The summer before my senior year of high school, my family and I moved back to Peru after three years in Argentina. The move was pretty traumatic in many respects but as not to bore you with my self-pity, I’ll only focus on one tiny aspect. My Peruvian friends at the time hung out with a group of boys from a very reputable, very hoity-toity, prestigious private school in Lima. They were not unlike the boys that make up the secret society in E. Lockhart’s novel, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, in that they shared wealth, education, and social privilege. I, like our main character Frankie, believed at first to have an in with them. Mine did not come in the form of a hot boyfriend (alas, I had basically turned awkward into a lifestyle choice) but I thought I was impressing them with my thorough knowledge of alternative rock, indie movies, and political opinions. These were, after all, subjects they were well versed in too. So for a full year I would appear in my Smashing Pumpkins Zero T-Shirt and discuss the fine points of Pulp Fiction. I dearly loved my girlfriends but a deep dark corner of my soul was certain that I was so much cooler than them. After all, I didn’t swoon over Winnie the Pooh or sing along to Enrique Iglesias. Hell, no! I knew all the words to “Common People” by Pulp and that had to count for something!
Except it didn’t.
About a year later, one of my guy friends confessed how the good ol’ boys didn’t like me at first. They were convinced I was trying to grab their attention by spewing my cultural literacy. They suspected I wasn’t actually a fan of any of these things but just craved their approval. “Oh when we realized you were being honest, it all changed,” my bro tried to comfort me.
I was not pleased.
The thing was, I knew then that my crime hadn’t been to have an opinion about emo music, or pop-infused movie references. After all, they had no issues opening their mouths to share their thoughts.
My crime had been that I was a GIRL who happened to have an opinion about emo music and pop-infused movie references.
Frankie, the pretty fifteen year old at the center of The Disreputable History, is aware of this same double standard. Since she is so much cooler than I ever hope to be, her reaction to macho infused social events is not to “wonder what the point is, figure there probably is no point and never was one, and opt for typically feminine or domestic activities” nor is it to “continue attending such events because they are the girlfriends…and they don’t want to seem like killjoys or harpies” nor does she join the pack of girls who “aggressively embraces the activities at hand.” As the narrator puts it, “What Frankie did that was unusual was to imagine herself in control.”
And it is at this point that Frankie’s tale of boarding school hijinks really takes off.
Where does Foucault enter into her master plan to sabotage her boyfriend’s secret society, a band of bros that always comes first in Matthew’s eyes? Frankie, after taking a class called Cities, Art, and Protest is fully aware that the system of the panopticon is very much put in place at Alabaster. Everyone follows the good ol’ boy rules because of this sense of paranoia, instead of any tangible consequence. Frankie, though, is sharp enough to know that these behavior codes were in no way meant to include her or any other girl. And as such, she decides there’s no real reason for her to continue to honor them.
Maybe if this text had been used as required reading for all the Foucault-centric classes I took in Grad School, I might have finished my degree.
But I digress.
There are two main things that stick out about The Disreputable History. The first is that Lockhart makes us root for a character that is very determined to be something that tends to be seen as off-putting in women: Frankie’s goal is to be in control. Not for power’s sake, but so that people will stop underestimating her for the sole reason that she has grown boobs.
The second main thing is that though this is a story with a “message” there are no easy answers at the end. I don’t want to spoil it because you really should open your wallet this second and get this book, but let’s put it this way: the institution and the boys continue to act with the same sense of superiority as before. It’s not like the patriarchy can be overthrown with a practical joke involving a purple A-cup bra on a Guppy sculpture (See????? How awesome does that sound?). Frankie feels the pain brought about by her teenage rebellion. She feels the injustice of being rejected for her gender. She feels the heartache of losing those you love.
But she also understands that “It is better to be alone…than to be with someone who can’t see who you are.”
And if that’s not girl power, then I’m not sure what is.