This was a first for me – a book cover that informs you of the main elements of the plot (see picture above). Pranks? Infiltration? Secret society? Boys? How thrilling! On top of this premise, I had heard good things about this author’s other book, We Were Liars, so I was very excited to start reading this novel. In some respects The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks was better than I had expected it to be; Lockhart manages to tackle issues of gender and power in a thoughtful yet accessible way. How many young adult books introduce their readers to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon? I know sixteen-year-old me would have been hooked (and would have worked the Panopticon into every single one of her school essays and presentations for the rest of the year).
Our heroine, Frankie Landau-Banks, is an ambitious young girl who wants to add her very own chapter to the history of her school’s illustrious secret society, the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. Her father used to be a member and she suspects that her new boyfriend is as well, so she makes it her mission to find a way into their mysterious world of secrets and legendary pranks. However, whatever Frankie tries, she keeps running into walls. The Basset Hounds turn out to be a boys’ club; no girls allowed. Instead of organising stunts their school will talk about for generations to come, they seem content to sneak out after curfew, drink some beers, and call it a night.
Frankie’s determination to work her way into this society makes for a fun adventure, but it is also a feminist statement. She knows in her heart that she could lead this club better than any of these boys if they would only let her in, and when they don’t, she decides to take control. Over the course of the novel, Frankie comes to realise that she has a voice and deserves to be heard. Her boyfriend’s group of friends should not merely tolerate her presence as “Matthew’s Girlfriend”, but accept her as one of their own and respect her as their equal. When this status is not given to her, she demands it in the only way she thinks will get through to them: by beating them at their own game. This is not about making friends – it’s about power.
Lockhart occasionally spells out these issues a bit too explicitly for my taste, but I do realise that this is not for my benefit as a twentysomething English teacher; this novel was not written for me. For a younger audience, this story can be a true eye-opener, and I can only hope that there are teenage girls out there who will not only start asking questions, but demand answers. I know that sixteen-year-old me would have adored The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks; this book would have inspired her to follow her mother around the house for days, ranting for hours about sexism and planning her very own small-scale revolution.
(Why yes, I was an insufferable know-it-all. Still am – that is why I have a blog now.)
However, I have one big problem with this book: Frankie is the exception. The novel never stops reminding us that she is a beautiful, irresistible, clever, funny, sharp, and confident superhuman, clearly superior to all the other students at her school – including the other girls. Other than Frankie (and to some extent her older sister), the female characters in this book are usually depicted as shallow, cowardly, overly dramatic, bitchy, or dumb. Frankie is the Chosen One, the only one who stands out. And what makes her so special? She is Not Like The Other Girls.
“I’m not like the other girls” is part of an incredibly harmful discourse that reveals a deeply internalised misogyny on the part of the speaker (remember the infamous “Cool Girl” speech from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl? Remember my review of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar?). By distancing yourself from all those Other Girls, you’re operating under the assumption that there is something inherently bad in the female sex that you alone are somehow immune to. Other Girls are the enemy; they are all sluts, shrews, bitches, and drama queens, but you are not. You’re special. You’re different. See the problem?
For a novel that is so concerned with gender issues and being an inspiration, it should have aimed to rise above this deeply flawed rhetoric. We could do worse than Frankie Landau-Banks as a role model for teenage girls and I applaud Lockhart’s efforts, but her heroine’s strength should not have to be established by knocking all the other girls down.
(In hindsight, this book cover is absolutely hilarious. Oh, it’s about boys alright – and they’re all idiots.)