[I have decided to submit this piece to the Chronicle. I'll re-post it after they reject it.]
[The Chronicle is silent, so here is my letter to Sherman Alexie, once again.]
Dear Sherman Alexie,
I recently read your young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I found it funny and moving. And, of course, disappointing, because I was hoping to find in it a book that was not actively harmful to girls. Such books are rare, so I should not have been surprised that this was not one of them. And yet, I had hoped for better from you.
The main character, Junior, objectifies women left and right. It is clear that, with the exception of his mother and his grandmother, he sees women primarily as decoration. Now, that may be an accurate representation of how this fourteen-year-old boy thinks of women, but it was disappointing that this viewpoint was never undercut. Even his sister, we are assured, is "beautiful." Obviously, you can’t talk about a woman under the age of thirty unless you know how decorative she is!
Looks, girls are so frequently told, are the only important thing about a woman. Although the causes of eating disorders are not fully understood, it is unlikely that hearing this message constantly does anything to discourage them. When we first meet Penelope in the novel, it is her beauty that is emphasized (beauty being defined by whiteness, of course; women of color need not apply).
We later find out that she is bulimic, and while Junior makes some obligatory anti-bulimia comments, Penelope’s mental state is never truly taken seriously, and we never hear a word about Penelope recovering from this serious illness. We do, however, hear a lot about how sexy she is – over and over, both before and after we learn of the bulimia. The overriding message is not that bulimia is serious and harmful, but that the most important thing about women is their sexiness, and that sexy women are bulimic – and, as far as we know, they stay that way.
As you must know, gender is the semi-permeable membrane of the children’s literature market. Because women’s experiences are seen as particular and men’s as universal (men are human, women are Other), books with female protagonists are usually marketed to girls only, while books with male protagonists are marketed to all children. You can therefore expect that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian will be read by many girls.
Girls are used to identifying with a male point of view; they are asked and indeed required to do it constantly. So should they then identify with this male protagonist and learn to internalize the view that women exist primarily as decoration and/or masturbation fodder? Or the view that bulimia is bad, but that bulimia also correlates with sexiness, and that sexiness is the pinnacle of young female achievement?
Oh, yes, there is one relatively young female character with an element of humanity, Mary. But even she is a cipher; we never hear her speak, but only hear her spoken about (by male characters). And while Junior lauds her as a brilliant, creative woman, we find in her the same tired tropes about creative and intellectual women:
1. A creative woman is at the least maladjusted, but more likely mentally unstable.
2. A woman’s creative ambitions are merely a substitute for her real desire, namely a man.
3. A creative woman will come to an early and gruesome end.
This is why the woman writers who remain canonical and in the public imagination are famously mentally ill and preferably suicidal – Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson. This is why when Hollywood makes a “bio” pic about the singularly well-adjusted Jane Austen, the screenwriters must invent a narrative that puts a man at the center of Austen’s life and writing. Mary fits the mold exactly, behaving oddly, “following her dreams” by getting married (not by getting published), and dying young as a direct result of “following her dreams.”
After reading this book, I realized that I could not in good conscience give it to a young woman. I think the stereotypes about women that the novel perpetuates are also harmful to young men, but the novel specifically calls on young women to see themselves as either personalityless projections of male fantasy or doomed by their intelligence and creativity. They get to choose between going up in flames or dying slowly, beautifully, and bulimically. To a young man, this novel says, choose hope. To a young woman, it says, choose your flavor of mental illness and death.
To you I say, choose your words more carefully.