Archive for the ‘Blake Nelson’ Category

Nelson, Blake.  Gender Blender.  2006.  New York: Delacorte, 2007.

As the back cover suggests, “something FREAKY happens”–more or less as it once did in Mary Rodgers’s Freaky Friday, except this time the two characters who switch bodies are a middle school boy and girl.   It’s played mostly for laughs, as the two then have to deal with the unexpected embarrassments of a different sort of body–he gets her first period, she has to deal with peeing standing up and getting an erection.

Because mostly what they feel about the bodies they find themselves in is panic, I sense a kind of subtle body-hatred here.  The boy has a crush on another girl whose breasts he admires, but he doesn’t express any apparent interest in fondling his own once he has them, or in exploring the geography of his vagina or whatever–and the girl is horrified by the idea, suggested by him, that she might masturbate to get rid of her embarrassing erection, which she experiences purely as embarrassment, with no sense of bodily tension or pleasure. It’s something she looks at (in horror) but appears not to actually feel.   I realize that these kinds of silences are mandated by the censorious nature of books for young people–but in this particular case, when the focus is so intensely on body experiences and obvious actions and reactions are simply not mentioned at all, it does seem most peculiar indeed.   A boy’s only response to the knowledge of being in a girl’s body is horror, and so it goes for her in the opposite direction.  Aren’t bodies a horrible thing to have to deal with?

The point of all this is clearly to make points about how boys and girls need to understand each other better, and, I assume, how they ought to avoid gender stereotypes.  But what’s most noteworthy is exactly how much the book depends on gender stereotypes–i.e., completely.  These two are almost binarily oppositional representatives of their genders are they are most stereotypically understood in popular culture.   He is sporty, larger, physically active, reckless, messy (pockets full of junk, unconcerned about his appearance), egocentric, competitive, not very clean, kind of dumb at school and not really concerned about it, and unable to express emotions or talk about them with his male friends.  She is a gymnast but dainty, tidy, careful, a Type A striver with excellent grades and with a need to please her parents and others, concerned with clothes and fashion, and with a supportive group of female friends to discuss her feelings with.  Gender stereotypes R Us.

Readers have to accept these stereotypes, it seems,  in order for the characters to experience something so totally different and so obviously germane to the question of gender that they can learn from it.  Rather than being about the shallowness of gender stereotypes then, it’s about their absolute truthfulness and, I suppose, the danger of acting without respect for what’s so utterly alien, inevitably different from and opposite to yourself.  The book confirms the alienness of ourselves to each other as males and females even while seeming to make a plea for understanding and tolerance.   In a supposedly funny ending, the two, back in their own bodies and having agreed to be friends, end up immediately in a divisive squabble and have to pull back.  The war of the sexes, it seems, is ongoing and utterly unavoidable, because boys will be boys and girls will be girls.  So much for the transcendence of stereotypes.

Furthermore, there is little about either of these characters that doesn’t merely confirm the stereotypical–so there can’t possibly be any point made about getting past gender stereotypes to see the individual they disguise.  Here, get rid of the conventional characteristics and there’s nothing left–there isn’t really any individual to find.  (It’s true that she can play ball well enough, and have enough drive, to make him the pitcher on the A team, and he makes it clear to her parents that her life is too full of planned activities, but that seems merely to confirm the stereotypical qualities of their genders rather than challenge them.)

In a class report at the end, The girl reports she learned that boys can be lonely because they have to be tough and hide their feelings, and the boy reports he learned that girls have to be responsible and think of others first.  So the stereotypes are confirmed yet once more.   And there is nowhere in the book a sensitive, artistic, or communally-minded boy, or a messy, emotion-hiding girl. The alternating narratives allow, as usual, an exploration of difference, and end up with, perhaps not so usual, a confirmation of it.

In addition to being rather infuriating on the subject of gender differences, the book offers an explanation for how these two get switched that opens up another area of intolerance.  It seems that an arrowhead Tom found and had in his pants pocket when they bumped heads is the cause, for they are reliving a Tohaka love curse, the Tohaka being an Eskimo tribe–not, notice anything so respectful as an Inuit nation, but two racist slurs in one phrase.  To add icing to this poisonous cake, Nelson even invents his own Tohaka god named, with a clear intention of cuteness, Winnihecket.  This is aboriginality as found in Peter Pan, but produced a whole century later and on a different continent where actual Inuit have an actual culture.  So much for respect for alien others.

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