Look who's talking

An innocent-looking cartoon character gives voice to lesbians in Tel Aviv - and beyond.

lizzy the lezzy 248 88 (photo credit: )
lizzy the lezzy 248 88
(photo credit: )
Lizzy sure has a big mouth. And it's dirty, too. Most of what she says can't be reprinted here - but on YouTube, where Lizzy reigns supreme as the only animated lesbian stand-up comedienne hailing from Israel, the innocent-looking little cartoon character lets her potty mouth fly. Viewers, couldn't you guess, love it. "Lizzy is one of the funniest modern cartoons out there," one enamored fan wrote in response to one of the dozens of Lizzy the Lezzy clips on YouTube. "This is freaking hilarious! And I'm so GLAD that I chanced upon this! Thanks for your work and for spreading laughter all around the world!" wrote another. "I laughed so loud my neck hurt. Now I'm gonna watch these all night long," wrote still another. There are thousands more responses from viewers tickled by the sweet-singing cartoon's salty vocabulary and shameless discussion of lesbian life. All this comes, not from an imposing and statuesque megaphone of a woman but a petite and unassuming figure. She's "extremely short with brown eyes and brown hair, tiny [breasts] and a very large oval-shaped head," according to her description, and she "usually likes to wear trousers and a baggy top to cover my [butt]." Oh, and "I have no fingers, either," she adds, "but don't let that put you off." IF IN fact that doesn't put you off, and if her explicit pillow talk doesn't bother you either, then you may just find yourself among Lizzy's rapidly expanding group of fans. From there, it's easy to see what makes her so charming. She generally takes an upbeat view of things, addressing the world with a mischievous but disarming giggle. Rather than tiptoe around stereotypes and taboos, Lizzy pokes fun at them - as when she responds to the question of whether homosexuality is a temptation from the devil with flashing red eyes and a deep belly laugh, or in her Halloween special, in which she accessorizes her witch's costume with a vibrating broomstick. Lizzy's videos routinely begin with a singsong ditty, sometimes including an acoustic guitar. Each one is a permutation of a brief but catchy introduction, usually something like "I'm Lizzy the Lezzy, I'm out and I'm proud. I'm Lizzy the Lezzy, let's sing it out loud. I'm Lizzy the Lezzy, just sing it with me. I'm Lizzy the Lezzy, and I like"- ahem… well, you know. Then again, she makes an amusing rapper, dressed in a winter hat, scarf and gloves, as she sings, "We're butch and we're fem, and we look like Eminem. And when we find your sister"- okay, there she goes again. You'll have to check out the video to hear the conclusion to that one. No, this is definitely not kids' stuff. Listening to Lizzy opine on the difficulty of finding a willing date is like watching the boys from South Park teeter over the thin precipice that keeps them out of the pornographic and in the realm of merely raucously indecent. (Actually, Lizzy's folksy guitar-playing tribute to her ex-girlfriends manages to make a poke at redheaded "gingers" that's even more outrageous than the one South Park did.) It isn't all fun and games in Lizzyland, though. Her jokes about the dangers of falling in love with a straight woman hint at a frustration that is anything but comical. After belting out an over-the-top, aggressive gangster-style rap about using partners purely for sex and then kicking them to the curb, Lizzy reveals that she's "not like that, actually. I'm more like, 'Stay! Don't ever leave me!' But they do…" In such moments, the sometimes painful life of Lizzy - and, by extension, her creator, Ruth Selwyn, becomes apparent. "Lizzy tells the truth," Selwyn says succinctly. IT'S WHAT makes her so popular with fans, and what disturbs her detractors. "I have received some homophobic and anti-Israel comments," Selwyn says, "but they have easily been overshadowed by the many touching, moving letters about how Lizzy has helped many women deal with their own sexuality." In talking with Selwyn, it becomes clear that Lizzy has helped her just as much in coming to grips with her own identity. For example, Lizzy's age is purposely kept vague, although, if pressed, Selwyn will say that her creation "is about 24." Not coincidentally, that's the age at which Selwyn, now 41, told family and friends that she was a lesbian. Today, Selwyn is well entrenched in the local gay and lesbian community. She lives right around the corner from Rehov Sheinkin, the trendy stretch of cafes and boutiques that is the epicenter of Tel Aviv's Bohemian scene. But getting here, from the small suburb of Birmingham, England, where she grew up, has been quite a journey. Along the way, she has learned how to become comfortable in the minority. In a small town with very few Jews, Selwyn attended a Christian school, where she and her classmates were sent to church on Wednesdays. Singing in the church choir "didn't bother me," she says, because "I knew I was Jewish." Attending heder on Sundays and being active in the Habonim Dror youth movement made sure of that. Already then, it seems, she was learning how to adapt to being different. As Selwyn grew into adolescence, her feelings of otherness pervaded her blossoming-yet-ambiguous sexuality. As Selwyn grew into adolescence, her feelings of otherness pervaded her blossoming-yet-ambiguous sexuality. She recalls times when, at around 13 or 14 years old, she and a friend would tickle each other for lengthy sessions that seemed innocent but which, upon reflection, she realizes were her first forays into more intimate groping. In high school, she and some of her girlfriends would joke about how they were attracted to Cagney from the popular television show Cagney and Lacey, about a pair of women cops. While her friends toyed with the idea, though, Selwyn was hesitantly awakening to the notion that she had more than just an infatuation with girls. "I was very confused and unsure about what this inclination meant," she says. "It was really something that I kept inside me, that I didn't talk about. With some of my close friends I could admit it. I could say, 'That's something I wouldn't mind trying.' But I didn't think I was gay, I just thought I was liberal-minded. Some people were trying it, and I thought I should try it too." It was actually a boyfriend she met while studying public performing arts at Manchester Metropolitan University who introduced her to a lesbian friend for the first time. (The boyfriend, Selwyn notes, was actually bisexual, and it was his femininity that attracted her to him.) "I remember how she sized me up and said, in such a blunt fashion, 'You're a bit of alright! I wouldn't mind [having sex with you]," Selwyn recalls. "Well, I jumped. I mean, that wasn't what I was looking for at all. I was looking for love, for a spiritual connection. It wasn't about sex at all. The fact that she said that to me right at the beginning scared me, because I was thinking, 'Is this what lesbians are like?' "That [experience]," she continues, "was one of the things that made me say, 'I need a nice Jewish girl.' I wasn't 100 percent sure, but I was starting to get these feelings about my sexuality, and if I was going to do it, I wanted to have a Jewish girlfriend. It was very important to me." By then Selwyn had already made several trips to Israel, having visited with family, touring with her youth group and volunteering on a kibbutz. The idea of moving to Israel had been in the back of her mind, but it suddenly jumped to the forefront. One of her studies at university was sign language. "I loved it," she says, "but I was learning British sign language. When I thought about what I could do with that as a career, I realized it would be meaningless in Israel. That kind of triggered something and, boom! I didn't want to stay in Britain." SO, IN 1992, Selwyn moved to Israel and started working on a kibbutz. She came, she says, not knowing that she was actually going to make aliya, with a rucksack and a few pounds in her pocket, but she ended up staying. After six months at Kibbutz Tuval near Karmiel, Selwyn went to Kibbutz Tzora for an intensive ulpan. It was there that she decided to "come out" and declare herself a lesbian. "It just wasn't working for me with guys," she says. "I mean, I had tried plenty of times… but I needed to check out this feeling that I had. So I made the decision that I was going to try [a relationship] with a woman. No more men." Shortly thereafter, while she was working as a youth group counselor in Dimona, she found a girlfriend and prepared to tell her family about her. "I told my two brothers first, hoping they would be able to soften the blow for my parents, who were about to come to visit me. When I told them, they were shocked at first, but they were also very supportive. They said, 'We don't understand it, but we love you no matter what.' I was very lucky." Not long after that Selwyn moved to Tel Aviv and began to find her way through the city's thriving gay community. Professionally, too, she had begun to pave her own path. She began to make documentary films, and was doing some English editing and graphic design when she started teaching herself how to program in Flash. In the early days of Web design she started making Flash intros, designing banner ads, etc. Selwyn had settled into a routine when Lizzy came along. She was "born," Selwyn says, about three years ago, after "the latest in a long string of painful break-ups." "I kind of looked around and thought, 'What next?' I needed a change. I was thinking of the success of shows such as The L Word [an American/Canadian television show about lesbians in Los Angeles] and some lesbian films, and I just wasn't that impressed. I started looking for lesbian-themed animation, and found none. So, ding! A light went on." That light stood up on stage and started singing about coming out of the closet (Selwyn records Lizzy's lines and then digitally turns them five semi-tones higher than her own voice). Selwyn sent out that first clip to a few friends on MySpace. Those friends sent it out to more friends, who sent it out to more friends, until hundreds of people had chuckled at Lizzy the Lezzy. Now Lizzy appears on T-shirts and tote bags and wall clocks, thanks to the online store that Selwyn has opened (a Lizzy the Lezzy throw pillow adorns her couch at home; from time to time, Selwyn looks over at it as if she were addressing the cartoon). She even gets to tell her story in a new book, called Lizzy the Lezzy Gets Laid!, that Selwyn published herself. In the small, simply illustrated full-color book, Lizzy struggles to navigate her way through the bar scene, looking for love and finding it exceedingly hard to come by. Lizzy's story is actually a semi-autobiographical account of Selwyn's adult life; the characters that share the stage with Lizzy (Gary the Gay, Danny the Tranny, Kate the Straight et al.) are composites of people Selwyn has known, and Lizzy's misadventures are usually retellings of Selwyn's own experiences. "For me," Selwyn says, "coming out was a long process. I was scared of being 'one of them,' and I was seeking an emotional connection, not sex. So Lizzy is different in that sense. She was 'born' out, and she's always chasing someone for sex." SELWYN TRIES to make Lizzy's appeal as broad as possible. Lizzy has reached out to the deaf with a sign language version of her tunes, to the blind with a blacked-out screen while she pretends to sing in the nude, and to those whose siblings are gay or lesbian. She has sung her songs in Spanish, French and German, as well as Hebrew, decked out in traditional national dress for each one (her wardrobe for the Hebrew episode consists of blue jeans and a big, blue-and-white shirt with a Star of David on it). She has wished fans a merry Christmas with an uproarious twist on the Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer story, as well as greetings for Valentine's Day and Easter. Most of the time, Lizzy pokes fun at herself and others. She generally avoids politics - but she has also joined the fray when Selwyn has thought it necessary for her to do so. She dedicated an episode to the memory of Lawrence "Larry" King - a 15-year-old California boy shot in the head early last year by a classmate because of his sexual orientation - and (virtually) picketed against Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California. Lizzy also appeared in a documentary with gay Israeli celebrities last year that Selwyn made to promote the success of Israel's gay community. "I've seen the gay scenes in London, New York and Madrid," Selwyn says, "and I can say that Tel Aviv's is the best. It's a really tight-knit group." That open and liberal atmosphere was shattered in July, however, when an unidentified assailant fired into a gay community center in Tel Aviv, killing two people there. Selwyn, who attended the protest rally the Saturday night after the shooting, recalls with pride how thousands of people marched through the streets of Tel Aviv, chanting, "Gays can parade without being afraid!" It was during that march, she says, that she noticed "just how gay and gay-friendly Tel Aviv is. There were gay pride flags hanging from bars and bistros all along the route. Our visibility, and the support for us, just shot up. If anything, we're more 'out' now." The attack remains unsolved, with little hope of catching the shooter. Yet Selwyn says she is not afraid. "I don't think it represents the way our society is heading, I think it was a one-off kind of thing. Besides," she says, "the risk is mitigated here by terrorism and traffic accidents!" So Selwyn carries on, keeping Lizzy current. There's a Lizzy clip in the works for an upcoming lesbian film festival, and even talk of Lizzy possibly hosting an animated talk show. "She takes up a lot of my time," Selwyn says, looking somewhat accusingly at her Lizzy the Lezzy throw pillow. "She's very demanding," she laughs, adding, "like all lesbians!" You just know that Lizzy would have a witty retort to that. The kind, of course, that we wouldn't be able to print.n http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MoGQffihTM&feature=channel http://www.myspace.com/ruthselwyn http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasen/spages/1016350.html http://www.flashagraf.com/portfolio/services/short-films-israeli-estate-agents.html http://observers.france24.com/en/content/20090804-gay-community-inflamed-over-homophobic-shooting-israel-tel-aviv