleanse before the Sabbath to meet the beloved. In other words, the Great Equalizer knows whassup.
And so does Shakina. For starters, Lola is the only trans character on TV who is both funny and unsympathetic. A character who exists to remind us that there’s more to the trans narrative than HB2 and sex work, though you best believe mama has a lot to say (and sing) about both, though always in unexpected ways that hit on all the feelz, honey. And while Lola celebrates the bathos, Shakina’s solo show “Manifest Pussy” zeroes in on that special no-no place rendered off limits in most trans conversations — i.e., her gender confirmation surgery and her new-ish vagina.
The thing is, who isn’t talking about vaginas these days? From Issa Rae on “Insecure” with her Broken Pussy rap — “maybe it’s broke as hell/ maybe it really smells” — to Donald Trump and a whole slew of interchangeable, tired politicians with their interchangeable, tired ideology, not to mention countless brogressives and slacktivists sounding off on Facebook, everybody’s locked in an endless comment war about pussies and what should go in them and come out of them and who can and can’t grab them. It seems like Donald Trump broke the world’s pussy. Sad!
As my mother would say, it’s no new news that following the inauguration, on Jan. 21, millions of cis and trans women, girls and guys donned pink pussyhats and united to march in Washington, D.C., and in sister cities from Nairobi to Oslo. The visuals from these marches are startlingly, well, labial. They speak to exactly where we are as women: on the verge, but of what? The world as a giant pink Upsidedown where toddlers and tweens all brandish signs that say pussy, but you can no longer teach Ovid’s “Metamorphoses?” A world where, to quote breast cancer survivor, sex educator and activist Ericka Hart, “The trauma of the pussy did not begin with Trump, it began when such a high premium was put on the power of the white one.” It’s woke and vaginal AF. Where’s the musical number for that?
Ask Shakina. She wrote the book and lyrics to score a spiritual journey of true vaginal awakening. A real inside job. Like a graphic “Hedwig” if the titular character had only had Kickstarter.
Shakina grew up Jewish as Jared Allen Nayfack in Orange County, California, and faced a staggering amount of harassment as a gay teen and almost no backup from teachers and school administrators. When she was 16, she gave herself a tattoo of side-by-side male symbols, figuring that if she were found dead this would be an identifier.
This sense of outrage led to Shakina’s earliest forays into activism and organizing protests in high school, which ultimately got her expelled. This was the late nineties, the dawn of the queer youth movement, before Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) existed. It wasn’t until University of California, Santa Cruz, that she worked with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to lead trainings for educators and youth activists all over the country, so they could create GSAs in their schools and develop policies around bullying and expand the definitions of sexual harassment and discrimination to include sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Shakina also created a performance piece as part of a major she designed in “theatrical activism.” In the piece, set to the song “Faggot” by Korn, Shakina wears dominatrix drag and whips a group of guys clad in football jerseys, fishnets and jockstraps with AIDS ribbons on their genitals. Watching the piece on YouTube, one is struck by both its radical humor and extreme rage.
Perhaps this was part of the journey. A Dagobah System where Shakina fine-tuned her sense of theatrics and comedy as resistance so that she could utilize them to heal and serve the world. A hefty task, but that’s all in a day’s work for a pussy these days, manifested or otherwise.
As though to further explain all of this, Shakina parses the “Fuck you, Marcy,” beat from “Difficult People,” what could well be the the platonic paradigm of her character Lola making short shrift of people’s assumptions. In this scene, Nate has called in an external resource, aka Marcy, to the café to teach his employees the Heimlich maneuver. Poor Marcy makes the error of gesturing at Lola as she mentions that she used to teach at a women’s shelter for sex workers, to which Lola replies, “Fuck you, Marcy. Just ’cuz I’m trans you think I’m a sex worker? The closest I’ve come to working the streets is the summer I spent with Greenpeace and a clipboard.”
It’s important to note that the original line was solely, “Just cuz I’m trans you think I’m a sex worker,” but Shakina ad-libbed the, “Fuck you, Marcy,” because she felt that the original line, though funny, didn’t capture her frustration with labeling and people’s association with the trans community and sex work. Lola then calls Marcy’s former occupation, “cisgender-privileged-women’s-shelter-bullshit,” while the rest of her colleagues chant, “Fuck you, Marcy,” like a deranged Greek chorus. It’s amazing.
Yet, it’s also transformative and challenges our assumptions.
Next, Shakina references the “Difficult People” episode “Blade Stallion,” in which Julie’s boyfriend catches Julie watching porn. Julie goes to discuss the incident with her BFF Billy — played by co-star Billy Eichner — in the café. In the middle of this reveal, Nate casually informs them he used to do porn under the name Blade Stallion, and Billy and Julie google him. As Julie is making a comment about the size of Nate’s genitals, Lola passes by with her tray, flicks her gaze to Julie’s phone, says, “Mine was bigger,” and then sashays off-screen.
This line is both deliberately subversive yet subtly problematic on a couple of levels. For one, there’s your basic trans protocol which states that you never, ever talk about genitals. They’re private and off limits, Mr. President. Leave that woman alone. You know, Miss Lewinsky. . . Secondly, at least for the cis audience, there’s something jarring about a trans woman making a flippant dick joke in the past tense. When I mention the multi-layered aspect of this moment, Shakina shrugs and says, “I had to learn to love my penis before I got rid of it.” One wonders if that’s how all the women of the world will come to view Trump.
Or, for that matter, how American tweens will name their nether parts going forward.Has pussy become a totally acceptable word in popular parlance? Has the connotation shifted? According to Sadie Chorao, a sixth grader at New Voices Middle School in Park Slope, “Before the march, it was a bad word, but not the worst word that I know. This all changed after the march because now it feels like a word of power, and it shows that we will not give up our hope until we make things right.” Meantime, Ella Thomas, a sophomore at Saint Ann’s School, found Trump’s statement demeaning and disgusting. “Seeing the word pussy didn’t bother me at all. . . but I do think that more people need to know and understand that not all women have pussies.”
Ericka Hart agrees. “Not everyone who identifies as a woman has a pussy nor does your identity as a woman have anything to do with pussy. But I see a sea of knitted hats touting the power of the pussy, when some of you will never have to ponder the anti-black origins upon which gynecology was built.”
Or think of Issa’s spitting rhymes at the club: “Maybe it’s really rough/ maybe it’s had enough/ broken pussy.” At first glance, this rap seems like just a private joke to her friend, but then by the final episode, we realize that it’s a message to the entire sisterhood. Maybe it really has had enough. The question is what exactly is the antecedent of it? The collective vagina? The Pipeline? The World?
These days, it feels like maybe EVERYONE ON EARTH has finally, really, for serious, had enough of IT. If those abundant Pinkpussy hats and sold-out poster boards at Staples were any indication, there’s also a collective NRG that’s not gonna be ignored, Donald.
So hide your bunny because pussy grabs back and it grabs back HARD. This ain’t no ordinary college seminar vagina dentata, it’s a multi-generational, united feminist movement! With cat ears! They may not have marched like this for Trayvon and they may have laughed at Emma Sulkowicz and her mattress but lo! Look at them now! Look but DON’T TOUCH!
Lest you think I’m not with the program — I am. I went to Oberlin. They practicallyinvented the program — let’s recall the divine feminine presence otherwise known as Shakina and her magnum opus “Manifest Pussy.” She tells me, “I made a vow that I wouldn’t speak about trauma in the show unless I could do it humorously. I’m standing on stage singing about going to Thailand to get a vagina. It’s demystifying some of the taboo topics of the transgender experience. I’m also bringing spirituality into that conversation, which I think is subversive on multiple levels. And when I took the show on the road to North Carolina, the whole thing became even more politically charged, because each performance was also like a rally to get people fired up to fight discriminatory (bathroom) legislation.”
When I ask her why she thinks spirituality and sexuality are the progenitors of activism, she takes a sip of tea and tells me that, for her at least, they are thecornerstones of activism, but that different people have different approaches and different motivations for creating social or political change. This makes me rethink my previous opinion about the pink pussyhats and the pussy signs. If I had a young daughter, I wonder, would I have brought her to the march? Would I have sat little Sarah, Rebecca, Leah or Rachel down and said, “From now on, this is your PUSSY. Keep God and the State the fuck out of it.”
Maybe not. But I’m pretty sure Shakina would agree with me on one thing. She may be a messianic Jew but we both pray to the same God: Musical theater. During a performance of “Hair” an actress grabbed Shakina’s hand and held it and she felt the veil of darkness begin to lift. Describing this moment to me, Shakina’s face softens and her eyes go all glittery as she focuses on a spot in the middle distance. Then she waxes poetic. “I’m a practitioner of magical realism,” she says. “I watched “Annie” before I read Márquez. The ways musicals elevate expression has informed my life on many levels. The belief in possibility and heightened expression. The attention to stylization. The light at the end of the world.” She looks at me knowingly.
I experience a sudden flash of lyrics of “Seasons of Love,” the anthem from “Rent:” “In truth that she learns/ Or in times that he cried/ In bridges he burned/ Or the way that she died.” A song that has always gripped me. My friend Victoria’s sister Pam, a lovely woman who worked for Ralph Lauren, died of AIDS some years ago and I have always taken that show to heart. I wonder if people still do, now that there’s PrEP and the Cocktail, but of course, this is probably my flawed, privileged thinking.
Later, Shakina emails me to amend, “Acting is my activism. When I was a kid I used to say, ‘When the revolution comes I want to be on the front lines, entertaining the troops.’ That still holds true for me today.”
For now, I guess, our lips are sealed.
Emily Jordan is a YA writer living in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @EmilyBeJordan.