Thursday, April 24, 2008

I'm Colson Whitehead's Newest Convert

I love me some Colson Whitehead! Okay, so that's not quite true. I never read any Whitehead until today when the New York Times ran an editorial of his called "Visible Man," a shout out to Ellison's Invisible Man. The piece pretty much wraps up everything I've wanted to say about the "elite" charges leveled against Sen. Barack Obama.

I knew the accusations of elitism were factually wrong. For one, Obama attended a private high school on scholarship and was raised, in part, in a single-parent home, but Whitehead goes beyond the facts of the matter to shed light on the insidious origins of the elite claims.

In a nutshell, to say that those blacks who managed to get a college degree and pave out a career in the face of racist psychological warfare designed to convince us that we should be dead, unwed, on welfare, strung out or in jail got where we are because we're black is absof__kinglutely ridiculous!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Goodbye "South of Nowhere": A Tribute

In late 2005, I was visiting my Aunt Joan in Chicago. The visit pretty much entailed me trying to avoid the cold and, thus, spending much time with her remote in hand, flipping through the gazillion channels offered by her Satellite provider. One day I stumbled across a network called The N and was thrilled to find out that the MTV subsidiary ran repeats of shows like “Degrassi Junior High” and “My So-Called Life.”

As I relived my youth by watching The N, I discovered a new show the network was promoting called “South of Nowhere.” I was instantly hooked. Now, I’m bummed to find out that The N is canceling the show, which is in its third season. “SoN,” as it is called by fans, was groundbreaking in many ways. It chronicled a high school girl’s budding awareness that she is a lesbian and the reactions that her classmates and conservative Catholic family have to that realization. Yes, the girl, Spencer Carlin, is hot and her love interest is even hotter, but the relationship they have isn’t depicted in an exploitative way. My only real criticism of the relationship is that the actresses don’t have much onscreen chemistry.

As Spencer begins to accept her sexual identity, her adopted black brother, Clay, struggles with his racial identity. I loved that the adoptee character wasn’t added to be gimmicky, i.e. Natalie Portman’s brother in “Garden State” and the black, deaf, gay love interest of a character in “The Family Stone.” Instead, there’s genuine exploration of how growing up in a white family shaped Clay’s perceptions of race, which make him vulnerable as a black teen in Los Angeles (the Carlins are Ohio transplants), and the stereotypes that he has of other blacks, like his street-savvy classmate Sean Miller.

I admit that while watching the show I fell a bit in love with Sean (hey, in real life he’s in his late 20s). But I digress. Sean is a character rarely seen on film and television. He’s a black, inner-city youth who can effortlessly dissect Poe’s “Tell-tale Heart” and spends his free time watching Wong Kar-wai films. He can be a bit intimidating at first but, as others get to know him, they find that he is sensitive, listens well and gives great advice. Oh, and did I mention that this guy regularly attends church with his grandmother? We just don’t find these kinds of young African American characters depicted on television—three dimensional, well-read and nonconformist.

Clay’s love interest, Chelsea, the first black girl he’s ever dated, is just as unconventional of a black Hollywood character. She’s covered in tattoos, has a bohemian style and is bent on going abroad to study art.

Even the head cheerleader at the school is not what one would expect. Rather than being a skinny blonde, she’s a shapely Latina named Madison. Portrayed as unbearably bitchy at first, Madison’s character deepens as the series progresses.

While there’s more development of characters like Madison in the second and third seasons of “SoN,” the show took a turn for the worst in that its plotlines began to mirror those of prototypical teenage dramas. The characters all begin to sleep with each other. Long-lost relatives emerge from nowhere. There’s an unexpected pregnancy and two unexpected deaths, one of which results in a character finding herself filthy rich.

Due to these storylines, not to mention sometimes underwhelming acting, I realize that maybe it was time for “SoN” to retire before its original, groundbreaking vision was tainted. Still, I’ll miss seeing how the show’s characters grow. If you like, view an episode of “SoN” here.

Monday, April 14, 2008

It's Baaack: Sweet Valley High Redux

Years ago my mother was an avid reader of the Harlequin Romance series, while I read what some would view as the young adult version of those books—Sweet Valley High. From about fourth through sixth grade, I was obsessed with the central characters of the series, a pair of blond, blue-eyed Southern California twins named Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. Now, I’ve learned that the books, first published about 25 years ago, are back. The series has been updated to include references to contemporary technology, such as email, the Internet and cell phones. But the most controversial change is that the Wakefield sisters will now be a Size 4 instead of a Size 6. The downsizing of the girls’ much touted tan frames has sparked debates on, as well as at the Dairi Burger site, a blog named after fictitious Sweet Valley’s favorite teen hotspot.

I’ve been unsettled to read comments from visitors to these sites who say that the Sweet Valley series is to blame for their development of eating disorders. The readers say that the books ingrained in them the notion that Size 6 was the ideal. This isn’t surprising because, in each book in the series, the twins’ size and height (5 feet 6) are emphasized. What I’ve forgotten in adulthood, however, is that the books actually contain character after character with dietary habits that fall under the umbrella of bulimia or anorexia. One mother’s use of diet pills during pregnancy is responsible for her daughter being born deaf. And characters constantly criticize each other for doing things like eating full plates of food or looking fat in their jeans. Those who aren’t thin are almost always viewed as being impaired, if not downright sub-human.

Wrote one visitor to the Dairi Burger Web site:

“Here I was, thinking I was the only one who developed an eating disorder after reading SVH. This is fucking hilarious!”

From reading the site’s revisionist retellings of the books, not only does the Sweet Valley High series promote dysfunctional eating, they are also filled with episodes of attempted rape and sexual abuse that are completely forgotten about later. As if that weren’t enough, the books are filled with classist/racist/heterosexist rhetoric.

“I don’t know how she can date him,” a character says about a classmate who is dating a Latino student. “He’s so ethnic and working class.”

WTF? I know that Sweet Valley High got its start in the 1980s, but I’m still shocked that this line made it past the editors.

Later, the series explores the romantic relationship of the twins’ older brother, Steven, and the one black girl in town. In the end, however, Steven and the girl decide that there is no real chemistry between them and ultimately end up—where society dictates they should be—with their own “kinds.” Seems they were only together to make a social statement. What an enlightening commentary on why people enter interracial relationships. They do so to rebel, not because they actually care about each other.

In addition to the lone black girl in town, there is a Latina who passes for white. So ashamed is she of her Mexican heritage that she tells her white friends that her grandmother is her cleaning lady. This sounds like it was lifted straight out of the 1959 film “Imitation of Life.” Anyway, the character ends up revealing her heritage after she is forced to speak Spanish in a life or death situation. Not to worry, though, her friends tell her that they will overlook the fact that she’s a Mexican.

The treatment of sexual orientation in the Sweet Valley series isn’t much better than the treatment of race, as the blogger over at Dairi Burger observes with delicious snarkiness.

“Enid’s cousin Jake comes to visit, and everybody loves him, and Jess and Lila try to get with him. And Tom plays tennis with him and when he is with him, he feels warm and fuzzy …down there. Alas, Jake is GAY!!!! I didn’t think that gays existed in Sweet Valley. Or were allowed to set foot in the town. Enid is a big ol’ homophobe when Jake tells her and Tom gets all weird when he finds out because BAM! suddenly he realizes he is gay.”

God knows what effect this drivel, albeit very entertaining drivel, had on my 10-year-old brain. But the question now isn’t so much about those of us who survived Sweet Valley High when we were little, it's about the tween girls who will find themselves subject to its messages this time around. Can we expect a new crop of girls to take up bingeing and purging after their initiation into the series, where Size 4 is now the standard of beauty? And how will the new generation of readers counteract the suggestions about the superiority of blue eyes, that it’s only natural for guys to want to date rape their attractive classmates and that anyone who is queer or of color is destined for a life in the margins? Seems to me these books need to contain updates that address more than technological advances. They also need to reflect the advances that have been made in the realms of race, class and gender.