Monday, May 26, 2014

Reading on the F Train v. 3.0

Friends!  It has been too long.  After a tumultuous year of working at two different schools, teaching a total of six completely new and completely different courses, and buying a house, things are finally calming down as I head into my last three weeks of work before summer break.  As usual, I have a whole mess of goals for my summer, but in a nutshell:

1) Read more.

2) Write more (both WiP and this blog).

3) Move more.

4) Prep for next school year.

I had planned to re-launch the blog in a few weeks, after school ends for real.  Going forward, I'm going to keep writing about the world of YA lit, but I want to broaden my horizons a little more.  Working at an all-girls school this year, I've started focusing more on the ways women and girls are treated both in real life and in pop culture.  I'm planning to make this a place for discussions of women and girls in books, music, TV, movies, and also in real life.  I hope you'll stick around and join me in Reading on the F Train v. 3.0! 

The reason I bumped up my re-launch is that I came across an article today that was too fascinating not to share: 

Fairy Tales are Women's Tales (from The Toast, which I cannot recommend highly enough.)

The article examines the transition of fairy tales from stories that belonged to women--like, adult women--to stories that we now think of as belonging to children.  It also looks at how those stories changed as that transition took place--turns out, our ideas about what's ok for kids hasn't changed much since the Grimms took it upon themselves to polish up their stories for a young audience.  (So: tons of violence, no sex whatsoever!) 

The part I was most interested in, however, echoes something I talk about in my classes.  "Traditionally, fairy tales had seen luck and chance count for more than hard work and obedience, but Wilhelm put a stop to that – instead the sweet, well-behaved, godly women were rewarded, and those who deviated from that mold were punished."  There's a lot of debate about the role of morality in YA literature, especially where sex is concerned.  Many critics seem to wish it would disappear altogether, but if it must exist, then it should have consequences: pregnancy, STDs, DEATH.  The feeling seems to be that appropriate punishments for all "wrongdoing" in YA will keep teenagers in line, and so under the right circumstances, reading about sex might be fine.  (Violence, as always, is mostly ok.) This is similar to the treatment of other controversial acts: I took a great class in grad school that focused on queer representation in different eras of theatre; in nearly every play written before, I don't know, 1990?  Later?  The GLBTQ characters wound up dead or tragically alone. 

So I tell my students, when we are looking at literature as a lens through which to view a particular moment in time, to ask themselves: what is rewarded here, and what is punished?  Sometimes the answer is obvious (Oedipus tries to outsmart the gods and he is punished; Noah ignores his mocking neighbors to follow God's instructions and he is rewarded.) 

Other times, the message is a little more subtle.  I started one class this year by looking at the music videos for You Belong With Me by Taylor Swift and Sk8er Boi by Avril Lavigne.  In each video, you get the classic "The boy I like was dating this other girl who wasn't right for him, but then I won him over because I'm perfect for him."  And in each video, there are different criteria for being "the right kind of girl." 

In the Swift video, the "right girl" is rocking an awesome periodic table t-shirt, which she later ditches for a demure white dress.  Her rival wears "short skirts" and "high heels" most of the time, and comes to the dance in a flashy red number with midriff cut-outs.  So in the morality of this video, liking science and band and looking sweet are good; liking cheerleading and showing skin are bad.  How do we know?  Because version one is rewarded (gets the guy) and version two is punished (gets dumped at the dance.) 

In Avril's version, we don't see much of the losing girl, but we hear all about her.  She's a ballet dancer with long, golden curls, who lets her friends talk her out of dating the titular baggy-jeaned "punk."  Her loss, though: not only does she lose the guy, but the same friends apparently ditch her later on when the Sk8er Boi hits it big--they all bought tickets for his rock show without her.  The narrator, on the other hand--rocking streaked hair, matching baggy jeans, and studded wrist bands--appreciated the guy when he was rejected by Miss Toe Shoes.  She is rewarded for some combination of her perception (she saw "the soul that is inside" hiding under those punk clothes) and her ability to run with the guys. 

This fundamental question has become the starting point for most of my analysis of literature and pop culture these days.  What is rewarded, and what is punished?  In some cases, there's another step: how does the book/TV show/song feel about the punishment and reward?  In Mad Men, for example, characters are constantly being punished and rewarded for who they are, based on gender, race, sexuality, age, appearance, etc.  The show walks a line between showing us a time with a different morality from our own and using today's morality to judge those characters.  Usually, when a character suffers for his or her identity, we are meant to sympathize with that character and not with his or her oppressor.  So, while that punishment takes place in the plot of the show, the character is ultimately rewarded with the esteem of the viewers.

As YA writers, I don't think it is our place to safeguard the virtue and moral fiber of our young readers above all else; sometimes people make bad or stupid or hateful choices and get away with them (although that's rarely satisfying, from a story standpoint.)  I do think we should be mindful of what we reward and what we punish, even in minor ways.  What kinds of clothing do our protagonists wear, and what kinds of clothing do our antagonists wear?  Are all the good guys members of higher-status groups (whether that's jocks or guys or straight people or white people or thin people or attractive people--and yes, even attractive-but-self-conscious people and "not conventionally attractive but somehow stunning" people count here--or able-bodied people or blonde people or whatever) and the only characters from other groups are the antagonists?  Do our protagonists always demonstrate social graces that are considered "correct" for their gender/class/race/whatever, while the antagonists are maybe a little too outspoken or flirtatious or confident?  

This is not to say that we all need to run screaming in the other direction.  There is no magic formula for a protagonist that will magically make all teenagers love themselves and turn into awesome adults who are committed to equality and social justice and responsible enjoyment of their bodies.  But we do need to ask ourselves: What am I rewarding, and what am I punishing?  What are the embedded messages about identity and social norms in my story?  Am I ok with putting those ideas out into the world? 

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