Saturday, September 23, 2006

I Just Have To Wonder

"Now here's something I've noticed about girls, after years of careful observation. They tend to sort themselves into groups of three. There's the hottest one, who is the boss. She dominates and controls the second-hottest one, who is the sidekick and second-in-command, and she instructs her in the art of clothes and sexiness. Then there's a third one, usually chubby or freakishly tall and skinny or otherwise afflicted, whom #1 and #2 both boss around."
King Dork by Frank Portman

The "mean girl" and her posse have been documented as a real phenomena in the teenage world. This set-up, though, has also become a cliche in teen books and movies.

Does the overworked cliche undermine reality? Hmmm. But that's beside the point. I want to talk about something else.

I keep wondering how teenage girls feel when they see this stereotype in a book or movie. Do girls recognize themselves as the head harpy? As the social climber hoping to get the harpy's place? As the loser girl in the bunch? Do they see nothing wrong with this scenario? Do they just assume the author is talking about someone else? Or do they wonder who the heck these people are?

Girls are portrayed horribly in books like The A-List and The Gossip Girl. But those books aren't very well regarded, and there's a big question about how seriously readers take them. Books like King Dork, however, are well-reviewed and considered serious literature. Readers aren't reading them for laughs.

Boys take a beating in a lot of YA books, too, including King Dork. When, say, an adolescent athlete sees his kind described as tormenting and abusing weaker kids, what goes through his mind?

I'm not saying that no one should write about these kinds of characters because their real-life counterparts might be injured. I'm saying that I really can't imagine how kids feel about seeing themselves portrayed this way.


Blogger Kelly said...

Good question, Gail. I'm pretty sure there is documented evidence that girls tend to group in threes, while boys prefer groups of five or more. (I'd have to do a little research to confirm this, but I'm feeling a little lazy right now. I do know Deborah Tannen talked about this phenomenon in her research about boys and girls and language differences.)

One thing I can say is that as a teen, I rarely recognized myself in a negative character. Rather, I only associated myself with the good, yet put-upon characters. It's only now as an adult that, when reading about a bad or flawed character, I sometimes recognize myself. Does this mean I'm a worse person now? I don't think so. I just think I'm nearly 40 years old, have lived a little, know some about my weaknesses and failures, and have suffered the big things in life: death, disappointment, illness, marriage, motherhood (which is also great, as you know).

I just don't think most teens have the ability and experience to recognize the weakness in their own characters. You're a teen! You're young and invincible.

8:49 PM  
Blogger McKoala said...

I'm not so sure about the group of three thing. When I was at school it was all about twos joining up to become fours. Threes never worked. One would always drop off and join another singleton.

As for the mean girl thing - mean girls rarely read books. They don't have time. They're too busy being mean and not caring about anybody else. It's the afflicted ones that read, seeking a better world.

Sweeping, I know, but...

8:04 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

I used to occasionally read the blog of a pro-anorexic 13-year-old. Horrifying stuff. She would call herself a "fat whore" and filled each post with scans from magazines of rail-thin models.

And she read fiction about anorexic girls all the time and made NO apparent connection to her own life. None, zero. I didn't read the same books she did, but I have to assume the were not pro-anorexia. So she read about girls quite nearly starving themselves and then recovering, and merely thought: Meh. What's this got to do with me?

11:17 AM  
Blogger gail said...

I'm not sure, but I think anorexics have a problem with their perceptions of themselves, anyway.

Nonetheless, that is interesting.

This whole "how do kids see themselves" thing sounds like something someone should study. Of course, maybe somebody has.

7:22 PM  
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12:53 AM  

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