The Blonde of the Joke by Bennett Madison

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HarperTeen, 2009

Gay – High School

Val is one of those students at high school who just blends in. She doesn’t have any particular friends, she skates by with a B+ average though she could do better; her physics teacher can’t even remember her name.

Then Francie joins her class and everything changes. Francie is flamboyant, defiant, she smokes, she’s always late to class, her clothing pushes the dress code: she’s nowhere in Val’s league. But for some reason, she latches onto Val, who is astonished and grateful, and willingly learns to smoke, cut class, and learn the skills of shoplifting from Francie.

Val is even a little bit in love with Francie, although “not in a lesbo way.” Homophobia rears its ugly head in this book, with Val, and her brother’s ex-girlfriend referring to him as a fag, and their mother unable to fully accept him. Fourteen year old Francie sets out to “cure” him by dressing particularly provocatively, and then can’t handle it when she gets attention from a group of construction workers.

Fissures start to edge into the friendship, and it all comes crumbling down one day at the mall as Val and Francie realize that their vows to be there for each other can’t address the real issues each of them is facing. An interesting psychological story of a friendship built on the shaky structure of two girls each needing something that the other ultimately can’t give.

This would be a much better book without the homophobia–or if it was something that the characters worked through.

6 Comments

Filed under ** Low recommend, 2000s, Gay, High School

6 responses to “The Blonde of the Joke by Bennett Madison

  1. Pingback: Does an Anti-Gay Character Make (Gay Author) Bennett Madison's Teen Book Homophobic? / Queerty

    • silverrod

      As the reviewer quoted above, I want to make the point that I look at the books I review in the context of other current books, as well as considering them within the context of what has historically been published on the subject.

      I stated that I felt the book would have been better either without the expressed homophobia, or if it had been handled in a different way. I did not say the book (or the author) were homophobic.

      People who read reviews of children’s and young adult literature do so for a number of reasons: to sell them in a bookstore, put them on the shelves at a library, and to make recommendations to young people about what new books might be good reads. In the case of books which address LGBT issues, it is important that the reviewer discuss how those issues are handled, particularly if a young LGBTQQ person is likely to read the book.

      I think Madison has written a very intriguing psychological novel, and I still think that the homophobic remarks expressed by the characters were unnecessary to the plot, and detract from an otherwise fascinating book. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this book to an LGBTQQ teen. Other teens are likely to find it quite interesting; my blog, however, aims to recommend (or not), books specifically for an LGBTQQ youth audience.

  2. Hi there!

    I’m the author of The Blonde of the Joke, and although I usually try to let reviews lie, I surely don’t want anyone getting the impression that I intended this book to be homophobic. In fact, I am an open and enthusiastic gay myself!

    And although it’s certainly possible to be both gay and homophobic– just as it is of course possible for a novel to carry meaning outside and beyond the intentions of its author– I do think it’s a little unfair to label a book as homophobic simply because the characters use slurs. Characters are characters.

    I’d rather not get into a discussion of why the Francie and Val behave the way they do and use the words they do, because I think that those deliberations should be left to the reader. It’s part of the process of reading the book.

    But a few questions that I hope readers consider: Why are the girls using these words? What does it say about them and their own relative positions of power that they speak this way? Are Francie and Val homophobes? (Hint: the answers to these questions may be different for each girl!)

    When Val reassures herself that her bathroom makeout with Francie is “not a lesbo thing,” what are the implications? Is it realistic that she would think this way?

    When Francie dresses as a ho for the supposed benefit of Val’s gay brother, is it because she really thinks she can “turn” him? Either way, what does it say about Francie that she says this?

    And let’s say that Francie and Val are indeed at least a little homophobic. Does this mean that they’re not suitable characters for fiction?

    The last  question is the one I can answer easily: no, it doesn’t. A writer’s job isn’t to create saintly characters as models of good behavior for readers. Characters without flaws– even, at times, ugly and discomfiting flaws– are bad characters, and bad characters make bad literature. In order to be interesting, characters must sometimes behave in ways we don’t approve of. (The ill-tempered murderer Raskolnikov, racist-mouthed Huck Finn and pill-addled/ego-crazed Neely O’Hara all spring instantly to mind.)

    Many have suggested to me that a writer of books for young people bears an added responsibility when it comes to matters such as these. After
    all, mightn’t some impressionable youngster read my book and come away with the notion that it’s okay to go around calling people “fag”?

    I mean, possibly, sure. But I give my audience more credit than that, even if it’s largely underage. I have no choice as a writer but to trust that my readers understand that I’m not endorsing any of the questionable behavior that the characters in my book engage in. There’s a lot of it. Besides the occasional homophobic slur, Val and Francie also perpetrate countless feats of extreme shoplifting,
    indulge in outrageously profligate cigarette-smoking, drink while underage, smoke a little weed, skip class and curse without remorse, and– worst of all in my mind– inflict several cruel and petty betrayals upon each other.

    So am I telling teenagers to go out and act this way? Of course not. Am I telling teenagers not to? No, not that either. It’s not my intention as a writer to tell anyone what to do. Everyone can do as he or she pleases. All I ask of anyone who reads my work– teen or otherwise– is to think about it carefully and questions.

    • silverrod

      Hi Bennett,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. It has made me think a bit more about how I want to express my concerns about this book.

      While I feel that Francie and Val’s attitudes and expressions regarding gay people are not at all atypical of large numbers of high school students these days, I still find them disturbing and extraneous to the plot which is rich with so much psychological disturbance, dependence, growth and betrayal.

      It is understandable that Liz, Jesse’s ex-girlfriend, has mixed feelings about her relationship with Jesse and the fact that he broke up with her to come out. However, she is putting herself in the position of a supportive person in Jesse’s life as he is dying (of what, by the way?), and it seems that she would have come to some closure on the former relationship to be able to do so. Thus her negative remarks about Jesse’s gayness seem inappropriate, especially coming from an adult to a teen sister.

      I agree with you that as an author, you are in no way obligated to create characters without flaws, and in fact, if you did, the book would be much less interesting.

      From the photo on the book jacket, I would guess you are a good 25 years younger than I am, and came out in a very different general, if not personal climate, than I did. In responding to your book, I am looking at in in the context of every LGBT book that has been published for young people since John Donovan’s 1969 book, “I’ll Get There, It Better be Worth the Trip.” The great majority of these books still have negative endings, and portray homophobic speech and action as, if not acceptable, then as a norm. It wasn’t until the 1990s that changes started to appear, but they haven’t been consistent. For every “Sissy Duckling,” or “And Tango Makes Three,” or “Boy Meets Boy,” there have been ever so many more books that aren’t gay-positive.

      Obviously, as a writer, you have a particular story you want to tell, in a way that feels right for the characters, and you have no obligation as a gay (or straight) author to avoid homophobic remarks.

      As a reviewer, and someone who looks at your book, and every other LGBT book published for young people in the context of the history of such books, homophobic speech or actions are relevant.

      In the case of your book, I am just puzzled by the inclusion of these attitudes which, to me, are a distraction, and detract from everything else that is going on in a complex psychological plot.

      I would be glad to continue this dialogue.

      Nancy

  3. Whoah whoah…I just finished this book and did not come away with that feeling at all. Maybe it’s because I know the author and know he is gay, but even if I didn’t I don’t think the word “homophobia” would have crossed my mind. Fictional characters do not always use politically correct language, just as real life people do not always use politically correct language. (I think it would be cool if you invited Bennett to the blog to talk about the book, which I just think is so interesting…)

    • silverrod

      I would be really interested in talking with him about it. I think the book is really interesting in every other way, but it seems like even now, most young adult books featuring LGBT characters express unnecessary homophobia, and reinforce the idea that that kind of talk and behavior is harmless and acceptable. There are still so few books where queer teens experience happy endings. If you talk to queer teens in high school, these careless slurs are agonizing, and the behavior too often doesn’t end just with cruel speech. It’s not the 1970s anymore, when LG (forget the B & T) books for young adults always ended in suicides, car crashes, or violent attacks.

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