Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Ruined Maid

Dear readers: I need your help. I'm having a hard time pinning down exactly what bothers me about the Globe's Sunday magazine feature, about the year Globe mag staffer Neil Swidey spent being a fly on the wall of an 11-year-old in Rozzie. "Turning 12," it's called. "Everybody's talking about bras and boys, but Adele isn't quite ready to put down her dolls. One year with one girl at the age when everything changes."


For the record: I respect the time and effort Swidey put into this story. I think he probably has the best of intentions. Reporters don't spend enough time talking to 11-year-olds, and I hate to smack anybody for making a damn sincere effort on that front.

But for all the meticulously reported anecdotes, there's not much there there. Just a creeping miasma of doom. As young Adele shuffles along from games of tag to Urban Nutcracker performances to her painful-sounding peer "rap-around" session, the horror grows. [Cue the ominous strings.] Sex. It's coming for sweet little Adele. And it's gonna get her in the end.

Look, I've got a daughter, and I hope to God she doesn't have to learn the mechanics before she's good and ready. But enough with the fetishization of female cluelessness already. Swidey writes as though pink cellphones are the gateway drug to a life of utter moral depravity.

Philip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Materials series, has already said this better than I could, so I'm going to stand back and let him. Here he is in an interview with a writer from Surefish, a British Christian website, on his moral objections to C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia:

You're not alone in attacking Lewis but you are really vehement in your criticism. You've called his books 'detestable'. Why do you feel so strongly about them?

Because the things he's being cruel to are things I value very highly. The crux of it all comes, as many people have found, with the point near the end of the Last Battle (in the Narnia books) when Susan is excluded from the stable.

The stable obviously represents salvation. They're going to heaven, they're going to be saved. But Susan isn't allowed into the stable, and the reason given is that she's growing up. She's become far too interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. One character says rather primly: 'She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.'

This seems to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality. Here's a child whose body is changing and who's naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one's body and one's feelings. She's doing what everyone has to do in order to grow up.

Maybe one day she'll grow past the invitations and the lipstick and the nylons. But my point is that it's an inevitable, important, valuable and cherishable stage that we go through. This what I'm getting at in my story. To welcome and celebrate this passage, rather than to turn from it in fear and loathing.

Er, yes. What he said.


  1. Oh man, as soon as I clicked the link to that article, the first thing that came into my head was what Pullman said about Susan in the Narnia books (I'm a big Pullman freak--blame my favorite prof in college). And then I scroll down, and there it is!

    I didn't read the whole, sprawly-ass article, but there are many reasons to be bugged by it. There's this hacky descriptive mode I notice reporters getting into in "lifestyle" pieces like this, where they talk about their subjects in these hyperbolic ways. Stuff like this sounds like the opening panel narration for a cheap comic book about a particularly lame superhero:

    "Actually, that and much more. As the African-American adopted daughter of interracial, interfaith parents who are now separated, Adele Vernon is the very embodiment of the Obama generation. Still, all of those blurred demographics easily recede into the background of her life. Most of the time, she's just Adele, a typical 11-year-old girl. There's enough boundary-blurring in that."

    There's gotta be a way to write about real people without all this fateful, godlike hovering and flowery description.

  2. As you say, there's just not much analysis there. A statistic is thrown in occasionally, but mostly just presentation of events. It's particularly disturbing that the Chris Brown / Rihanna abuse incident, which would have been an excellent opportunity for commentary, is completely ignored. That's not only a missed chance, but pretty irresponsible, I think. Basically, the article tells us nothing but that men are still mystified by girls' maturation, and such mystification is exactly what the article should have dispelled. A year of reporting and this is the result? Just call me disappointed.

  3. Right on, both of yas.

    Also, I am disturbed by this comment left on the Globe story, by "1776observer":

    "To: heynow98 - or what about it being titled "and being sexually abused AT AGE ELEVEN by the husband of an aunt while that aunt and mom are out shoplifting? and consequently having them abort the prosecution of the uncle apparently because of he knew that they had been shoplifting,..." - for real!"

    What is that about? Is it some sort of allegation about the family in the story, or just drive-by randomness?

  4. I heart Philip Pullman. And this post. Lyra would be proud.

    I couldn't finish it either, but what I did read was a little creepy. He keeps discussing the relative state of "development" among tweens (ie Aaliyah's sister looks "far older than her birth certificate suggests"). I half expected him to start going on about the difference between "wholesome children" and "nymphets."

  5. Man, if the Globe could get Humbert Humbert to write their Lifestyle pieces, then we'd really be in business.

  6. Haha. They would be very beautifully written, but without much variety since he really only thinks about one thing. But then, it appears like far too many lifestyle reporters are unnaturally obsessed with tweens, so maybe that reality is now. Think about it: "More and more nymphets participating in sexting". That could have been written by HH.