Saturday, May 04, 2013

WEETZIE BAT by Francesca Lia Block

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Years ago I started reading Weetzie Bat but put it down, in part, because of these passages in the first few pages of the first chapter (note: To write this post, I read an e-book that doesn't provide page numbers):
Sometimes she wore Levi's with white-suede fringe sewn down the legs and a feathered Indian headdress... 
'She' is Weetzie Bat. Her friend, Dirk, who has "chiseled" features compliments her outfit:
Weetzie was wearing her feathered headdress and her moccasins and a pink fringed mini dress.
Weetzie replies:
"Thanks. I made it," she said, snapping her strawberry bubble gum. "I'm into Indians," she said. "They were here first and we treated them like shit." 

"Yeah," Dirk said, touching his Mohawk.
Weetzie Bat was published in 1989 and won several awards. Reading it today, what comes to mind is the hipster culture of the last few years and its appropriation of Native culture. While writing up this review, I did an image search of "Weetzie Bat." In the grid of images I got (using Google image search), the first image in the second row I got is this one:

The source for the photo is a Weetzie Bat blog post at an art blog, A Beautiful Party. Dated September 16, 2010, the post is about a screenplay of Weetzie Bat and the photo is of someone playing the part of Weetzie Bat. If I didn't know it was from Weetzie Bat, I would have thought "dang hipsters!" because I've seen a lot of photos of hipsters in headdresses, in feathered earrings, fringed clothing, or moccasins. Reading Weetzie Bat now, I wonder if it might have played a role in the 1990s emergence of hipsters and their appropriation of Native culture.

What, I wonder, was Block thinking about when she brought Native culture into her book? What did it mean to her or Weetzie Bat to say "I'm into Indians"?!

In my read of Weetzie Bat there is nothing to suggest that Block knew she was, in effect, having her characters embrace stereotypical "knowledge" about American Indians (what she does with Jamaican's gives me pause, too, but I'll stay on topic).

In the chapter titled "Jah-Love," Weetzie meets the guy who will be her boyfriend. His name is My Secret Agent Lover Man (quirky names are everywhere in the book). He makes films of her doing things, like "having a pow-wow." We aren't told what she was doing, so we don't know "having a pow-wow" means. That chapter closes with this:
And so Weetzie and My Secret Agent Lover Man and Dirk and Duck and Slinkster Dog and Fifi's canaries lived happily ever after in their silly-sand-topped house in the land of skating hamburgers and flying toupees and Jah-Love blonde Indians.
Duck is Dirk's boyfriend. Slinkster Dog is Weetzie's dog. "Jah-Love" is, I think, short for Jamaica love but I don't know what to make of it beyond that. There are, of course, blonde Indians, but the ones in Weetzie Bat are playing Indian--and doing it in stereotypical ways.

Early in the chapter "Weetzie Wants a Baby," Weetzie, My Secret Agent Lover Man, Dirk, and Duck, have finished their third film. It is called Coyote. In it, Weetzie is
a rancher's daughter who falls in love with a young Indian named Coyote and ends up helping him defend his land against her father and the rest of the town. They had filmed Coyote on an Indian reservation in New Mexico. Weetzie grew her hair out, and she wore Levi's and snaky cowboy boots and turquoise. Dirt and Duck played her angry brothers...
It is no surprise that the film makes some money for them. In the story--as in real life--white people defending and rescuing Indians from whites is a sure-fire hit.

Weetzie, as the chapter title tells us, wants a baby. My Secret Agent Lover Man isn't at all interested in having a baby. He thinks the world is too messed up to bring a child into. While he's away for a few weeks, Weetzie, Dirk, and Duck decide they want a baby together. They climb into bed together and Weetzie ends up pregnant. My Secret Agent Lover Man returns, isn't happy with her decision to get pregnant, and leaves. When the baby is born, Weetzie, Dirt, and Duck decide to name the baby "Cherokee." There's no explanation for why they choose Cherokee. All we know is that they considered these names: Sweet, Fifi, Duckling, Hamachi, Teddi, and, Lambie.

At the end of the chapter, My Secret Agent Lover Man comes back. He gazes at Cherokee and asks who her father is. Weetzie says that she's got high cheekbones like Dirk, and blonde hair like Duck, but that her eyes and lips are like his.

Ah, yes. high cheekbones like Dirk. Remember---he's the guy with the Mohawk.

The last line in the chapter is:
Cherokee looked like a three-dad baby, like a peach, like a tiny moccasin, like a girl love-warrior who would grow up to wear feathers and run swift and silent through the L.A. canyons.
What does a tiny moccasin look like when you're talking about a baby?! I know the book was/is much loved but--the stereotypical othering aside--the style doesn't work for me.

In the chapter, "Chapter: Shangri-L.A.," My Secret Agent Lover Man is making another movie. This one is called Shangri-L.A. Weetzie stars in it. She wears strapless dresses and rhinestones. And,
She made fringed baby clothes and feathered headdresses for Cherokee...
Sheesh! Now there's headdresses for this baby girl?!

They can't figure out an ending for the movie, so My Secret Agent Lover Man suggests Weetzie visit her dad in New York to see if he has any ideas. While there, he takes them shopping and buys Cherokee a Pink Panther doll at F.A.O. Schwarz.

If you're buying a doll at F.A.O. Schwarz---well, if you're even INSIDE that store, you're of a certain income level. Even though Weetzie's source of money is never mentioned, the things they do suggests there's plenty of it.

While in NY, Weetzie thinks her dad isn't well. Soon after Weetzie goes back to L.A., he dies, and Weetzie struggles with her grief:
Grief is not something you know if you grow up wearing feathers with a Charlie Chaplin boyfriend, a love-child papoose, a witch baby, a Dirk and a Duck, a Slinkster Dog, and a movie to dance in.
Wearing feathers. That's what Weetzie does. Nowhere do we get any sense that she (or Block) know much about the many distinctions amongst Native peoples. With the use of "papoose" we see more of that ignorance. Papoose is the word for baby in ONE language. It is not THE Indian word for papoose. With over 500 federally recognized Native Nations, there are hundreds of languages, too. The Cherokee word for baby, by the way, is not papoose.

Cat Yampbell, in "Judging a Book by Its Cover: Publishing Trends in Young Adult Literature" (The Lion and the Unicorn, 29(3) says:
The text of Weetzie Bat celebrates those who are torn from society, individuals who find each other and find happiness outside of the box that society defines as the norm.
Michael Cart, in "What a Wonderful World: Notes on the Evolution of GLBTQ Literature for Young Adults" (The ALAN Review, 31(2)), calls it a classic of gay fiction, and says:
its largehearted embrace of every aspect of the workings of the human heart, it demonstrates, with art and innovation, that love is love, regardless of what society chooses to label it.
Though I've not done an exhaustive look, I'm unable (thus far) to find any critical essays in which the stereotyping of American Indians is discussed. The book is much celebrated for its affirmation of people who are "outside the box" and/or gay, but I wouldn't hand it to a Native child who was outside the norm or gay. I can't elevate one part of who they are and slam another part of their identity at the same time.

Granted, some Native readers would breeze past it and shrug it off, but not all would do that, and I wonder, too, about the readers (like Yampbell? Cart?) who didn't comment on the stereotyping. Did they not see it because it reflects their "knowledge" of American Indians? Or, did they deem that content insignificant? And what does it mean to decide that one culture is insignificant?

Thinking about those questions is ironic, given what Weetzie said at the top of the story. "I'm into Indians. They were here first and we treated them like shit." Does Block realize that she's doing the same thing?

Honoring or being "into" anyone in a superficial way is, in my view, treating them like shit because it is lazy. It allows a feel-good moment to stand in for real learning, real understanding, and meaningful action that would make the world we all live in, a better world.

In doing the research for this post, I read that Block has a new book out--a prequel to Weetzie Bat. I'll pick it up next time I'm at the library.

Update, Monday May 6, 2013, 8:06 PM
See my take on Pink Smog, the prequel to Weetzie Bat, published in 2012.

Update, Friday May 10, 10:00 AM
See my essay on Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, published in 1993.


debschi said...

I have to say here that I believe Weetzie, the character, does not need to be politically correct. She is the character, politically correct or not. Young adults who enjoy this novel aren't looking for lessons learned, they simply want to enjoy this novel and embrace the characters' quirky personalities. It's been years since I read this book but loved it when I did.

Robin said...

Debschi - so when you say "young adults [...] simply want to enjoy this novel and embrace the characters' quirky personalities," you mean white young adults, right? Because when I tried Francesca Lia Block as a FN teenager, I certainly wished the characters would learn some lessons and stop treating the rest of the world like exotic window dressing for their magical/pretentious L.A. experiences.

It's funny how 99% of the time, when someone says "politically correct", you can sub in "respectful of others" or "prioritizing others' dignity over one's own sense of nostalgia" without losing any of their meaning.

rebecca said...

Debschi, the question isn't whether a reader is looking for lessons learned. Some readers are Indian themselves, and the book is being hipster-racist in a way that will hurt some of them.

There's no dicotomy between a book being politically correct (which started out as a term for something good -- political responsibility, social justice, not something sour and dry as the term has come to be used) and a book being enjoyable.

Kheryn Callender said...

I am so happy to see this article. I'd wanted to read Weetzie Bat because it's been recommended so much to me, especially because I'm interested in LGBTQ in YA - but after I read the first few paragraphs, as you mention above, I decidedly put it down. I couldn't read it, and I've felt guilty about that, but now seeing this post validates my discomfort - so thank you very much for that.

Wanda said...

"Jah" means God. It is a word often used by Rastafaris.

willaful said...

"It's funny how 99% of the time, when someone says "politically correct", you can sub in "respectful of others" or "prioritizing others' dignity over one's own sense of nostalgia" without losing any of their meaning. "


Durable Goods said...

I agree with debschi. I am tired of people complaining that characters cannot or should not be written however the author wants them to be. There are offensive aspects to many otherwise pleasant characters. Why should Weetzie be any "better"? Sanitizing her would not make her any more real. Respect has nothing to do with it. I have read a lot of very disrespectful things written by FN people about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Paul Goble, and others, but I understand that each is entitled to his or her opinion.

Anonymous said...

So agree with Durable Goods. The author chooses the voice of his/her character. If you don't like it don't read it.

Tahleen said...

It's too bad that so many people are attacking your right to comment on Weetzie Bat in a critical way, pointing out ways that it is damaging to Native young adults and to non-Native people's ideas of Native culture. Hey Durable Good, Anonymous, and debschi, if you don't like it, don't read it.

Unknown said...

The sense that I got when I tried to read Weetzie Bat ( I could not finish it, no matter how hard I tried) was that she was a spoiled, self-centered girl with an overactive imagination fueled by drugs. I don't know if I imagined the drug part or not (it's been years since I aborted my attempt to read the thing), but the whole book was so dismissive of anything meaningful that I wanted to throw it at the wall.

Durable Goods said...

Tahleen, as I said, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. I am sorry you do not feel the same way. While I appreciate that Debbie Reese read Weetzie Bat critically, she and I may not agree with every conclusion. That is part of having a comments section on a public blog. Jamaicans and Rastafarians, too, may have been offended by Debbie's presumption of "Jah" to refer to Jamaicans. We all make mistakes.

Heather Munn said...

It's really not about how the character should be different--it's about how the character is *presented*. It comes through in a person's writing whether they approve of what their character does, disapprove, or are just saying dispassionately "this is how people are sometimes." It's clear from the excerpts that the author is totally behind Weetzie Bat's being "into Indians." She also seems to approve of her having a baby against her partner's wishes and with (what seems to me like) no sense at all of what having a baby involves, almost as if she wants it as an accessory. I could write a book about the same character, and unlike this one it would involve her getting a dose of hard reality after the baby's born. It wouldn't be as fun of a book that way, but at least it wouldn't trivialize important stuff, like babies and people's valued cultures.

Anonymous said...

@Heather--Then you can write the book that you want. But Block has every right to write her book the way she wants, including showing no idea of what having a baby is like or her feelings towards Native Americans. It's her choice and those who want to read it can and those that don't like it, don't have to read it. But it's her book, not anyone else's.

Heather Munn said...

I have, thanks. Not the one from my previous comment, of course, because stealing her character would actually be plagiarism, and I did not in fact make my comment with any intention to appropriate her book.

Look, when it comes down to individual rights, there's really not much to say. No one's trying to make it illegal for Block to write the book that she wants. She has the right to write it, I have the right to say I think she's using an irresponsible approach. (Nor, I expect, would she greatly care if she found out I had said it.) A much more fruitful argument would be about whether it really is irresponsible, or whether, as Debbie says, it could be problematic for Native youth who read it.

Margaret said...

Block's thinking on Native Americans has matured over the years - she tries to address the problematic aspects of her early books in "Necklace of Kisses," the (chronologically) last book in the Weetzie series, by having the Coyote character speak honestly with Weetzie. Doesn't change the other books of course, but it helps.

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, Marta, for that info. I'll see if I can get the book.

Anonymous said...

Block is not creating stereotypes, she is only portraying the ones that exist. Weetzie's character is incorrect and offensive but that doesn't mean that is how Block thinks- it is just the thoughts of the fictional, young, ignorant character that has a lot to learn. The book is about growing up and Weetzie obviously has a lot of that to do, especially in the first chapters.
The author of this blog posted about ignorance and then wrote what she thought "Jah" meant when she could have easily taken the time to get the right definition of it so that readers would know it means God. Anyone is capable of ignorance from blog writers to fictional characters.

Kainenchen said...

I think that there's a midground here-- the author was obviously not being malicious when writing, but thoughtless. This has to do with where the conversation about multiculturalism was at time of writing... we were all still in, "be colorblind!" And I don't think the term cultural appropriation had much, if any, cache yet. So the way she is written, Weetzie thinks she is being mindful, the author is writing beautiful sounding things, and it comes off as clueless. I have author friends who did the same with the term Gypsy.

But people grow and change, and from what I hear, if they make his a movie, there won't be headdresses.

RowAn said...

I'm doing an essay and I suddenly realized that Weetzie is Billionaire Ted from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian (which had its own flaws, but Ted seemed pretty on the nose to me). Instead of a billionaire collector, she's a moderately wealthy New Age chick, but other than that they treat Native cultures exactly the same way. Ugh.