Wednesday, February 12, 2014

It's Bad For You, But I Like It Anyways (The Selection)

Like I've mentioned several times now, I spent the last week or so bridesmaiding and getting ready for my sister's wedding. It was awesome, sure, but also deeply surreal. By that I mean that I spent almost a week sequestered (voluntarily, mind you) in a vacation rental with a bunch of female friends, talking about dresses and makeup and baking and generally focusing deeply on things that I never really pay attention to. Like my hair, or the fit of my dress, or shoes, or how to throw a nice party. I'm not saying those are bad things, just that they're not really things I think about on your average day.

Well, maybe I think about my hair. But there's just so much of it, it's hard not to.

The point is, however much these are not the pressing issues of my daily life, they were last week. And they were super important. It was like the whole world was riding on whether or not we had enough glue sticks, or if the tulle was the right color, etc. Again, I'm not saying that these are bad things to care about. In this context, caring about them totally made sense. But it was weird. For (almost) a week, my priorities shifted, and suddenly I cared about these things. I cared a lot. Pop cultural representations of women and minorities? Feh. Let's talk about gluten-free flour substitutes.*

It's only appropriate then that we talk now about The Selection, which I happened to read right before my week of crazy intenseness, and which has some interesting things to say about girly things and changing your priorities and pretty dresses. Also romance, but we'll talk more about that some other times. Don't worry, I have thoughts.

So, The Selection by Kiera Cass is yet another dystopian YA novel, about a girl rebelling against a fascist governmental regime that claims rights over her body and is otherwise deeply creepy. Also, it's a romance and love triangle, and there's some interesting stuff about societal structure and class. But mostly it's a critique of our current society, and our celebrity culture, and the outward performance of femininity.

I think. I might have gotten over-excited when I was reading it, because I immediately left the restaurant (I read books in restaurants, it's a thing) and bought the first two books of the series even though I was currently holding a library copy of the first book and had the second book on hold. I think we can easily say that these books captured my imagination, and also that I am kicking myself for getting into them right now, and not waiting until May when the third book comes out and I can read them all together.

The plot of the books is deceptively simple, but really kind of genius when you get down to it: in order to find a princess for their just come of age prince, the nation of Illea selects thirty-five girls, one from each province, to compete for his love and the crown. It's like The Bachelor and the Hunger Games and also America's Next Top Model, which is cool because I love two of those three things.

America Singer is our female lead, a lowly Five (oh yeah, there's a caste system here, and it's not very well explained but seems bad), who is in love with an even more lowly Six. Because this society takes patriarchy to its maximum possible conclusion, America's love affair is a big no-no. While a woman can marry up by marrying a man in a higher caste, a man can never marry up. 

Even more than that, though, girls are valued for their reproductive capabilities and for their sexual purity. Extramarital sex, or premarital sex, is a punishable offense, but mostly only for girls, who must sign an affidavit attesting their virginity before being allowed to wed. It's deeply, deeply creepy.

And then there's the thing where you are your caste no matter what else happens to you, unless you end up in compulsory military service, which elevates you, or you're a woman who marries up, or you miraculously manage to buy your way into a better life. It's like if someone took all the worst parts of Western society from the past thousand years and smushed them together into one country. It's that.

Well, at least it's not super racist. That seems to be okay. I mean, sure, our protagonist is a pretty, skinny white girl, and her boyfriend is a skinny white boy, but the prince is possibly kind of vaguely not totally white. So that's something, right?

Anyway, the plot progresses when America joins the competition to be Prince Maxon's new bride. She does so under duress, but because this is a YA book, she's automatically picked, and then becomes a crowd favorite because she's so earthy and normal and not at all fake like all the other girls. Because of course she is. Oh, and her boyfriend dumps her because she can do better. And then he regrets it. Boys.

America winds up at the palace, being swept along on a tide of luxury and makeovers and dates with the Prince and television interviews. Now, I was mostly buoyed through this by my love of slightly schmaltzy things (and, again, America's Next Top Model), but I know a lot of people get annoyed here. There isn't much conflict until the love triangle rears its ugly head, and it's mostly just a lot of people thinking America is awesome because she never puts any effort in. Hipsters.

But what's really interesting in this book, and in The Hunger Games, if you recall, is that they're sort of kind of cheating on the whole feminism thing. By which I mean that these books call out celebrity culture and decry the way that teenage girls, and especially teenage female celebrities, lose their bodily autonomy and are forced to conform to public standards of beauty and everything else, but the books also revel in that exact same loss of bodily autonomy. The Selection is much worse about this than The Hunger Games. We know that Katniss hates being made up like a doll, so it's hard to enjoy it when you remember that people are starving in Twelve.

In The Selection, America is resistant to being made over, sure, but she also kind of likes it. It's bad. Terrible. Awful. Awww, isn't that a pretty dress! There's a scene where all the girls are given makeovers, and America is spared mostly because they want to keep her "natural beauty". And there's a part of me that's like, "Whoo! Yeah, you rock that natural look, girl!" and then there's another part that is irritated that this section of the book serves only to highlight that America is really pretty, and doesn't actually condemn the process of commodifying beauty and teenage sexuality.

I have conflicted feelings, as I'm sure you can tell.

The whole book is like that, really. While we're supposed to be outraged about the fact that Illea has laws about sex, we're also supposed to be appalled when we find out that one of the contestants might have broken those laws. Spoiler alert: logic doesn't work like that. Either the laws are unjust, and therefore who cares if the contestant breaks them, or they're just, and we should be horrified that a teenage girl dared to have sex.

Comes out in May.
It's trying to eat its cake and have it too. The Selection is a bad, bad thing because it is more about making a show than really finding Prince Maxon someone to love, but we're also supposed to root for America to win, because she's the heroine and Maxon loves her (that's not even a little bit of a spoiler), and of course she's going to be the next queen. So while we get to complain that The Selection is primitive and insulting and degrading, we also sit with baited breath as we wait to see who gets kicked off next.

That's not how it really works. You have to pick one, eventually. Is this a bad, archaic sign of male dominance, and a horrifying pageant of sexual objectification, or is it a charming representation of national diversity and good sport that introduces the people to their queen? It can't be both. You have to pick a side.

For me, obviously, The Selection is grossly horrifying. There's a bit in the book where America learns that even though premarital sex is outlawed, she's required to do it if Maxon says so. And so she's terrified (rightly so) that she's going to get raped. Of course, Maxon is a super nice guy and would never do that, and he's horrified when he finds out that this is a possibility, but that doesn't change the fact that he can legally rape a girl. Like, him being a good person doesn't make that legal loophole go away. And no amount of handwaving about Illea's caste system and how Maxon is a really good prince makes his ignorance about his own people more forgivable.

But here's the thing. I really did enjoy The Selection. Like I said, I read it in one sitting, and then immediately went and bought the sequel (which is surprisingly slower going). In a way, I think this book is like the cheeseburger I ate while reading it. It's got some nutritious elements, but they're pretty much hidden under a healthy layer of fat and cheese and bacon. And no amount of lettuce is going to make that bacon any better for you.


*I have it on good authority that the only really good gluten-free flour for a decent price is King Arthur's brand. Just so you know. Other gluten-free flours can be too absorbent and lose consistency. If you're going to use another type, try to use a couple different ones, like brown rice and coconut flour, in order to help maintain structure. The more you know.

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