2015 in Review: Geek Girls and Gender

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

For several years, TGA founder Marie-Pierre has been conducting research on the fraudulent phenomenon of “fake geek girls,” a category of women who ostensibly “pretend” to be geeky or interested in geeky things for male attention. This supposition that the geek identity is predominantly male and that geeky space must subsequently be policed for inauthentic intruders came to a head during the 2014 Gamergate controversy, in which certain groups of men not only felt that women participating in the gaming industry were somehow less committed or faking it, but also believed that feminist oriented criticism would destroy the industry and undermine creativity. While the bias that drove Gamergate may seem to be fairly niche, many of the sexist ideologies spill over into the broader entertainment industry, sphere of pop culture, and conception of “strong female characters.” The same logic of “fake geek girls” is…

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Anthropology & Literature

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

When I was an undergraduate at Vassar College, I double majored in Anthropology and English. Even though I saw myself following in the tradition of fellow Vassar alum Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), my major advisors were frankly baffled by the combination. It seems apt, therefore, that my first panel at the AAA 2014 Meeting this past year was on “Anthropology and Storytelling”.

Convened by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, Carole McGranahan (University of Colorado), Coralynn V. Davis (Bucknell) and Gina Athena Ulyssse (Wesleyan) each presented papers on the importance of narrative in fieldwork and ethnographic writing. Indeed, part of what initially spoke to me about anthropology was its emphasis on studying the storied aspects of human lives. As a fledgling anthropologist, I necessarily studied Clifford Geertz’s theories about culture as a series of texts that anthropologists read and interpret over the shoulders of their informants (Geertz 1973)…

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Banned Books Week: Day Six

Banned Books Week

“Think about the word destroy. Do you know what it is? De-story. Destroy. Destory. You see. And restore. That’s re-story. Do you know that only two things have been proven to help survivors of the Holocaust? Massage is one. Telling their story is another. Being touched and touching. Telling your story is touching. It sets you free.”
― Francesca Lia BlockBaby Be-Bop (1995)

I was a Weetzie Bat and a Witch Baby. I felt stuck in the wrong time, the wrong place, enamored by the books and fantasies I retreated into when life seemed too harsh or judgmental. Transitioning from childhood to adolescence, I had difficulty connecting with my peers. I wanted to wear costumes and conduct faerie hunts and taste poetry on my tongue like honeysuckle and find a place where I felt at home and safe in my difference. Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat (1989) came to me at just the perfect time. I both knew who I was from a young age and was struggling to understand how to manifest my identity in a way I felt comfortable with; I recognized my difference, yet was still fearful of how those around me would react. Difference didn’t thrive well in my hometown—there was hardly the profusion of magic and wonder that seemed to populate the Los Angeles in Dangerous Angels (2010). Weetzie, too, felt lonely. She danced between punk and manic pixie dreamgirl, starlet and dusty rambler, completely assured of her identity, despite its efflorescent, dizzying qualities. She brandished her creativity openly, yet spends most of the first chapters of Weetzie Bat spinning through Los Angeles, lost in a shimmering haze, searching for a human connection that will ground her. She discovers Dirk, a slamming-jamming friend and partner to her eccentricity. Throughout Weetzie Bat, Witch Baby (1991), Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys (1993), Missing Angel Juan (1993), and Baby Be-Bop (1995), Block crafts a contemporary fairy tale, one with all the charm and enchantment of Anderson, and the darkness and brooding of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Dangerous Angels is a series that spirits you away with the language. That’s how I initially fell in love. The stories swirl and tinkle about like delicate ballerinas, twirling between an extravagance of description so lush you get lost in the language, copious metaphors, similes and analogies that spring like wildflowers throughout a sentence, and sheer joy at the miraculous heights that words can reach. This is a part of the magic of Dangerous Angels, the enchantment of the language simultaneously soothing and jarring in its specificity and grandeur. Dangerous Angels is deliberately overwritten, because you are meant to believe in the beauty and wonder the language evokes for the characters. Weetzie, My Secret-Agent Lover Man, Dirk, Duck, Cherokee, Witch Baby, Angel Juan and Raphael speak in a language specific to their dream-scape world, one that demands glitter and love and excess in all things, a spinning confectionary creation of characters rabid for life, eager for adventure and sometimes lost in the strangeness of their fantastical community. As a lover of poetry, a precocious reader who wanted to speak as eloquently and vibrantly as my favorite authors, Weetzie was my hero. Just as she wore taffeta ball gowns to art class, she did not force herself to reign in her speech or police the way she talks so she could fit in. The whimsy and sheer mayhem of description are all a part of the celestial dance Block performs, weaving fairy tale and fantasy elements into a narrative confronting more deeply disturbing, real-world issues and concerns.

Dangerous Angels has been banned or censored because of its negotiation of sexuality, marriage, relationships, HIV/AIDS and childbirth. Throughout the series, all of the characters are searching for love and acceptance, struggling with feelings of abandonment, self-hate and shame. None of the relationships in Dangerous Angels are as simple as falling in love, but each is deeply compelling and sincerely human. There are a number of interracial relationships depicted in Dangerous Angels: Valentine JahLove, a Rastafarian, marries Ping Chong, a Chinese fashion designer. Witch Baby falls in love with Angel Juan, an illegal immigrant from Mexico. In Weetzie Bat, Weetzie dreams of meeting her soul mate, a secret-agent lover man who will perfectly complement her free spirit and artistry. Though My Secret-Agent Lover Man emerges from the ether of a genie’s wish, his relationship with Weetzie is fraught with the complications of adulthood. He feels that the world is too violent and dangerous to justify having a child, and runs away to have an affair with Vixanne Wigg, a Jayne Mansfield cult groupie. Weetzie’s own parents, Charlie Bat and Brandy-Lynn are emphatically a marriage gone awry, loaded with too many expectations and too much hurt.

Toward the beginning of Weetzie Bat, it is revealed that Dirk is gay, searching for the perfect “duck.” It was one of the first books I ever read that featured homosexual characters in such a matter of fact, accepting way. Block tackles homophobia and the stigma that has often been associated with queerness. Duck’s own parents, despite their hippie-vibe and supposed liberal personas, fail to accept his homosexuality or condone the loving relationship between Duck and Dirk. Baby Be-Bop delves more deeply into Dirk’s negotiation of his sexual orientation from a young age, chronicling the task of “passing” for straight until he came out of the closet. Dangerous Angels was perhaps my first introduction to the concept of sexuality as a fluid continuum, something I wouldn’t really come to experience or understand until attending Vassar College, a place that celebrated queerness and sexual exploration and understanding. Block’s representation of homosexual, queer characters both attends to the stigma and discrimination they have historically faced, as well as expresses the fact that society is full of difference, a difference we need to celebrate and embrace. Dirk and Duck even struggle with the dangers of HIV and AIDS, a disease that emerged around the same time as gay rights activism began to take purchase. The couple, each with their own previous sexual histories, is concerned about the dangers of intercourse:

“It’s so sick,” Duck said. “I nicked myself shaving that last night at home, and I saw my own blood and I thought, How could I live in a world where this exists—where love can become death? Even if the doctor says we’re okay, how could we go on watching people die?”
Duck buried his face against Dirk’s shoulder and the streetlamp light shone in through the window, lighting up Duck’s hair.
Dirk stroked Duck’s head. “I don’t know. But we’ve got to be together,” he said.” (Block 1989).

Through Weetzie Bat, I was not only exposed to different kinds of relationships and formulations of love, but I was also drawn into the conversation about how sex can mean something both so gratifying and deadly. The people you love, and how you love, can be a dangerous thing in our society.

Dangerous Angels is also deeply concerned with the nature of family. When My Secret Agent Lover Man doesn’t want to bear a child, Weetzie decides to have sex with Dirk and Duck, celebrating the family she has created through her friends. It is an unconventional way of getting pregnant, one that has ruffled many libraries and schools, but one that also echoes the contemporary social conditions of parenthood. Cherokee Bat was conceived out of mutual love, affection and acceptance, rather than marital obligation, and Dirk and Duck prove to be incredible parents with Weetzie, further pushing the conservative boundaries of traditional, nuclear families. When Weetzie is asked what sexual preference she hopes Cherokee will have, she responds, “Happiness” (Block 1989). When My Secret Agent Lover Man returns to Weetzie, they discover that he impregnated Vixanne Wigg, who deposits Witch Baby at their doorstep. Rather than abandon Witch Baby, Weetzie incorporates the purple-haired baby into their ever-growing family, forgiving My Secret Agent Lover Man for his indiscretions.

As the children grow, they must wrestle with their own challenges and recklessness. Witch Baby feels the pain and injustice of the world as acutely as her father, and feels out of place amidst Weetzie and Cherokee. She channels her frustration and isolation into her drums and discovers love in Angel Juan. Despite their deep romantic connection, Angel Juan disappears, and Witch Baby must negotiate the dark underworld of Los Angeles, full of sex trafficking and exploitation of undocumented workers. Cherokee falls in love with Raphael, the son of Ping Chong and Valentine, but they fall prey to the world of drugs, parties and unprotected promiscuity. Block weaves narratives that probe into the tangled process of growing up, and all the difficult decisions that accompany it. Often times, you feel abandoned or alone, and have to find solace in your own difference or the friends you populate your life with. You find those who love you for who you are, but also challenge you to grow as a person, nurturing and supportive. During the time when I was reading the series, I wanted to know that apple pie kisses could exist for girls like me, that I could spend days figuratively buried in the mud scratching at myself and still emerge to make music, that I could find friends to share hotdogs with and dance under spangled lights with me.

Dangerous Angels is problematic for its representation of Native American culture. This is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed and acknowledged. But Block’s novels have historically been banned for the “inappropriate content” I listed above. Dangerous Angels is a collection that would greatly benefit young readers, struggling with their sexual identities and searching for a place in the tumult of adolescence. It could be an enormous source of solace to queer readers, as well as readers that don’t fit the prescribed conventions of their hometowns. As Francesca Lia Block responded to the question “What do you hope librarians, teachers and school administrators in communities facing challenges to literature take away from these controversies?” in an interview with the National Coalition Against Censorship, “I hope that more understanding, tolerance and awareness arises out of all of this” (NCAC 2009). The books that promote tolerance and love across boundaries, creeds and sexualities are the most important to keep on the bookshelves.

 

Works Cited

Block, Lia Francesca (1989). Weetzie Bat. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Block, Lia Francesca (1991). Witch Baby. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Block, Lia Francesca (1993). Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Block, Lia Francesca (1993). Missing Angel Juan. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 

Block, Lia Francesca (1995). Baby Be-Bop. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Block, Lia Francesca (2010). Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

NCAC Staff (2009). “KRRP Interview with Author, Francesca Lia Block.” National Coalition Against Censorship. http://ncac.org/update/krrp-interview-with-author-francesca-lia-block/

 

 

Banned Books Week: Day Two

Banned Books Week

As a young female reader, it wasn’t overly difficult to find protagonists or characters that I identified with. Even when the main character was a different gender or inhabited a fantastical world, their life experiences and emotional states tended to mirror or parallel my own enough that I felt connected to them. Walter Dean Myer’s Monster (1999) was one of the first books I ever read that deviated from first or third person, straightforward chronological narrative and presented a protagonist far beyond my adolescent experience or life world at the time. Monster is told by Steve Harmon, a 16 year-old African American boy on trial for a robbery and murder. A few years older than I was when I first read the book, Harmon expresses an interest in storytelling and cinema, so he decides to relate the story of his trial through a screenplay, interspersed with diaries and personal journal entries of the legal proceedings. The book’s narrative structure simultaneously distances the reader from the main character, as if they were jurors overseeing the trial, and brings the reader closer to Harmon, eliciting sympathy and understanding for a young man framed by the legal and penal system as a degenerate and a danger. Filtered through the eyes of Harmon, the narrative is a testament to his creativity, as well as his intense intelligence and insight, qualities that challenge his characterization as a “monster.” Apart from exposing me to alternative narrative structures a story could take, the screenplay-diary format also taught me about new ways of engaging with a text and getting to know a protagonist. The precision, and dispassionate way that Harmon is able to craft his experience into a screenplay was astounding to me as a young reader, and provided another mechanism for creative empathy I never would have been able to imagine.

Monster also provided a window into a life I only knew indirectly. Although I lived outside of Philadelphia, issues of race, crime and discrimination only existed on the periphery of my consciousness, proof of my own privilege. Monster was one of the first books that asked me to identify with a young, African American male, a task I had never been given before. It was an extremely important one for me to undergo at the time, as the book also deals with very adult institutional concepts. The book was one of my first exposures to the penal system, and provided a (fictionalized) insider perspective on experiences of incarceration for youth. The complicated legal proceedings, replete with polemical rhetoric and thinly veiled prejudices also highlighted negative attitudes and stereotypes about race and class that hadn’t been emphasized to me before. I came to see how Harmon may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, a victim of structural violence and an environment of discrimination that often forces people to make decisions they wouldn’t have made under other circumstances. The book made me question the racial assumptions we are steeped in, and realize the degree to which already dispossessed people can be failed by the very institutions that are supposed to protect us. There was very little sympathy to be had by Steve Harmon in the prison or courtroom, because society, it seemed, had already decided what kind of person Harmon was, without ever truly getting to know his story.

According to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, “Parents of the Blue Valley School District in Kansas are currently petitioning for this [Monster] and thirteen other books to be removed from all high school classrooms in the district due to ‘vulgar language, sexual explicitness, or violent imagery that is gratuitously employed’” (2014). Many of Myers’s other books have been banned, and Myers has been a vocal advocate against censorship, especially for children and/or teen literature. As a young reader, Monster was an inevitably heavy story, one that was emotionally draining to read but nonetheless transformative and powerful. It told a story from a perspective I might not have known otherwise, one that forced me to reflect on my own life, assumptions and potential biases. Since reading the book, I have worked in violent, crime-ridden parts of Philadelphia and South Africa, volunteered in prisons with women and youth, and conducted research on the secondary victimization and discrimination that often occurs during legal proceedings. I am reminded how Monster reformulated the preexisting narratives that had suffused my life, and enjoined me to consider the way that our society works. Institutions like the court or the police could be the monsters; certain parts of the American population aren’t quite seen as human as others. Myers also gives voice to a portion of the population that doesn’t often get represented in young-adult fiction, which is important for other young readers who struggle to find stories or characters they identify with. The book also deals with ideas about truth–whose truth is taken as fact and replicated enough until it becomes a reality? Who has the discursive power to determine the truth of a situation? I want Monster to remain on the bookshelves so that it can teach those same lessons to children for generations, so that they too may carry the story of Steve Harmon into their adult, professional lives.

Works Cited

Myers, Walter Dean (1999). Monster. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

“The Stories Behind Some Past Book Bans and Challenges” (2014). American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. http://www.abffe.org/?page=BBWStoriesBehind

Whelan, Debra Lau (2013). “Walter Dean Myers Talks Book Banning, Writing For Troubled Kids.” Blogging Censorship. http://ncacblog.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/walter-dean-myers-talks-book-banning-writing-for-troublemakers/