March 7, 2007

Context is everything, part two

Posted in Censorship, Education, Literature, Musings at 7:57 pm by The Lizard Queen

Evil Bender’s post about Phil Kline’s hopes to get “obscenity” banned from public schools in Kansas had me heading back over to our friends the Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools to see what they had to say about it (short answer: nothing). While there I came across a link to another group: Parents Against Bad Books in Schools. (That title makes me twitch, but I’ll let it go for now…) What this site consists of, by and large, is excerpts from those “bad books” teachers are forcing on their students. This page has on it both The Bluest Eye and The Handmaid’s Tale (books beginning with “The” are alphabetized under T)–powerful books that depict women in horrible situations. Excerpts are pulled out of the books and presented to someone surfing the site in a bulleted list, without any sense of context, and while there are occasional comments (The Handmaid’s Tale is “set in future where psychotic theocracy controls every aspect of everyone’s life”), there is essentially no analysis.

Indeed, here’s a quote from the same work: “My God. Who Art in the Kingdom of Heaven… I think about the chandelier too much.. you could use a hook in the closet… after attaching yourself.. lean your weight forward and not fight.. I feel very unreal, talking to You like this. I feel as if I’m talking to a wall. I wish You’d answer. I feel so alone… Oh God… Oh God oh God. How can I keep on living?” (None of the quotes are cited, by the way.) I suspect this quote was referenced because it mentions suicide, and that’s obviously bad (mmmkay?). However, anyone who’s read the book (and probably plenty of people who haven’t) will understand that the desperation the narrator feels in this moment is a direct result of the situation she’s in. Margaret Atwood creates a dystopia, then demonstrates what an everyday woman’s reaction to that world might be. She’s telling a story, not advocating a particular religious view or philosophy or anything like that. When phrases are taken out of context, though, how can anyone judge whether or not those phrases are “appropriate” or not? If I start jumping up and down in my living room shouting “penises and vaginae*” over and over for no apparent reason, might that be different from a medical doctor stating, “men have penises and women have vaginae”? Shouldn’t context play a part in the argument, then?

Here’s another example of problematic excerpting: included in the list is a book called I Was a Teenage Fairy, which I’ve never heard of before, but it sounds entertaining, if nothing else. This quote caught my eye on the PABBIS site: “From Page 1, 1st sentence: ‘If Los Angeles is a woman.. with.. silicone-inflated breasts..'” I couldn’t help wondering what those would-be ellipses were masking. Here’s the full sentence, care of Amazon Online Reader: “If Los Angeles is a woman reclining billboard model with collagen-puffed lips and silicone-inflated breasts, a woman in a magenta convertible with heart-shaped sunglasses and cotton candy hair; if Los Angeles is this woman, then the San Fernando Valley is her teenybopper sister.” While it seems like there’s a grammatical error/idiosyncrasy at the beginning (“a woman reclining billboard model”?), that’s a great sentence! It’s got great imagery, it orients us to the setting nicely, and it sets up a nice comparison between L.A. and the Valley. So… what’s the problem? Well, the excerpt makes that fairly clear: it’s the reference to breasts. Nevermind that the author was working out an extended metaphor in which “silicone-inflated breasts” makes perfect sense–students must not be allowed to so much as think about breasts! Ever!  (Except that students are frequently wondering when they’ll get to touch a pair, or catch a glimpse, or when they’ll fill out, or whether they should let Billy slip his hand up there…)

So, again, folks: context. It’s important. Pay attention to it!

*(Spell check made me do it!)



  1. DavidD said,

    Thank God the sentence wasn’t “nude descending” instead of “woman reclining”. It might have blinded the reader.

    If you shield a child from ever hearing someone else’s thoughts of suicide, then when that child has suicidal thoughts, he or she can believe no one else in the world has experienced such a degree of failure as evidenced by having such thoughts. They also have no role models that one can have such thoughts and live.

    I think there’s black and white thinking in those who would ban books. They start with some idea of the downside for a child to grow up in a brothel, which I suppose there is, and then move on to want to purge every reference to sexuality. They start with some sociopath who lights his animals on fire and gives his neighbors nightmares, and then move on to want to eliminate any “negative” thoughts characters might have. There is something in between that’s OK, even healthy. I’m not sure what it takes to make that point to people who don’t already believe it.

  2. Michelle said,


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