Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Skinny on Silly: What Kids Might Gain from Silly Bandz

Like many of the grade school set, Taegan has adopted the silly bandz trend as an important component of her personal sense of style, as well as a valid form of interaction with other kids at day camp and on the playground. She got her first silly band—-a cloud—-from a boy in her class, apparently after she simply asked him if she could have one, and has been collecting them ever since. To date, Taegan has spent around eight dollars of her own money on these brightly colored silicone bands that both serve as bracelets and also snap neatly back to their various shapes (think animals, sports objects, cartoon figures, princesses and fairies, rock star memorabilia, etc.) when not being worn. Although I haven’t actively encouraged Taegan’s interest in silly bandz, I don’t have a big problem with it either, and I even defended the trend to Taegan’s dad the other day when he tried to dismiss her bandz as “junk.”

Okay, so, of course, rubber bands shaped as insects and flowers, to name a few additional examples, that often break after only a few wearings and that will undoubtedly end up forgotten in a drawer sometime in the near future, could reasonably be classified as “junk.” And certainly, like any other product-driven fad, the silly bandz trend most benefits the companies who are able to successfully market the product, in this case, to children who are attracted to the various silly bandz shapes and who want to fit in with their peers who already sport armfuls of the brightly colored bracelets. As blogger Eric Steinman suggests only somewhat jokingly, then, for our children, silly bandz might represent “the first step along the slippery slope that leads to wanton and reckless consumerism” (par. 5).

I see at least a few benefits in the current silly bandz trend, however. For one thing, at around three or four dollars for 24 bandz, silly bandz are relatively cheap. Even the kids who don’t wear clothing from the latest lines at Gymboree or own every Zhu-Zhu pet and Zhu-Zhu pet accessory can probably pony up the allowance money for at least one or two packages of their very own fun-shaped rubber bands. The low cost of the product allows for kids from different socio-economic backgrounds to get in on the silly bandz action. This leads me to my next point, that the school-yard (or, in our case, Cardinal Kids Camp) trading of silly bandz can be a meaningful form of interaction among children. Taegan looks forward to seeing the other kids who engage in silly bandz trading every day during free time at camp and, more importantly, to trading for new bandz. Indeed, Taegan is also learning a bit about how free trade works. Some silly bandz are more valuable than others simply because they are more desirable among the kids of her crowd. Yesterday afternoon, for example, she was willing to give two gymnastics figures for a much-coveted tie-dyed octopus. She has also discovered that sometimes you have to have something that someone else wants before they are willing to give you what you want. She longs to own her friend’s Mr. Krabs band, but she knows that she won’t get her hands on it until she has the dolphin band that her friend wants in return. Besides giving them practice with trading, silly bandz also offer kids a chance to simply be kind to one another. Since they are inexpensive and come in large packs, silly bandz are easy to just give away. Taegan assures me, in fact, that just like her friend at school gave her a starter band a couple of months ago, she gives away a band or two every day to kids at camp who want to start collecting silly bandz but who haven’t yet saved up enough money to buy their own packs.

My final point is tentative, but it might be that the silly bandz craze is defeating the gender-based marketing of the bandz themselves. Clearly, certain colors and shapes of bandz-—pink and purple princesses, fairies, gymnastics figures, candies, etc.—-are marketed to girls and other colors and shapes-—red and black baseball figures, Sponge Bob characters, pirate memorabilia, etc.-—are marketed to boys, in such a way aims to reinforce the gender stereotypes that we already battle in the marketing of toys, clothing, and pretty much every other product that is intended for children. But it seems to me that kids are so interested in collecting the various shaped bandz that they are ignoring the traditional designation of some items and colors as feminine and some as masculine. Taegan tells me that lots of boys sport angels and cupcakes on their arms, for instance, and her exchange of the two (pink) gymnastics figures for an octopus was with a boy. For her part, Taegan has never been much for Sponge Bob, a cartoon largely marketed toward boys, but she really wants that Mr. Krabs band because it is one of the few that she has seen that has arms and legs, extra silicone parts that dangle enticingly from the main band!

Like it or not, the silly bandz fad is in full swing in our house. Michael just got back from a trip and brought back music-themed bandz (in glittery colors!) for Taegan. You would have thought that she won the lottery to see the look on her face when she spotted the pack of silly bandz. She’s probably already calculating the bandz loot that she might be able to bring in by introducing her camp friends to the newest additions to her collection.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Kaye Gibbons’s A Virtuous Woman as Guilty Pleasure: Humor and Overweight Women

Many reviewers have noted that Kaye Gibbons’s 1989 A Virtuous Woman is a page turner. Indeed, I read it in a single sitting, which is rare for me, given my often hectic life style. Even more impressive is that this novel had me laughing uncontrollably and then sobbing not 30 minutes later. For at least a couple of hours, this story and its characters came alive in my very own family room. As a reviewer in Atlanta Journal-Constitution puts it, this novel is "[s]o true and so vital I would swear that there were moments when A Virtuous Woman actually vibrated in my hands.” What I didn’t fully realize until I had put down this engrossing read, though, is that not only did its characters come to life for me but also that these characters seduced me into putting aside my critical lenses. Indeed, what is sad about this book—besides its plot, which relates the tale of Blinking Jack Earnest Stokes, a hardworking tenant farmer, and Ruby Pitt Woodrow Stokes, the “virtuous woman” of the novel’s title and Jack’s beloved wife who has recently died from lung cancer—is that the funny scenes consistently utilize harmful tropes surrounding gender and race and ultimately hinge on stereotypical portrayals of overweight women.

There are two characters in A Virtuous Woman who bear much of the brunt of Gibbons’s gift for weaving outrageous humor into this otherwise poignant—and yet believable—love story. One of these is a white woman whom Jack and Ruby pejoratively label “Tiny Fran,” a title meant, of course, to mock Fran’s overlarge body. In their respective first-person narrative sections—Ruby’s set in the weeks leading up to her death and Jack’s set in the time period following Ruby’s burial—the two main characters portray Fran as somewhat of a monstrous personality, deserving of their scorn. Fran was born into the landowning family for whom Jack and his friend Burr have worked throughout their lives and who also used Ruby as a housekeeper for a time. As a teenager, however, Fran gained a reputation as the town whore, and when she became pregnant, her father offered her to Burr in exchange for a plot of land. Burr took the deal only to find himself burdened by Fran’s unreasonable demands and temper tantrums.

In a scene narrated by Jack, the two couples decide to get away to the coast together. When they arrive at the cottage where they will stay, Burr and Fran engage in a hilarious exchange. At the risk of not doing this scene justice by excerpting it from the rest of the book, I will quote the exchange in its entirety:
After we got everything unloaded and inside, Burr told me to let’s get the fishing mess ready and go buy some bait and go on out. Then listen and tell me if you hear something funny. Tiny Fran broke in and asked him where he’d put the folding chairs, and Burr said, “What?” and she said, “You know, my brand new folding chairs I got especially for this trip.” Burr told her he didn’t remember packing or unpacking them and he went on about his business. Then she got hot, she yelled at him, “Well, what do you expect me to sit on?” Then listen, he said, “I guess you can sit down on your fist and lean back on your thumb!” I laughed and Ruby laughed and I thought Burr was going to choke he laughed so hard. Tiny Fran told us all to go to hell and went on inside. (95)

When I read this passage the first time, the image of the mean-spirited, selfish, and overlarge Fran sitting on her own thumb was enough to make me burst out in laughter. When I read it today, I still laugh, but with a bit of a guilty conscience. Despite her numerous acts of maliciousness toward Burr, Jack, and Ruby, Fran is nonetheless a victim herself. As a young woman, she was used as an item of exchange between her father and Burr and thereafter dismissed as worthless by both her immediate family and by Burr and his friends. Furthermore, and disturbingly, her detestability is not only portrayed as caused by her despicable attitude toward others but also as linked to her body size. In a later scene also at the vacation cottage, Jack compares Ruby’s slender and firm body to Fran’s large and soft body, stating, “Tiny Fran getting into her feed sack of a bathing suit must’ve been like cramming mud in a glove” (96). The implication is clear: one of Ruby’s womanly virtues is her thin body. Just as she exceeds the spandex confines of her bathing suit, Fran, on the other hand, does not fit the mold of the virtuous woman of the novel’s title.

Another character who is used for comic relief is Mavis Washington, a black woman whom Jack reluctantly hires to help him with household chores after Ruby’s death. Jack describes Mavis as “the biggest, coal-blackest woman I’d ever seen” (127). Although, again, I fear that it might come off as simply insensitive when excerpted from the rest of the book, I will quote a long passage from the scene in which Mavis first enters Jack’s home:

She went on in and put this big old satchel down on the kitchen table and proceeded to take out all grades of mess and lay it all out over the table. She said, “I likes to be able to gets to my bidnis.” I stood watching her, wondering if I ought to’ve let her come here. Something was way, way off. Then here comes her business out of the bag. It was first a sack of hard Christmas candy, then orange jelly slices. She looked at me, slid both of them across the table and said to me, “I likes to have something sweets to suck on. You welcome to it.” I told her no thank you, and then she took out two all stretched-out-looking Ace bandages, lotion, two snuff cans, a white Bible, a big wad of rags . . ., two tall grape drinks, and a round donut pillow. About that last thing, she laid it on the table and said, “This is for when I sits.” (129-30)

At this point, Jack reports that he was “fairly well amazed” (130). He reaches a deeper level of disgust, however, when Mavis announces that she needs to wrap her knees before she can get to work and then proceeds to the bathroom:
. . . directly I heard something sounded like the whole toilet stool was tearing off the wall. I took and went back there and got by the door and hollered, “What are you doing? Be careful with my toilet stool!” She said she was just doing her business and to go on. She finally came out but she still had the bandages in her hand. She said to me, “You got a wobbly toilet. I can’t wrap on no wobbly toilet.” I told her it didn’t wobble ten minutes ago. (130)

The scene continues humorously from here. Upon deeper consideration than that which I gave it the first time around, however, I argue that this scene depicts Jack’s perception of Mavis as lazy as linked inextricably to his disgust for her overlarge, black, female body. Indeed, Mavis’s body is portrayed as grotesque: big and swollen and in need of extra cushioning when she sits and added support when she works. For Jack, Mavis is a horrendous cross between the mammy figure and the welfare queen. She is dark in color, fat, and acts dumb like a stereotypical mammy, but she seems unwilling to work and self-indulgent like a stereotypical welfare queen. What seem to be lost on Jack, though, are the historical and social circumstances that probably caused Mavis’s grotesque bodily state and, relatedly, her inability to perform traditional housekeeping duties for Jack. We could deduce, for instance, from the fact that Mavis came highly recommended by Burr, who used her for a time as a farm laborer, that she was once a good worker but has damaged her body over the years by performing physically taxing tasks. It seems also probable, given Jack’s horrified description of the shack in which Mavis lives, that she takes the position with Jack despite her known physical ailments in an attempt to earn much-needed funds for her family and herself. Certainly, Mavis has gone through life significantly limited by her race and gender, not to mention by the maladies of her own body.

Although Gibbons certainly provides enough background information regarding both Fran and Mavis that a discerning reader might pick up on the unfortunate shaping of their lives and personalities, she clearly positions these women as outside the realm of ideal—or virtuous—womanhood, a realm inhabited by thin, beautiful, kind, and industrious women like Ruby Stokes. In this way, she not only portrays the fat bodies of Fran and Mavis as worthy objects of humor and even scorn but also constructs these overlarge women as valueless to reflect Ruby’s great worth as a virtuous woman.

In conclusion, I’m not sure what to make of my reaction to this book. I fell in love with Jack and Ruby and their love story, and it seems that I allowed my feelings for these charismatic characters to preclude an in-depth analysis of their limiting portrayal of disturbing race and gender stereotypes, and, especially, widely accepted stereotypes of overweight women, at least initially.

Works Cited

Gibbons, Kaye. A Virtuous Woman. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1989.