Monday, September 22, 2008

A Feminist Voice in Teen Novels

I didn’t realize Freaky Green Eyes by Joyce Carol Oates was for young adults when I bought it; however, it fits in well with all the books I kept borrowing from school. It’s a book that deals with feminist issues – spousal abuse and date rape. The main character is a fourteen year old girl who is caught between a father whose approval she craves and a mother she is upset with. A girl who suspects her father is physically abusing her mother but doesn’t want to confront it. A girl who fights off an older boy at a party-the first party she’s ever drunk alcohol at. And it’s got a great thread of body acceptance running through it – Franky is a diver and on the swim team.
“I stood in front of my bedroom mirror naked, as I’d never done before, liking my hard little breasts with the dimple-nipples, and the pale-flame swath of silky hairs at my crotch, and my lean muscled swimmer’s legs, even my long, narrow, toad-stool white feet. I didn’t stare or ogle, I just looked at myself like you’d look at a flower, or a tree, or an animal, anything natural, unclothed. Especially, though, I did admire my carroty-red hair, which I was letting grow long, frizzy and static with electricity, past my shoulders.”
It also deals with the complexity of mother-daughter relationships during puberty, which I thought was well handled, amongst the seriousness of all the other issues the characters were dealing with.
“Suddenly, one day, I heard myself lying to my mother. Not for any special reason – just I didn’t want her to know my heart.”

“At the same time I was wishing I could escape somewhere. At least that I was sixteen and had my driver’s license. That way I wouldn’t be so damned dependent on Mom to drive me places. It was too intimate, this mother-daughter thing. Too much!”
Big Mouth & Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates focused on equally serious and feminist topics. A loner, but a strong, athletic female character, rescues the boy in this story that also addresses the atmosphere of fear in schools following the high profile school shootings of recent years. Ursula examines what it means look like a girl:
"I laughed, and it wasn't a nice feminine laugh like my mom encourages. It was a real laugh, deep in the gut.

I would never be ashamed of my body again; I would be proud of it. (Except maybe my breasts. Which I strapped in like I was on swim team, and kind of flattened, in a sports bra.)

My hair used to be this pretty fluffy blond, the baby pictures show. Now it's darker. For the hell of it someday I'd like to shave my skull, like a skinhead. Or maybe trim my hair in a crew cut. Or dye it black. Or bleach it. Except my dad wouldn't approve and my mom would die of shame. They had their prissy notions of girl like my kid sister, Lisa."
Matt, the Big Mouth, makes a joke about blowing up the school, a comment that sends his life into a tailspin. Ursula hears the comment he made and is willing to stand up for him and report what happened truthfully. Ursula saves Matt with the truth, but she has to stand up to not only those who might not believe her, but also those who would prefer she didn't get involved.
"The 'obstacle race,' the author called it: trying to maintain your own integrity and your own talent, no matter how others tried to influence you. Germaine Greer was talking mostly about how men oppressed women, but I could see, women and girls did it to themselves, too. Why?"
In the process, the two become friends. The two characters work through what it means to lose faith in fairness and the goodness of people. One of the ways that they bond and escape from the difficult parts of their lives is by hiking in a nearby nature area.
'"The hard part of humanity is history. All that's been done to human beings by other human beings." In the Rocky River Nature Preserve you didn't have to think of such things.'
The story has its villains, notably the daughters of a religious man, who are the ones who reported Matt's comments.
The Reverend Brewster, disapproves of "mixing", bumper stickers "Jesus Saves" and "Welcome to America, Now Either Speak English Or Leave It." "I guess 'religious' people like Reverend Brewster don't have a clue what America means."
Two insecure teens become friends and become better people by reaching out to people they would not, under normal circumstances, reach out to. It's an important reminder that sometimes little attempts to help others can have more of an impact on them than we realise.

The last book I read by Joyce Carol Oates was Sexy. It didn't speak to me as much as the other two, but the material is equally fascinating: a young boy deals with how he feels about his changing body and sexuality. He has an uncomfortable moment with a male teacher, which slowly spirals out of control, with very serious consequences.

Cross posted on my blog.


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