Real life has been kicking my ass lately, but I feel bad for not updating. As a gentle prompt/reminder, Deborah Kaplan (see contributors page!) sent me this fantastic write-up of Francesca Lia Block’s DANGEROUS ANGELS- at which point I managed to accidentally delete the entire contributors page and freaked out. And then, because she is a good friend, she reminded me again. And now we are back!
Deborah has good, solid thoughts on a series that I could never quite get into, and again, she makes me want to read the books just to understand the full impact of what she’s saying.
I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on TONING THE SWEEP, NUMBER THE STARS, and an article on picture books posted by the New York Times which tried to confront gender in children’s lit and missed the mark spectacularly. For now, enjoy Deb’s thoughts on DANGEROUS ANGELS, which are definitely worth reading, and a great way to get back into the feminist YA mindset.
Title: DANGEROUS ANGELS by Francesca Lia Block
Intro: five books, not six
First of all, I want to explicitly state that I am not going to address Necklace of Kisses. In some cases, I feel that it’s ridiculous to even talk about a book on the original list of 103 without addressing its sequels. For example, I don’t think it’s possible to talk about feminism in Golden Compass without also looking at A Subtle Knife and Amber Spyglass, or to address The Hunger Games without also looking at Mockingjay. Other sequels have a more questionable relevance to the initial text; our earlier blog debate on the relevance of A House like a Lotus to A Wrinkle in Time is one example of this. Necklace of Kisses, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t have more than the most cursory relevance to the rest of the Dangerous Angels series. It’s written 10 years after the final book of the quintet, with a textually implied readership of older adults rather than teens or even young adults, and it actively works against the vibe, genre, and emotional content of the original quintet. (I can’t make a hard and fast rule about why I feel this way. Ursula Le Guin Tehanu was published 18 years after the final book in the Earthsea trilogy, and very explicitly and openly works against the vibe, genre, emotional content, and specifically gender presentation of the original trilogy, and yet if I were talking about gender in any of the first three books I would include that fourth. Perhaps I’m unfairly excluding Necklace of Kisses simply because of how much I dislike it. C’est la vie.)
Also, ObDisclaimer: Over the last few years, Block’s work has begun to annoy me intensely, although I used to love it. I find her more recent books to be full of drama queens, over-the-top angst, and aggravating heteronormativity. So it’s possible that my reread of these five books has been tainted by feelings that are about other books entirely. I hope you will all call me on it if you see that I’ve said something here that is really just me being irritated by Quakeland.
Gender by its lonesome
If we address the texts solely along feminist lines, without thinking intersectionally, what do we find? A series in which both female and male adolescent sexuality are frightening and confusing, but are under the control of teens themselves, with nobody determining appropriate sexual behavior other than the participants. We see teenagers and young adults endangering both themselves and their partners through behavior which is not entirely safe, sane, consensual — and we see that only the partners in those relationships are empowered to repair that problem.
We see Weetzie’s mother, an alcoholic who cares for her child only indifferently, and she’s not judged and found wanting as a mother. We see Weetzie and Ping, who leave their teenagers alone in LA while they travel off with Dirk, Duck, Valentine, and My Secret Agent Lover Man to make a movie, and neither the men nor the women are treated any differently as parents by the text. Only one potential parent is judged and found wanting, Witch Baby’s birth mother Vixanne, and she is primarily judged for not wanting to raise her own child. (She could be seen as representing a mix of different sexist stereotypes of women — witch, abandoning mother, seductress, homewrecker, her weird thing with Jayne Mansfield — but there are enough other positive portrayals of different types of women that I’m happy to let it pass.)
We see sisters who, despite early fights over boys, will go out of their way for each other. We see one teenage girl who just wants to nest and have babies, and two other teenage girls who want to be rock stars and who have the talent and charisma to make it happen. We see Cherokee spend an entire book trying to make herself into a more glamorous rockstar and a more desirable girlfriend through magic, until she comes to the conclusion that:
She was a pale, thin girl without any outer layers of fur or bone or feathers to protect or carry her. She could dance and sing, there, on the stage. She could send her rhythms into the canyon.
[Cherokee Bat 121]
We see girls who are trusted by their elders to stay alone or go to New York, if those are the decisions they need to make. Basically, we see girls who fly or fall by their own choices and actions. They can take power wisely or foolishly, but the choices are always theirs.
So is Dangerous Angels a good series for feminist girls? Signs point to yes.
Race, ethnicity, and culture
Let’s begin our conversation of intersectionality by talking about race, which is the most kinda subversive kinda hegemonic element of this world. On the one hand, the books present a wholly positive vision of a multi-ethnic LA, richly flavored because of a particularly glittery rendition of the melting pot. Nearly all of the secondary characters are people of color, two of the secondary characters are in a biracial relationship in which both romantic partners are people of color, and both of the white second-generation heroines are romantically partnered with people of color.
On the other hand, the job of those cultural markers and people of color, in some sense, is to provide an awesome glitzy flavor for exotic LA. See above, re: the second-generation heroines. Early in Witch Baby, for example, Cherokee’s about-to-be boyfriend is variously described as
Raphael, the Chinese-Rasta parrot boy
Not only did Raphael look like powdered chocolate, but he smelled like it, too, and his eyes reminded Witch Baby of Hershey’s kisses. His mother, Ping, dressed him in bright red, green and yellow and twisted his hair into dreadlocks.
[Raphael] stood staring at her with his slanted chocolate-Kiss eyes
[Witch Baby 21-22]
Meanwhile, when Witch Baby meets her beloved Angel Juan for the first time, they have the following exchange:
“Where are you from, Angel Juan?” Witch Baby asked.
Witch Baby had seen sugar skulls and candelabras and the shapes of doves, angels and trees. She had seen white dresses embroidered with gardens, and she had seen paintings of a dark woman with parrots and flowers and blood and one eyebrow. She liked tortillas with butter melting in the fold almost as much as candy, and she like hot days and hibiscus flowers, mariachi bands save and especially, now, Angel Juan.
[Witch Baby 67-68]
Exoticisation is constant through Cherokee Bat And the Goat Guys, in which Cherokee (a blonde LA princess who sleeps in a tepee and wears white suede moccasins with turquoise and silver beads) repeatedly convinces her adult friend Coyote, against his better judgment, to give her animal magic for her friends. Coyote stands in for all tribes, with snippets between each chapter attributed to, variously, the Papago, the Aztec, the Wintu, the Pima, as if his animal-centric magic is generically, as Cherokee says, “all about Indians” (3). Coyote’s wisdom is of the grossly stereotyped sort, the wise old shaman of a vanished people:
Coyote was tall. He never smiled. He had chosen to live alone, to work and mourn and see visions, in a nest above the smog. The animals came to him when he spoke their names. He was full of grace, wisdom and mystery. He had seen his people die, wasted on their lost lands.
[Cherokee Bat 68]
The most obvious example of ethnicity being used as an exotic spice to aid the white protagonist comes early in Weetzie Bat itself:
Weetzie was wearing her feathered headdress and her moccasins and a pink fringed minidress. […]
“I’m into Indians,” she said. “They were here first and we treated them like shit.”
“Yeah,” Dirk said, touching his Mohawk.
[Weetzie Bat 4-5]
As I said, kinda subversive, and kinda hegemonic.
Queerness and sexuality
The myriad ways in which this series broke ground for representations of queerness in young adult literature are legion. That certainly doesn’t mean the books are perfect, though. The brief trace of bi-phobia early in Weetzie Bat made me cringe on this reread.
Still, the first book in the series was published in 1989 and already addressed the AIDS crisis, not as the book’s Issue, but as a source of realistic emotional depth for one character. It’s hard to remember now how AIDS was perceived in 1989 among the likely gatekeepers of adolescent fiction. Moreover, Weetzie’s own sexuality is unusually drawn. Her high school sexual experience, including at least one encounter of dubious consent, isn’t used as a tool to judge her or find her damaged. It’s simply a stage in her youth which she needs to get past — magically, with the help of a genie — in order to find happiness. (For more detail on the fascinating way sexuality is dealt with in the first book, including the strange multitude of parents, I’m going to self-pimp: Kaplan and Rabinowitz. “‘Beautiful, or Thick, or Right, or Complicated’: Queer Heterosexuality in the Young Adult Works of Cynthia Voigt and Francesca Lia Block.” Straight Writ Queer: Non-Normative Expressions of Heterosexuality in Literature. Ed. Richard Fantina: McFarland, 2006.)
And while in the intervening years Block has written primarily from the perspective of heterosexual girls and young women, 1995’s Baby Be-bop features as a protagonist a young gay man: it’s the story of Weetzie Bat‘s Dirk. Dirk is a Mohawked, leather-jacketed punk rocker, far from any stereotypes of a gay teen. His soon-to-be partner Duck also doesn’t conform to stereotypes: a surfer god.
The treatment of AIDS in both of these books, as a disease which killed many but certainly not all gay men, which is not a punishment for a certain form of behavior, which needs to be taken seriously — all of this was groundbreaking in books for young readers. Meanwhile, the dating scene the texts envision for Dirk and Duck before they meet each other is exactly as soulless and dangerous as that which the texts envision for Weetzie. After the formal partnership, they are willing to complicate their relationship for her sake and the sake of their collective family.
I was surprised on returning to the series how much I still liked it. Sure, it’s not perfect. In fact, with regards to race I think it’s heavily flawed. But one of the reasons I’ve gotten aggravated with Block’s books in recent years is that I think her heroines are often victimized by their own sexuality, and that really doesn’t happen in this series. These girls take control. They don’t always like their changing bodies and changing desires, but they figure out what they need and they take control. That’s pretty awesome, I have to say.