Uglies in the NY Times

Naomi Wolf has an article in the NY Times today, in which she disses the heck out of Gossip Girl and its spin-offs. Also, Uglies gets a positive mention (see below).

She starts by warning parents:

They carry no rating or recommended age range on the cover, but their intended audience—teenage girls—can’t be in doubt. They feature sleek, conventionally beautiful girls lounging, getting in or out of limos, laughing and striking poses. Any parent—including me—might put them in the Barnes & Noble basket without a second glance. Yet if that parent opened one, he or she might be in for a surprise.

Oooh, scary. But one question: Does anyone buy books “without a second glance”? Really?

And another: Is Naomi Wolf calling for parental advisory labels on books? I hope not. Probably this is more of a “hook” than an argument. It’s like when the local TV news says, “Some scientists think that this common household cleaning product can kill you! Details at eleven.”

Because teen culture is just like chemicals: to comprehend it you have to be some sort of gnarly expert. And it’s dangerous! Terribly dangerous! So I’m sure there are people out there who do want warning labels. Reading stickers is easier than, you know, talking to your kids about what they’re reading.

What Wolf is really obsessed about it the lack of judgement these books take against their shallow, vain characters. She says they’re “like Lord of the Flies, set in the local mall, without the moral revulsion”? And it’s true—there is no moral revulsion on the page in GG. There’s ironic detachment, but you have to bring your own revulsion.

But you know what? My guess is that teens do bring their own value system to these books. No doubt some read them in a totally shallow way: “I wish that was me all beautiful, dripping with Prada and ruining some other girl’s life.” But I know for a fact that others read them as satire, as an attack on the shallowness they portray. And some read them simply as a tacky pleasure. (I sort of like excessively self-centered characters, just like I sometimes enjoy excessively top-loaded ice-cream sundaes.)

I’ve only read one GG, and I liked it that there’s a bulemic character, but without bulemia being the central arc. It’s just something that happens, something unpleasant, but not The Plot. (Sort of like having a character in a wheelchair, but being in a wheelchair isn’t the whole friggin’ point of the book.)

GG did bore me with its relentless brand names. (Stephen King does too.) My eyes bleed when books employ brand names instead of adjectives and dramatic exposition. But this isn’t a moral failure; it’s an artistic one. You can read brand-name overload as satire, wish-fulfillment, or product placement.

So instead of worrying about the lack of moral instruction in GG, maybe parents should focus on knowing what kind of people their kids are—the subversive kind, the kind who like a good trashy read, or the kind obsessed with status. And instead of warning that YA packaging doesn’t give adequate parenting info, maybe Wolf should encourage parents to talk about books with their kids. (Strangely, this suggestion never comes up in her article. Not once.)

The Good News

Of course, we all know that my books are chock full of moral-icious goodness. And to prove it, there’s a sidebar to Wolf’s article that lists eleven decent and uplifting books. Uglies is the very last one. (Damn you, alphabetical order!)

So I’m curious. How many of you guys have read the Gossip Girl and A-List, Clique books? And what do you think they did to your moral fiber? And how many of your parents talk to you about what you’re reading?

56 thoughts on “Uglies in the NY Times

  1. How many of you have actually read Wolf’s article?

    I have to say that I actually do agree with Wolf–not that parents need to be aware of everything that their children read, but rather that children should be aware of what’s in a book before reading it.

    I can’t say I’ve ever read Gossip Girl or any of its spin-offs, but a few things from the article struck me:

    1. That through the course of one of the novels, the new girl learns to value her poorer but close-knit family less than she did before. While this is a realistic situation, this should definitely be portrayed as a BAD thing–I’m not saying teenagers can’t think for themselves, but what we (teens) read/hear/see on tv DOES influence us.

    2. The target demographic is around 12-14, from what I understand. The sex scene depicted in the article seemed unnecessary and inappropriate for that age group. If 12-year-old girls want to learn about “his viagra [wearing] off just in time,” can’t they ask someone they trust and who will give them a reliable answer?

    3. Teenagers ARE influenced by what they read no matter what they say. In one novel that Wolf talks about, a new girl comes to school and is labeled a “Loser Beyond Repair” (LBC.) In an appropriate book, the LBC would eventually notice that she didn’t need to own all the most popular brand-names’ items. In Gossip Girl (or whichever), however, the girl moves up the ladder and by the end of the book IS one of the popular, mean girls. She is now in a position to label others LBC’s. And this is portrayed as a good thing…?

    Just my 2 cents (I’m 13),


  2. PS: I didn’t get the feeling that the point of the article was to say that parents should be overly protective of what their kids are reading, but rather that authors and publishers shouldn’t be marketing such material to young kids, in the same way that tobacco companies shouldn’t be marketing ciggarettes to young kids.

    If 12-14 year-olds are not truly influenced by what they read/see/hear, then how come we have laws banning the advertising of alcohol and tobacco to people under a certain age?

  3. I am a thirteen year old girl in seventh grade and I agree with most everything above. The Clique series does not accurately depict the average seventh grade girl. The girls, Massie, Clare, and the rest do not act like typical seventh graders. If I had to read the book without knowing what age they were I would automatically put them between 15 and 16.

  4. Adding onto above…

    I have never read the Gossip Girl or A-List series though I was tempted a few time when I was at the bookstore. They sounded shallow and I knew that most of the people in my class read them. I did not buy them and instead I bought the latest clique book. The next day I was reading the Clique in the locker room when a girl in my class saw it and nearly had a heart attack. She (literally) started screaming then grabbed the book from me and paraded it around the locker room. Most people immediatly asked to borrow it. I have a waiting list of (no joke) 12 people to borrow the book.

    These books are VERY popular. And if you look at the people who are waiting to borrow the book from me they all happen to be very popular girl, all who read Gossip Girl and A-List.

    I go to a (kind of) strict private catholic school. Our head of middle form saw the article and gave a copy of it to all of the teachers. I first heard of it just after the article was released from the school librarian and was shocked. The article is all wrong! The head went on to mail a copy of the article to all of the parents in our grade (and I’m sure other grades as well). Lots of girls now think that they are going to ban the books from school. I think that that is ridiculous. Why would a school ban books? I mean, sure, they have been taken out of the library and the head is going nuts but they shouldn’t ban them. Thats just dumb. I hope that they don’t go though thge entire library and root out all of the ‘inapropriate’ books. Just because a book has a scene in it that may prove to be shocking does not mean it is wrong to let young people read it. All thats going to do is ruin the book selection and leave people with less good books to read!

    About putting ratings on books I think that that is a bad idea as well. Sure, manga (japenese comics) is rated and for a good reason, but books being rated is just silly. I agree that if a book does not have that rating on it that says ‘inapropriate’ people will not consider it a good book to read and it will not sell as well (Of course we who know the power of true books will see the real value of it).

    I know that what I read does not affect me too much. Sure, if I read a violent book about WW2 and being in the middle of it and seeing other people dying I might be affected and think that humans are horrible for a while but I will eventually get over it. As for the more……. inapropriate subjects on a non violent level, most peole I know have being told stuff about that for a long time and about what to do and what not to do, and don’t drink acahol and don’t smoke and stuff like that. Its not like reading a single book is going to erase almost a lifetime of being told to to do things like that.

  5. It’s not that I have a probem necessarily with what’s in the book–I have no problem if a YA book wants to depict drinking, drugs, sex, or anything else, really. But things that are clearly bad should have clear, realistic, negative consequences, even if they aren’t the focus of the book. It’s not there is a character that takes drugs or whatever that annoys me, it’s that taking drugs would be portrayed positively.

  6. I’ve read both Gossip Girl and the A-List series. pathetic aye? In fact i have’nt just read one of each i’ve read all of them. every last one in both series. Most of my friends (we’re middle schoolers) read them also. I read them personally because i love fashion and i have a secret yerning for paris hilton popularity. Well let me correct myself had. I am also on the heavy side of the scale so it was a getaway from people (particulary the girls at my school) constantly making fun of how big i am. Comments like “you’d be so pretty if you we’re smaller” or the not as nice “your a fat lard”. Led me to the books. There fine for a guilty pleasure and all but when you start wanting to be the same as your favorite characters in the book, mostly if they do have excessive sex, drinks, and drugs, it becomes a problem. Since i wanted to be popular, gorgeous, rich and have all the boys like the girls in the book have i took tips. I tried to start to act like them. I’m over that now and relize there’s more to life then being popular. In a few years most of the girls who make fun of me will probablly be in rehab, a mom, or living in some trailor. So therefore i am definatlly looking forward to a middle school reunion in a few years.

    So my moral fiber was’nt affected in the best way but i do think i’ve matured and i am moving on to more useful books that are a better use of my time. For a while the A-list deffinatlly helped out my confidence on acount of one of the characters are fat and got the hot billionare from spain. but that only helped for about two min. untill i got called a fat lard again.

    My parents take a quick glimpse at the back of the book and the cover. The covers definatlly don’t give all the details about the book. In particular they dont talk about the sex, drugs, or alcohol.

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