Removing the Pedestal: Why Paper Towns is Culturally Important

This weekend, the film adaptation of my favorite John Green novel is being released.  In light of this, I’d like to pause my usual On the Shelf book reviews in order to talk about why this story is important–not just to me, but to culture in general.

As far as plots go, Paper Towns isn’t anything special.

Q, the hero of the book, fits the average, nice guy mold to a tee.  He drives his mom’s minivan, hangs out with the band kids, and hates the whole idea of prom.  He actually tries (to an extent) in school, never breaks rules, and is secretly in love with the girl next door.

Then, one night, Margo Roth Spiegelman (the beautiful, mysterious girl Q loves) shows up at his window and takes him on the all-night, prank filled adventure of his dreams.

We live in a culture that idealizes women.  We place them up on pedestals and only see the pieces of them that we choose.  Women are viewed as perfect, pristine creatures that must be served, protected, and loved.  In the process, their humanity slips away.  Idealized women are scattered throughout literature, starting with the Troubadours in medieval France.  It was true in the Victorian Age when Coventry Patmore wrote his famous poem about “Angels in the House“.  It happens in Tennyson’s Guinevere in Idyls of the King–a poem in which the failure of Camelot’s queen to live on a pedestal brings about the destruction of a nation.  The idealized women shows up in the form of Daisy Buchanan (a personification of the American Dream) in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  There are hundreds of examples out there.  Literature and film are great shapers of how people think and the presence of supposedly perfect women only leads to the expectation that such women actually exist. (Newsflash: They don’t.)

It’s not surprising, then, that our fictional friend Margo finds herself on a pedestal.  In fact, this is one of the first things we ever learn about her.  In the novel’s prologue, Q informs us that:

The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you consider all the unlikely things together, at least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the Queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracle was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.

When the wonderful miracle that is Margo disappears, of course Q feels compelled to rescue her.

In addition to idealizing women, culture has messages for men as well.  You see, we live in a culture that is obsessed with guys “getting the girl”.  Don’t believe me?  Go pick up any chick flick released in the past thirty years.  You’ll see what I’m talking about.  So many movies and books teach men that they can get the girl if they just try hard enough.  Although this story line leads to some adorable, enjoyable, films, it also introduces rhetoric that is alarming.  It implies that nice guys get girls.  Which isn’t always the case.

Messages like these are powerful.  They have consequences.  In 2014, Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree on his college campus to enact revenge against all women.  His logic?  Watch the video he made before committing his murders.  It’s bone-chillingly familiar.

Back to Paper Towns.

The story has been told before.  Average boy (Q) loves unattainable, idealized girl next door (Margo).  Idealized girl disappears and average boy feels the need to rescue her.  They fall in love, ride into the sunset, and live happily ever after.

Or do they?

This is where Green turns the tables.  This is where things get good.

What if Margo is aware that everyone around her idealizes her?  What if she would rather disappear completely than continue living on her pedestal?  What if Q goes on a quest to save her but, instead of saving her, discovers that he never actually knew her in the first place?

The story’s main message is pounded into Q’s head through retracing Margo’s steps and closely analyzing Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself”.  In order to find Margo, Q must put himself in her shoes, to see the world as she does.  In the process, he learns that he knows nothing.

Q’s quest, ultimately, isn’t about Margo at all.  It’s about stripping away preconceived notions and learning to see people as they really are.  At one point, one of his friends even points this out, saying “You know your problem, Quentin? You keep expecting people not to be themselves.

Ultimately, this leads to Q’s major revelation:

Yes. The fundamental mistake I had always made—and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make—was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.

This is why I love Paper Towns.  Green spoon feeds us the expected “boy gets girl” story only to turn the tables.  The story isn’t about finding Margo.  It’s about taking Margo off the pedestal and restoring her humanity.  It’s about stripping away the ideal and acknowledging that people, even beautiful ones, are cracked, flawed, and messed up.  In the end, the story presents us with the challenge of seeing people as they really are.

My favorite line from the book states it perfectly:

To finish it all off, I’m really looking forward to seeing the movie adaptation.  I know it won’t be exactly like the book, but I’m okay with that.  I’ve been assured by John Green (via Vlogbrothers videos) that it stays true to the message of the book–a message that I believe is powerful and relevant.

P.S. Much of this post was influenced by the Courtly Love literature class I took this past Spring.  A huge thank you to my professor for giving me insight into the importance of these messages and the way they affect society.

The Court of Love: An Allegory

I have written an allegory.  No, I’m not yet to the level of Sir Edmund Spencer, John Bunyan, and George Orwell.  Maybe someday.

Anyways, we’ve been reading lots of allegories lately in my Courtly Love class.  So, my professor decided to make us write our own.  In addition, we had to write a formal analysis of one of the texts and discuss our creative choices in our own writing.

Disturbed by the passivity of the Beloved in the medieval text The Romance of the Rose, I chose to explore a more modern take on love in which the beloved possesses voice and agency in abundance.  My story takes place, as all Courtly Love tales do, in the Court of Love.  My court, however, is not royal, but judicial.  Love is not a king, but a judge who decides the fate of lovers.  Partially out of laziness and partially out of the desire to have fun with allegorical figures, I center the story on the jury. By giving the decision of the case to a room of allegorical figures, I explore the way internal emotions and thought processes interact when it comes to the deciding the future of a romantic relationship.

Is my allegory well-written?  I don’t think so.  But I’m definitely proud of it.

(Keep in mind that I know little to nothing about the judicial system and made all of this up.  I’m less interested in getting court procedures right and more focused on the conversations that take place.)

~*~

The jurors file into the room and take their seats around a long table. Commitment takes a seat at the head of the table, taking leadership. On his right and left are sisters Devotion and Patience. At the foot of the table sits a Lust, a dark, menacing figure. Jurors First Impression and Good Looks, who immediately hit it off, chat happily next to the small, quiet figure of Politeness. Next to her sits Modesty, who does not speak, but observes the room with a careful eye. Ambition and Biological Clock glare at each other across the table. The last figures to take their seats are the brother and sister, Fair Welcome and Consent. It’s been a long afternoon in court and it’s time to come to a decision.

Commitment clears his throat and the room silences. Eleven pairs of eyes shift his way as he summarizes the day’s proceedings. “So… we are here to decide Case 276 in the Court of Love. We have Guy Williams suing Rose Bell. He was stuck in a bad relationship when the met, but when that ended, he began pursuing Rose. She refused his first few advances, not sure if a relationship was something she wanted at this point in her life. He persisted and, eventually, she gave in. They began dating and, at first, things went really well. But, one night a month into their relationship, things went a bit too far. Guy made some moves that Rose was uncomfortable with. After telling him off, she fled from his apartment. We’ve heard, at this point, from both parties. Guy, represented by the powerful lawyer Common Sense, claims that Rose is being unreasonable for not letting him go all the way. Rose, represented by the sharp-tongued Independence, insists that she’s not ready. We must now decide the future of their relationship. Is Rose justified in refusing Guy? Should she have given in? Is he at fault for expecting too much of her? Where should they go from here? Let’s hear what you have to say.”

Immediately, the hulking figure of Lust stands. “I think the whole case is ridiculous. The vote is obvious: she should let the guy bang her.”

Politeness lets out a gasp at this base comment.

Commitment gives her a pointed look. “Yes?”

She shifted in her seat, uncertain of what to say. “I don’t think that kind of language is appropriate. I think that Rose has made her side clear and that Guy should show her respect.” Modesty nodded in agreement, but Lust glared at the small woman. Politeness shrunk in her seat, face heated in embarrassment, at all the attention.

Commitment gave her an encouraging smile, “I think Politeness raises a fair point. Personally, I think that Guy demands too much too soon. They’ve only had a few dates.”

Lust rolled his eyes. “I suppose you think they should wait until marriage? What a prude.”

“Actually, yes. I do think that.” Commitment’s words were firm, resolute. “But I’m not here to force my views on everyone. I’m here for the same reason as you, to decide the future of Guy and Rose’s relationship. Now, let’s here some more thoughts. First Impression, what do you think?”

First Impression smiled brightly. “I think Guy is great. I’m a bit surprised that he’s asking for sex this soon, but honestly, I think it’s worth the risk.”

“Oh, it’s definitely worth the risk,” Good Looks chimed in. “Have you seen those perfectly sculpted biceps? Good grief, the girl must be mad to turn down such a hunk.”

“Actually,” Ambition interrupted loudly. “I think Rose is perfectly justified. When Guy first asked her out, she turned him down. She clearly has other priorities. There is more to life than romance. What if she wants to focus on her career? She doesn’t need a man to hold her back.”

“Having other priorities is all and well,” chimed Biological Clock. “But Rose isn’t a little girl. She’s fully grown. Yes, having a career is important, but what if she wants to settle down and have a family? She’s only got so much time to do that. Guy can give her children. She shouldn’t pass this opportunity by because she may not have another chance.”

“Did you not see her on the witness stand today?” asked Good Looks. “The girl’s a bombshell. She’ll have no problem finding someone else.”

The room was silent for a minute. Then Devotion spoke, “She has to pick someone sometime. I agree with Commitment in that Guy is too forward. He shouldn’t be making these requests this early into the relationship. But I think he actually cares about her. I mean, he didn’t let her initial refusal hold him back. He continued his pursuit, which I think is extremely admirable.”

Fair Welcome nodded. “His pursuit is definitely impressive. It shows that he genuinely cares about her. I think it’s great that they started dating, but I’m not really sure what to think about the rest…” He glanced at his sister. “Consent, what do you think?”

Consent’s gaze was steely. “I fully support Rose’s actions. If she’s not sure, he needs to respect that. He shouldn’t demand more than she is ready to give.”

“Thank you, Consent,” Commitment noted. “Now that everyone has given their opinions, let’s find a plan of action. We’re pretty divided. First, let’s tackle the issue of sex. Who favors Guy in this regard?” Lust and Good Looks raised their hands. “Those in favor of Rose? All right, sex is off the table (hopefully until marriage). Now to deciding the future of their relationship. Is there anyone who thinks they should break up?”

“Absolutely,” Ambition answered. “She has so much potential. It kills me to think of it being wasted on a man.”

“Thank you, Ambition, for your thoughts. Any others?” Commitment paused. No one moved. “All right, it sounds like we want Guy and Rose to stay together. Lets hear suggestions for what they need to do from here.”

“Well,” Devotion began. “Guy was pretty forward, but I think the relationship is totally salvageable. They will just have to take it slow. It will take a while for Rose to trust him again.”

“I agree,” piped Fair Welcome. “She definitely likes him.”

“This is one of the few instances that I say it’s okay to take time,” added Biological Clock. “That is, as long as it leads to marriage and children.”

Lust looked indignant. “Time? Taking it slow? That’s the biggest piece of—“

“—Above all else,” Consent cut him off, “in the statement describing our decision, we need to stress that he is to never, and I mean NEVER pull a move like that again. Whether in marriage or not, he should not push her to have sex. He needs to wait until she has made it clear that she is ready.”

Lust tried to respond, but Commitment spoke first. “Absolutely. That will help prevent further mishaps like this one. Does anyone else have anything to add? No? Okay, so our final statement… We do not permit Guy Williams and Rose Bell to end their relationship. However, from this point forward, they must take things slow. Guy needs, to put it crudely, keep it in his pants. They have to continue seeing each other for… let’s say… a month. If things are not going well after that point, they can return here and terminate the relationship. Does this sound fair?”

Everyone in the room except Lust nodded.

“All right then, lets return to the courtroom and give Judge Love our verdict.”

~*~

On the Shelf

With three literature classes, life these days is a never-ending stream of new books.  Here’s what I’ve been reading for class lately!

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

I’m reading this for my senior seminar.  It’s a biographical novel based on the life of Nat Turner, a slave condemned for leading an insurrection against his white owners in 1938 Virginia.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Styron imagines and explores the psychology of slavery and oppression.  Writing in the late 1960’s at the time of the Civil Rights and Black Power movement, he ties the cultural ideas of Nat’s time with the issues of the day.  Although it’s not something I’d read on my own, I’m enjoying getting to know Nat’s mind and delving deep into Styron’s complicated argument.

The Rape of Lucrece by William Shakespeare

In this long poem, Shakespeare takes on the classical myth of Lucrece, a chaste wife who is violently raped by Sextus Tarquin in ancient Rome.  In it, he delves deep into the minds of his characters, exploring the psychology of rape and its deeply rooted consequences.  It’s an extremely disturbing text, especially since so much of the mindsets are still so prevalent in rape culture today.  Although it left me extremely unsettled, I found myself enraptured in Shakespeare’s words and deeply moved.

Here’s a clip of an actress performing a musical rendering of the text:

The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capelanus

Commissioned by Marie, the Countess of Champagne in the late 12th Century, this is one of the most important texts in the Courtly Love tradition.  It’s written as a treatus addressed to a young man named Walter.  Cappelanus writes out the rules and guidelines of Courtly Love.  It’s a strange text, filled with discourses, rules, and statements that are shocking to readers today.  Honestly, this text was really hard to get through.  Although entertaining at points and definitely disturbing, it was really boring.

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn

I’ve been sneaking chapters of this book in my free time.  I have to write a paper on it for my senior seminar in a few weeks.  Inspired by Dickinson’s letters and poetry, Charyn imagines the life of the beloved poet.  The novel begins with young Emily studying at Holyoke seminary and follows her life and development of writing.  What’s interesting about this book is that writing isn’t the emphasis–Charyn seems much more concerned with events in Emily’s life and how they impact her consciousness.  I’m not sure what I’ll say in my paper, but I do know that I adore this book so far.  Unlike so much assigned reading, it feels like reading for pleasure.  I’m about halfway through and find it utterly delightful.

Boys only want love if it’s torture

Courtly Love.  Fin’ amor.  What comes to mind?

Knights on white horses.  Damsels in towers.  Romance.  Intrigue.  Purity.  Chivalry.

One of the many literature classes I’m taking this semester is Gender, Lit, and Culture.  The professor, Julie, is one of my absolute favorites (and happens to be my academic advisor).  This year, she’s teaching the class from the angle of Courtly Love.

It’s only been one day and I’m already over the moon with excitement.  Since today was the day for introductory material, we spent most of the time defining courtly love.  Julie showed examples of different aspects of the concept from movies like The Princess Bride, Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare in Love, and A Knight’s Tale.  (Oh, Heath Ledger.  You beautiful, beautiful man.  May you rest in peace.)

The concept of courtly love is primarily literary, meaning it didn’t actually happen in real life.  It involves a man possessing deep, ennobling love with a woman who is usually unattainable.  (She could be married, far away, or even dead.)  The lover takes on the role of a servant, humbling himself before his beloved.  He gives her excessive praise and almost wastes away (symptoms: paleness of skin, sudden weight loss, sleeplessness) due to love.  The lady is placed on a pedestal, becoming an icon of unnatural beauty and a borderline spiritual inspiration to the lover.  Due to this position, the beloved is often seen as domineering, demanding proof of his loyalty and obedience before paying him attention.

In stories of courtly love, there is secrecy, adultery, and (of course) endless suffering on behalf of the lover.  Love transcends mere emotion–it is a game, an art with rules and guidelines.

I find it all fascinating.  It’s problematic, but also tugs at your romantic heartstrings.  The idea that there is such a thing as true love sets a standard that can never be met.  We know this, but still long for it anyway.

One of the things Julie talked about was that the traditions of courtly love continue to influence our culture today.  We talked about several examples, but my favorite was from a movie that came out not too long ago…  The song, of course, is satire.  But the agony of the courtly lover is shown PERFECTLY.  (Also, it’s the best scene in Into the Woods hands down.  Attractive men ripping their shirts, writhing around on rocks, moaning about love.  Absolute hilarity.)

Courtly love isn’t just in the movies.  Julie, defending herself with the claim that it’s all her eleven year old daughter listens to, pointed out that Taylor Swift songs are littered with courtly love themes.  After class ended, I visited some of her recent songs and discovered that is absolutely true.  I mean, the ENTIRE music video to “Blank Space” is a big, overblown courtly love fest. It’s not a perfect example, but comes pretty dang close.  Taylor takes the position of the beloved, holding complete and total control of the mansion and lover.  She’s on the pedestal.  She’s got the power.  And, goodness, does she use it.  The lyrics explain the thrill of the game and the agonies of love.  “Boys only want love if it’s torture.”

Courtly love aside, the music video is absolutely hilarious.  I’m kind of in love with it.

(Also, you can take a quiz on Buzzfeed to find out what part you are.  I got the screaming fight part.)