Review: Pageboy, Elliot Page

Published in The i on June 20, 2023

Elliot Page is probably the most famous trans man in the world. His memoir may have a cute title and thirst-inducing cover shot – but within, there’s a world of pain, revealing just how unhappy being in the spotlight has made the star of JunoWhip It, and The Umbrella Academy.

There’s little relishing of the chance to be a trans icon here – more an aching need to share his truth, and to share how crushing it has been to repress it for so long. “In many ways, this book is the story of my untangling,” he writes.

In a world where trans people are considered subject for “debate”, and are four times more likely to be targets for violent crime than cis people, Page’s compassion-inducing account feels vital – even if the discourse is so toxic it’s likely to be scorned by those who might most benefit from reading. Pageboy offers an inside view on the struggles many trans folk experience in living with intense body dysmorphia – from eating disorders and depression to panic attacks and self-harm.

But it’s not just about being trans: this is also a desperately sad account, and damning indictment, of what it was like to grow up queer in America (Page came out as gay in 2014) and to navigate the sexualising, predatory world of Hollywood.

Written in non-chronological chapters (because queer narratives are “intrinsically non-linear”), the book skips between vignettes of the casual homophobia Page experienced growing up in Nova Scotia, to accounts of the sexual abuse he suffered as a teenage actor, to the pressure he was put under to keep his identity hidden for the sake of his career. He shares the open wounds left by difficult family relationships; Page is estranged from his father and stepmother.

The book includes some headline-grabbing, celeb-goss revelations, like the open relationship Page had with Kate Mara when she was with Max Minghella. But many of the more upsetting interactions remain, presumably for legal reasons, protected by anonymity: the director who “groomed” him as a teenager; one of the “most famous actors in the world” who threatened to “fuck you to make you realize you aren’t gay”; the actress who insisted their relationship remain secret because she wasn’t out.

There are also moments of joy within Pageboy – memories of playing as a kid, a love for acting, portraits of treasured friends, queer elders, and lovers – but this is mostly a mournful read. Page is highly sensitive and self-critical, and even his unhappiness became at times another stick to beat himself with – he was excruciatingly aware that having a successful career should be the “dream”, not a nightmare. “How was I in so much pain? Why did even slightly feminine clothing make me want to die? I’m an actor, there shouldn’t be a problem. How could I be such an ungrateful prick?”

Nothing can feel right until he faces up to the fact that he’s living as the wrong gender. “This was not miracle water that sprang out of nowhere. This was a long-ass journey,” he writes of accepting he is trans. “However, this moment was indeed that simple, as it should be— deciding to love yourself.”

Anyone with an aversion to therapy-speak, or the millennial habit of publicly discussing one’s trauma, may roll their eyes at much of this, crying self-pity, self-indulgence. But for a celebrity memoir, Pageboy stands out precisely for its commitment to laying everything bare. Page did not use a ghostwriter, and you can tell; it is occasionally overwritten, with a tendency for laboured metaphors. But it is also heartfelt and courageous in its honesty: as Page writes, “it is fruitful to dig through the muck.”

Pageboy’ is published by Doubleday, £20. Holly Williams’ novel, What Time is Love?, is published by Orion

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