le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Frankie Landau-Banks is not a Feminist

Conveniently enough, BitchMedia's blog (an adjunct of Bitch magazine) has recently posted a list of "100 YA Books for the Feminist Reader" right when I've been thinking about writing about E. Lockhart's non-feminist novels.
And serendipitously enough, the list includes Lockhart's major offender: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.

I'd heard a bit of buzz about Disreputable History before I finally read it; what prompted me to hunt it down was an acquaintance mentioning on facebook how much she'd liked it. Knowing this acquaintance to be an intelligent person, I figured the time had come to bump that book to the top of my to-be-read list.
So I read it, and liked it well enough, though not as much as others have. Then I decided to teach it, last spring (spring 2010).

And it was in the re-reading for teaching that I realized how tricksy the book is, how appallingly it's presented as feminist while actually undercutting most of the ideas and values I ascribe to feminism.

The edition I used for teaching is the Disney-Hyperion paperback copyright 2009. It's stamped with the medals for being both a Printz Honor Book and National Book Award Finalist (which are grim enough), but also includes snappy quotes proclaiming the feminist credentials of the book. Lauren Myracle is quoted thus: "best frickin' girl-power book EVER - subversive and so funny." and then Kirkus Review, inside: "a funny feminist manifesto." And School Library Journal: "she [Frankie] is the ultimate feminist role model for teens."

Except that, when I read this book - and then discussed with my students, a largely-female group of about 40 undergrads - I realized this is not a good feminist book. Frankie isn't much of a feminist role model, either. She's clever, yes. She's got the kind of scheming mind that we see, in super-exaggerated-mode, in Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous heroine of Stieg Larsson's *Girl with a Dragon Tattoo* trilogy.  Frankie could very easily become a hacker.

But first, she's at a very exclusive boarding school (cringingly enough, named Alabaster Prep), and she's pissed off because she can't be in the all-boys "secret society," the Order of the Basset Hounds.

And here's where the feminism problems begin. What Frankie wants is to be part of the all-boys club, evidently because her new boyfriend Matthew is one of its leaders, and she doesn't like being left out. Frankie has returned to Alabaster at the start of her sophomore year with a newly-hot body that gains the attention and admiration of Matthew (who, the back cover tells us, is "a gorgeous senior"). And he goes off to do secret Basset things, and leaves Frankie out of it - won't even tell her what he's doing.

So she follows him around and spies - because nothing is more healthy and feminist than spying on your boyfriend - and finds out about the Bassets, and decides to infiltrate. Via email, Frankie coordinates massive pranks and gets the Basset boys to carry out her wishes (wow, commanding a squadron of rich white boys - soooo feminist!). She does this all anonymously, allowing the obviously-named Alpha to take credit for the plots.

Meanwhile, she constantly dithers about how to make sure Matthew still likes her, puts down her roommate and friend Trish for being too "feminine," and worries that she'll be rejected from Matthew's group of friends if he ever breaks up with her (as she sees happen to other Basset's girlfriends).

Here's a quote:
"the purpose of the Loyal Order [of bassets] was connection. Bonding. Exclusivity. Maleness. ...They had such a large part of Matthew's heart, and Matthew had them. ... Frankie had fallen in love not only with Matthew but with his group of friends. And she knew they didn't rate her as anyone important."
This is on page 195 of my edition - out of a 342-page book.

Here's another one, from earlier on:
"Frankie found her friend's attitude infuriating. By opting out of what the boys were doing in favor of a typically feminine pursuit, Trish had closed a door - the door between herself and that boys' club her brothers had on the beach. ...another summer spent making crumbles in the kitchen, and the boys would stop asking her to come out. Instead, they'd expect warm dessert to be waiting for them on their return."
That's page 68, in reference to Trish - Frankie's roommate and friend - relating how she spent time over the summer making crumbles - berry, peach, etc - instead of hanging out with the boys. Trish explains it's more fun than listening to the drunken boys slurrily talk about sports.

And Frankie is angry with Trish.

These two quotes show the main motivation and the main problem with this book. Frankie's desire to "be subversive" and infiltrate the Bassets is because she doesn't want to be left out of the boys' club. She doesn't want to break it up; she doesn't want to challenge it, or form her own. She wants to be a member. And she looks down, angrily, on girls who choose to do things they enjoy, rather than "hanging out with the boys."
The boys, in Frankie's world, in this book, are where it's at: they're interesting and smart and funny and adventurous and clever, and a lot of them are pretty good-looking, too. And they're almost all very wealthy and well-connected. They are loyal to each other - part of the function of the Basset society - and will privilege the pre-existing male friendship over the adjunct friendship of that male's girlfriend (which, frankly, makes a lot of sense to me - it happens on both sides of the hetero gender-binary divide).
Being where the boys are is Frankie's main goal throughout the book. Even when what they're doing is lame or boring to her, she'd rather be hanging with the boys than doing something fun, if "typically feminine" with her friend Trish.

Frankie's first prank is absolutely revoltingly anti-feminist, and it's this more than anything that upsets me, because on the surface, at a quick glance, it seems to be feminist and subversive.

She realizes, contemplating her roommate's lacy blue bra, that her boobs are what's keeping her out of the Loyal Order (she acknowledges other things - chromosomes, for one - but thinks that boobs are a good symbol of difference). She wants to be a "force to be reckoned with," which for Frankie, means she wants the boys to notice her and take her seriously as a potential co-conspirator in their (admittedly lame) antics. Over and over, Frankie demonstrates that what she wants most is for the boys to like her and respect her. This is dressed up in the occasional language of breaking gender roles or subversion, but it really just boils down to Frankie wanting to be one of them. She recognizes the Bassets for what it is - a younger version of an Old Boys' Club - but rather than feeling disgusted or appalled or angered by the politics and power of an Old Boys' Club, Frankie simply wants to join. She wants the power and privilege attendant on being a Basset, but she wants it from the boys, including her boyfriend.
Everything she does is a stunt to ingratiate herself further with the boys.
How is this feminist?

Her first prank is titled "In the Ladies We Trust," and it involves boobs and bras. All the paintings of administrators and founders of Alabaster have been adorned with bras of all shapes, sizes and colors. The statues around campus have acquired them as well, as has at least one large tree. The piece de resistance is a large, pale brown parachute - the kind from gym class exercises - stretched across the dome of the campus library, "the dome's nub painted a rosy pink" and adorned with a large sign that reads IN THE LADIES WE TRUST.

There's a weak effort to give this exercise a political overtone - Frankie makes a remark about how all the portraits on campus are of men - but it is not what anyone takes away from the prank, and we don't see Frankie feeling too badly about that.

The juvenile terminology - referring to breasts as either boobs or, publicly (and in my opinion, worse) as "the ladies," is exactly the kind of thing one might expect from a pack of prep-school boys. Making the prank all about "the ladies" is objectifying and silly; taking an aspect of the female body and making it a joke is hardly feminist. What's worse is that Frankie begins her prank meditations by thinking:
"Boobs are just inherently undignified" (p228)
Boobs are inherently undignified. Being female, being a woman, is thus made undignified. There's no possibility of the kind of acceptance Frankie wants as long as she's stuck with the indignity of having breasts. This body-hating is a very long way from feminist manifesto, and it's certainly not the kind of ideal I'd want in a teenage female role model.
The indignity of breasts - of femaleness (and it is Frankie who chooses to equate boobs with femaleness) - is what enables the prank; it's what makes it funny. She degrades the campus and its founders and others represented in portraits by making them more like women. How on earth - HOW ON EARTH - is this feminist?
To say: femaleness is undignified! Let's degrade pictures, let's make their subjects into jokes, by making them girly?

The entire novel - until the last few pages, which are just uncomfortable and awkward, and not at all reassuring of Frankie's feminism - is one long paean to the awesomeness of masculinity and masculine society. I don't subscribe to the more extreme forms of feminism that decry men and advocate for an all-female, or a female-dominant society but I'm hard-pressed to understand how privileging maleness over a very "undignified" and derided femaleness counts as feminist.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is, in fact, disreputable - it's a text that reinforces every hegemonic aspect of patriarchal culture while dressed in a thin gauze of pseudofeminism. It does a grave disservice to feminist causes - but more importantly, to all readers, male and female alike - to pretend to advance equality by reinscribing masculine dominance.


grrlpup said...

Totally going to reread. What I loved about the book the first time around was how clearly it showed all the double-binds of being a girl in that elite, smart-kid environment. Of how difficult it is to have a boyfriend in that environment who treats you like a full human being! Is the cool stuff in the boys' club really the cool stuff? Sure seems like it. Telling yourself that you'll have more fun baking with your girlfriends feels like acquiescing, even if it's true.

For me, just laying out that problem makes the book feminist and gives it great value, even if Frankie herself is not a feminist. I don't remember all her responses and schemes very well, just a feeling that she could never really win in unambiguous terms, because the game is rigged. And that she really wanted to keep her boyfriend. :\

Anyway, this post has definitely put the book on my "reread ASAP" list. Thank you!

Jackie Horne said...

I remembered really loving Lockhart's book, so I went back to my goodreads review to see why. Here is what I wrote:

"I loved the way that Lockhart really grappled with issues of class and gender privilege in this book. Rather than just giving us a "strong girl character," the author explores what it means when a girl assumes the power usually reserved for men. What does it mean for a girl to have ambition? Can your boyfriend be nice, but still not recognize you, or your power, at all? What avenues are open to teenagers for social protest? Its a rare book that manages to be a page-turner, an involving character study, and a thought-provoking read; Lockhart manages all three with ease."

I later had a discussion with friends about the feminism of the novel, with some finding the ending particularly problematic in thinking the book feminist. One replied to my post:

"As you say,the novel addresses the question of what happens when a girl seizes the power traditionally reserved for men. Any problems I have with the novel have more to do with the fact that I'm afraid to look too closely at the answer to this question."

And I wrote in reply:

"Yes, me too. I guess that's why I liked the novel so much -- it really asked me to take a look at the implications of feminist rhetoric, rather than just giving the typical happy ending. Social justice is hard work; to tell kids that it isn't can lead to disillusionment when they first begin to speak up but don't get the response they're expecting. I hope that the author writes a sequel, so that we can see what Frankie does next in the face of a "return to the status quo" at the end of the novel."

What your post made me think about, Kerry, was that even those of us who take up the feminist mantle with pride can still be riddled with anti-feminist ideology. That's what I liked about Frankie, and the book -- that it shows us this in action. Perhaps it is asking too much for YA readers to be able to see the ambiguities of Frankie's embrace of feminism, rather than just be sucked in by the anti-feminist discourse that underlies some of Frankie's thinking, but it would be good to try to teach them to do so, as you did when you taught the book.

Shoshana said...

I'm not sure how I managed not to be aware of your thoughtful blog until now... I just clicked "Follow!"

Eilonwy said...

I disagree with this reading of the novel. I think Lockhart does a great job of exploring complexities related to power and gender. (I agree that the book is much less adroit in regard to class.) But I sure read the name of "Alabaster Prep" as a snarky joke rather than a celebration of white money and power.

Frankie's initial visions of feminism are very simplistic--yes, she wants to join the boys club. She equates feminism with having exactly what men have. Both her father and boyfriend have utterly dismissed her abilities, and rather than being simply offended, she takes it as a challenge.

Frankie's ability to manipulate the young men initially delights her, but as the book goes along, she finds her successes more and more hollow. She slowly realizes that she cannot win a place in the boys club by being as or more clever than the guys, by being a better leader, by making life more fun for them. Then, she becomes a real feminist--one who understands that feminism doesn't just mean having the same powers or privileges as the boys, it means a great deal more.

I think the only real weakness of Lockhart's book is that readers do need to keep with it to see Frankie grow. She is a bit of an idiot at the beginning--she does dismiss female interests, overvalue a boyfriend for his social prominence, and limit her options, but she also comes to recognize that these were mistakes and that looking to new models is hard. Like many girls, she wants what feminism offers, but she wants some of the shinier baubles of the patriarchal world too.

I admire Lockhart for writing a novel that admits feminism can be disappointing in some ways--not because the kinds of things it ultimately offers aren't valuable, but because they have a price. Lockhart's Frankie learns that she can't have it all--not because women are too limited to do it all--but because some things are mutually exclusive. You can't be one of the boys and a girl.

Tara Peiris said...

I just finished reading this book, I bought it because I was lured in by the hype in the critic reviews, including "a homage to girl power" and "a funny feminist manifesto"....... As it turns out, not the case at all! So disappointed!! The whole time she was trying to be part of the boys club I thought WHY? Why isn't she starting her own club, enlisting young women around her who share her views and would want to participate in carrying out social commentaries and protests? Also why does she continue to want to hang out with these young men who are actually presented as a bunch of pigs? I kept thinking these guys don't have any respect for her, why does she want to be part of that?