Wednesday, September 28, 2016

What I Read: Queen Bees and Wannabes (Updated Third Edition)

The seminal work on teenage girlhood that inspired everyone's favorite Lindsay Lohan pre-breakdown movie (obviously I'm talking about The Parent Trap!) is out in a third, updated edition, and is available on NetGalley and Blogging for Books*. I read the Kindle ebook edition.

I'm not a parent. After I finished the book, I was really glad about that. (More than I normally am.) Not because I hate babies or kids or teenagers—I actually work with human larvae and pupae on a regular basis, and I enjoy the work that I do—but because my growing up was so different from the Girl World that Wiseman describes.

I didn't belong to any social group. I was a member of a few different activities—band, orchestra, debate club, trivia team, Reading Olympics—and was friendly with most of my fellow activity members, but as far as a single cohesive group goes, that wasn't my lived reality. My groups were more long distance and disparate:

1. A jazz band camp I attended for one week out of the year (until I aged out). These were also kids from all over the state and surrounding area, so it's not like we were going home to neighboring school districts. This group dissolved almost entirely for me by the time I graduated high school and I don't keep in touch with anyone from it today.

2. Internet friends I met through Internet Boyfriend #1 (who I met on a dorky fantasy RPG board). They were their own real-life peer group and I was just sucked into it, like a weird little appendage or antenna. After Internet Boyfriend #1 dumped me, I kind of drifted away, but I'm still friendly with everyone, enough to hang out with them when I was in the neighborhood last year.

3. Internet friends I encountered thanks to a shared interest in a TV show that has not aged well at all (or was just always of questionable quality). This is the group that has persisted the longest: through high school and college, and even today. Now we're adults, however, so we don't have that same intense teenage need to find people who "get it."

Many of the dynamics Wiseman outlines don't really work over those time and distance shifts, or at least work in very different ways. The "Girl World" Wiseman describes ended up feeling very foreign to me not only because I'm 30 and not 13, but also because my own version of Girl World was much, much different. Not silly surface things like no Facebook and no smartphones, but much deeper things: I never went boy crazy**, I went to maybe a handful of parties (and literally had no idea where to get booze/drugs/whatever), and I certainly never had a group like Wiseman describes.

But if this is the reality that most kids are facing, then it means that I would be ill-equipped to really understand how significant this all is. And that's why I would be a terrible parent: I would be even more clueless than your typical parent usually is.

What struck me, actually, was how, in describing "Boy World," Wiseman mentions that there's always a few kids who operate on the fringe of, or even totally beyond, what the expectations for Boy World are: she describes them as outer perimeter (or "OP" in the book, which has a totally different meaning for me, being as I am a ~~digital native who's spent too much time on 4chan).

She doesn't seem to acknowledge that there are OP girls, too. Not in the OMG SO HETERONORMATIVE!! sense—in this edition at least, Wiseman addresses sexual orientation and gender presentation, though only in brief and there are huge chunks of the book where queer and/or trans girls aren't mentioned at all—but just in the breakdown of roles. There are "floaters/champions," but she doesn't spend a lot of time addressing what happens when you're a girl in that role, what girls think of the girls who fall into that role, or even acknowledging that it happens. Judging by how popular Daria was, and is, with people my age, I think there are far more OP girls than Wiseman is aware of. Maybe it's because they tend to have enough self confidence, self awareness, and maturity to avoid the majority of the problems that plague Girl World citizens, so Wiseman never really has to work with them.

All of this is to say that I don't think this is the definitive book on adolescent female experience. I don't think it's even a definitive one, to be honest, despite the hype and the movie buzz. But I appreciate that Wiseman (generally) treats her young charges with maturity and respect, and encourages parents to cultivate and promote critical thinking in themselves as well as their children. (Which makes it all the weirder when she sometimes seems arbitrarily harsh: PARTIES ARE ALWAYS SCARY DRUG ORGIES! NO BOYS IN BEDROOMS EVER! but everyone has their blind spots I suppose.)

Working as I do with young people, I think books like this (including the many, many resources Wiseman shares at the end of the book) are important. Not as important as just listening and paying attention, but still essential. The protips might even be useful for parents—it's impossible for me to judge those, for obvious reasons. But if you're not a parent or a teacher, or interested in spending a lot of time reflecting on your adolescent years, you're not really going to miss much. Just pop on Freaky Friday again.

*And that's where I got this free copy. But that didn't influence my opinions in any way.

**I mean, I definitely had a few crushes here and there, and I know I was painfully obvious in most of them. But I was never clipping out images from Tiger Beat to hang up in my locker, either.

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