alixtii: Player from <i>Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?</i> playing the game. (Default)
alixtii ([personal profile] alixtii) wrote2008-04-05 10:20 am
Entry tags:

The Squad

On the basis of [ profile] fox1013's recs here and here, I ILL'd Jennifer Lynn Barnes' The Squad: Perfect Cover. It came in yesterday (which is a lot sooner than I had expected) and I read it during the train ride to school and while waiting in the station for the train home (where I finished it and thus resumed listening to The Silver Chair on my train ride home).

And, yeah, I enjoyed it quite a bit. *puts in an ILL request for The Squad: Killer Spirit*

The contents are what you would expect in a young adult novel about cheerleading spies: enough homosociality to power a small lesbian separatist commune, a healthy helping of high-school teenaged angst *glances at Spiderman <3's Mary-Jane and Supergirl and New X-Men on comics shelf*, and will-to-powery plots. Indeed, to my delight the book takes the spy plot much more seriously than I expected, capturing a tone more reminiscient of La Femme Nikita than of D.E.B.S. (Not that I don't love the latter movie with all my passion, but it relies so heavily on its visual aesthetic I don't see how it could possibly translate to book form. Fanfic is another story.) It plays it straight in a way which I really liked.

There's even a brother, although he's not quite as 'cestastic as he should be (although I did enjoy his squee at seeing his sister in cheer shorts) and, frankly, I don't quite buy him as a complete human being. Which could go for a number of the characters in the book, but in general the point of the book is that the cheerleaders act like cardboard cutouts while actually having unexpected depths, and Barnes' nicely foreshadows where those depths might lie in a couple of places, and I'm interested in learning more. Whereas the brother is the protagonist's frakking brother; his sister should be aware of his depths beyond "horny heterosexual teenage male" since, you know, she's known him his entire life.

At the same time, there's an emotional realism and down-to-Earth-ness to the characterizations, rooted as much in feelings of pain, frustration, and alienation as optimism and pep, which is refreshing. Insofar as it goes easy on the camp, it actually works that much better as a wish-fulfillment fantasy, because one can actually see oneself as the protagonist. It's more realistic than D.E.B.S. while still being more will-to-powery than Bring It On, which is really a totally awesome place to be.

It might just be me and my particular privilege, but I've always seen D.E.B.S. less as a movie about a lesbian romance than as a a quite brilliant deconstruction of a certain type of pseudolesbian mythology. In its way, The Squad is much less radical/postmodern in its method but just as important for its liberal/modernist move: while the former work of art interrogates the het male gaze (and its relation to the queer female gaze), The Squad sidelines it altogether (mostly anthropomorphized in the supposedly-laughably-pathetic portrayal of the brother, see above). Fashion and cosmetics and clothing--yes, including the skirt--are thus, I think, more forceably reclaimed as nexuses of female power. Part of this is the medium: there's a process of objectification inherent in film which can be avoided in the novel. When the Squad equips the protagonist with the necessary equipment and knowledge to seduce a man, it's clear that she's doing so as an agent in her own right and not as a het male (or even queer female) fantasy, a fact which the first-person narration emphasizes. Rather than destabilizing a narrative, it provides a new one--something that the young readers who would make up The Squad's primary readership need desperately in our world.

This is not, of course, to say that this alternative narrative is not unproblematic from a radical feminist perspective--what isn't? Like in both Bring It On and D.E.B.S., the female homosocial community is empowering but at the same time embedded in the larger structures of male power. All three texts problematize this embeddedness, but in different ways and to different degrees. Bring It On, I think, mostly leaves it intact, as the characters settle into heteronormative relationships and remain within the sphere of the socially-sanctioned sport. D.E.B.S. recognizes the way in which the queer relationship is unsustainable within that structure and requires an exiting from it. I don't want to spoil the book (I'm assuming you've already seen the movies--if not, go do so), but The Squad does make moves in places to problematize the legitmacy of the specific male power structure which is making use of the female labor--in particular in one specific (spoilerish) way that I expect will be taken up in books to come.

And The Squad never glorifies the situation or pretends it is ideal. Some of the girls manifest their "cheerleaderiness" as an authentic aspect of their femininity--and part of the protagonist's journey is coming to terms with the conclusion that that's okay. But for others that is not the case, and each girl gets her own unique (well, the twins share one) path and history which, while filtered through the somewhat opinionated perspective of the protagonist, is ultimately treated with sympathy. There is no wrong way to be a female, but there is a sense of loss in the idea of a society that won't let girls play with lightsabers.

The premise of the book is based on the assumption that cheerleaders are never taken seriously and thus make the ideal covert operatives, but this isn't painted as just or fair. The novel recognizes the pressures a young woman feels to conform, to be pretty, to not be too smart, to be an object, and it shows a group of women subverting those expectations, but without ever justifying them. Instead, it simply takes the assumption that we live in a frelled-up world and women simply have to live in it as best they can (perhaps while doing their best to change it). In the very process of working to preserve patriarchal society, the Squad by its nature reveals the sexism inherent within it.

[identity profile] 2008-04-07 02:35 pm (UTC)(link)
I suspect (well, I'm certain, really) that such books grouped around women's sport in the way that you suggest do exist. I don't have any--I always needed at least plausible deniability in my reading as a kid, so that female homosociality wasn't a big theme in the YA lit I read, but I do have a quartet of mysteries about a co-ed baseball team as well as a book from a series from a bunch of boys who did karate (the gendering there being interested since that's often taught and practiced as a co-ed sport)--but I suspect these tend to have limited appeal outside of players of that particular sport, so that girls who liked field hockey would buy books about a field hockey team and girls who liked soccer about a soccer team and girls without a huge amount of crossover appeal. Note that these sorts of books, cookie-cutter and commodified, would be ones which it would be silly to try to export to the UK. (Not that more ambitious children's lit doesn't exist, but again, not my field--I'm trying to articulate and distill what I take for granted, which is never easy.)