Fitting In

Fitting In

A review of Lisi Harrison’s Monster High (Hachette Book Group, 2011)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Lisi Harrison’s Monster High is a series adapted from the doll brand by Mattel of the same name. Her novel adaptation, aimed at a teen rather than pre-teen audience as the dolls would suggest illustrates the adaptability of narratives around dolls and toys. Although Mattel is an American company, Harrison is Canadian. Harrison’s narrative takes a very different approach and storyline than Mattel’s other Monster High narratives such as the webbisodes and films of the same name. Yet, Harrison still explores some of the issues that are central to the rest of Mattel’s Monster High brand.

Rather than setting her story in a high school just for monsters as the Mattel brand does, Harrison sets her story in a high school predominantly filled with non-monster students. Monsters are a minority in this school and in the town surrounding it and have to pass as human to avoid discovery and discrimination by the much larger non-monster population. Harrison’s narrative follows Frankie Stein, the child of other Frankensteinian creations as she navigates a society with the optimism of someone who was only created 16 days before the novel begins. Frankie believes that humans are far more accepting and open than she discovers they actually are and when she attempts to go out in public without the makeup that makes her look human, she is met with discrimination for her green skin, stitches, and neck bolts.

Harrison provides a second narrator for her story, Melody, a girl whose parents reinforce certain notions of beauty through their role as plastic surgeons. In fact, Melody reluctantly had a nose job after her parents told her (falsely) that it would help her breathe better. Melody is worried that any friends she finds only like her because she now upholds the normative standards of beauty instead of looking different than the norm. She is drawn in to the world of monsters when her boyfriend turns out to be far different than what she expected.

Harrison uses the two characters, Frankie and Melody – the girl who is told to fit in because she is a monster and the girl who is worried that she only fits in because she is ‘normal’ – to explore difference in an environment that is the epitome of enforced normalcy – the high school. High schools are spaces where people are policed for any difference from norms and where most kids just want to fit in, and Harrison’s Monster High exaggerates that enforced fitting in by adding the ultimate outsiders – Monsters.

Harrison explores ideas of internalized isms by having Frankie constantly hide her heritage and bodily difference and instead to conform and try to blend in to her society. They force her to wear conservative clothing that allows her to blend into the background, to become unnoticed and become essentially invisible (though not as invisible as the school’s literal invisible boy Billy).

Despite her attempts to conform, the school and surrounding town of Salem still has an intense fear of outsiders and even has school drills for “what to do in case there is a monster sighting” with its own special alarm system.

Harrison’s Monster High is a tale of conformity, challenging expectations, and finding one’s place with friends who support diversity

To find out more about Lisi Harrison, visit https://lisiharrison.com

To discover more about Monster High, go to https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/lisi-harrison/monster-high/9780316176217/

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A Revolution Against Normalizing

A Revolution Against Normalizing
A review of Tyler Keevil’s “The Weeds and the Wildness” in Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law (Laksa Media Group, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Tyler Keevil’s “The Weeds and the Wildness” is a tale of resistance to conformity, a revolution against the dangers of enforced normalcy. Keevil explores the perspective of a gardener who is uncomfortable in social situations. He operates primarily from his house and sells products for gardeners through the internet. However, he soon notices that people around them are changing as their lawns are changing. After all, suburban bliss is just a lawn covered in turf away. As people’s lawns are being forced into conformity, with their flowers cut down and replaces by lawns of the same green grass and their hedges trimmed into the same ubiquitous shapes, people begin to lose what makes them unique, showing the same sets of blank stares and expressionless smiles. Every time the white vans go by, another person and lawn are converted into conformity.

Keevil’s “The Weeds and the Wildness” is a call out to ABnormalcy, to wild, uncontrolled spaces that allow nature to flourish and resist the controlling hand of civilization. Keevil raises questions about the power of “normalcy” to keep people acting and performing life in the same way, removing their uniqueness and “The Weeds and the Wildness” invites questions about how to maintain one’s difference in a civilization that prefers sameness.

To discover more about Strangers Among Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/strangers-among-us-an-anthology-with-a-cause/

To find out more about Tyler Keevil, visit http://www.tylerkeevil.com

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 46: A Discussion of Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I explore Jillian Tamaki’s graphic novel SuperMutant Magic Academy, a novel that plays with the theme of “You are different, so you should go away to a special school for people like you and everything will work out”. I discuss Tamaki’s clever play on Hogwarts (Harry Potter) and Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters (X-Men), and her play with the notion of youth in a special school that embraces difference. I interrogate Tamaki’s portrayal of youth and the ability of youth to disrupt expectations.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

Disability Ghetto

A review of  Tyrell Johnson’s “Feathers for Tray” in OnSpec Vol 25 No. 2, Summer 2013
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover image for OnSpec Summer 2013 courtesy of the publisher

Cover image for OnSpec Summer 2013 courtesy of the publisher

In his Feathers for Tray, Tyrell Johnson explores the ghettoisation of people with disabilities. Disabilities in our own society are often treated like something that should be hidden, moved out of sight. People with disabilities are often put into homes and hidden from the sight of the able-bodied.

Writing about disability can be transformative, and Johnson’s story is imbued with ideas of transformation and change, both bodily and societal. In the society that Johnson creates, people with disabilities are put into a walled in enclosure called “Confine”, and the only open space that is not gated is a cliff face. This becomes a place of escape for many of the residents, jumping off of the cliff to their death to escape ghettoisation. Johnson’s story explores the social equivocation of disability with death and the notion embedded in our society that the death is a “way out” for people with disabilities and examines the social construction of disability as a form of “end of life”.

The society of Johnson’s world separates people with disabilities from their biological families and friendship networks when they attain any form of bodily difference (whether through genetics or circumstances) and they are placed in this enclosed space, assigned a new family unit, and expected to remain out of sight of the able-bodied. Disability is socially constructed as a problem, a danger.  It is made invisible by the change in place… and yet, within the enclosure, disability is highly visible. Everyone is expected to show their bodily difference and that bodily difference becomes a subject of regular discussion.

When a girl named Tray arrives and appears to have no visible disability, she is met with speculation, uncertainty, and, eventually, fear. She is seen as hiding something, keeping the feature that makes her belong in this space a secret. This is a community that is both policed by external forces (the guards and gates) and within, by the community members who have bought into this bodily surveillance and policing of difference. They can’t fit Tray into a category that they understand, can’t slot her into a pre-defined body type, so she becomes constructed as a threat and they decide that she needs to be murdered for her perceived dishonesty about her body.

Johnson brings attention to the way that society regulates bodily difference and ascribes systems of control onto those whose bodies don’t fit with socially constructed norms and assumptions.

To find out more about OnSpec, visit their website at http://www.onspec.ca/ .