Bad Girls in the New Age of Wonder Woman

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The little girl was mean. She enjoyed being mean. She cussed. She picked fights. She bossed adults around. She was everything a girl is not supposed to be. Girls are supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice, but this child? Zero grams sugar. Absolutely nothing nice. Spice factor? 100% cayenne pepper.

I’m talking about none other than The Great Gilly Hopkins, eponymous protagonist of Katherine Paterson’s 1978 novel. Gilly, or Galadriel, is the meanest foster kid around. Nobody messes with her because her sassy armor is impenetrable…that is, until she arrives in Thompson Park. When Gilly realizes the kind townsfolk are disintegrating her defenses, she hatches a plan that inadvertently sabotages her chance for happiness.

The film adaptation premiered in 2015, with a cast including Kathy Bates and Glenn Close.

For those who don’t know, Katherine Paterson writes award-winning, heartfelt books with the same ease required to open a can of tuna. Newberry’s, National Book Awards, and plenty of others gild her accolades. Paterson has been on my reading shelf ever since I was old enough to read a chapter book all by myself. Her ability to capture the sincerity of adolescence without any saccharine dazzled me then and now. I still marvel at her finesse rendering the real world and everyday life. I envy this skill the same way I greened at the math nerds at school who whipped through the quadratic equation.

But in Gilly, Paterson accomplishes something far greater and much more complex than verisimilitude. She crafts a sympathetic, compelling, and very likable female protagonist who is also mean; who misbehaves and shoves back; and who revels in her own wickedness.

I can’t count the times I have seen these characters get bashed around in critique groups. Trying to be helpful, writers advise the author to…keep the girl’s spunk, but go easy on her cruelty. Or…I’d like her more if she wasn’t so mean. Or…have you considered making your main character a boy?

Make her a boy? What — are girls not allowed to be mean or aggressive or spiteful?

“Little Girl” by William Adolphe Bouguereau. Image CC.

Actually, they’re not. At least according to lots of reporting on social science research:

For Women Leaders, Likability and Success Hardly Go Hand-in-Hand
The Social Science Behind “Bossiness”
The Price Women Leaders Pay for Assertiveness–and How to Minimize It
What Does Social Science Say About How a Woman President Might Lead?

Time and again, the research shows that men are rewarded for being bossy, assertive, aggressive, etc. even to the point of being jerkbags. But women who exhibit similar behavior are relegated to the bitch-bin.

And at the risk of enraging just about every woman on the planet who spent $10 or more to see Wonder Woman — 2017 blockbuster film starring mostly women and directed by a woman — Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, AKA Diana Prince, fully perpetuates the good girl stereotype.

Yes, she has amazing physical strength and can seriously kick some Axis Power butt. But she is also completely, entirely, holistically good. In every interview and behind-the-scenes profile I have seen, both Gal Gadot (who plays Diana) and director Patty Jenkins rave about the character’s quintessential goodness. This suggests the thematic intent to portray a good woman with mighty powers. But I take this a step further and attest that the only reason Diana can be so powerful is because she is also so good. The two traits are diametrically and proportionately linked. In other words, were she less like Captain America and more like Deadpool, moviegoers would not like her even half as much.

Contemporary society does not punish Diana for her powers. They do not relegate her to the Island of Ms-Fit Bossypantsuits because she is a good girl.

Which wraps back to Gilly, who is entirely likable despite spending most of the book being entirely rotten. A real brat. She blows bubble-gum bombs in adult’s faces. She savors violent fantasies. She bullies other children. She hate crimes her teacher. She steals. She lies.

So the real question is how in the hell (to quote Gilly) does Paterson achieve this? How does she trick our societal radar? And is her technique one that other writers can master for their own works?

I absolutely believe the technique is transferable! (Alas, the same cannot be said for the rest of Paterson’s prowess.) Essentially, give the bad protagonist (AKA anti-hero) a vulnerability. A weakness. A gap in the armor. Director Tim Miller puts this to brilliant use in the opening sequences of Deadpool.

First the camera pulls back from an assortment of crayons and a little tape deck blasting music. Our anti-hero perches on the railing of an interstate overpass. He is drawing his own stick-figure comic doodles (of himself lopping the head of his arch nemesis) while his ankles pendulum. To top it all off, Deadpool is singing along to the tunes — specifically Salt n’ Pepa’s 1993 hip-hop hit “Shoop.”

Following a brief monologue (the kind usually reserved for villains), Deadpool goes on to commit some pretty heinous atrocities. Over the course of the entire movie, he proves to be something like a leotard-clad Gilly Hopkins: foul-mouthed, sadistic, sarcastic, even a tad soul-less on his revenge quest. But it doesn’t matter to viewers. They’ve already seen him be just a bit vulnerable with those crayons and outdated pop music. They’ve already seen his soft spot and said: Awwww!

Paterson introduces Gilly with a similar hint of vulnerability. When readers meet Gilly, she sits in the back of the social worker’s car, chewing a wad of pink bubble-gum. As the social worker lectures her, Gilly blows a gigantic bubble, which pops and sticks to her hair. The novel could have just as easily opened with Gilly in the car turning her tooth brush into a shank knife — an action that fully shows and supports Gilly’s bad girl nature — however, such a start would not have exposed her weakness. Like that gum, Gilly turns out to be full of hot air. Like that gum, she softens. And just like Deadpool, Gilly goes on to commit some pretty unforgivable acts, but readers are already on her side.

And to get them there, she did not have to be good. Only vulnerable. Only a bit soft. Neither are the same as “good.” Instead, Paterson enabled a female character to be simultaneously “bad” and sympathetic. She enabled readers to encounter a true human being, and in doing so, she gave them a taste of true humanity.

So what say you, writers? Shall we get to work? Shall we labor with love on our anti-hero protagonists, making them authentically flawed, not artificially good flavored? Let’s a make a world where writers bring a Deadpool character to critique and leave with the feedback…have you considered making your bad protagonist a girl? Better still, let’s make a world where girls and boys, men, women, and everyone between or beyond those gender categories can simply be what they are and nonetheless loved.

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Two First Amendment Books by Yours Truly

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At a time when our national attention sits securely, sometimes obsessively, on the goingson of Washington, D.C. and our national leaders — be they elected, electoral, or judicial — young viewers and readers deserve thoughtful texts exploring the roots of our rights.

For parents, teachers, and librarians seeking such books for the voracious omnivorous reader, might I suggest…

The Freedom of Speech and The Right to Petition by Jenny Mason

The texts introduce middle grade readers to the Bill of Rights, its historical origins, and its ongoing influences on our daily lives. From there, each book in the series zooms in on a particular clause in the First or Second Amendments. For instance, I looked at the right to petition and the freedom of speech. Whenever possible, the narrative pays close attention to landmark Supreme Court decisions that directly impact the freedoms of young individuals. (And all the books are loaded with strange or funny factoids. Mine are doubly loaded with bad puns and an overall humorous tone.)

When the editors invited me to author two books in the Our Basic Freedoms series, they challenged me to write about the First Amendment without the armor of my own political, personal, or professional biases. I was to approach the topic with an open and accepting mind. This was, in no way, an easy assignment. As I writer, I feel duty- and honor-bound to the philosophy of free speech. As if me and Free Speech pricked our fingers, mashed our blood beads together, then swore an oath and spat to make eternal. Same goes for the right to petition, which really boils down to the pen’s might over the sword in disputes.

However, the guideline proved invaluable to my research. Unarmored (and consequently unafraid of rust), I dove deep into the murky waters of Constitutional interpretation. I found credible, logical support for all sides. I discovered the tension, the constant tug-of-war for power, that makes our government function. Sure, it often resembles dysfunction, but the Framers and Founding Fathers knew that if they could keep power from ever coagulating in one corner, then all sides would have to bend (stretch their vulnerable, thirsty throats) in order to get even a taste of what they wanted.

What’s in store for the nation now that so many of the protocols intended to keep power bouncing and swinging, and swirling have been rescinded or altered or diluted? Well that is a future story being written as we speak; a narrative that young readers are due to inherit.

Where can you find these books?

Visit GarethStevens online, or shop on Amazon:

Freedom of Speech

Right to Petition

(PS–not sure why Amazon lists me as “Dr Jennifer,” unless they mean it musically. You know, like Jim Henson’s Dr. Teeth…or Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.)

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Murray_skippyMurray, Paul. Skippy Dies. London: Penguin, 2010. Print.

Genre: literary fiction (for adults) (I argue: YA contemporary)

Summary: Howard (the coward) returns to teach at his alma mater, Seabrook College. Howard never achieved the fame and fortune that is expected of Seabrook graduates. Instead, he muddles through his life and relationships burdened with the secrets that would surely tarnish Seabrook’s reputation if they ever came to light. Before the school year is out, Howard is snagged into yet another school tragedy when the boy everyone calls “Skippy” mysteriously dies.

Critique: This book was not marketed as a cross-over that adults and young adults might enjoy, and I think that was a mistake. I lived in Ireland when this book came out. I saw teens gorging on the 600+ pages. I saw them swarm the author at readings around Dublin as if he were the new Rowling or Meyers!

The text plays (timidly) with fonts to indicate cell phone ring tones, hit songs, and other quirks of digitized teenage life. The point of view cunningly shifts from close third to second person whenever characters slip from sober to high. And Murray’s humor mingles the wry, dark, and tragic. Don’t be surprised if you laugh in the midst of bitter tears.

This book was short- and long-listed for nearly every UK book award, including the Mann Booker. And it’s no surprise why: rather than pooh-pooh the trials of teenage life and love, this book employs string theory, Irish folklore, and the complex mathematics to capture this devastatingly explosive time in all our lives. Suddenly, blazingly, staggeringly, readers realize the human heart is a complicated realm, regardless of your age! Where Murray might have been timid with fonts, he is unreservedly bold with contemporary issues like bullying, sexual molestation, and drug abuse.

Indeed, this book is not for the timid. No. It is for the brave parents, teens, and other readers who acknowledge life is not a safe haven, but a savage garden of good and evil, tragic and jolly. Those who enjoy John Green and A. S. King will adore Skippy Dies.

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

Block_WeetzieBatBlock, Francesca Lia. Weetzie Bat. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Print.

Genre: YA novella

Summary: Weetzie Bat is just your ordinary skinny California girl until she coaxes a genie out of lamp and makes three wishes that will make all her dreams come true…sort of.

Critique: You know how Dirty Dancing (1987) used all that sexy swaying to become this huge hit movie despite being about abortion? Well this book does that, too, only its language is the sexy swaying and its core topic is AIDS. Won’t it be interesting to see if director Elgin James retains this feature as he directs the forthcoming film?

The magical realism of this book succeeds in large part because the writing feels like the sparkling fun tumble of confetti. And yet, to be such a condensed story suggests meticulous editing, whittling, deciding, and killing of darlings. I admire Block’s savagery. Readers must bring more to the story than is provided on each page. The result is a thoroughly satisfying partnership between the story and the reader. Readers feel like the co-creator of the story.

Stylistically, this novella reads like a poem, with all the crunch and slush of bicycle spokes reciting epic sagas. For instance, “Weetzie and My Secret Agent Lover Man and Dirk and Duck and Cherokee and Witch Baby and Slinkster Dog and Go-Go Girl and the puppies Pee Wee, Wee Wee, Teenie Wee, Tiki Tee, and Tee Pee, were driving down Hollywood Boulevard on their way to the Tick Tock Tea Room for turkey platters.” See how that sentences just rides on and on? Well, the whole book cruises just like that; just like the eighties; just like a bodacious dude or dudette on a skateboard.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Nelson_givesunNelson, Jandy. I’ll Give You the Sun. New York: Dial Books, 2014. Print.

Genre: YA

Summary: This story about twins, Noah and Jude, is told through their alternating perspectives from different points in time. Jude tells the “future” when she and Noah are 16 and totally estranged. Noah tells the past, when they are 13 and inseparable. They mystery circles around what drove them apart. The suspense radiates out of the question: will they be able to reconcile and restore their once magically aligned worlds?

(Certainly not the book you want to be reading if, like me, you find yourself estranged from your own soul-twin and mate, forever wondering if your worlds will realign and be even more magical than before.)

Recipient of a few awards you might have heard of: 2015 Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature; 2015 Stonewall Honor Book; YALSA Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults; A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year; A Boston Globe Best YA Book of the Year…to name only a few.

Critique: The broken, fragment sentences that characterize the pulverizing teen voices of this novel are hypnotic. The romances singe and sizzle! The structure will stretch you across the most unbearable tenterhooks of tension as one narrative goes forward while the other probes back until they finally collide. The problem of perspective, its limited scope, our own ability to skew it, to keep ourselves preserved in the best light, is the pulse reverberating through the soul of this book, much as it is for Brian Friel’s Faith Healer. In both texts, devastating tragedies arise when people fail to see, understand, and accept a perspective that is not their own; to accept that they might have played the part of a villain without ever meaning to; that we are all capable (and guilty) of hurting worst the ones we love most; and that forgiveness is not only possible–it’s primal.