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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn: The Trouble with the Fallen Woman Archetype


Trigger Warnings: This book contains 2 rape scenes (coerced consent) and one attempted rape that involves a violent physical assault. The main character makes a bulimia joke, at the expense of her mothers in a scene that trivializes eating disorders. Consent is completely misrepresented, twice the main character explicitly tells boys to ignore consent. Physical assault: the main character slaps a boy in the face, but dismisses it as okay because “he likes it when I’m rough.” 


The Fallen Woman Archetype

One of the biggest flaw of the redemption story for a sexually active girl is the assumption she’s done something wrong.

Firsts makes a lot of promises that I truly believe it could have delivered on if it had gone through a few more revision. The potential is there, littered through out the narrative like loose threads left dangling. This could have been a sex positive and subversive exploration of the social construct of virginity, but instead it’s just another Fallen Woman story. This time with a “Happily Ever After” tacked on at the end.  

There are a lot of issues I ran into in the story, I want to try to at least touch on most of them to both explain my reaction to the book and to explore the common problems that I keep seeing in how we view sexually active women in stories. Because much of what bothered me is very common in many genres of literature, and media in general.

I want to be very clear, I am not holding Firsts solely responsible to fixed these issues in media. If anything I want to address how much of what is in this book is a reaction to those tropes, cliches, and deep seeded social attitudes. So we can kind of see how we got here in the first place, and why this book can seem progressive while being the complete opposite. 

I can understand why this books is so appealing. There’s a certain kind of Schadenfreude and catharsis that comes from Fallen Women stories. Where we both get to live vicariously through a characters' sexual exploits, but also get to watch their inevitable fall from grace in all it's graphic and horrific glory. There's a ugly sense of satisfaction that a lot of people feel when they see a woman, who "gets away" with things other women don't get to experience, finally gets caught and subsequently punished. Most people won't admit to enjoying this, but it's huge fixture of these kinds of stories and I suspect a big part of their appeal. 

As author Tiffany Reisz says, erotica is much closer to Horror than Romance. The fear, intensity, and titillation are key themes in Erotica, Horror, and Tragedies. While Firsts isn’t technically in these genres, it’s pulling from all of them in it’s use of the Fallen Woman archetype and resembles them far more closely that Romance.  From The Scarlet Letter to Cruel Intentions (Les Liaisons dangereuses), the central focus of the Fallen Woman story is the fear of discovery that builds tension, the climatic exposure, shame/public humiliation, and sometime the redemption of forgiveness. 

The central themes of a Fallen Woman story are fear, shame, and forgiveness, not love or empowerment. Also common themes are rape, slut shaming, and repentance. Over hundreds of years these constants of the Fallen Woman trope haven’t change, and all are present in Firsts. Though in this version the Fallen Girl is given a happy ending, but that doesn’t change the fact that the story depends heavily on her fear and pain for dramatic tension and her humiliation for the climax of the story. So it isn’t really subverting the anything. Especially since the Mercedes redemption relies upon a boy to forgive and love her to make her worthy again. 

Review Proper 
[Spoilers Abound: No Seriously there are a ton of spoilers in this review. Consider yourself warned.]

Right off the bat I was struck by the staggering lack of empathy and depth for girls/women verse the sheer amount time and care poured into sympathizing with the boys, especially the ones who cheat on their girlfriends with Mercedes. The fact that it is rarely even phrased in this way, as cheating, in the book says a lot. Another stark example of this gendered double-standard is how Mercedes herself views her parents. Her father, who is absent for most of the book and her life, is barely mentioned. Despite this he is viewed by Mercedes as better than her mother, Kim, who is portrayed as a disturbingly sexist caricature of a divorcee mother.

Kim really stands out, because she represents a very common form of slut shaming that is rarely addressed. The Desperate Divorcee. A rich, lonely, desperate older woman who wears too much make up, gets too much plastic surgery, lies about her age, chases younger men, and pushes her daughter to be sexy. These are all points upon which Mercedes makes fun of and criticizes her own mother. Even Mercedes is part of this slut shaming myth that insists that these bad mothers, these Desperate Divorcees, alone are responsible for turning their own daughters into sluts by not being loving and nurturing enough. By being sexy in the “wrong way,” by being sexually active when they should be mothers. 

Angela, Mercedes best friend, doesn’t make it out much better than Mercedes mom. From the moment she is introduced it’s well established that much of the rifted between them (of which Angela is not aware of at all) exist because of her religious beliefs and Mercedes sexual activity. What is also very plain is that Mercedes resents her friend a lot. She uses a notebook Angela gave her to track her exploits with the boys, and repeatedly mentions how scandalizes Angela would be by everything she does. While I theorize these resentment lies in Mercedes’ envy that her friend still has her innocence and virginity intact, that is never explored.

In contrast, A girl named Jillian, who Mercedes doesn’t even know that well, is all but canonize in her mind for being all the same things that Mercedes resents her best friend for being. But Jillian’s purity and innocence seem very precious to Mercedes, which is why she decides to sleep with Jillian’s boyfriend to ensure he gives Jillian the first time Mercedes never got. 

Mercedes logic behind why she’s provided her service is so fascinating and poignant, but again it lacks exploration until the very end where it’s delivered in an info dump of exposition. It was so frustrating to see an opportunity to link Mercedes own experience to why all the girlfriends of the boys, Mercedes sleeps with, had such high expectations. 

Time and again boys are prioritize before girls. Mercedes thinks far more about the boys she’s teaching than the feelings of their girlfriends or even herself. This is demonstrated so painfully when she has sex she actually enjoys it and immediately is concerned about it. Since she has effectively made sex her job, Hell her mission even. Her own pleasure isn’t even considered. Which bothers me so much. There is a notable very little pleasurable/enjoyable sex in the entire book. Another huge red flag. Sex is work. Sex is a lesson. Sex is distraction. Sex isn’t fun. That’s not sex positive, at all. 

As for Faye, the new girl, who is a prime example of queer baiting, felt very forced and unravelled what little believability the story had left for me. She was a rather blatant story device used to push Mercedes and Zach together, and to teach Mercedes lessons that should have already been integrated into the story from the start. 

As for the love interest, Zach, he’s the worst kind of “nice guy” cliche. I lost any respect I had for him the minute he tired to put his dick in Mercedes without wearing a condom. Even though he knew she as a rule about only practicing safe sex. One strike he is out. The other boys and the remaining cast are forgettable faceless cardboard cut-outs. Even the villain is a boring cliche and I saw him coming a mile away. Don’t even get me started on the Spanish exchange student who coerces Mercedes into consenting to sex, which is in fact rape, who was a really gross racist cliche from his ridiculous broken English dialogue to his “chocolate brown eyes.” Because of course the only character of color in the story is a rapist. *heavy sigh* 

Some other things that bothered me were the mishandling of consent, the heavy use of rape (without labeling it as such), a distinct anti-abortion tone, and the shoehorning in of religious themes at the end. 

Consent: Twice Mercedes tells boys to disregard consent, and in the scene where the Spanish exchange student coerces her into sex she says putting her hand in his hand means she’s giving consent, which completely misrepresents consent and confuses what is a very clear cut case of rape. 

Rape: There are two scenes that involve coerced consent, i.e. rape, and once scene of an attempted rape that involves Mercedes being physically assaulted. At no time are any of these situations labeled as rape, and the resulting trauma is never addressed though it is obviously a huge factor both in Mercedes choices and she exhibits clear symptoms of post traumatic stress and anxiety related to the abuse she experienced. 

Anti-Abortion: There is a scene where a Mercedes over hears a conversation between two classmates, in which one has discovered she is pregnant. The other girl suggests an abortion and the response is “No way. I might be fucked-up, but I would never do that.” The implications and associated condemnation is quite clear. In a flashback, Mercedes discovered she was pregnant after being coerced into having sex for the first time at age 13. She schedules an appointment to get an abortion but prays that the baby will just “go away” and wakes up to pain and a miracle miscarriage (which isn’t portrayed very realistically). Considering this pregnancy and miscarriage are a huge part of the trauma Mercedes experienced due her rape and the inspiration for her “service” it is a huge miss to throw this into the end of the book without ever exploring or really unpacking it in the rest of the story. It feels rushed and inserted to illicit sympathy for the poor Fallen Girl. 

Religion: The religious overtones come in at the end of the story, which makes them very jarring and distracting. Mercedes praying for miscarriage is part of it. But she also quotes the Bible while reconciling with Angela, and even continues to attend prayer circle. She even talks about giving up control, a theme heavily used through the story. There’s a distinct feeling that she’s giving up control and having faith in god. Though it’s not explicitly said. Not to mention she finds redemption in the love and forgiveness of a boy, and a monogamous heterosexual relationship with him. To be clear, I have nothing wrong with religious overtones or Christian romance. Here it felt forced and sloppy. Which summarizes the overall criticism of the book. It really feels like a first draft. Full of potential, but badly in need of several sets of eyes and more redrafting to refine the story. 

Though part of me really wonders if you can really subvert slut shaming with a Fallen Woman story at all. The optimistic side of me says yes. I see so much potential in this book it makes me believe this can be done. It just takes peeling back the layers and exploring the motivations of characters past our cliche prejudiced assumptions, especially in regards to women. 

For example: Maybe the girls have such high expectations around losing their virginity because in some way they can sense it’s one of the few ways in which girls are valued in our culture.

Maybe if Mercedes relationship with her father was explored more. If we knew what is was like prior to or even knew how old she was when he left. Maybe we could explore how such a huge loss not only impacts Mercedes but her mother too. I mean the man named his daughter after a car. He treated them both the women in his like like objects and discard them when they became too much a burden. How about how her father leaving marked this loss of innocence as much as her loss of virginity did? Maybe explore how she was attempting to regain that feeling of value from Luke and he took advantage of that power to rape her. And how Kim’s insistence on sexualizing her daughter is a misguided attempt to give her daughter value denied to her by her ex-husband.

Kim and Mercedes are both products of a world that values women as object, whether they are virgins or sluts, based solely on their sexual availability to men. Mercedes thought she could game the system by taking control over other girls first time in order erase the trauma of her own. Much like Kim hurts Mercedes as she tries to repair her broken marriage by trying live vicariously through her daughter. Mercedes controls other girls and ultimately hurts them and herself by acting exactly like her mother. 


But neither Mercedes or her mother created this never ending cycle. They are just continuing it. The fault doesn’t lie on them. I'm tired of books that only address the symptoms and not the actual problem. Which is the case with Firsts.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Saviorism in YA

One of the tricky aspects of advocacy is learning the difference between support and saving. Support means learning to listen and respect their needs, trusting they know best and placing them first. This can be really tricky when we’re pulling double duty, self-advocating while trying to be allies for others. Not to mention, the complexity of being an adult advocating for young people. This overlap can often blur the lines between what actually helps others and what makes us feel good.

There is no question the latest conflict in the YA community hit a nerve. While I will maintain that speaking about it specifically should continue, I won’t dispute another important issue emerged. Many authors expressed that they feel a great deal of pressure “to get it right” when writing diverse characters. Marginalized people who are also authors spoke up too, sharing how they to feel this same pressure to be perfect when writing their own experiences. I think one thing feeding into this pressure is how often we mistake advocacy for being saviors.

There is a trend in the online YA community that I suspect feeds both this pressure “to get it right” and the assumption that all forms representation must be perfect. There is an incredible amount of pressure placed on authors to be role models and mentors. Which is not only a completely unrealistic and problematic expectation, but misrepresents the relationships between authors and readers. 

The power dynamics I’m specifically addressing here are between adult authors advocating for and even interacting with young readers. I’m being very specific about this because it’s important to keep these polar opposite positions of power in mind when thinking of how often we see dialogues around why we write and the impact of books, especially in discussions of diverse books. 

Think of the children,” has become a widely mocked battle cry for thinly veiled attempts at censorship and unnecessarily control of information. Those who use these claims often do so out of a misguided belief that kids are so unintelligent and helpless that they require tight control and guidance. I also think some people who do this not only believe they’re helping, but feel obligated to do it. They feel pressured “to get it right” for kids.

I see a variation of this phenomenon in another battle cry: “be the person you needed when you were younger.” 

I know, it looks seductively simply and well intentioned, but notice how it centers advocacy on what the advocate believes they needed when they were young. This mindset makes an adult, who has significant privilege, feel entitled to center themselves, making their experiences the measure of what young people need. At no point does it factor in the unique experiences, opinions, and needs of the very real young people an advocate is trying to help. That is saviorism.

When you assume you know better than the person you’re helping, you are placing yourself in a position of power and authority over them. You know best, and consequently you close yourself off from listening and learning from them. This is how you make yourself a savior versus an advocate. Real advocacy should challenge us to think of others first by empathizing and understanding their wants and needs in order to better help them.

What about marginalized authors? Don’t we know better than anyone what it’s like to be a marginalized reader, and know how best to help them? Marginalized people are not a monolith. 

Sure, I was a teenager once, but every queer teenaged girl of color is not exactly like me. While they and I may share similar experiences, and they might even find my thoughts and stories useful, I am not an authority on what is best for them, and assuming I am doesn’t help them either. They don’t need me to save them. They need books. 

Books could help them know they’re not alone or broken. Books could teach them how to cope with a culture that denies their agency and tries to erase their identity. Books may inspire them to save themselves, or even help someone else. 

An author doesn’t change lives; readers who are inspired and empowered by books do. Authors are not saviors; they write books. Telling a story doesn’t change the world. The people who change because of those stories do. 

Not all books have to save lives, nor should they be required to do so. Sometimes stories help in small ways. They can distract us from our troubles, make us laugh, or cry when we need it. They can help keep someone alive until they’re strong enough be their own heroes.

Authors can advocate for marginalized people by reflecting the reality of humanity in their work. This is accomplished in every genre in various ways. Not all stories are for everyone, nor should they be. Diversity is about getting more stories and representation for everyone. Marginalized people reflect reality by simply telling their own stories, and sharing new perspectives and experiences. They also embody diversity in their very presence in the industry, the impact of seeing someone like you telling their own stories is immeasurable.

Putting a stop to the long standing exclusion of marginalized people from books in every genre in literature isn’t going to be easy. It’s been the dominant narrative in literature for hundreds of years. Authors shouldn’t add to that already stressful and difficult process with unrealistic expectations. 

I see a lot of authors putting undo pressure on themselves, imagining these young readers who are depending on them. Unfortunately, I see the imagined parallel of those imagined young readers become the focus of discussions of individual books with no mention of how they are part of a much larger systemic issue. Representation of marginalized groups impacts all readers, and we should question how YA books impact younger readers. These are valid discussions of systemic issues in publishing, society, and media, not an indictment of an individual author.

An author’s responsibility is to write their book to the best of their ability. That’s it. The industry’s systemic issues will not be solved by one book or its author, many of who lack any real power to do more than self-advocate, to say nothing of marginalized authors with even less power. 

If authors are inspired and motivated to write by imagining the kids they might be helping, great. Even better if they’re inspired by messages from readers who say their books helped and saved them. This impact is real and important, but keep the actual role and responsibilities of authors in perspective. 

Advocate for young readers by treating them like readers. Respect their ability to empower themselves. Young readers don’t need saviors. They need books.