Episode 5 – “Elka’s Shell” – August 6, 1997
It was the summer before seventh grade, and I’d just hit a milestone: getting dumped by my first girlfriend, which quickly put an end to my first summer romance. Sometime around then, I had an even more important formative experience: I saw the video for Nine Inch Nails’ ‘The Perfect Drug’. While I had been a casual music fan until then (Discman checklist: Presidents of the United States of America, No Doubt, Space Jam OST), that’s the first time I realized that music could be more than just entertainment — it could be identity.
Seeing and hearing Nine Inch Nails hit a switch in my brain: “this is who I am now.” I didn’t go full-on Goth (either then or ever), but I found the next-best teen archetype: JNCOs, Airwalks, PacSun tees and a ball-chain necklace made me a “skater” (although my lack of skateboard also made me a “poser”). Nascent feelings of antiestablishmentism and an affinity for counterculture were crystallized in this readymade identity. Rather than being not-cool, I could define myself in opposition: I was anti-cool.
But as the proverb goes, the clothes don’t make the man. Skater style didn’t give me entre to a skater clique; I was stuck with the same neighborhood scumbags and the same handful of part-time school friends as I figured out how to establish a sense of self. I was getting by socially, but I was still an outcast, even from the other outcasts.
That’s probably why I was drawn (like seemingly everyone else I’ve spoken to about this season) to Genesis: even though I was a straight, male, seventh-grade skater and not a 20-year-old lesbian from Mississippi, outcasts can smell their own.
After coming out to them, Genesis seems at ease with her roommates, if not totally comfortable. Naturally, the (straight) men of the house are cool with the chill, lipstick lesbian, even if their ideas on homosexuality in general aren’t as progressive. Syrus is *this close* to saying something about “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” and even Sensitive Poet Jason can’t contain himself with thoughts of “soft lips” and “soft bodies” together: “Sexuality seems to inherently come from woman, and when I see two women joined, it seems really natural.” Gross. Genesis isn’t surprised, though, telling them stories of guys who want to tape her having sex with her girlfriend.
The women fare a little better. Kameelah claims that she “rarely” sees feminine lesbians, but Montana corrects her: Kameelah only thinks that because the butch, masculine stereotype is what she’s been conditioned to look for when identifying lesbians. Montana, naturally, also has the best lesbian anecdote: “I knew a woman that was inseminated with a turkey baster and the kid was born on Thanksgiving,” she claims. “I’ve just led an interesting life.”
While she’s letting the men open up about their fantasies (she even gives Sean a back massage) and helping the women move beyond stereotypes, Genesis is having her own crisis. “I’m about to die because I haven’t been around a gay person since I’ve been up here,” she tells a friend. “I’m going through withdrawals — I’m starting to find guys cute. I’m in a house full of straight people and I’m beginning to wonder if I’m turning straight myself.”
She quickly backpedals, but waffles: “No, I’m just joking. Well, actually I’m telling the truth. Kind of.” In her confessional, she admits that’s she’s sexually fluid, that it’s not impossible for her to fall in love with a man: she’s going to be in love with the person, regardless of gender.
Alienated from the housemates, she finds herself up late at night in Internet chatrooms. Even that proves to be a challenge: when all the lesbians want to have cyber sex, she ends up in the transgender chat room, a classification she defines as “bisexuals, transvestites and crossdressers” (a definition that might not hold up these days). She quickly strikes up a friendship with Joe/Jolene, a bisexual transvestite that is married to a woman.
Until I rewatched this episode, I hadn’t thought about chat rooms or cyber sex in years; they are such ‘90s concepts! I definitely spent my fair share in AOL chat rooms (no cyber, though), eventually finding a specific tribe: Star Wars role-players. 1997 was the year of the Special Edition, and Star Wars fandom was resurgent. Who knows how I ended up pretending to be a character spun-off from Shadows of the Empire, but chat rooms provided an early refuge for outcasts of all stripes.
Soon, Genesis’ online chatting approaches obsessive levels. The housemates are concerned, if unsure what to do. Elka thinks she seems sad but doesn’t want to intrude; Kameelah tells her that Joe/Jolene — regardless of his bisexuality or transvestism — is a man who can still hurt her (her views on men well-established at this point). Only Jason recognizes that “she’s getting something from there that she can’t get here.” When Genesis confessed to him that she was “so lonely,” even Jason — possibly her closest friend in the house — didn’t have much to offer, other than vague metaphors about friendship.
Ultimately, Genesis takes Kameelah’s earlier advice to “find her people,” venturing to a gayborhood and finding “her element” at a gay bookstore, something she wouldn’t have been able to do in Mississippi. “I’m still a little bit weirded out, but I’m okay, and it will only get better,” she maintains. Identity crisis averted — for now.
Genesis wasn’t the house’s only outcast, though. Coincidentally, it was the person painted as her opposite: virginal, conservative, very-Catholic Elka. I remember thinking that Elka was sweet, but I didn’t identify with her. Even though her isolation is clear in retrospect, my budding atheism/agnosticism gave me a Jesus-sized blindspot to Elka’s trouble.
Elka is a prude: she doesn’t like Sean’s lame jokes about “crusty undies” and she is flabbergasted when, after a night of drunken carousing, Sean, Montana and Jason have a mock-threesome on the pool table, dry humping and dropping trou. (She’s watching this on the closed-circuit TV monitor, because of course the house has monitors — how else would you spy on your housemates and stir up shit?) Sean admits, “We did it just because it freaks Elka out,” and Montana goes even further: “Let’s go fuck on Elka’s bed!”
Montana says that taking the action to Elka’s bad was a “spoof,” a failed attempt to “pull her out of that shell.” It doesn’t work: Elka growls at them to get out — party over. “I have never seen drunk people be so crass and vulgar in my life,” she says, exasperatingly adding, “not even during spring break!”
Elka’s mother died of cancer just two months before the show began, and along with processing her grief, Elka is keeping her mother’s memory alive by maintaining the ladylike behaviors she taught her. But cracks are starting to form in her Girl Scout demeanor. She’s secretly smoking, and no one is supposed to know; Genesis keeps her secret and is promptly thrown under the bus when Elka doesn’t put out a cigarette in the bathroom. When Kameelah catches her smoking (on the monitors, naturally) and confronts her, she says that Elka is coming across like a spoiled princess: “No one in this house knows who you are.”
Montana and Jason finally crack Elka’s shell when they form Scotch Tape, a fake British-Irish-Scottish “band” that gives them an excuse to wear the Union Jack, sport eye glitter (Elka) and velvet belly shirts (Jason), smoke a few cigarettes and have an impromptu photo shoot. Elka is given the moniker “April Christ,” which she seems to get a kick out of, blasphemy be damned. In her confessional, the way she says “Scotch Tape” and laughs like it’s the most ridiculous thing anyone has ever said is heartbreakingly adorable.
As with Genesis, Elka’s quest to discover and accept herself is a process. “I think that there are certain qualities about me that no one else has, and other people have other qualities that I wish I had,” she says. “I feel out of place, but I think I’m adapting okay in Boston.”
Even if I didn’t identify with her, that sentiment should have hit a nerve for me: I was starting to figure out who I was, who I wanted to be and how to find comfort along the way. Whether smoking alone or staying up all night in chat rooms, outcast life is a lonely one — while it lasts.
Best Music: This episode was a parade of ‘90s curios and fascinations: swing revival (Squirrel Nut Zippers’ ‘Hell’), female singer-songwriters (Joan Osborne’s ‘Crazy Baby’ and Shawn Colvin’s ‘Sunny Came Home’) and whatever the hell Jamiroquai was (‘Virtual Insanity). The latter is a nostalgic joy now, but I couldn’t stand it at the time, mostly because it won the Video of the Year moonman at the 1997 VMAs — beating ‘The Perfect Drug’.