Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Sweet Sixteen and Never Been Kissed

Stories are more than words; they are organic things that can be shaped by those they come into contact with and that can also affect their reader. Each reader brings to bear on a story their own perceptions, biases and experiences. Stuart Hall argues that the author of a text will structure it in such a way that a dominant reading, shared by the majority of receivers, is likely.[1] The greater the detail that is given, in terms of characters, setting, motivation and events, the more likely it is that audiences will interpret the text in a similar fashion. Idoya Munn’s short story Sweet Sixteen and Never Been Kissed is noteworthy for its scarcity of detail.[2] Its aspect is like that of the medieval morality plays, such as Everyman, in that the characters are simply ‘the girl’, ‘the boy’, ‘the mother’.[3] The lack of descriptive detail draws the reader into a collaborative exercise with the author as they are forced to add their own colour to an otherwise bland canvas. Additionally, like the medieval morality plays, this absence of detail encourages the reader to search for deeper, allegorical meaning.

A story’s ability to make an emotional connection with its reader often lies in its adeptness at vividly portraying another human being with whom the reader can form an empathic bond. Yet in Sweet Sixteen the characters are neither named nor described in great detail and the setting is alluded to in the barest of fashions. A dominant reading would place the girl as being part of a white, middle-class, conservative family in the suburbs. This is suggested in that the girl can see a garden from her bedroom window, she has two parents, she can afford to go shopping and she can easily access facilities such as the movies and MacDonalds.[4] However, the absence of direct racial signifiers doesn’t prevent an alternative reading of the girl as being, for instance, Maori. John Fiske argues that texts are polysemic and that readers negotiate texts in ways that allow them to generate meaning that will meet their own cultural needs.[5] The scarcity of detail in the text allows greater flexibility to identification forming between the reader and the female protagonist.

However, the lack of descriptive text required to create a firm visual picture of the characters and events in Sweet Sixteen, means that the inner and verbalised dialogue becomes extremely important in creating an emotional connection between the reader and protagonist. Unfortunately, the girl’s thoughts and speech lack veracity and depth. Her language swings between teenage clichés, such as variations on ‘everyone’s going’ and ‘it’s not fair’,[6] and phrases that jar when placed in the mouth of a modern teenager, such as when she thinks “Fancy, sixteen and never been kissed...”[7] Her concern that the boy will know that she is inexperienced also jars because it is described with too much brevity, with a lack of emotional intensity and without the free-form flow of emotionally charged thinking.

Yet there is a dual purpose served by making it difficult to form an emotional connection with the girl as a character; the generalities within the text create an emotional distancing and allow the story a greater flexibility. This emotional distance can be closed, especially by female readers, by considering the girl as being unnamed because she is a representation of self; like a mask the girl and her story can be worn by anyone and the lack of detail given makes it easier for the reader to add their own details and to see in her story elements of their own personal experiences. The emotional charge to the story therefore comes from the reader’s own personal recognition of themselves within the story rather than from a sympathy for a clearly delineated fictional character.

Alternatively, the emotional distancing can be seen as an indication that the story can be read as allegory. A significant motif throughout the story is the way the girl draws upon ‘the books’ for her interpretation of how male-female relationships should be enacted; this motif provokes a deeper questioning of what society is teaching our youth. Critics, such as Laura Mulvey, argue that modern media contain a masculine gaze that objectifies and sexualises women, however, what is often ignored is the way that women are encouraged to objectify men.[8] The dichotomy of the mother/whore image applied to women means that it remains difficult for them to resolve how they should feel about sex and desire.[9] Therefore, rather than sexualising men it is often easier for women to idealize and romanticise men. Films and books aimed specifically at women often enforce the idea of women as passive and as waiting for a man to fall in love with them so that they can successfully ascend from their position as maiden to that of mother and wife.[10] Significantly, in Sweet Sixteen the only objects specified in the girl’s bedroom are the dried flowers she kept from a wedding. Physical interaction in such texts are carefully contextualized so that they are associated more with love and attaining a permanent relationship than they are with fulfilling physical desire, for instance in Sweet Sixteen the girl feels that she senses desire in the boy but rather than articulating her desire, or lack of it, she draws upon culturally enforced standards of behaviour and ‘just like in the books’ she sends him away.

Adolescent women are encouraged to be in love, to have boyfriends and to hope for permanent happy endings despite the fact that these are far more common in books than in real life. They are taught by society and media that they are to be objects that receive the desire of men but that their purpose is to sublimate their own desire in favour of ideals such as romance, love and lasting marriage. Sweet Sixteen’s lack of definitive detail encourages readers to add greater descriptive and emotional colour to the text by identifying in it aspects of their own lives; however, it also questions whether this identification is a good thing and whether the normative attitudes towards female-male relationships revealed by the generalized female protagonist are wise or healthy ones and whether these attitudes have been normalized and made invisible within our own society. The author provokes the question of whether the gendered attitudes we are teaching our young women are appropriate and realistic or if we are promoting an unrealistic idealization of men and relationships that is based in fantasy rather than actuality.

[1] Stuart Hall, ‘Encoding/Decoding’, in: Paul Marris and Sue Thornham (eds.), Media Studies: reader, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 1996, pp.47-9.
[2] Idoya Munn, ‘Sweet Sixteen and Never Been Kissed’, in: Tessa Duder (ed.), Nearly Seventeen. New Zealand Stories, Auckland, Penguin Books, 1993, pp.63-67.
Hereafter, I will abbreviate the title to Sweet Sixteen.
[3] A. C. Cawley (ed.), Everyman, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1961.
[4] Need to footnote each of these things???
[5] John Fiske, ‘Television: Polysemy and Popularity’, in: Robert K. Avery and David Eason (eds.), Critical Perspectives on Media and Society, New York, The Guilford Press, 1991, p. 347.
[6] Munn, p.64 and 65; the exact phrases used are “Him and everyone else are going…” and “But that’s stupid!”
[7] Ibid. p. 64.
[8] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen, 16.3, 1975, pp.6-18.
[9] Deborah L. Tolman, “Doing Desire. Adolescent Girls’ Struggles for/with Sexuality”, Gender & Society, 8.3, September 1994, p.325.
[10] For instance, While You Were Sleeping, dir. Jon Turteltaub, Hollywood Home Video, 1995.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some very interesting ideas here - thanks for taking notice of the story. I thought you might like to know i was sixteen when i wrote it. :) Idoya

3:36 PM  

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