Kenilworth Castle

Kenilworth Castle
Kenilworth Castle, John of Gaunt's Hall

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Control, Comedy & the Geek

Last week I read Adam Rex's novel Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story. I'm not sure yet how I feel about it, and like a fool I returned it to the library (from whence it came via interlibrary loan), so I can't re-read it and see if I've figure it out yet. I can say that the "Fat" in Fat Vampire is not as Fat Accepting as I could have liked, though it allows for the intriguing premise, not adequately explored in the vampire fiction that I'm familiar with, that perhaps being an immortal teenager in a never-changing body is not wholly desirable. Doug, the eponymous fat vampire, is stuck in a Fat body forever, now that he's been made into a vampire. And the fat body is marked here in many of the stereotypical ways that fat bodies are marked.

And Doug may not be the hero of his own story; in many ways, this book is as much, if not more, about Sejal, the Indian exchange student, sent away from India to a bland-seeming American home because she has "the Google," an evidentl diagnosable illness that manifests as an inability to function without internet mediation. That is - Sejal's life is only real to her when it happens via webcam and internet connection.

The intricacies of the plot of Fat Vampire are better left alone until I've figured out how I feel about the book.

What I found immensely interesting and revelatory, however, is this passage from fairly late in the book (page 250 in the hardback library edition I read).

Control was the basis of all humor. Even as its most innocent, what was a joke or clever comment if not a way to take control? To become King of the Moment.
People like him - the unbeautiful, the less popular - were almost inhuman in some people's eyes. They were a kind of pitiful monster, an aberration, a hunchback. ...The word 'geek' had once referred to a circus freak, hadn it? A carny who performed revolting acts for a paying audience. Was it so different now? See! him bite the head off a live chicken. Behold! as he plays Dungeons & Dragons at a sleepover.
Wasn't this how they always tried to compensate? To overcome a girl's disgust or another boy's contempt and make them laugh despite themselves was to take some small measure of control. No wonder the popular, good-looking kids were so seldom funny. They didn't have to be. Why else would people find it so hilarious to see some short kid's textbook stolen, held high above his head, out of reach? It wasn't funny - it was pure control. Insult comedy minus the comedy.
 That tired old chestnut, to laugh at oneself as a way of preempting the laughter of others, to make them laugh so they won't hit you, has an obvious referent in this quote. But what struck me most was not the comedy-as-control (or power) idea, but the really almost shocking "no wonder the popular, good-looking kids were so seldom funny."

As far as literature is concerned, the funniest YA novels that I can think of also tend to have the dorkiest, or most outcast, protagonists. King Dork. Gordon Korman's masterpiece, A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag. Even Speak is funny, in its grim and dark way; Melinda's observations about high school never fail to make me laugh.

Then I started thinking about my own adolescence. Trying to recall one's own past as a way of measuring or evaluating texts is definitely dodgy, though recalling my teenage years is definitely less tricky than remembering back to my elementary school days, which at this point are largely a blur.
But last fall, while teaching the Adolescence class, I retrieved my old high school yearbooks from the back of the closet at my parents' house, where they've languished since the time I graduated. I dug them out because I was having trouble remembering how people dressed when I was in high school, and dress - or rather, identity through wardrobe - was a frequent topic in class. Finally, those yearbooks come in handy for something.
And flipping through them, appalled at the mid-90s belts-and-tucked-in-shirts of my schoolmates, I was reminded again of all those cheery smiling Popular People [I was not cheery, smiling nor popular in the slightest]. I tried thinking of the people who were funny, the people who made jokes or snide remarks or sarcastic comments that made me laugh. Admittedly I can be hard to please; crude or obvious humor, and anything slapstick, makes me cringe, not giggle. But still - I'm ready to laugh at things most of the time.
None of the shiny Popular People were the joke-makers.
I think of my post-high-school life, to the people who made me laugh, the people who I made laugh - and rarely are the funniest of them the ones who are also the most socially acceptable and well-adjusted.

This is not to say that well-adjusted, socially acceptable, well-liked people are not or cannot be funny. It's more to say that, both in my lived experience and representationally in fiction, they are not the stars of humor and comedy.

I think, if I had given this much thought before (which I haven't, truthfully), I would have chalked up the unfunniness due to a kind of obliviousness, a lack of observation skills. The gaps and chinks and lapses are often where humor lies, but you have to see them; you have to be perceptive in a big-picture way. You also have to be willing to stick your neck out, to leave yourself open to - well, yes, laughter - but also criticism. Humor often rocks the boat, and many of the upper-echelon folks are very happy with nothing but smooth sailing (and of course, because, as Adam Rex points out, they own the boat and they're in charge of the rudder, the sails and the charts).

Humor is also a way of being seen, of making oneself visible. As Doug muses, in Fat Vampire, the "unbeautiful" are barely human in the eyes of the "beautiful." The pretty people turn away from the freak show. To get looked at, to win attention - which again, is power and control - the unbeautiful need something. The Pretty People have their Prettiness, or an illusion of prettiness, and for a lot of them, that's enough to get noticed. It keeps them visible. But the D&D-playing geek? He needs to deliver something else. And humor - funniness - is one thing that is hard to resist, even if you're one of the beautiful people.

It's an interesting dichotomy: unbeautiful & funny/beautiful & unfunny. It's one that I find myself thinking about in the "real world" now, with people I know. It explains a few comments about the relative funniness of pranks, made my students who are clearly beautiful people; pranks which, to me, reeked of crudity and simple unkindness.
So much of bullying is written off with "it was just a joke," or explained as "i thought it would be funny." And so often that bullying is done by at least marginally Beautiful People. I've always had a hard time grasping these notions of humor, which are really just cruelty of a very simple-minded variety. Fat Vampire articulates, wonderfully, both the power/control issues at play, as well as the hierarchical divisions at play, in these kinds of situations.

I hope I'll remember to keep this in mind for future reading: who gets to be funny? Who truly is funny? and how do humor and control interweave?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

hardly unbiased


As I seem to mention often, here there and everywhere, I am the child of two public school teachers. My dad was very active in his union as well, serving as grievance chairman, working on negotiating teams, eventually being elected union president. My entire childhood was spent hearing conversations about unions, about administrators, about negotiations, about teachers and teaching. This was standard dinner-table discussion.
Now, I am a teacher, though in less gritty halls; I'm not unionized, though I am appallingly underpaid.
My sympathy and empathy for teachers especially, and unions in general, has always been strong. You could say I was raised in the union way. 

So the latest anti-labor moves by Wisconsin governor scott walker strike me at an especially sensitive spot. I also have a number of friends who live in Wisconsin, or call Wisconsin home; these are extremely good friends, some of them people I've known for 13 years, people who were or are very close to me.
Most of them, as grad students, are affected by Walker's proposals.

I'm proud of the tide of activism that poured out in Madison to protest the governor. I'm very proud of my friend(s) who participated, despite grueling schedules. Democracy - and that is what this is - can be a very impressive and awe-inspiring sight, and seeing grad students, burly firefighters, sturdy-looking plumbers, high schoolers, teachers of all ages, all kinds of people who, on the surface, seem to come from across a very broad spectrum - seeing them all working for a common cause is genuinely moving.

I found photos from the protests online, a collection of the best signs. They're mostly all clever or poignant or witty, but this one - the one posted above - went right to my heart. 
In addition to being the child of teachers, I have always loved school, and for the most part, loved and respected my teachers. Many of them cared for me exceedingly well, even if I didn't know it at the time (others made it obvious to me, even then, even in second grade with Mrs Chapman). 

We ought all, as a society, care deeply about our teachers, our educators. It is not a glamorous job, and it is not an easy job, and very often someone ends up wearing seasonally-themed sweaters or denim jumpers or things adorned with apples. But the kids - whether they're toddlers in pre-school or sophisticated seniors in college - the kids are why they and we do it. And when teachers do it right, as many of them do - the rewards for those kids are manifold.

Care for your educators the way they care for your children. It's asking a lot - because they care, enormously, about your children. But it is not asking too much.

Solidarity with the good people of Wisconsin who want to work and live and be paid well and treated fairly.

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.