Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

I’m a bit late to the party on Michelle Dean’s Our Young-Adult Dystopia, which article appeared in the New York Times in mid-February; nonetheless,  I can’t quite see my way to letting it pass without comment. Unlike the vast majority of people who end up wringing their hands in mainstream publications about how YA Novels Will Doom Us All, Dean appears to actually have read the books she’s talking about, rather than merely criticising them from afar. This has not, however, stopped her from writing one of the most pompous and irritating opening paragraphs of our times:

I sometimes wonder what Dante or Milton or any of those guys would make of the modern appetite for the young-adult epic. It wasn’t always a lucrative thing, writing grand, sweeping, fantastical stories, you know. It was a job for nose-to-the-grindstone, writing-for-the-ages types, and worldly rewards were low. Milton died in penury, blind and obscure; Dante met his maker in literal exile. Would they look with envy upon their celebrated and moneyed modern analogues — your J. K. Rowlings, your Suzanne Collinses?

Ah, yes – those were the days! How I yearn for the golden past, when fantasy was Serious Male Business to be ground out in penury, rather than Crass Female Business resulting in fame! Once again, I’m forced to play the game of Mainstream YA Article Bingo, and as you can see from the card below, it’s not looking good:

YA Article Bingo

Having already compared modern YA with stories written over a century ago and dipped into the Free Space with the requisite reference to The Hunger Games (to say nothing of coming perilously close to an elitist dismissal of popular fiction as trash), Dean then proceeds to get the bit between her teeth:

You do not have to believe the latter [Collins and Rowling] match their ancestors in skill or intelligence to see that they live in a charmed time for their craft. Writing a big, imaginative epic, and particularly one aimed at children or that vaguely defined demographic, “young adult,” will get you plenty of money and status in the grown-up population. You’ll get your big Hollywood movie, and you’ll get your New Yorker profile.

Speaking as a YA author whose money, status, big Hollywood movie and New Yorker profile have all mysteriously failed to eventuate, presumably having been lost down the back of a couch somewhere between Berkeley and Manhattan, I am, in the parlance of the modern internet, 1000% done with people who wilfully mistake the massive success of a few bestselling and debut authors for a universal phenomenon. But then, where’s the sensationalist fun in that? You can’t kickstart outrage by pointing out that, even though most YA authors are still working day jobs to make ends meet, earning low four-digit advances, doing their own publicity and attending no shindig fancier than a launch at the local library, a handful of their peers have nonetheless experienced enormous success due to various trends and fluctuations within the marketplace but, most of all, the hard work of actually writing books. All those tedious humdrum facts lack punch.

There is, nonetheless, a downside to this epic bubble. As in every other area of American life, the sweet smell of success wafting from on high proves irresistible to Johnny-and-Jane-come-latelies. Scarce will we have let down our Katniss-inspired braids this year, for example, than something called “Divergent” will come hurtling toward us. The film adaptation of the first book in this trilogy comes out in March. The economic success of these books, written by 25-year-old Veronica Roth, can’t be overstated. The finale, “Allegiant,” came out in October, and its announced first printing was two million copies — a number nearly unheard-of in the depressed coal-mining town that is publishing, these days. It rose to the top of the best-seller lists instantly, as though by divine right.

How dare new authors be inspired to write successful books in popular genres! Never mind that, owing to the long lead times in publishing, Roth’s Divergent was picked up by Harper Collins in July 2010, a month before the final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, was even on shelves – of course Roth is a latecomer! And how dare the third book of a successful trilogy be printed in huge numbers, apparently! Down with big print runs! Publishers shouldn’t be confident in their authors! (Bonus points will be awarded to those who find it odd that Dean here refers to the publishing industry as a “depressed coal-mining town” when her entire piece is otherwise objecting to the lucrative new vein of stories it’s currently tapping, to considerable profit. Apparently, it’s only noble and right for publishers to make money if they’re not trying to make money.)

I am not the kind of person who sniffs at “low culture.” Still, something like “Divergent” has been so hastily assembled, and then so cynically marketed, that I cannot help being offended on the part of the reading public.

Dean doesn’t sniff at low culture. She just calls it low culture – rather than, for instance, popular culture, which is both more accurate and less snobbish – and thinks its success is an indictment on the industry. I also find it noteworthy that, by implied definition, the “reading public” here described doesn’t include any Roth fans. (Because, like so much else in discussions of popular culture, “reading public” is code for “erudite people who read a better class of book”. You don’t have to like Divergent to find this construction suspect.)

I know it sells, and God knows that publishing needs the money. But the pushing of this stuff is starting to make me feel as if we’re all suckers. Cruelly, the gilded age of young-adult literature threatens to suck the life out of the whole thing.

But for whom, though? Book blogs, digital imprints and teenage readerships are all booming, as are indie publishers, YA fandoms and online communities devoted to the passionate sharing, discussion and creation of YA. Nobody is forcing Dean to read Veronica Roth, or anyone else, for that matter. It’s not being “pushed” on her, like hard drugs or the execrable opinions of Jeremy Paxman. Dean is free to dislike Roth, or not, as the mood takes her. What I’m struggling with is the suggestion that Roth is somehow representative of the moral/commercial bankruptcy of modern YA, just because she’s successful beyond what Dean feels her writing is worth.

Few are bothered by the costs of this excitement, though successful writers in the young-adult market do seem to have noticed the way the industry depends on them. John Green, whose (excellent, though non-epic) young-adult novel “The Fault in Our Stars ” will get its own film adaptation in May, explained his predicament to The Chicago Tribune last fall: “It’s a massive amount of pressure, and not just from fans, but from people whose jobs are on the line because of what you write.” And that pressure’s twin seems to be a blunt carelessness in selecting and editing new work for publication. Most of these Next Big Things appear to have escaped any serious redlining. It seems their “editors” simply pray to the gods of chance that the author lands on a critical featherbed, rather than being thrown to the wolves.

It took me several attempts to parse this argument, because it’s so wholly ludicrous. For the first time ever, YA SFF novels – and particularly books written by and for young women – are considered a big, commercial Hollywood business. But rather than celebrating the unprecedented prominence of female-centric stories and daring to dream of fame, Dean says, YA authors and editors should be endeavouring to safeguard the jobs of film industry professionals by being harder on themselves. If only YA editors would really dig their heels in at the outset, bad movies wouldn’t happen, because Hollywood wouldn’t be tempted to make doomed-to-fail adaptations of “low culture” crap! Young authors need to stop writing commercially successful books, because if someone buys the film rights, another person’s job could be threatened years down the line when forces beyond the writer’s control lead to poor box office receipts! (That sound you hear is me banging my head on the keyboard.)

Setting aside the extremely pertinent fact that authors on film sets tend not to have an enormous amount of directorial discretion, even though it’s their books being adapted, such that the success or failure of what’s produced can’t reasonably said to rest solely on their shoulders – no novel makes it onto the screen verbatim. As various fandoms can attest, Hollywood has never shrunk from making merry with established canon, whether that means whitewashing a previously diverse cast, adding new characters to familiar stories, or generally just chopping and changing various details as par for the course, and that’s before you get to the question of successful promotion. Big studios might be snapping up YA movie rights out of a cynical desire to find the next Hunger Games, but if the end products are failures, authors are hardly the ones to blame. The fact is that, regardless of the editorial energies expended prior to a book’s release, it’s the finished product that attracts (or doesn’t) the eager eye of studios, whose adaptations are then perfectly placed to redress whatever failings the text might have. So while I can perfectly understand the authorial worry that one’s book adaptation will flop, thereby bringing untold misery to those kind souls who’ve expended so much energy bringing it to life, the idea that they could’ve prevented it all by begging their editor way back when to be crueller with the red pen is a solipsistic fear with no bearing on reality.

(And speaking of facts – vaunting John Green as excellent  while criticising female YA authors? Ladies and gentlemen, check your bingo cards!)

…Roth was 21 when she sold the book and all this started. Had I been exposed to such widespread public scrutiny at that age, I doubt I’d have survived it.

Of course, Roth was selected for this fate in part because she was young. Youth is key to the marketing message.

Does Dean have any evidence for this assertion – that Roth is successful, not just because an agent, a major publishing house and a film studio all decided to back her story, but because of her youth? Evidently not, but that doesn’t matter: for Dean, it seems, it’s just the logical explanation for why a book she thinks is poorly written was given such advantages.

I could not help noticing how Roth’s case echoed in another over the summer: Samantha Shannon’s. She was a 21-year-old Oxford student when her first novel, “The Bone Season,” was declared the Next Big Thing last August…  Hopes were clearly high for its instant blockbuster success, and Shannon had all the ritual blessings the young-adult epic market can offer: a six-figure deal for the first three planned books of seven and a prepublication purchase of film rights. The “Today” show declared it the inaugural pick of its Book Club.

But readers did not respond, not this time. According to Nielsen Bookscan, American sales were in the low-to-mid-five figures in hardcover.

This is, once you break it down, an incredibly misleading statement. Firstly, Dean is citing only the American hardback sales of a book that’s been published both internationally and in ebook format – at a time when ebook sales are surpassing hardcover sales in the US market – as evidence that The Bone Season has failed to live up to its promise. Secondly, those “low-to-mid five figures” in the US hardcover market alone were still strong enough to see the book debut at no. 7 in the New York Times bestseller list, which is hardly something to be sneezed at. With the paperback version not forthcoming until April, and the film version as yet unmade, it seems a little preemptive to judge as a failure a book that’s been sold in 21 countries on the basis of its early sales in just one of them.

I often wonder if the people in charge of these decisions noticed that Rowling was 30 when she sold “Harry Potter,” or that Collins was 46 when “The Hunger Games” appeared. If they did, then they must have also noticed how much the present state of affairs resembles the Hollywood starlet system. But I know why movie producers prefer the young ones. That position is even less defensible among book editors.

Though I can think of a number of other modern YA authors published at young ages beyond Roth and Shannon – myself among them, for the sake of full disclosure; I can scarcely call myself famous, but my first book was nonetheless bought by a publisher in 2009, when I was 23, and came out the following year – the idea that publishers are deliberately mimicking the “starlet system” is absurd. While some journalists certainly get a kick out of emphasising the improbable youth of authors like Alexandra Adornetto and Steph Bowe (both published in their teens), the plain fact is that if some YA novels are being written by young adults, it’s not because of some creepy decision to market books in tandem with the nubile flesh of their authors; it’s just a natural consequence of the fact that young adults like writing for themselves, and are, on occasion, good at it.

Judging by her heavily gendered comparison with starlets, however, Dean appears specifically to take issue with the success young female authors, presumably because she, like almost everyone else, has been taught by our sexist culture that successful young women must necessarily be trading on their youth and beauty, rather than being in possession of any actual talent. Whether she’s an author, a fan, a singer, an actress or anything else in the public spotlight, if a young woman does something, you can be guaranteed that, sooner or later, someone’s going to say she’s not a “real” whatever-it-is, because clearly, young women can’t be. Even so, if young women were the only authors having their books adapted to the big screen and given the five-star treatment, then perhaps Dean would have a point: if nothing else, it would certainly be worth discussing. But as she herself acknowledges, the authors of many other successful franchises – like Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, to name the requisite Big Three – are all in their thirties and forties; and while YA certainly boasts a number of prominent female creators, there are plenty of men being given film deals, too. Besides John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which Dean is already demonstrably aware of, there’s Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, now on its second instalment, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and, of course, the three Narnia movies. (Naturally, though, when male-authored films meet with poor or only middling success, as several of these have, no one ever seems to suggest the source material was at fault, or takes it as an indictment on the skills of male authors generally – they were just bad adaptations). Hollywood doesn’t care who writes the books – it just knows that YA and SFF are popular, and wants to get in while the getting’s good, a slapdash attitude that often leads to subpar films regardless of where the inspiration comes from.

But by all means, let’s continue to focus on how undeserving young women are of fame.

Children’s literature toys with our chronological expectations because the best of it has always been written, actually, by the comparatively elderly. Lewis himself was 51 when the “Narnia” books came out; Lois Lowry was 56 when “The Giver” was published; Madeleine L’Engle wrote “A Wrinkle in Time” in her 40s, and L. Frank Baum his “Oz” books in the same decade of his life.

Age is what the greats have in common. The long years between adolescence and middle age seem to be necessary soil for this craft. It requires roots, and no quick shoots will do. They need years to grow and tangle and set before the brilliant, unforgettable book appears… 

Books like Frankenstein, perhaps – one of the undisputed greats of modern literature, and the arguable genesis of modern science fiction? Which was, of course, conceived of and written by Mary Shelley at the ripe old age of 19. And how about  Jane Austen, who started writing Pride and Prejudice when she was 21? Edgar Allen Poe began publishing short stories in his early twenties, receiving a prize for MS. Found in a Bottle at 24 – the same age as Alfred, Lord Tennyson when The Lady of Shallot first appeared in print. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, also produced his first major play at the age of 24, in 1958; award-winning author Helen Oyeyemi  famously wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, while still at school; and just three years ago, Yugoslavian writer Tea Obreht won the Orange Prize with her debut, The Tiger’s Wife, at age 25. Which isn’t to say that no writer ever matures or improves with age – quite the opposite. It’s just that a blanket belief in incompetent, callow youth is equally as inaccurate as a sweeping assertion that age necessarily leads to great books. For every new YA author aged in their teens or twenties, I can think of others in their thirties, forties, fifties or sixties whose works aren’t automatic masterpieces. If I were going to try and make any sort of general statement about the relationship between one’s age and one’s ability to write, in fact, all I’d say is this: that first novels, regardless of the age at which we write them, are seldom our very best works, but that their quality is more likely dependent, not on how old we are, but on how long we’ve been writing when they’re published.

English literature is full of young male writers lionised, both then and subsequently, for their incredible gifts, not least because most of them were busy dying of sybaritic illnesses before they got their first grey hair: John Keats was dead by 25, Percy Bysshe Shelley by 29 and Lord Byron by 36, and that’s just for starters. But once again, it’s the young women of today whose outpourings are held to be inferior, not on the basis of individual talent or literary preference, but because young people just can’t write.

I suppose I’m admitting that those people who call young-adult readers “childish” are onto something. It’s just not the pure desire for regression they pompously diagnose. It’s a desire for stories substantial enough to withstand the ages, that are like smooth river rocks you can turn over and over again.

 I see: having first stepped in to defend the honour of the “reading public” from the insult of commercially successful YA novels, Dean has proceeded to fix the blame on YA authors for being too young and YA readers for being too “childish”, and on everyone else in the equation for giving young women power, whether as creators or as members of a demographic audience. On the basis of the evidence, then, it’s harder to say if Dean really resents Roth and Shannon because they’re successful in a genre she dislikes, or if she dislikes the genre because it’s made them successful without recourse to her opinion of their talent. Clearly, though, it’s not just the problem of commercialism in literature that’s upsetting her – or if it is, then I’d humbly suggest that she’s drawing a bead on the wrong target. If the soul of publishing is truly being imperilled by the relentless drive for monetary gain, then the likes of Jeffrey Archer, Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, Matthew Reilly and David Baldacci are far more worthy targets, each of whom has produced far more pulp bestsellers than Roth and Shannon combined. But then, of course, these are adult men, and even though we might collectively mock novels like The Da Vinci Code or wonder who on Earth keeps giving Nicholas Sparks money, we never question the rights of adult male readers to enjoy whatever the hell they like, no matter how trashy and poorly written we find it.

But women, whatever their age, are held to different standards. We’re presupposed to be the moral and aesthetic gatekeepers of every genre we’re discouraged from actually enjoying, not just because girls aren’t meant to like that sort of thing (and if we don’t, we’re humourless, fun-hating harridans – natch), but because, if we do, it’s unseemly and inappropriate and we’re doing it wrong, and why does there have to be romance and boys and ugh, trashy films with magic and explosions are just so much better when they fail the Bechdel test and are made for teenage boys and young women need to stop participating in popular culture!

And this, ultimately, is why I end up gritting my teeth whenever I see yet another mainstream article lamenting this female-heavy trend in YA – and that’s really what Dean is doing here, for all that she’s trying to pretend otherwise. It’s not that YA and its authors should somehow exist beyond criticism (they shouldn’t) or that there’s no problematic trends, romantic or otherwise, being perpetuated by the current crop of YA novels (there are), or even that it’s inherently wrong to analyse the logic underpinning commercial YA (it’s not). It’s because, overwhelmingly, this sort of analysis isn’t what happens. Instead, we get sour grapes and grudge matches: journalists outraged at the success of particular stories confusing their failings with the failings of an the entire genre; pundits decrying the ubiquity of books they’ve never read in genres they don’t understand for audiences they didn’t know existed, and calling it the end of civilisation; moral crusaders up in arms that girls are reading about sex, or writing about it, or doing anything other than waiting chastely for the good Christian wedding night where they’ll lie back and think of England, because even stories dealing with the aftermath of rape are somehow pornographic; and on, and on, and on. Whether we’re conscious of our biases or not, we’re culturally predisposed to be extra critical of everything women, and particularly young women, do (to say nothing of the women themselves) – and now that YA novels have become such a breakaway phenomenon, with plenty of film adaptations still in the works, otherwise sane adults are falling all over themselves to declare the whole business a type of commercial heresy.

While the YA market should be criticised for many things, like its habit of whitewashing book covers, its faith in the works of young female writers isn’t one of them. Let young people write books for each other – the result might not always be literature for the ages, but it’s still produced some damn good stories, and with so many new authors entering the field with decades still ahead of them in which to develop their talents, I for one am excited to see where not just YA, but the future of writing is headed.

Just days before the first episode of HBO’s A Game of Thrones goes to air – an adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s amazing series, A Song of Ice and Fire – New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante has written a none-too-impressed review, in which she writes, among other things:

“The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.”

I am, quite literally, furious. Shaking with fury, in fact. But before I go into why, allow me, if you will, the luxury of what might appear at first to be a complete non sequitur, couched in the form of the following anecdote:

I was eleven when I started high school, tall for my age, and at that point very much disinclined towards the idea of bras. I’d never liked wearing a singlet under my shirt, as my mother sometimes suggested I do; neither did I like tights, because they always fell down and you couldn’t run in them, never mind the fact that they itched. So even though I knew that I’d have to start wearing a bra – this strange, unfamiliar thing that felt lumpy and uncomfortable and embarrassing to boot – I still resisted wearing one, even though I’d started to feel self-conscious about the new prominence of my own nipples beneath my new white school shirt. Besides, at primary school the boys had laughed and teased the first girls to wear bras, pointing at the all too obvious outline beneath those older, greyer shirts. Why should high school be any different? At least I felt happy in my choice of footwear: brown riding boots rather than the usual black clogs or lace-ups, because I rode horses on the weekend and because the boots were comfortable. They felt like me.

The first week of Year 7, no one much noticed anyone else’s clothes: we were all too terrified, to awed and hyper and jostling in this strange new world, where all of a sudden our supremacy as the oldest kids in our previous schools was utterly gone, demoted back to the very lowest rung on the social ladder. But then that passed, and all of a sudden I found myself being laughed at by girls I barely even knew the names of, girls who made whinnying noises and clipped their tongues in imitation of hoof-falls when I went by, or who else ran past me deliberately to do just that, teasing me for my choice of shoes. I didn’t care – not exactly – because I wasn’t ashamed of my boots, and anyway, who cared what those girls thought? What did get to me, though, was the next lot of barbs: the girls from my grade and grades above who took it upon themselves to start calling me things like saggy tits, mocking and jeering because I didn’t wear a bra, which, unlike at primary school, was the thing that set me apart. They pointed and teased and whispered, and even though I didn’t then have breasts enough to fill even half my own hand, I felt ashamed – mortified, even – that I was going to be forced into wearing something uncomfortable just to stop strangers from making fun of me.

More than just strangers, though. Other teenagers. Girls who’d already decided the bralessness was next to freakishness, even for an eleven-year-old, despite the fact that they must have gone through something of my transition, surely? Or maybe I really was a freak, and every other girl in the world felt absolutely no self-consciousness at all about growing breasts or wearing bras. Maybe other girls looked forward to it. Whispered, giggly conversations with female classmates in primary school and daring, uninformed gossip sessions at slumber parties hadn’t prepared me for any of this: that suddenly, other girls would turn on me, not because I’d ever done anything to them, but simply because I didn’t act like they did. Because I wasn’t girl enough.

And this is why, to return to the subject of Ginia Bellafante’s remarks, I am currently fighting a fury-tremor in every finger, struggling to type cleanly. Because right now – and let me resort to pejorative, here, because honest fury bespeaks a certain rash privilege – I do not give a fuck that Bellafante knows so little about the original novels that she thinks the TV series has sexed their content up. I certainly don’t give a fuck that she’s taken the time to toss off an obviously insincere disclaimer to the effect that possibly, somewhere, women like me read books like Martin’s, nor that this very careful phrasing on her part fails to suggest that women might actually read Martin’s books themselves, and not just other, unnamed novels like them. What I do give a fuck about is her arrogant, hand-waving dismissal of the idea – so cuttingly implied, yet skirted around for the sake of precious propriety – that any real woman would want to read fantasy novels, let alone have anything to do with the whole nasty business of medieval times.

Need I make a list of female fantasy authors to sway her mind? Do I need to gesture to the internets at large, to the hundreds of thousands of girl geeks I’ve seen blogging and tweeting and fangirling and chatting and generally keying themselves up in anticipation of the start of A Game of Thrones? Ought I try and explain – to a woman who has apparently held some quite interesting views on feminism over the years, no less – the prejudicial unhelpfulness of making declarative, gender-based statements about What Women Like And Don’t Like based on nothing more than one’s own personal preferences?

I could do any of those things. I’m tempted to do all of them. But right now, the only thing I can think to say is this:

Ginia Bellafante, you are the girls who laughed at me for being a girl who wasn’t a girl like them, who mocked my breasts and made me shamed of my gender; who chased me away from femininity for more than a decade, fearful of being defeated in an arena not of my choosing but in which I had no choice but to try and compete. You are the women who called the first bluestockings slatterns. You are the blight on your own cause, the judgmental feminists who turn tomboys into self-hating misogynists and misanthropes, the irreconcilers of disparate femalehood. You and your ignorance; you sit there and wonder, why the hell would any self-respecting woman care about swords and dragons and politics instead of – what? Sex and the City? – and then chortle your guts out, no doubt, at the thought of any one hysterical reader getting herself all anted up over a TV show review. Clearly, if this is the kind of reaction such fantastic works provoke, you’ll think yourself right to steer clear of them and their devotees both, regardless of gender. But just in case any scrap of you feels shamed by this, should you read it – just on the off-chance a sliver of empathy splinters its way through your chitinous shell – know this: it was never about the show, but that you’d mock us for being what you’re not.


Somewhere in my workplace lurks a young woman, who, whenever I glimpse her at functions or in the lift, I cannot help but think of as the Dollybird. Note that I’ve never spoken to her, although we have occasionally swapped awkward smiles. My only knowledge concerns her wardrobe. Which is pink. Very, garishly, pink, complete with extraordinarily high heels, an abundance of gold ornaments, heavy make-up and violently peroxided hair. It’s a Barbie look, and while it’s so far distant from my own tastes as to occupy a different fashionverse, she’s not unattractive. But something about her always strikes me as slightly off, as though, despite the pride she clearly takes in her appearance, the clothes still sit uneasily on her.

Last week, I realised why; or rather, I pinpointed what, subconsciously, she’d been reminding me of. Namely: this cover of a book by Muslim author Randa Abdel-Fattah, called Ten Things I Hate About Me. It’s not a novel I’ve read, but as someone who routinely peruses the young adult section of the bookshop, it’s one I’ve picked up now and again, familiarising myself with the blurb. The reverse images of the same girl – one comfortably Lebanese, one striving for blonde – had stuck in my mind, and now, looking at my anonymous Dollybird, I realised with a jolt that this described her, too. Beneath her make-up, I finally saw the real structure of her face, her dark eyes, the minute natural blackness at the roots of her nearly-white hair. What I’d taken before to be a purposefully dark tan, part of the sundrenched Malibu look, I realised now was her natural skin colour, something every other aspect of her wardrobe suggested she was trying to downplay. Underneath all that Anglo Barbie pink-and-gold was a Middle-Eastern girl. And, like Abdel-Fattah’s heroine, she was hiding.

All this flooded to the forefront of my mind as I read Porochista Khakpour’s Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times, provocatively entitled Islamic Revolution Barbie. As a little girl growing up in Tehran, Khakpour recalls her childhood love-affair with Barbie, a doll introduced to her by her similarly-infatuated mother, until the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s forced their family to flee, and her collection was lost. She subsequently rebuilt it in their new home, but talked about her growing unease with the dolls the older she grew, calling them by Iranian names and colouring their hair black. And yet, she says, despite the creation of Islamic equivalents to Barbie and Ken back in Iran, called Sara and Dara, the more-expensive black-market Barbie still prevails. Even though Mattel’s American sales have been steadily falling, girls like Khakpour have been buying.

If Khakpour had any bigger thoughts on the implications of a blonde Western doll selling so successfully at Muslim bazaars, she kept them to herself, focussing instead on her own personal relationship with Barbie in honour of the product’s 50th birthday. But reading her article, I thought how very human it was, that an icon so many Western feminists have come to revile for her unrealistic representation of female beauty can be, in other countries, a symbol of female emancipation. After all, Barbie ran for president before Hilary Clinton and reached the moon before Neil Armstrong, among her host of occupations; she’s remained unmarried for half a century and even broken up with her long-term beau for a younger man. And even when she was with Ken, you could hardly argue that he wore the pants: it was always all about Barbie. 

But generations of young western girls have had fifty years to get this message; fifty years during which it’s become increasingly part of their lives, and less a dream inspired by a childhood toy. Now, the need for a career-oriented doll is less powerful than the desire for girls’ rolemodels to present a realistic standard of beauty. If the injection of feminist principles into society could be said to come with a booster shot, then innoculation to the Beauty Myth is still some years away. But elsewhere, that first jab is still fresh, and the message of Barbie, while pertinent in one sense, has been rightly complicated by image problems that her original audience is just now beginning to appreciate. Because idealised though Barbie’s physique may be, she was never representative of a different culture, and despite the racial diversity of nations like America, she still looked like a large enough portion of the population that her beauty, although unrealistic, was never foreign.

And out of this confusion come girls like Abdel-Fattah’s Jamie/Jamilah, like my unknown office Dollybird. I’m not saying all would-be Barbie lookalikes are automatically prey to this scenario: as I’ve said before, some girls just want to be princesses, and aesthetics are different for everyone. But for many girls, the pressure to hide themselves, to become the Blonde Ideal in order to be seen as beautiful, is intense. Which is where I find the advent of Bratz dolls both proactive and, like Barbie, ultimately socially anachronistic: because although these girls are multi-ethnic and their bodies more cartoonish than that of their blonde progenitor, the emphasis on physical beauty remains. Consider the Devil’s advocate response: why make an ugly doll? But if we automatically define ugliness as anything less than what Bratz and Barbie currently epitomise, then we’ve already put our finger on the problem.

Ultimately, if we must have a concept of beauty, it should be personal, not externally idealised. And dolls, rather than icons of beauty or fashion, should just be things that little girls play with.

According to today’s New York Times, the high expectations of American tertiary students are leading them to haggle over their grades. The students argue that if they show up and complete all the required readings, they deserve an A, and that the act of putting in effort to meet the standards should be viewed positively during grading. Lecturers argue that merely meeting the  standards required to pass a course – in other words, showing up and doing the reading – should only earn a C, as this constitutes the bare minimum required to pass. It’s the kind of argument that could easily rant on for pages, but there’s one line which, for me, perfectly sums up why the professors, and not their students, are correct. As James Hogge puts it:

“Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.'”

This, to me, is as perfect a summation as one could find on the ultimate consequence of turning education into a commodity. In a society where a majority of students complete at least some tertiary study, the bar for excellence has been raised. Mechanically showing up and sitting through the allotted lectures or tutes is not the same as comprehending – or, indeed, caring about – their content. Reading something to fulfil course requirements is not commensurate with reading for pleasure. What lecturers are identifying, and what some students are evidently struggling with, is the notion that education should be more than a chore, or a means to an end: that it should be delightful in its own right, encouraged for its own sake. Under this model, the extra engagement required to reach an A grade comes from genuine interest, and, if we’re honest, a certain amount of intelligence, neither of which can be faked. And as the ultimate products of standardised testing, a system under which a love of learning is palpably secondary to meeting benchmarks, students are, unsurprisingly, floundering.

More and more, the question of how to engage students is one I find myself grappling with, despite being neither a parent nor an educator. For me, the most important components of schooling should be instilling a desire to learn while providing the tools, guidance and encouragement for pupils to do so. One of these tools, unnegotiably, is language, without which it is impossible to read, write or effectively communicate ideas. Beyond that, any decision as to which disciplines are most important is arbitrary, and while there’s certainly sense in providing as many people as possible with a base level of knowledge in a broad range of fields, such as maths and geography, it’s no substitution for producing an individual capable of selecting their own interests and researching them independently.

Which is where, for me, the entire basis of modern education comes tumbling down like London Bridge: it graphically fails to achieve this most basic and vital of outcomes. Rather, such eager students tend to flourish in opposition to the very system that should be supporting them, springing up like hardy plants between cobblestones. They learn to love knowledge despite the way it is taught to them, despite having their interests routinely cordoned off by the arbitrary barriers of syllabi. In democratising education and providing it to all, we’ve forgotten why it should be provided to anyone. Teaching all children under equal circumstances and without prejudice is not the same as believing that a single mode of tuition will be of equal benefit to everyone: quite the opposite. Except that, in commodifying education, exactly this assumption has been made.

Here’s an elitist thought: some people are brighter than others. They can learn things faster, more thoroughly and in greater number than the average student. Similarly, some people are slower: it takes them more time to register fewer concepts to a lower degree of proficiency. Education does not eradicate this fact. It’s not simply a matter of native intelligence, either: some students might be slower due to language barriers, behavioural problems, poor teaching or any number of social difficulties. Others might be faster because they enjoy a certain subject, because they appear stronger by comparison to their peers, because of an excellent teacher, or because their parents help at home. This is evident to kindergarden teachers the world over – and yet all students are given the same goals. The habit of standardised testing is not so bad in Australia as America, but one can still draw the same conclusion of education in both countries: that passing grades are held to be more important than retaining knowledge. Obvious though it seems, the argument that those who know will pass holds little water, for three important reasons:

1. Rote-learning a concept to pass a test is not the same as understanding it;

2. Those who rote-learn are, through primary and secondary school, treated identically to those who genuienly seek knowledge; and

3. There is no extra reward provided to students who demonstrably want to learn for learning’s sake.

Psychologically, this sets up an expectation in students that wanting to explore a subject further isn’t worth their while – and, academically, it isn’t. They will receive no tangible reward for reading about Henry VIII in their spare time; neither will displaying extra knowledge allow them to move forward at a faster pace, and while the outcome should be to teach a love of learning for its own sake, the way to encourage this from an early age is through reward. If students who show initiative aren’t treated any differently under the education system, then the majority will, through apathy or disappointment, revert to meeting only the minimum requirements. If they are bright, this is looked upon as coasting, a behaviour which, ironically, is discouraged. Much like the ‘intangible benefits’ so laughingly touted by many corporations in place of actual staff bonuses or health care plans, the architects of the modern educational system seem to assume that an absence of reward will nonetheless encourage students to excel in their own time. As for arbitrary in-school awards, such as often take the form of laminated and calligraphied cardboard, these are nice mementos, but ultimately meaningless, comparable to the much-loathed ‘quality awards’ of the new corporate sphere. They are the lowest possible recognition of achievement, inadequate placeholders for actual change, innovation or devlopment.

Which brings us back to American college students and their sense of entitlement. Consider them anew in light of the above. They have been taught for thirteen years that meeting the requirements of the system is all that matters, and that going above and beyond, while perhaps an idealistic concept, results only in extra work for no gain, and, quite possibly, in social mockery. At the same time, they have been told, repeatedly and with emphasis, that holding a degree is vital to their future success: they must continue to work hard. And the operative word here is work, because this is what education means to them. Not knowledge, not pleasure, not investiagtive thrills, but work, a difficult, laborious and time-consuming means to an unspecified end. They are waiting, like so many of us in the modern world, for the joy to kick in: to reach the end of the academic rainbow and find the job they love. But learning to love our jobs is, in many ways, identical to learning how to love knowledge: a process which is the direct antithesis of modern education.

Many people don’t hit their stride until university. For some, it’s the first opportunity to explore ideas that interest them as a part of learning, and not just in their own time. Others finally break through the limits of school and attack the discipline they’ve been hankering for, be it geology or medicine. But for many – and, I fear, for most – it’s a startling disappointment. Like pigeons raised in a dark coop, they have no idea how to stray beyond the bounds in which they’ve been raised. They never realised it was the point – nobody ever told them. Certainly, the system didn’t. They drop out, feeling betrayed, or go on to feel naggingly unhappy in their jobs, donning their disquiet in the assumption that it indicates adulthood. And as the twin stranglehold of commodified education and standardised testing tightens, more and more people will be squeezed into a mould inimical to learning. Those who might love university will, by the time they reach it, feel exhausted at the thought of jumping through yet more hoops, and have no savour for any educational institution; others will have long since given up. And meanwhile, those few people who excel at the standardised system will rocket through with glowing recommendations, completely ill-equipped to enter any profession which requires not only passion, but imagination.

The weight of such people is already warping the tertiary system. In Australia, the rise of full-fee paying students, both nationally from overseas, has placed enormous pressure on lecturers to pass inadequate learners. This payment for education turns the degree into a product, moving the customer to demand value for money. Invariably, such students view their own role as passive. Education is something the university must do to them, not a thing in which they must participate, or for which they might ultimately be ill-suited. And such mindsets, both in the long and short term, can only be harmful to the intellectual development of society.

Because in a time of such need for genius, and yet where genius is thin on the ground; when innovation is desperately needed at every turn, and where social, economic and environmental pressures are forcing the reinvention of long-held or unquestioned systems, we need every intellectual iconoclast, highschool anarchist and rule-breaking miscreant to remember what they loved about knowledge: that it improves those people and institutions who lovingly and eagerly receive it, and rewards those who strive in its persuit.

As with just about every other slang word or phrase in my vocabulary, I don’t remember the first time I said that so-and-so had hooked up. If I had to guess, I’d say it was somewhere in my mid-teens, which is when (ahem) the term first properly started to have personal relevance. For those unfamiliar with the phraseology, it essentially means that the object met, kissed, hung out and/or had a one night stand with someone. The connotative emphasis is on casual (but usually sexual) interaction, while the term is both standard and non-judgemental. As far as I know, it’s been around since at least the nineties, but apparently some people are only just getting a handle on it, as per this curious op-ed in today’s New York Times: The Demise of Dating.  I say ‘curious’ because, right up until the final three paragraphs, it seems like the writer, one Charles M. Blow, is onside with both word and meaning, or at least an impartial observer. It turns out he isn’t. And that startled me, because I’d more or less assumed that hooking up was a pretty understandable phenomenon.

Blow’s complaint is both simple and, in the context, nonsensical: that instead of training to date, young folks nowadays have lost the ability to get to know one another. This seems to be a fairly unintuitive conclusion, especially given Blow’s earlier assertion that hooking up takes place mostly between friends: that is to say, among groups of people who already know each other. Despite acknowledging that this is a modern reversal of the dating structure he remembers from college, Blow fails to link the reversal to a changed social reality. When he talks about girls tiring of hooking up sooner than boys because ‘they want it to lead to a relationship’ and later realising ‘that it’s not a good way to find a spouse’, he is parroting gender stereotypes more closely aligned to the 1950’s than today. The idea that girls might be looking for neither spouses nor relationships seems alien to the writer, as does any notion that men might desire these things, too. One can readily see why Blow needed the concept explained to him; but even so, his understanding still falls short.

Personally, I think it’s a sign of progress that people no longer train to date; and in fact, the word date itself feels dated, or at least decidedly American – another hangover of Blow’s (I suspect distant) youth. I don’t recall that I ever dated: instead, I hooked up or went out. The whole idea of dating as a means of getting to know the opposite sex smacks of an era before co-ed friendships were the norm, wherein partners couldn’t be drawn from one’s existing circle of acquaintances, but had to be sought – and interviewed – externally. In reality, such a concept of dating has been fundamentally usurped by mixed friendships in an era of sexual liberation, such that when friends hook up, the ‘dating’ part has effectively already happened.

Random hook-ups are also common, but hardly a point of contention, unless one objects to premarital shenannigans. Ultimately, both Blow and his source, Professor Bogle, seem unintentionally antiquated. Kudos to them for grappling with a changed world, but despite trying for objective analysis, both end up reconfiguring the concept against their own, older ideals. Hooking up is here to stay, friends – and that, I think, is a good thing.

Cruising through the New York Times today, I did a double-take on the following headline:

Teenagers’ Internet Socializing Not a Bad Thing

As this is a blatantly obvious observation akin to announcing that Chocolate Is Bad For You But People Eat It Anyway, I spent a good minute staring at the link, trying to figure out what I was missing. My instinctive reaction was that, for reasons unknown, the Times and the Onion had somehow contrived to swap stories. Or maybe those fake headline guys had struck again – who knows? Unable to come up with a better theory, I decided to read on.

Frighteningly, it appears the story is genuine. How anyone could remain oblivious as to why teenagers – or, for that matter, adults – use MySpace and Facebook is beyond me, while the idea that the MacArthur Foundation actually put money towards proving the bleeding obvious causes a small but vital part of my cerubellum to bulge in a worrying fashion. Seriously, dudes? Young folk nowadays use of the Internets. They send of the text messags, speak on the cellular phones and jive to the rock’n’ roll musics. Deal with it. (I have a sneaking suspicion that the author, Tamar Lewin, is a modern-day Luddite. Only someone completely out of touch with reality could put quotation marks around the phrase “geeking out” and hope to be taken seriously about either technology or youth culture.)

In other unintentionally-self-mocking news, Germaine Greer, that grumpy old feminist, has lambasted Michelle Obama’s election-victory dress with the kind of angry, colourful prose normally reserved for botched military campaigns. The irony of a feminist icon slagging a powerful, intelligent, prominent woman purely on the basis of her clothes – and, stranger still, complaining that Malia and Sasha’s dresses weren’t “girly” – is disturbingly potent. Especially now that actual fashion designers have called Greer’s own wardrobe into question (lordy!), the whole ludicrous incident is eerily reminiscent of something the Monty Python pepperpots might have done.

Now there’s a thought – try a photo of Germaine Greer next to Terry Jones in drag and see what you think. To quote the quintessential Python/Pepperpots exchange:

“Shh. It’s satire!’

“No it isn’t – this is zany madcap humour!”

Also, there’s a two-faced kitten.

Fourth wall, anyone?