Smashing the frat boy urge
December 6, 2010 § 2 Comments
I don’t care for Glee. I watched the first season; it was fun and entertaining and absorbing for the first half of the season until it became a complete mess, and not the good kind. You can’t escape the actors or the show, however. There is something Glee-ful being written up every so often. And so – this GQ photograph spread. Two things strike you about these photographs: Cory Monteith is the weirdest-looking adolescent guy who is NOT an adolescent, and Lea Michele REALLY appears as annoying and fame-hungry as her character on the show, Rachel Berry. And yes, the girls are almost naked and the man-boy-freak is fully-clothed and this should get all of us who call ourselves feminists all riled up, but it really doesn’t rile me up – if I were to get riled up over every instance of sexual objectification portrayed in the I would have died of exhaustion at some point in 2004, and there would be no one to write this cheery, charming blog.
But much as I tried to avoid it, other impressions came to me, despite myself. For example, Lea Michele looks like she really wants to get naked, while Diana Agron looks somewhat baffled and uncomfortable; my personal sympathies are with the latter. Along with these impressions came the inevitable anger; it’s impossible not to become riled up about something regarding these intensely annoying photographs. In conclusion, then, yes, a few things did rile me up after all. What riled me up was the sheer lack of creativity concerning the objectification. It’s the laziest thing ever. Take two attractive women who play attractive high school girls – one blonde, one brunette – and strip them down to their panties, leg spread, sucking on a lollipop, whatever, and whoopdedoo, photo spread! If you’re going to do something so traditionally and predictably sexist, at least have the courtesy to show the world that you used a tiny fraction of your brain, a smidgen of your imagination, to do something different, no? Hell, you may not care about women, but at least you care about your “art” or whatever – *something*. But, no. And the other thing that riles me up about this photo shoot? The Malaysian men on Twitter who retweet tweets from expat Western men living in Malaysia who link to feminist blogs that object to the photo shoot by saying things like “Who cares, Lea Michele is still fuckin’ hot!!!”
As if that solves the matter. Who cares, fugly idiot-bitches, I want to shag Lea Michele, so shut the hell up. Whooo! Retweet!
Yeah. These are the things that keep me going.
I want to shrug off womanhood or girlhood or femininity or whatever the hell it is, sometimes, and become a frat boy. Those seemingly-ignorant, ill-behaved, apparently-attractive-to-some-people frat boys you knew in university who were unencumbered by any form of self-consciousness or reflexivity and who walked like they owned the space they were in, and talked like they knew the world was listening. I’m not talking about the gentle and self-conscious and awkward or weird intelligent boys/men of this world. They’re for another blog post in the blistering, raging future. I’m talking about the frat boys of this world, even if they don’t belong to fraternities. They belong to that invisible fraternity of loud, stereotypical manhood. Nothing fazes them. They can talk to anyone. They expect to get something, and if they don’t get it, they take it. You know the type. There are tens of thousands in all every country.
When I start to feel that way, I need to counter it before I start to rip my skin apart and grotesquely morph into the horrid frat man-boy inside me that’s dying to get out. One of the best ways to counter this “I am so fucking tired and sad of being a woman, I wish I was a frat boy” lament is to read E. Lockhart, so it made sense that Aishwarya’s tweet sometime back reminded me of the smarts and spunk of the character of Frankie Landau-Banks in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. I reread it; it was as clever and evocative and rousing as when I first read it when it came out. I was cheered. I read it slow this time, taking in a few pages at a time. There is something about adolescent girls figuring out the limits of social expectations of gender – and subsequently, figuring out how to break or bend those limits – that is incredibly comforting and reassuring in a way that you rarely feel with female protagonists in “adult” fiction. It is almost as if womanhood comes with a price: the deep, intense knowledge of the way those social expectations and limits can sort of wear you out, while adolescence, despite being absurd and scary and uncertain, is able to reveal insanely-encouraging potential. The sheer possibility of the future and your future self is invigorating.
It’s almost as if you have to be able to test those limits from a young age if you’re a girl, or these limits otherwise sort of solidify, making it that much harder to work around them – sort of like learning to ride a bike as an adult. This feels like an incredibly cliché and perhaps reductive way of describing it, but it still somehow sort of rings true. It takes immense psychic will and effort to test these gender roles and expectations – consciously, and with purpose – if one is only doing it for the first time as an adult. Meaning – it pays to be a “bad girl” from young.
I’d like to take a moment to blame my parents for one aspect of my life; always a satisfying activity. I blame my parents for having sent me to an all-girls school for 12 years of my life. Interacting with boys who were not family members or family friends on a regular basis for the first time only at age 18 may – it just may – render a girl preternaturally confused and tired about gender relations FOREVER. Or at the very least, for a subsequent stretch of time. I needed to have known how to handle frat boys from about age 8, at least. So that somehow, then, like Frankie, if your girly-sense of self kicks in when you’re 15 and you decide you have had enough with the boy-centric world upon which the axis of many societies turn, you have hope in knowing that you can fumble along quite a good many times and arrive at adulthood a little less bewildered. Knowledge is good; the earlier, the better and this has everything to do with being “bad” and venturing to learn more of something than you’re supposed to.
Lockhart’s Frankie isn’t a deep, dark, morose nerd-geek, which would have been the easiest way to portray an idiosyncratically-clever teenage girl. She is, on the surface, seemingly ordinary – a pretty girl with an active brain and a strong (others might say compulsive) desire to know. It’s the last factor that marks her out as subtly different, if not to others who aren’t yet aware of it, at least to herself. This, of course, is her undoing – and her making. Jewish and somewhat well-off but not exactly moneyed, Frankie attends a prestigious preparatory boarding school in New York called Alabaster. When she starts dating a long-time crush, Matthew Livingston, she starts to unravel as she chafes against the restrictive boundaries of being merely the nice-looking hanger-on girlfriend to a boy who belongs to an elite fraternity – a secret “club” of young men – who will grow up to become the Old Boys of the school much like her father. As she reflects on her own father, whom she refers to as Senior (Frankie was meant to be a boy, a Frank Jr. to her father’s Frank Sr., but became a Frances upon birth): “Senior’s boyhood days were still the largest looking factor in his conception of himself. His former schoolfellows were his closest friends.” I’ll admit that this particular fact further endeared Frankie to me; I, too, was “meant” to be a boy! I was supposed to be a Subash something-or-other. Alas, I came out firmly female – the “ini” suffix on my Tamil name sufficient indication of taking a male signifier morphing into female.
Frankie’s boyfriend, Matthew, is destined for the same privileged future involving Old Boys’ networks and connections. He is not a typical frat boy, no. He wears glasses and vintage hole-y t-shirts and is smart, well-read, fun, articulate, charming and socially-astute. He is secure in his place in the world, as are his friends. When Frankie observes Matthew and his male friends at the cafeteria during lunch, she notices that “the guys threw bread rolls and argued politics. They gossiped and talked sports and leaned so far back in their chairs it seemed certain that they would capsize – although they never did. They had more fun than anyone else in the room.” That effortless way of being in the world – who among us is not attracted to it, charmed by it and desirous of possessing at least some of it? Certainly Frankie is not immune to the pleasures of being in the company of these boys; boys who know how to banter and be polite and yet make all the right jokes and have the most fun. No one can resist their confident masculine allure; they’re never excessive to the point of being strange or unduly modest to the point of invisibility. They are, most of all, never awkward. But these are also the boys who leave girls out of things and who are more loyal to each other than to their girlfriends – in fact, boys who have girlfriends as trophies or mere convenient companions. They enjoy female company largely in the form of an audience for their tricks and adventures, or as largely extraneous participants. Typically, these girls should be smart and cute and pretty and able to engage in friendly banter but remain neutral and pleasant and non-interfering. As the chosen girlfriends, they must not try too hard, nor reveal themselves to be emotional, difficult, curious, or too-intelligent. At the very least, these girls must pretend to adopt these forms of behaviour and crucially, pretend to like it.
Frankie becomes angry the more Matthew sweetly patronises her but keeps her firmly sealed off from his actual life. But, as Lockhart tells us, Frankie is at heart a strategist. She does not lash out so much as act. She finds a way to infiltrate the closed-network of boys through subterfuge, quick wit, hunger, desire, the simple refusal of taking a “no” at face value, and lots of planning. She does it alone. It does not win her popularity or friends or love. There are reasons to love Frankie’s transformation, even for a cynical old broad such as myself, but one reason in particular stands out: Frankie takes a class that sets her mind alight and down the path of her disreputable history.
Anyone who has had their life stretch out and transform due to something they’ve learned knows that feeling. The feeling as though sections of your brain are being rearranged and worked on like a Rubik’s cube, or like it’s being thrown about by unseen forces and your little grey cells, as Hercule Poirot might put it, are rattling about joyously, free from its former positions. Thoughts go from here to there before you even realise you’ve had them. In this class, Frankie reads Foucault. (It’s a cliché, but Foucalt can’t help but make you go, “Oh” when you read him for the first time. I first heard of him in university. I want to live in a world where people get to study Foucault in bloody high school. No, not in Malaysia, don’t hold your breath.) Frankie wonders about things. It is her restless thinking – the evaluating, the learning, the questioning – that delights me the most. This hunger for knowledge in order to better understand your role in the scheme of things – and who decides your role and whether or not you choose to accept it – can render a girl obsessive. To others, it might appear as though she’s slightly unhinged. Why, after all, care so much? Frankie is incredibly self-aware to realise this; to know that even her female friendships at Alabaster are sustained by the fact that her friends don’t know too much about her hunger, her ambition, or worse yet, her curiosity with the seemingly limitless bounds.
What makes The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks work without slipping into triteness or endless, solipsistic navel-gazing is Lockhart’s sharp, dryly-humorous writing and her ability to paint a character in a few swift, bold strokes. Lockhart doesn’t set out to moralise the rightness or wrongness of Frankie’s actions. Frankie doesn’t fool herself into thinking she’s fighting the good fight for the benefit of all of society – she’s a teenager who’s learning to test boundaries, bend rigid roles, and play around with assumptions. It’s a relief that Frankie is well-aware of her attributes: a pretty face, a strong mind, a good family name, a moderately well-off background. She does not seem to feel the need to apologise for it. Frankie would never be in a GQ photo shoot stripped down to her underwear, licking a lollipop. She would be more likely thinking of ways to stage an intervention of the photo shoot or those images, Princess Hijab-style.
I do wish that I had Frankie around when I was 12 instead of the Sweet Valley twins. I was reading this excellent blog post and thinking about how much my own femininity (or idea of it) was formed by two fictional sun-kissed, perfect size-6 California blondes. I started writing my preteen novels in earnest around that age, notebooks upon notebooks about characters I’d created named “Sophie” and “Jessie” with perfect, straight, long brown and/or blonde hair, blue or green or hazel or gray eyes (never brown), and significantly, white skin. My early attempts at writing were direct attempts at mimicking the ghostwriting team behind Francine Prose, never mind that I was also reading Bronte and Dickens at the time. Your influences will influence you in the way that they will, which is unfortunate, or maybe not so – hard to tell, anyhow. To have had Frankie Landau-Banks as my fictional ally would have been so much better.
But as the wise ones say, better late than never. The girl in you – regardless of your age – cannot help but cheer along Frankie Landau-Banks, and strive, in ways small or big, to help you become a little more Frankie in your own life.