Monday, July 30, 2012

Move Over, Bad Boys

Recently, I've fallen in love with a new kind of leading man. He's so far from perfect. When you first meet him, he seems awful, fatally flawed, morally reprehensible. He is repellent, unattractive, and abhorrent. And then you realize, he's only human. And you can't help but love him for that.

These leading men aren't bad boys, like these guys:

They aren't an image or a stereotype. Instead, they're more of a surprise. When you first meet them, you judge them, quickly disapproving. But then they do something so sweet or they seem so vulnerable, that you're forced to reevaluate them. Bad boys are trying to the wrong thing, while trying to break all the right rules. These new guys are just trying to do what feels right or seems right to them in that moment, even when they have no idea what that is. They panic, they screw up left and right. But it isn't intentional. It's a flaw, a flaw that contributes to a fully realized, real, human character that you relate to, that you root, a character that you eventually learn to love with all your heart. 

The first one I met was Adam on Girls, portrayed by the actor Adam Driver. 

In the first few episodes of Girls, I thought Adam was so gross. His sex scenes with Hannah (Lena Dunham) were horrible. Us viewers had to watch Adam demean Hannah over and over, use her, and abuse her feelings time and time again. After his first scene, I'd written him off as the decoy boyfriend. He was lecherous, so creepy, and so disgusting; there was simply no way Hannah could ever stay with such a horrible person. I thought Adam was there to develop Hannah's character, to show us how she learned to stand up for herself, and learned to respect herself enough to end such a damaging relationship. 

But I was wrong. Adam Sackler was no decoy boyfriend. No, he was here to stay, flaws and all. Slowly, as the episodes went on, and I got to see more and more sides of Adam, I realized that he wasn't this one-dimensional point on Hannah's journey; no Adam was a real person and a permanent character that I had to learn to accept, flaws and all. 

I'm not one to change my opinion quickly. In fact, for a while, I felt almost tricked by the show. I wanted to hate this guy, but now they'd made me like him! It was wrong! 

No it wasn't wrong. It was good storytelling. It was excellent character development. And the reason it felt so wrong was because it was so foreign to me to see such an imperfect person play such a desirable, romantic role. I was used to the perfect guys. I didn't know what to make of a guy with flaws. 

Adam sat in the back of my brain for a long time after the season ended, only to return to my consciousness recently when I was watching the MTV show Awkward. That was where I met my second imperfect man (or, in this case, teenaged boy): Matty McKibben (Beau Mirchoff). 

Early in the series, we learn that Matty is ashamed of his relationship with our main character, Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards). The pair is constantly hooking up in private, but never act like a couple in public. Matty makes Jenna into a shameful secret, and, as a viewer, you have to hate him for that. 

So, just like I did with Adam, I wrote Matty off as a decoy boyfriend. Just like I expected Adam to be a "character moment" for Hannah, I thought Matty would become a "growing point" for Jenna. But then, slowly, I started to see the charms of Matty McKibben. I started to understand how sweet he was to Jenna in private, and, more importantly, how confused he was about his a possible relationship with her in public. I learned that Matty really liked Jenna, he just didn't know how to express it exactly. I learned that Matty McKibben was a real, confused, teenage boy who had some serious growing up to do. 

After a season a piece, I feel in love with Adam Sackler and Matty McKibben. And I realized that my love for their characters was greater than my love for your bad boy Chuck Basses or your perfect Pacey Whitters. With characters like Chuck or Pacey, I could tell you, vaguely, that they had flaws. With characters with Adam and Matty, I know what those flaws are, and I've learned to love them. I've learned to love all of who they are, not just their images or their perfections. Most of all, I've gotten to experience the joy of a well developed character arc, with real mistakes, and fulfilling moments of redemption. According to Joseph Campbell, a hero isn't a hero without some sort of great journey and great moment of redemption. Adam and Matty have taught me that this shouldn't only apply to our heroes and heroines, but also our leading men. Every character deserves to be more than a name or an image. They deserve flaws; they deserve real, meaningful, clearly defined character growth. They deserve to be human, just like every one of us watching and admiring them. Just like us viewers deserve to find more relatable leading men just like them. 

With that, I salute you, Adam Sackler and Matty McKibben, and I hope I get to know (and love) many more (fictional. Or possibly real.) men like you. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Are Academics Worth It?

That was the question Sarah Strohmeyer asked in her new novel Smart Girls Get What They Want. I lightly touched on the question in my review, but, as a life-long "smart girl", I thought it might be interesting to explore the answer further.

I mean, of course I want the answer to be yes. I don't want to think that missed out on anything or wasted any opportunities. No one wants to think that, right? Which is why I have my list of reasons why my academic experience was great.

First off, the fact that feel that made the most of my education. I tried as hard as I could in every class. I genuinely wanted to learn, and I made sure to learn everything I could. I memorized every list, but I also learned every lesson. As a result, I feel fairly good about my knowledge and skills in every subject from English to math to biology. I like feeling intelligent and informed. I feel like I learned not only how to succeed and get good marks, but also how to overcome challenges and keep trying even when you think you will never improve.

Moreover, I love the feeling academics gives me. I love the feeling of good test mark. I wake up in the morning remembering the unexpectedly high essay mark I received the day before. And, for me, it is not just a hobby or a passion. It is an identity. It is the thing I'm good at. Some people are outgoing and know how to say the right things and impress the right people. Some people are good at sports or drama or some fancy musical instrument. I am good at school. I am the IB kid, the perpetual Honour Roll student, the "smart girl". That who I've been for so long. I don't know what I'd be if you took that away from. I suppose you could view that as a negative. But I'm just so happy that, through academics, I found so many positives. Academics allow me to feel smart and confident and happy. To me, that is not a negative.

Furthermore, academics provided me with a community. In Strohmeyer's novel, the main characters fear that they will have blank yearbooks. Mine was full, every year. Of course, that was large bit of luck on my part. I ended up with the same twenty kids in every class, every year. While that certainly had its drawbacks (which could fill a series of blog posts) it also had so many benefits. I knew those kids and they knew me. I filled their yearbooks and they filled mine. I still see them all the time. And I only became one of them because of academics. Perhaps it was pure luck, how it worked out; all I know, is that I am tremendously thankful for that academic community.

Those are all great things. But they all came at a very, very high cost. The most obvious is time. Like I said before, every minute you spend studying is a minute you're not having fun. That is sacrifice, and it sucks. To be a strong academic student, you have to put in so much time and effort. You lose friends, you lose sleep, you slowly lose your mind.

But you also lose a million things you never ever had. You lose opportunities for new experiences. Here's one: your first job. When I was in high school I was in such a tough academic program that I would've never been able to juggle my coursework with a job. As a result, I am already behind in the job market. While most people my age have years of part time work on their resumes, I only have Honour Roll Certificates. Which makes it really, really hard to get a job now.

But that's not the biggest thing you're giving up. No, the biggest sacrifice I made as an academic student was my social life. Unlike Strohmeyer's Gigi, I didn't have amazing best friends in high school. I had a few friends, even good friends, but not like Neerja and Bea. I certainly didn't have a Mike. Nor did any of my friends. No one dated in my high school class. As a result, we are all now in university, excelling in our classes, but feeling extraordinarily out of place in our social groups. Everyone else has ex-boyfriends and "experience" (whatever that means). Most of us have never gone on a date or kissed a boy or had a boyfriend. We are physically nineteen, but our experience levels with dating are lower than an average fourteen-year-olds. That makes us feel embarrassed and ashamed; I tell you, it near destroys our self esteem.

We often say that we aren't "real" teenagers. We never went to the high school parties or had the high school boy drama. We feel like we're living our social lives four years behind everyone else. That there, that's a big reason academics are not worth it. At least not for us.

So, are academics worth it? I think I'll allow myself to go with the easy, regret-free answer: yes. But don't press me on it and ask if I would "do the same all over again". Because I don't think there's an easy answer to that question. I've done well on all the tests and essays, acing every question. But that's one I think I'll leave blank.

Book Review: Smart Girls Get What They Want

Summary: Gigi, Bea, and Neerja have always been best friends--and book nerds. They've always studied the hardest and achieved the most. But, suddenly, they find themselves asking: at what cost?


I did not connect with this book.

In high school, I was a complete nerd. An A-plus student always; honour roll regular and scholar extraordinaire. And still, I did not connect with this book.

And I don't know why.

On its surface, I think Strohmeyer poses some interesting questions, ones I have often asked myself over the years: Are academics really worth it? What do you really get out of it? And what do you miss out on because of it? And, on the surface, I love that Strohmeyer is celebrating smart girls so much. It's a positive message, one which popular culture so rarely champions; it's music to my ears.

I was Gigi in high school. Just without the best friends. I studied like mad day and night. I prepared for every question on every test, in every subject. I fit my life around my academics, instead of my academics around my life. I rose and fell with every test mark, every essay critique. And, as I look back on high school, I often ask myself: was it all worth it? In her basic premise, I think Strohmeyer understands that worry. In her execution, however, I did not feel understood at all.

Sometimes, when I read books I feel like the author is able to read my mind, like they're somehow able to know me in ways no one ever has. I love that feeling; to me, that is the magic of reading. While reading this novel, I expected that connection. I yearned for it. This was a situation so close to my own experience; the connections should have sparked on every page. Instead, to me, the words failed to ignite. Instead of elation, I felt frustration, over and over and over again.

It didn't feel like Strohmeyer had been a nerd; it felt like she had studied nerds. She got a handful of moments right--Gigi's obsession with Bones, the late nights working on papers, the utterly amazing moment in the bookstore with Mike, when Gigi describes her love of romance novels. And the friendship between Gigi and Bea and Neerja, while not very similar to my experiences at all, was certainly sweet and genuine. I loved how Gigi considered her friends feelings and sacrificed for them. That felt real and just so right.

But Strohmeyer also got so many moments wrong. Some parts felt simply tone deaf to me. Gigi's fear of presentations was rather absurd, in my opinion. I am super shy and awkward and terrible at giving presentations. Or, at least, I used to be. But then I had to do them so often, I just didn't care anymore. Seriously, in grade nine French class I had a teacher who made me do a presentation every single week in a language I didn't understand at all. Teachers do not care if you are bad at public speaking. They make you do it in every single subject. I gave weekly speeches in English and French. I did skits in biology. I even had presentations in math and gym classes. No one would spare me, no matter how much I hated it each and every time. Which is why I did not buy Gigi's explanation that teachers did not make her do presentations anymore, because they knew the result. No, for Gigi to get as good marks as she did, she would have had to do what I did, time and time again: put the mark before the fear. She would have had to invent a version of herself that could get up and speak in public. If she wanted the 90%, that's what it would have taken. I know--I've been there.

Beyond that, there were lots of smaller things that felt off to me. The fact that, as they became increasingly involved in extra curricular activities--not to mention romantic activities--there was no mention of how their grades were affected. Which is wrong. Every moment they spent having fun or whatever was a moment they didn't spend studying. If they were giving up their lives for academics, they should've had to give up some of their academic achievements for their new lives. It's a basic equation; it's the only thing that makes sense. Furthermore, I was quite bothered by the idea that smart kids had to be well versed in high culture. There were numerous times throughout the novel that a character would be considered dumb and then--Oh My God!--it was discovered that they read Anna Karenina, so they were actually smart. Now, I know a lot of nerdy, academic kids. And most of them watch shows like Gossip Girl and read so-called "lighter" books. Seriously, when you spend all your time analyzing poetry and understanding complicated math formulas and learning about European history, you just want to relax at the end of the day. You do not want to read insanely complicated Russian novels. On a literal level, that did not make sense to me. On a philosophical level, it just annoyed me. I hate culture snobs. I hate that this book validated them so much.

I'm ranting and ranting about minute details, I know. I apologize. This is just a very hard book for me to judge. Because I so very much wanted to like it. I wanted to connect with it. But try as I might, I just couldn't. So, ranting and roaring over, I guess I'll just say that this book didn't really work for me, but that, in no way, should stop it from working for you. At its core, Smart Girls Get What They Want is a semi-unique book with a very positive message. Perhaps you will be able to connect with it better than I did. Perhaps it is just too close to my experiences for me to judge. What do you think, readers: have you ever felt disconnected from a book because it was too close to your life?

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