Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Moving Beyond the Sex Talk: Tom Leveen's MANICPIXIEDREAMGIRL

In preparation for the talk I'll be giving on masculinity in romance novels for young adults at the Children's Literature Association conference this coming Friday, I've been reading C. J. Pascoe's fascinating study, Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Pascoe, a sociologist, spent a year in a California high school, observing how teenage boys enact masculinity in an educational setting. Building upon the work of previous gender scholars such as Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick, Pascoe argues that masculinity isn't something inherent in male bodies, but a set of practices and behaviors that people (mostly males, but sometimes females) perform. That is, gender is not just natural, or something one is, but rather something we all construct through our actions. By constantly repeating certain behaviors, and repudiating others, people create masculinity, then assert that this constructed masculinity is a timeless truth.

At "River High," Pascoe wanted to find out just what behaviors and practices students (and teachers) associated with "masculinity." Her two key findings are rather disheartening for feminists. The first is how often boys use the word "fag" to discipline each other, and themselves, into adopting behaviors considered traditionally "masculine." An epithet less about homophobia or sexuality than about power, calling another boy a "fag" is meant to signal a boy's weakness, his lack of mastery over others, his failure to display the competence that is the center of American teen masculinity. The second is the prevalence of heterosexual "sex talk." Boys constantly discuss their sexual knowledge, prowess, and conquest of girls. They do so not simply because their raging teenage hormones compel them to do so, Pascoe asserts. "Sex talk" is less about who boys desire, and more about showing other boys "their ability to exercise mastery and dominance literally and figuratively over girls' bodies," thereby proving their masculine credentials (85).

Pascoe sees a ray of hope amidst this grim news. "Sex talk" occurs far more often in group settings than when boys talk one-on-one. "When with other boys, they postured and bragged. In one-on-one situations with [Pascoe] (and possibly with each other), they often spoke touchingly about their feelings about and insecurities with girls. While the boys [Pascoe] interviewed, for the most part, asserted the centrality of sexual competence to a masculine self, several of them rejected this definition or at least talked different about girls and sexuality in their interviews. When alone some boys were more likely to talk about romance and emotions, as opposed to girls' bodies and sexual availability" (107).

This potential gap between public performances of masculinity and privately-held beliefs puts heterosexual teen girls in a difficult position, though. If girls have no idea that this split is happening, if they think that the boy they see during one-on-one interactions is the only identity a boy performs, they can often end up being blindsided, as was the high school girl who sent a photo of herself naked to her kind, caring boyfriend, only to discover that he'd shared his phone, with its picture, throughout the football locker room (a story told to me just this morning by the male college-aged trainer at my gym when I talked to him about my research). If girls are aware, consciously or unconsciously, of the pressures boys are under to compulsively "perform" masculinity in public, they are stuck having to judge (or simply guess) which persona a boy will adopt in any particular situation. Or, in traditional romance novel fashion, they may come to believe that it is their responsibility to cultivate the emotional side of a boy, lead him to drop the immature male posturing of high school masculinity. Or they may assume that that the "private" is the "real," the "public" only a false front, which may be the case for some boys, but not all, as the qualifications in Pascoe's own assertions above ("possibly," "for the most part," "or at least")  reveal. Believing that a boy's expression of dominance and mastery over her body is not really "real" has the potential to encourage girls to remain in abusive situations in the mistaken belief that "private" masculine identity will eventually win over the "public."

Romance novels, whose primary audience is girls and women, typically do not depict the way teenage masculinity is expressed through the objectification female bodies, or, even less encouragingly, take it as a given, something girls just have to put up with. That is why I so appreciate books like Tom Leveen's manicpixiedreamgirl, a book that shows how constructed, how performed, teen masculinity is, and how those performances have real-life implications for relationships between adolescent girls and boys.

Told in the first person by Tyler Darcy, a high school junior, Leeven's narrative unfolds simultaneously in real-time (the course of one evening), and, through flashbacks, over the past three years of Tyler's life. The three years since he first saw Rebecca Webb on the first day of freshman year, and she became "the sun that lit and warmed my world. If I could be any more melodramatic about how she made me feel, believe me, I would. It's the best I can do" (4). But Tyler, a straight-A student, a writer, and not the most assertive of boys, cannot bring himself even to approach the aloof girl with the iridescent blond hair and the nautical star tattoo, never mind tell her about the feelings that threaten to overwhelm him every time he catches sight of her. For Tyler, Becky is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe a female character who serves primarily to "teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." Becky becomes the the embodiment of all Tyler desires, the liberating spirit who haunts his dreams. An object, not a person.

Tyler may be "soulful," but he also performs a more normative masculinity when he's with his male friends. Robby and Justin and Tyler are hanging out in the park, drinking and talking, the night during which the real-time story takes place. Throughout the evening, the three repeatedly engage in the sex talk Pascoe suggests is so characteristic of teen boys:

"But I want to tell a true story, Robby says. "I want to be able to tell a story that ends with the sentence, 'And that's when the profound tsunami of blow jobs started." (2)

"Three years, and she has no idea how you want to give her a bit of the old—" Robby asks. Tyler interrupts, claiming "It's not about sex," but quickly qualifies, "If she showed up naked at my bedroom door and said, 'Let's go,' I wouldn't say no... I'm not that honorable" (7-8).

"You don't know why Syd digs you?" Robby says. "I'll tell you why. It's because you're swinging a poleax down there!"
     I stare at him. "Dude... what?"
     "Hell yeah," Robby goes. "I can tell just by looking at ya. There's no cork in that bat. That's a hundred percent American grade A steel, dude."
     "I think he's saying you have a big dick," Justin reports. (78)

When Tyler tells Robby about the story he's written about Becky and says he's determined to read it to her, Robby replies, "I just got a complete and total stiffy. You romantic little thing, you." He starts laughing.... "She'll probably throw you down right then and there" (206-07).

During sophomore year, Tyler demonstrates the connection between sex talk and domination of actual girls when expresses his frustration about a completely different situation by taking aim at two girls sitting at the lunch table: "I'm sorry, you matter because?" he says to one, and to the other, "Have you gained weight since [last year]?" (61-62). Leeven demonstrates how teen boys, even boys like Tyler and his friends, who also talk about their emotions and relationships, express their masculinity through sex talk.

Ironically, despite his unrequited crush on Becky, it is Tyler, not Robby or Justin, who ends up with a steady high school girlfriend: "Somehow, by the time the second half of freshman year started up again after Christmas, Sydney and I were a couple. I couldn't tell you how. I called her, and she texted me, and I texted her, and we hung out, and we friended each other, and she called me, and we hung out again, and I texted her and..." (47). Sydney, a smart, confident go-getter, knows of Tyler's crush on Becky, but the power of her own attraction to him, as well the fact that she knows the real Becky is far different from the girl Tyler imagines, makes her believe Tyler will get over his immature infatuation. Leeven plays with gender roles in interesting ways here, with Sydney taking on the more masculine role of pursuer, Tyler the feminine of pursued. But Tyler still benefits from male privilege, as his admission demonstrates: "I liked hooking up with [Sydney]. Not going to lie about that. As August rolled around, I was initiating our make-outs as often as she was, because, I mean... well, it was there. I was fifteen, a guy, and here's a cute chick who likes hooking up with me. Maybe a better man could have called it off, but I wasn't a better man" (49). Even the pursuer can end up being used, especially if the pursued is a boy.

The novel might have turned offensive here, with Sydney being punished for taking on the masculine role by geting dumped when Tyler finally overcomes his "utter lack of balls" to reveal his feelings to Becky (49). Or it might have developed into one of those coming of age stories in which an adolescent boy is disillusioned by the shocking revelation of the gap between his dream girl and the girl in reality, and is punished for not recognizing the value in the girl he's missed seeing through the haze of his own illusions. Leeven, though, takes neither path, but forges one that attempts to move beyond punishment, beyond the power dynamics of masculine sex talk. By joining the Drama Club, of which Becky is a part, Tyler gradually moves from simply observing Becky to becoming her friend, even though everyone else keeps their distance from her for a reason Tyler doesn't really understand. At the novel's climax, the decision Tyler really must confront is not whether to tell Becky about his feelings for her, but whether he can move beyond the limits set by normative masculinity. Will he continue to see her only as his Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the object of his desires? Or can he acknowledge her as a person with problems and desires of her own, completely separate from his?

I applaud Leeven, not only for pointing out the gendered oppression inherent in the figure of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (whom Bitch magazine writer Holly Welker argues serves to help a man, rather than pursue her own happiness or desire) but simultaneously showing how adolescents might come to move beyond it.

Illustration/Photo credits:
Secure poodle cartoon: Mike Twohy, Condé Nast Collection
Boys Silhouette: ClipArtOf
Manic Pixie Dream Girl cartoon: Moonfruit Comics

Tom Leveen, manicpixiedreamgirl
Random House, 2013.

Next time on RNFF:
Masculinity in Award-winning YA Romance


  1. This sounds awesome -- and with a male writer and protagonist, might actually, even if only subconsciously, get some boys reading and thinking about their behavior and culturally-induced biases.

    That whole public/private dichotomy and policing of masculinity through sex talk is what contributes to such things as the Steubenville rape and girls trusting boys when they don't live up to or deserve that trust.

    1. Yep. Which is why I think it's important for both boys AND girls to read books like this.

  2. I love that there's a name for that! And that someone used it as a book title.

    Have you read Catching Jordan? I think it's very interesting in this context because the narrator is a female football player and she's absorbed a lot of the gendered behavior of the boys she hangs out with.

    1. Thanks, willaful, for the CATCHING JORDAN reference. It's on my TBR pile. Pascoe has a chapter on ways that girls enact masculinity -- some by just adopting masculine behavior, along with its sexism, and others by blurring the lines between masculine and feminine. Will be interesting to read CATCHING JORDAN with Pascoe's analysis in mind...

  3. Good to hear that YA is addressing this, but can I just say I hate that term, manic pixie dream girl? (It's not directed at you, I know you didn't coin the term.) It sounds ridiculous, screams to me privileged, pretentious, guy-who-never-grew-up- or maybe I'm just responding violently to the notion of a dream girl, of being dehumanized, idealized and put on a pedestal because I've seen it a lot. Clearly, I have come across too many Tylers... Sadly, not in high school.

    1. Isn't that the whole point of the term, Anonymous? To express someone being objectified? Or is it the phrase itself that bugs you?

    2. Just a reaction, I guess. Btw, I love the comic in the article. :D

    3. Yes, I think the author is both trying to capitalize on the popularity of the term, but also to call attention to the way it objectifies girls and women.

      Mmm, the comic is fabulous, isn't it?

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