Posts Tagged ‘gender’

Here is my analysis of Francesca Lia Block’s novel Weetzie Bat.  This is an excerpt of an assignment I completed for my Books & Materials for Young Adults class. 

Caveat Lector: SPOILER ALERT!

Weetzie Bat Analysis

            Francesca Lia Block styled her novel Weetzie Bat in the form of an urban fairy tale, but the challenges her teen protagonists face are very real.  Weetzie’s traditional family is broken, but she takes action to create a nontraditional family that can withstand the shocks and jolts of life.  In spite of the playful language, funny names and magical setting, Block explores a number of thorny issues, including divorce, substance abuse and death.  Nonetheless, Weetzie and her friends face these challenges with the stoic bravery of fairy tale heroes and fight for their happy ending.

            Block’s novel tells the story of Weetzie Bat, her friend Dirk, his significant other Duck, and Weetzie’s significant other My Secret Agent Lover Man.  The novel begins with friends Weetzie and Dirk, who want happy, lasting relationships but seem to be dating all the wrong boys.  Dirk’s grandmother Fifi gives Weetzie a golden lamp that happens to contain a genie (1998, 17-18).  Weetzie wishes for a Duck for Dirk, My Secret Agent Lover Man for herself, and a house in which they can live happily ever after (19).  One by one, Weetzie’s wishes begin to come true.  Dirk falls in love with a man named Duck (22), Weetzie falls in love with a man named My Secret Agent Lover Man (26), and Fifi dies and leaves her house to Dirk and Weetzie (20).  They all move in together, but everyone does not live happily ever, at least not immediately.  Weetzie wants a baby, but My Secret Agent Lover Man does not (33).  Weetzie, Dirk and Duck decide to have a baby together, but when My Secret Agent Lover Man finds out Weetzie is pregnant, he gets angry and leaves (38).  My Secret Agent Lover Man comes back after the baby is born, but Weetzie’s nontraditional family faces a series of other crises: a witch’s curse, a witch baby, Weetzie’s father’s death, and Duck’s disappearance.  By the end of the book, the witch’s curse is broken, the witch baby is integrated into the family, and Duck is found again.  Block implies that this family may not live happily ever after, but that they can choose to live happily, nonetheless.

            The plot and style of Block’s novel present the story in the form of a fairy tale.  The characters face a series of challenges and conflicts that become steadily more difficult to manage, some of which are magical and some of which are realistic.  Nilsen and Donelson categorize Weetzie Bat as a realistic spoof (2009, 24), while Block describes her books as “urban fairy tales” (2009, 82).  The magical elements of the story, the genie (1998, 18) and the witch’s curse (43), provide a lens of whimsy and fantasy through which to view real problems.  Finding and maintaining healthy relationships, finding a place to live, coping with the death of caregivers, and coping with the repercussions of infidelity all represent real problems that young adults face.  The adults are largely absent from the plot, leaving the young adults to struggle through these challenges with only their friends for support.  Weetzie’s father Charlie and Dirk’s grandmother Fifi make brief appearances, like fairy godparents, to leave the youth a house or drop a word of advice.  Block does not allow her characters to dwell on the deaths of Fifi and Charles for long, but keeps the action of the story moving at a steady clip.  This stylistic feature reflects the perspective of many young adults, who live in the now and maintain a forward-looking focus.  Ultimately, Weetzie and her friends must make their own choices and be the architects of their own happiness.

            Weetzie’s story unfolds in the integral setting of Los Angeles, with punk culture and Hollywood lending a surreal and magical element to the atmosphere.  Weetzie finds L.A. and Venice exciting, colorful and larger than life, which supports the fairy tale atmosphere of the story.  She hated high school because none of her peers seemed to appreciate the magic of L.A., except for Dirk (3).  To Weetzie, the fantasy land of L.A. seems like an ideal place to build her fantasy family.  But Charlie cannot embrace the fantasy of L.A., because it reminds him of Weetzie’s mother, Brandy-Lynn.  Charlie says that everything in L.A. is “illusion, imitation, a mirage.  Pagodas and palaces and skies, blondes and stars…  It’s like having a good dream.  You know you are going to wake up” (58).  Weetzie and Charlie’s different perceptions of L.A. highlight the idealism of teens and the jaded pragmatism of adults.  Weetzie and her friends learn that darkness sometimes lurks beneath the brightly-colored façade of life, but Weetzie accepts the darkness with the light and does not allow herself to feel cheated by appearances.

            As is typical in young adult literature, the primary protagonists are all young adults, although we are never given definite ages.  Weetzie and Dirk are in high school at the opening of the book (3), but Block does not clearly state how much time passes in the course of the story.  This detail also supports the dreamlike, fairy tale quality of the story.  Weetzie makes her own clothes, and Dirk and Weetzie both experiment with outfits, accessories and make-up (4-5) because they are still trying to invent themselves.  Duck is “a small, blonde surfer” with freckles on his nose, and Duck and Dirk fall in love at first sight (22).  Duck’s character is less developed at the beginning of the story: Block only explains that he goes to the beach everyday, and sometimes sleeps at the beach in order to catch the “most radical waves” at dawn (22).  However, Duck’s character is revealed more at the end of the story when Duck runs away.  Duck is frightened by his friend’s illness (63) and tries to hide from his fear among the distractions of the San Francisco club scene (67).  But Dirk finds Duck and helps him recommit to life despite his fear (67-69).  My Secret Agent Lover Man wears “a slouchy hat and a trench coat” (27), and makes movies like Weetzie’s father.  Weetzie’s love for her father is mirrored in her love for My Secret Agent Lover Man.  Weetzie’s parents are supporting characters who actually provide very little support or guidance in Weetzie’s life.  Charlie and Brandy-Lynn have been broken by their relationship, and they serve as foils for Weetzie and My Secret Agent Lover Man, and for Dirk and Duck.  Weetzie and her friends refuse to give up on their love for each other.

            Weetzie Bat is written in a romantic mode, with instances of irony and comedy thrown into the mix.  Protagonists Weetzie and Dirk must run the gauntlet of looking for love in L.A.’s punk scene, but divine intervention in the form of a genie rewards their efforts with true love.  Yet, while traditional romances ended with the hero finding true love, Block’s characters find love early in the story and must struggle to hold onto it.  Weetzie and her friends support each other through relationship problems, grief and fear of death, and their compassion and loyalty helps them hold their unique family together.  Elements of comedy include Weetzie’s reaction to the genie (18) and the rubber chicken incident (6).  Irony is embodied in the character of Weetzie’s mother, who is incapable of fulfilling her parental role and must instead be mothered by Weetzie (61).  Brandy-Lynn and Charlie love each other, but they seem unable or unwilling to make their relationship work.  But irony cannot suppress the power of love in this story.  According to the romantic model, Weetzie and her friends are rewarded with happiness and love at the end of the story. 

            Block’s tone evidences sincere affection for her characters and a desire for them to be happy and hopeful.  Block’s use of unusual names for her characters and their pets contributes to the sense of humor and whimsy in the story.  Her characters are unlike any characters in any other book, and their names reflect their unique identities.  Weetzie and her friends face serious difficulties in the course of the story, including divorce, death, infidelity, substance abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases.  Yet Block arms her characters with unquenchable optimism, and demonstrates that life can go on in spite of tragedy if the characters hold fast to their loved ones.

           The primary themes in Weetzie Bat include families and empowering the disenfranchised, with secondary themes of substance abuse and death.  Weetzie dresses in a feathered headdress and fringed clothing, explaining that she empathizes with the plight of the Native Americans (4).  As a young adult, Weetzie identifies with the Native Americans because of their disenfranchisement.  Teens do not possess the power and respect that adults command, although Weetzie seems mostly unfettered by her parents and left to her own devices.  At least, Block provides no evidence that Weetzie’s parents try to stop her from drinking and sleeping around.  Weetzie wishes that her parents’ romance had lasted (14), and feels powerless to reunite her broken family.  Therefore, Weetzie tries to take command of her happiness by making her magic wishes for true love, a home and a happily ever after (19).  While her parents wallow in passive regret, Weetzie rejects feelings of powerlessness and takes an active role in building a happy family for herself.

          Weetzie comes from a broken family with divorced parents, and Dirk’s parents are dead before the story begins.  Dirk lives with his grandmother, Fifi, who also dies early in the story (20).  Weetzie’s mother is emotionally absent, and while Weetzie’s father is emotionally invested in Weetzie, he lives on the opposite coast in New York City (15).  When Charlie dies of a drug overdose (59), Weetzie loses the parent who had the most positive influence on her life.  Weetzie and Dirk seek to create their own family, which, though nontraditional, appears to succeed where Weetzie’s traditional family has failed.  When Weetzie, Dirk and Duck decide to have a baby together, they plan to love the baby “more than any of their parents had ever loved them” (35).  Charlie admits that Weetzie was an accident (14).  Weetzie and her friends set out to prove that families that are made and nurtured with love and care can be successful, no matter what the components of that family may be.  The recurring movie making motif underlines the way in which Weetzie and her friends begin by role-playing in life, trying to find happiness by assuming roles in a reinvented family.

          The theme of the destructive nature of substance abuse is played out in the lives of Weetzie’s parents.  Brandy-Lynn criticizes Charlie for abusing substances while she downs cocktails and says she needs a Valium (15).  The irony of Brandy-Lynn’s behavior implies that some adults do not behave in a logical manner, and their interpretation of reality is skewed.  Block frequently uses the word “fake” to describe elements of Brandy-Lynn’s appearance.  When Charlie first saw her, she had bleach-blonde hair and was “sparkling with fake jewels” (14).  She wears mules with “fake fruit over the toes” (14) and paints her fingernails (15, 58).  These details reinforce the perception that some adults, especially substance abusers, are not trustworthy.

          The lives of Weetzie and her friends are touched repeatedly by death, yet the characters remain remarkably untouched by death at the same time.  Dirk’s grandmother Fifi dies (20), but she leaves Dirk and Weetzie her house, allowing them to start building a family.  Charlie dies of a drug overdose, but Weetzie’s friends support her in her grief (59).  Weetzie responds by trying to mother her mother, and Weetzie and her friends dedicate their latest movie to her father’s memory (61).  Duck is frightened by his friend’s illness, presumably AIDS, and runs away (63).  But Dirk finds him and refuses to let him hide from life or death.  Weetzie and her friends manage to find a happy ending because they respond to each visitation of death by embracing and celebrating life.

          Although some literary critics might identify homosexuality as a theme because of Dirk and Duck’s relationship, I believe that Block treats homosexuality as a nonissue.  Other than Dirk’s initial hesitance to tell Weetzie he is gay (7), the characters do not appear to worry about or struggle with the notion of homosexuality.  Weetzie says Dirk’s sexual orientation “doesn’t matter one bit” (7).  Block does not mention any instances in which Duck or Dirk are persecuted for their orientation.  Homosexual relationships are simply represented as another kind of love, no greater or lesser than heterosexual relationships.

          Weetzie Bat is told from a third-person point of view, but not an omniscient point of view.  The point of view primarily follows Weetzie’s actions, and the reader is granted access to her thoughts.  When Duck runs away, the point of view shifts briefly to follow Dirk’s thoughts and actions, although maintaining the distance of a third-person perspective.  When Dirk and Duck return home, the point of view returns to focus on Weetzie.  This perspective reinforces that Block is telling Weetzie’s story, but Weetzie’s family is not whole unless Dirk, Duck, My Secret Agent Lover Man, Cherokee, Witch Baby, and all the dogs are present and accounted for.  Weetzie Bat is about how Weetzie rejected her powerless role and fought for and won her happy family.


Block, Francesca Lia.  1998.  Weetzie Bat, in Dangerous Angels.  New York: HarperCollins.

Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Kenneth L. Donelson.  2009.  Literature for Today’s Young Adults. 8th ed.  Boston: Pearson Education.

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Okay, I’ve neglected this thing for too long.

In class two weeks ago, we talked about Tulsa’s information infrastructures: the arrival of railroads, churches, radio, television, the Internet, etc.  I’m always drawn to things outside the mainstream, and I started thinking about alternative information infrastructures, information subcultures, the information underground.  Those information infrastructures that aren’t major to the majority, but are significant to some populations.

A couple back-alley information infrastructures occured to me, “hobo symbols” for one.  Individuals who rode the rails and settled temporarily in tent cities across the country used these symbols to leave messages for other wayfarers.  Many of them weren’t literate, or wanted to leave messages that even the uneducated could understand, and so they left pictographs scratched on rocks, fence posts, barns, what-have-you, to help others passing through.  One picture scratched on a fence post might tell other travelers that a scary dog lives in this yard, so watch out.  Another symbol might indicate a nice lady lives in this house who will provide food.  This information infrastructure might be very old and rather crude, but it was significant and widely recognized by the drifters of the time.  I wonder if today’s homeless populations still use those symbols?

Another more current information infrastructure, developed in the last 30 years, I think, is similarly low-tech, but nonetheless effective.  When I worked for Domestic Violence Intervention Services, I learned about the “bathroom cards.”  Women living in abusive relationships are often kept on a short leash by their abusers, not allowed to go anywhere unsupervised in public.  Abuse is about power and control, and this is just one way abusers seek to control their victims.  Somewhere along the way, some advocates developed the idea of the bathroom card.  The ladies’ restroom is one place where men cannot go, where a female victims can temporarily escape the watchful eyes of male abusers.  Advocates leave bathroom cards in ladies’ restrooms as a way to reach women in need.  The cards contain phone numbers to call for help, strategies for escape, and a list of things a woman should bring with her when fleeing an abusive relationship, like identification, birth certificate, social security card, change of clothes, toothbrush, etc.  A woman can slip the card in her purse or pocket, where hopefully her abuser won’t find it.  These cards are very effective for conveying information to those who are cut off.

Granted, this only works for heterosexual couples, and unfortunately, abuse exists in all kinds of relationships.  I’m not sure what methods are available for subtly reaching gay victims.

These are just a couple information infrastructures that lie off the beaten path.  Others include graffiti, gang symbols and colors, and display of name brands to communicate status.  It’s an interesting topic of study.

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This seems like a good place to log some thoughts I jotted recently about the book Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Spoiler Warning!

I suspect Middlesex will be a classic studied by college students one day.  Tracing the familial and genetic history of a Greek family whose intersections resulted in the narrator’s birth as a hermaphrodite, the story wrenches the heart by relating experiences that resonate with any reader.  Alienation, loneliness, desire—all are human experiences.  But the author makes the narrator even more human by recognizing those less definable feelings, emotions that blend and blur at the edges: the mournful joy of autumn, the hatred of mirrors that comes with middle age.


The narrator is Calliope Stephanides.  Calliope is also the muse of epic poetry, and Calliope Stephanides’s creation is indeed an epic undertaking.  Her paternal grandparents, Desdemona (Greek for unfortunate) and Lefty are brother and sister.  As children they are very close, described as like one four-legged, two-headed being scrambling down the mountainside where they live in Smyrna.  This alludes to Plato’s symposium, where Socrates hypothesizes that soul mates are drawn together because in the dawn of time, they lived conjoined as one being.  Desdemona harvests silk from silkworms, providing cocoon imagery and foreshadowing Calliope’s later transformation from what appears to be a normal girl into an adult that self-identifies as male.  Lefty’s name is not explained, but maybe it’s a hint that he is Desdemona’s other half?  Does “Lefty” connote a sinister quality, since, while Desdemona’s willingness to marry him wavers, it is Lefty who pushes the envelope?  Maybe it is sinister in the older connotation, because they keep their identity as siblings secret after their marriage.  The left hand was regarded as untrustworthy, deceitful and dirty in ancient Greek and Roman culture.  The right hand was used for eating and greeting friends, while the left hand was used when urinating.


Desdemona must flee Smyrna to escape the invasion of the Turks, who murder and burn everything in their wake.  As all they know is destroyed and they barely escape with their lives, Desdemona and Lefty find comfort in each other. 


Sure, incest is a gross and creepy idea.  But these two tried to find other romantic interests, and somehow keep ending up back together.  When they lose their parents, their home, their village—when everything else familiar is taken away, you can’t help but have sympathy for two lonely, frightened people seeking comfort in the only familiar thing left to them.  (Please don’t misread me, pervy people.  I’m only saying I sympathize, nothing more.)


In telling Calliope’s story, Middlesex references the story of Teresias, who was transformed into a woman for seven years as a punishment from the gods, Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, Orpheus, who swore he could never love another woman after he lost his wife Eurydice at the gate to Hades, Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy, Love Story, That Obscure Object of Desire, and probably many other texts I’m not well-read enough to know.  It is masterfully written.


When the doctors are trying to determine Calliope’s sexual orientation, I hate how they are trying to categorize him/her—their probing, their cold, clinical labeling of Cal’s most private features.  It makes me angry, because, fiction or not, I know this sort of pigeonholing and invasion of privacy has happened to innumerable people.  Real, vulnerable people.


But I guess only a well written piece of fiction can make you really angry like this.


Oracles in Middlesex

On the drive home, I was wondering why the recurrence of oracles, augurs and prophets in Middlesex, besides their obvious frequent appearances in Greek mythology.  A hermaphroditic oracle appears in Fellini’s Satyricon, although this character has no source in Petronius’s text.  Perhaps their recurrence is in part because an oracle has a foot in two worlds, so to speak–the present and the future–in the same way Calliope has a foot in two worlds, male and female.

It also occurred to me that prophesies in Greek myth are inescapable, immutable.  The crux of many Greek tragedies is that as the protagonists struggle to avoid the circumstances of their predicted doom, they inevitably bring about the events they seek to avoid.  Oedipus’s parents hear the prophesy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, so they send him away to another city.  Years later, Oedipus is offended by a stranger and kills him, only to find out later this man was his father.  Sometimes the prophesies are not believed, as in the sad case of Cassandra–always right, never heeded.

I think Cal’s mention of oracles and prophesy indicates his desire for his existance to be deliberate, intentional.  Rather than a mistake, a fluke, a freak accident.  If Cal’s existance was fated by genetic prophesy, an inescapable event, that suggests there must be some reason for his experiences and sufferings.  Cal fears that he is a monster.  But if unseen powers planned his existance, intended his biological design, then he does not have to be an aberration.  Most humans need to believe there is a reason, a purpose for things, I think.  Entropy, like Medusa, is hard to look in the face.

Osiris in Middlesex

A few more disjointed notes on Middlesex:

Cal/liope is born in January, which is named for Janus, the two-faced, Greco-Roman god of doorways and the new year.  He looks backward at the old year and forward to the new one.  When Cal and family come to the house on Middlesex Street, there is a scene where Cal gets stuck in one of the strange, pneumatic accordian doors in the house.  Like Janus, Cal lives in a place between–between genders, between the past that created him and the future that he embodies.  In the last scene of the book, we find Cal guarding the doorway to the house during his father’s funeral, in the old Greek tradition, to ensure his father’s ghost does not return to the house.  Raised as a girl, he now fills this traditionally male role–carrying out an old-world ritual, he stands considering the future.

Cal’s father’s name is Milton, reminiscent of another man who authored an epic.  I believe Milton had gone blind at the time he wrote Paradise Lost, having dictated it in its entirety to his daughters.  This may be what Eugenides had in mind throughout Middlesex, with Milton’s blind faith in President Nixon and his inability to see the viewpoints of others.

Eugenides also references another myth when Cal mentions the Osiris grass growing around the houses in Detroit.  In Egyptian mythology, Osiris was married to his sister Isis, but was killed by his brother Seth.  Seth cut Osiris’ body into a number of pieces (the stories vary as to how many) and scattered them.  Isis found and reassembled all of Osiris’ body parts, except she could not find the phallus, which was eaten by a fish.  So she fashioned a new one for him out of gold, and brought him back to life.  However, because he could no longer reproduce, he could not be completely brought back to life, and he became the god of the dead.

Cal does not want to be sliced up and sentenced to a half life, so he runs away rather than submit to gender re-assignment.

I’m not quite sure what to make of the way Lefty begins to be eclipsed from the moment Cal is born.  I’m certain it’s significant, but I’m not entirely sure what it means.

More thoughts on this later, and the Freudian implications of the houses in Middlesex.

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