Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Title: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks 
Author: E. Lockhart
Publisher: Hyperion (2008)

I'm a bit late here. Both in that it's Wednesday, and so past SBD, and in that I read this months ago and am just getting to it now. Thankfully I read this on my Kindle so I can click on the handy notes section and read over my copious comments. And even though it's late, I'm hoping the SBD crowd will still be willing to share some thoughts because I'm the odd woman out on this one in that I didn't like it as well as others.

First, a shout-out to Kate for bringing it to my attention. I would not have read it otherwise and, even though I didn't end up liking it, I was interested by it and glad to have read it. Instead of giving a summary I'm linking to this short review because the summary is excellent and because the reviewer had a completely different reaction to the book than me so it's a good counterpoint.

The thing I liked best about this book is that I found it very emotionally authentic. I can't speak to the boarding school experience but some of the things Frankie thought/said I remember hearing from my girlfriends. That part of the book was very impressive to me as I rarely feel that way when reading books set in high school. However, the supposed girl-power aspect of the book was completely non-existent for me. I have notes in relation to this at any number of points throughout the book but the most telling is the one that says "Does Frankie even like women, does the author?" Ouch! Hard to muster up my feelings of empowerment when I don't feel like the protag or the author values women.

Here's what it came down to for me: Frankie's motivation is to attain acceptance into a guys' club (very often, specifically to get personal validation from one particular guy). As in, rather than get her own life she's trying to get a guy's.  I found this to be one of the emotionally authentic aspects of the book as I knew (and, sadly, know) many women who seek "empowerment" through undermining "feminine" pursuits and proving they are "strong" too by trying to be "one of the guys." I actually don't care what people do - whether it's traditionally seen as a "guy" thing or a "gal" thing - as long as what they do is for themselves. The entire time I was reading I kept wondering why Frankie didn't start her own secret society (or not secret, whatever) and use her cleverness, determination, and information to control the Basset Hounds. Cuz how stinking funny would that be? Instead she seemed more obsessed with Matthew not talking to her about what was going on than in being her own person and being valued for who she is.

I completely agree with Frankie that she was suffocated by a male-dominated institution. I completely agree with her that she was underestimated and marginalized by several people in her life. But, again, instead of seeking out those who saw and valued her she aligned herself with those who diminished her. When she's bitching about the way Matthew treats her what am I supposed to think but LEAVE HIM? She kept acting like he was happening to her and seeming not to realize that his presence was under her control. Also, she was often put out by his loyalty to friends he had had for 4 years. I actually re-checked the timeline and when they had been dating for 2 months she was bitching about him keeping things from her that he would only discuss with his friends. Two months!!!! Maybe I'm close-mouthed but I certainly don't start spouting off all my personal business to someone I've known for two months.


And then we get to the most frustrating scene in the book. It's the end, her shenanigans have been discovered (shenanigans which were awesome and hilarious, btw) and she's having it out with Matthew. At this point I'm so disgusted by the attitude that I felt was pervasive throughout the book that I about died when Matthew, the guy, gets to make a valid point. Now, it should be said that I don't like Matthew. Maybe one day he'll figure things out and turn into someone decent but he's immature and self-centered for the entirety of the book (I thought less of Frankie for dating him much less for working so hard to get his attention) so he's not exactly someone you ever want to be siding with but when he asks who/what she was being loyal to he's making a good point. He's saying it badly because he's immature and self-centered but the point remains: when she's doing all this behind his back why does she think it's something that will impress him? (Why he describes it as sick and psychotic I have to assume is because his pride is hurt because what she did was brilliant. It's the motivation that drove me nuts.) Conversely, how upset can I get when Frankie feels like he's been lying to her all this time? He's a jerk, break up with him. Also, they hadn't been together all that long, he's had these other friends forever; what is the big deal about him having something with them that he does not have with her? People should have their own lives; Frankie should have got her own life. I for one would have enjoyed her antics much better had she been doing them for herself.

I have so many notes and comments and annoyances here but I was trying to stay concise and mostly be brief which I hope doesn't mean that I ended up not really conveying my point at all. One final comment: At one point I found the undervaluing of the feminine so intense that I thought maybe the author was getting around to that lesson. Frankie learns at the end that to define herself and her value by the men and system around her (a system she identifies as broken) isn't a productive path to empowerment. But no. To me, it seemed that she learned that she needed to have done better at being an imitation guy. *sigh*

rating: 2 of 5 stars


  1. Well that's a different and really interesting take. I guess none of these things bothered me because I was acutely aware that Frankie is all of 15. And she's gaga for a boy. I remember what it's like, and it's not a state that leads to logical thought. And being 15 years old and realizing for the first time how the world sees you and limits you as a female doesn't tend to result in effective feminist campaigning the likes of which 50 years of an organized feminist movement haven't even managed.

    I enjoyed the book and praise it because Frankie DID something. It was not the smartest thing or the best thing and it really didn't get her anything she wanted at all - but she didn't just sit back and swallow the "you're a girl, you don't belong here" BS that was just tacitly accepted by everyone else in her universe. So there's this tradition - but she can't carry it on (even though her father was a proud part of that tradition) just because she's a girl? Frankie says: screw that. So she shouldn't do it because it might lose her the boyfriend she's always wanted? Frankie says: screw that, too. So logic and caution say to stay away from that apparent third rail and start a new girls-allowed-version instead of infiltrating the established old-boys club because that's safer and less confusing for outsiders? Frankie says: screw safe, screw other people.

    Frankie is 15 and pissed off and is making it up as she goes along. The fact that she even bothers to get pissed off is laudable when most girls I've known - both when I was a girl and now the girls I watch from my adult perch - most girls at that age stick with what they've learned: that an angry female isn't attractive, you don't want the boys to not like you, remember don't be too smart or too funny or too fat or wear the wrong thing, and above all else be likeable and peaceable and acceptable and that is how you learn to be a woman, that is your role. As a female, don't confront or subvert: if you don't like it, go play your own games in your own corner, where it won't make a mess. Like good little girls.

    [HANG ON -- must post 2 comments because of length limitations, argh]

    I mean I know I'm a little worked up over the issue but: imagine as an adult, you're in love with this awesome boyfriend, okay. He's a dreamboat from work and you've been goofy about him since he started there and now he's you're boyfriend. Then it turns out he's part of this inside networking group at work, all male, and you'd kill to be part of that networking group. You want the secret handshakes and the occasional 3-hour lunches and the lapel pin and the best parties in town. Your boyfriend can't let you in - is this a reason to stop loving him? Is the idea of starting your own networking group anywhere near as satisfying as the thought of being part of the existing group? Is it possible your frustration and outrage makes you a little more scheming and underhanded than you ever thought you might be, that you tell yourself "I'll show them all a thing or two, I'll prove I belong in there just as much or even more than they do" without ever really getting any more coherent than that? You want two things at once: you want to not be left out on the basis of your boobs, and you want your boyfriend to still like you. You are not trying to get a specific guy's life in this scenario; you are trying to get the life you want for yourself but is not open to you.

    I say this as someone who, at age 38, wouldn't be unlikely to throw herself headlong into an emotionally motivated I'll Prove Myself scheme, despite decades of beating my head against the patriarchal wall and all the wisdom that comes from said banging. For a 15-year-old to resist that path seems -- well, like expecting an awful lot.

    But here's a thing you didn't detail that I'd really like to hear more about: what exactly was in there that undervalued the feminine? Can you give some examples? I really can't think of anything, but since I'm hardly known for catching all the details in a book (or anything else), that is hardly an indicator that it wasn't there.

    Okay I have to go back to pretending to work now.

  3. Oh yay! Thanks for this, Beth! This is just the type of discussion I wanted to have. You make some great points! I won't be able to give this the thoughtful reply it deserves until Sunday but I can't wait and I'll be back to continue the comments.

  4. Holy crap! I have to post my comment in 5 parts due to length! Sorry about that!

  5. Part I

    "Pre" Script - I just re-read THE SHADOW AND THE STAR. Besides loving it, naturally, I now always think of you when I embark on re-reading that one because I think you're the only person who likes it more than me. For some reason, its genius seems to pass many folks by.

    Anywho... back to the subject at hand...

    This isn't quite related to our discussion but I was relieved to see the part where the "short-man" complex was brought up for Napoleon because I was starting to get freaked out with these kids sophisticated speech and idioms. I never encounter high schoolers this well-spoken but at least they still make mistakes. Phew. :)

    More in relation to our discussion I think you made so many great points and especially great points detailing feminism and available strategies and available paths in life. It’s a bit outside the scope of this post but I’m sitting here thinking it’s a shame that we can’t sit down and have an awesome discussion about modern day feminism. One thing that became abundantly clear to me from reading your comments is that one reason I may not totally connect with Frankie’s choices is that I, in fact, do not want to be in a relationship with someone who makes the choices Matthew makes or who makes the choices the hypothetical work boyfriend would make. I’ve actually ended relationships for just those reasons (well, not the work one because I think that’s actually against the law nowadays but you know what I mean) and refuse to have close friendships with people who I feel are on the other side philosophies that value the contributions of all members of society. We’re focusing on women here but there are many groups that suffer from prejudice and marginalization and that shit drives me up a wall.

  6. Part II

    As I track back over my notes it looks like things started to go south for me around page 83 (I read the Kindle edition that has a total of 346 pages; not sure how well this translates page-wise to other editions). This is after the golf course party when "typical" female reactions are being described. I actually thought the list was pretty accurate but number one, the "opt out" option, was pretty lame. Like the only thing girls do who don't enjoy lame golf parties is to go home and do "girly" things. This is where the undervaluing of the fem started cropping up. For me, this undervalued the fem both in slighting any kind of personal creativity or agency in women and in implying that domestic pursuits are unworthy substitutes.

    Aside: I thought Frankie's reaction to this party was hilarious and awesome. From this kernel I was expecting so much more. Maybe I had built up too much in my mind (I completely accept your point about her age and that maybe I'm being too hard on her motivation/execution).

    Next little bit is the enlightening conversation about women's voracity as relates to what they eat (p. 95). Frankie overhears the conversation, realizes the stupidity of it, but still does what she thinks the boys expect her to do so she doesn't appear to be "like a woman" as another of their friends is described. Now, I find this absolutely realistic but not exactly something that gets me thinking that Frankie is her own person and rocking the girl-power.

    On pg. 102/103 we swing back to me wondering if the author likes women much when she describes "most girls" as so wrapped up in boys they don't even notice that their lives have become submerged by their boyfriends. Thanks for the credit!

    On pg. 144 there's a list of things Frankie is glad she wasn't, mostly fem pronouns and the paragraph ends with "someone whose opinions don't matter." My note to myself here was "is this devaluing of the fem commentary, reflection of what author thinks young ppl think or it is unintentional?"

  7. Part III

    Aside: Seeing these listed out makes me wonder if I happened to really not be the target audience here. Maybe the author is making commentary, maybe she's trying to reach out to teen girls who either haven't made these connections or are trying to make these connections. Perhaps this is why Frankie's plans don't end in a blaze of glory because maybe she wasn't choosing quite the best way to go about solving this problem but at least she was doing something.

    So at this point I'm a bit irked and wondering if Frankie or the author have any idea that they are offending me and I get to pg. 158 and Frankie points out how the phrase "some balls" make courage masculine. Ok, yay! You do see these things but why are you still undercutting the fem?

    Aside: I really liked Frankie's sister. The book feels isolating because Frankie feels isolated but I thought her sister was interested in being supportive.

    pg. 177 puts me in mind of sexual commerce and trying to "balance power" in a relationship feels (unfortunately) emotionally authentic but decidedly not empowering.

    pg. 194 has a note that says "is this why I don't like hs books? b/c the agency is never in response to personal desire but to external stimuli. and so often the stimulus is boys for girls." I kept waiting for Frankie to revert back to her thoughts after the golf party. How could I do this better? What if I was in charge? But instead I just felt like she wondered How can I get these boys to appreciate me more? This is also the point where she starts getting annoyed that people she's known for 2 months are not her best friends. This has nothing to do with our discussion here it just ends up being annoying to me.

    Pg. 213 was where I lost even more interest in Frankie's pursuit because she comes out and details how Matthew makes her feel "squashed into a box" for people "who were not forces to be reckoned with." I sympathize! Clearly you do not have a partnership with this guy, you are decorative. So please, for the love of all that is strong and empowered leave him!

    Aside: I loved her made up words. "I am so mayed." As in, not dismayed. hehe

  8. Part IV

    It's possible I was getting so annoyed that I wasn't even bothering with coherent points any longer because I just found a note that says "blah blah blah, what the fuck!?! Gah!" However, I think what was in my mind was that the girl-power aspect is lost on me because she's spending the whole time enamored with a group of boys, giving them value as far as the book is concerned, and hardly ever having much of anything positive to say about girls, devaluing them as far as the book is concerned.

    Aside: How was that one guy having a conversation about being the "Master of the Muffin" without all the other guys totally cracking up. (pg. 226) I was lmao.

    pg. 226 at this point it's probably getting clearer that phrases like "emasculated by his mommy" drive a person like me insane. I suppose this could just be trivializing parents in general but the implication is that he has been weakened by a woman which is something he's desperately trying not to lose his rep over (Frankie is downright gleeful at this turn of events and the perspective is from her so the words are hers). and it's the dimunitive use of the female moniker. I realize this is picking nits but I was pretty annoyed at this point.

    on pg. 327 I about blew my top when I had to get yet another example of a girl making her decisions based on what a boy did (porter's sister after breakup with Alpha). Like I hadn't had enough at this point? Like I hadn't felt devalued for most of the book at this point?

  9. Part V

    I think this is getting crazy long at this point (and I've been skipping lots of my notes - obviously I need to have a book club on this:) so I'm going to leave off on one final thing. On 330/331 when she decides to stay at the school (for obvious reasons, v. good skl) with her eyes on the long view, even though it will be tough, she says it's "worth the trouble--even though Matthew and his friends were forever lost to her." As you can guess this bothered me on first reading. Rather than feeling like she beat the panopticon she is thinking about the loss of the boys. But with having some distance and looking at it again, maybe she has learned the lesson I was hoping for. But then when she gets the email from Alpha she's thrilled that she impressed him sending me straight back to my original thoughts that her motivation was not from within but in the hopes of getting the approval of a bunch of guys. Did she want to be a force or did she want the boys to recognize her as such? Both? What kind of person would Frankie be if women were the dominant group? Is it any less admirable to attain such a thing if your motivation was to get boys' approval? Why did she not want Trish's approval when Trish proved to the the type of friend I would think anyone would want to impress? (Course later Trish gets devalued as also not seeing Frankie for what she is so I guess there are not any interesting girls but Frankie in the world.) Why do I have to be reminded yet again that fem pursuits are lame (field hockey anyone) just as I'm coming around to Frankie maybe getting close to realizing what's going on? Am I being mean to Frankie because she's not getting it the way I did and do? I'm not sure but I'm willing to concede that my reading is not the only reading and that my reaction will not be everyone's reaction.

    So, erm, any additional thoughts after what turned into my stream of consciousness?

  10. Okay, I have not read the comments yet, just the original post.

    I haven't gone back to look at the notes on my Kindle, but my notes at LibraryThing are:

    Not entirely sure what to think of this book. Boarding school YA fiction. Loner heroine. Not a reliable narrator. Self-aware in a lot of ways but not in others. Mastermind. Did she do it because she could? Because she was subverting gender expectations of the secret society? Or just because she was pissed her boyfriend wouldn't tell her about it and treated his club as more important than she was?

    Taking a step back, it's disappointing that so much of what Frankie does is for the attention of a boy...and yet that's kind of what I would expect from a 15-16 year old? I mean, she shows ingenuity and initiative (+) but it's for the wrong reasons (-) from my adult perspective. And if she were a few years older, I would probably be really disappointed. Instead I wondered what future-Frankie would do with what she'd learned, in terms of struggling against gender expectations.

  11. heya jmc - I had much the same reaction as you except I wasn't thinking much about her being 15. Beth got me thinking about that and it certainly makes me go a bit easier on her (I think I mentioned it but I'll say again that I found the depiction of teen emotion/confusion quite accurate). I think my personal annoyance with Frankie would not have been able to run so roughshod had I felt better connected to the structure/narrative of the book through the author's depictions. As I was reading, despite all the things that I did like, I couldn't help feeling that I was reading yet another book where all the male characters are set up to be doing the cool things while having a social/support structure of male compatriots around them while the girl/s were set up to be not as cool and to be surrounded by lame/vapid/unenlightened girls providing no social/support structure. It's why I kept wondering if the author or Frankie liked women. I didn't feel that either had anything nice to say about women.