Art You Engaged. / Are you engaged? is an emergency issue of The James Franco Review. Writers, editors, and artists around the country explored what it means for them to be politically or consciously engaged in their work and to also examine literature’s relationship to safety.
Teenage Subversion: On the Link Between Ethics and Aesthetics
I love art about teenagers. When it’s well made, it captures a sense of how feral, sensitive, volatile, lost, and hopeful they are. Through a teenage lens, every emotion is an extreme version of itself, taking up too much space, bleeding too much color, humming too loudly in our ears. It goes too far, subverting aesthetic norms of realism and subtlety. I saw two films this summer that capture the existential drama of being teenage, but only one of them uses its teenage lens to subversive ends. The other gave itself over to harmful stereotypes. Moreover, it was boring. Wait—moreover? Is dullness really a worse crime than the proliferation of stereotypes? In thinking about this film, I’ve been wondering how aesthetics and ethics are linked.
This film in question is Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and its aesthetic failures seem to be a direct result of its ethical failures. The film is a coming of age story about an upper-middle class, white, teenage boy (Greg) who needs to grow up. The other two characters mentioned in the title seem to exist solely to help him do this. Earl, his Black friend from a “tougher” neighborhood, says surprisingly little throughout the first three quarters of the film. Despite his role as a titular character, Earl doesn’t offer a viewer much in terms of complexity. His pithy advice to Greg about the Dying Girl (Rachel) with whom he develops a friendship is: “better play with them titties.” He repeats this advice several times, so it begins to seem as if this is all he can say. He is the sole Black character with a primary role in the film, and he’s reduced to cheap laughs for a catchphrase in dialect. At the end of the film, however, he’s pushed to open up and give Greg a good talking-to. For the benefit of Greg, Earl is suddenly a fount of wisdom, playing a role similar to what Spike Lee has called the “magical, mystical Negro”—and his knowledge and eloquence are meant to stand in surprising contrast to his persona throughout the film. Would it have been so difficult to imagine a Black teenage boy who is wise and eloquent from the start? Can we not imagine a culturally relevant depiction—eloquent or not—of a Black teenage boy that isn’t poised in contrast to white culture for comic effect?
Then there’s the dying girl. Oh, how I loathe dying girls, always dying so stoically and romantically on screen, à la Anne Hathaway’s character in Love & Other Drugs, or Charlize Theron’s in Sweet November, or Shailene Woodley’s in The Fault in Our Stars. I could go on. The dying girl in this film, Rachel, helps Greg to grow up by becoming his friend and then dying right in front of him. After her death, we witness Greg looking through some of Rachel’s drawings and art, discovering things about her that he never bothered to discover while she was alive—her creativity, her sense of humor. This, of course, makes Greg feel guilty. The problem with presenting Rachel’s complexities in this way is that she’s already dead, so even this five-minute glimpse of her depth is merely a device that serves to develop Greg’s character. Offering a dying girl as a means of self-discovery for a selfish but well-meaning boy challenges viewers to do nothing but passively consume a familiar trope. Like instant pudding: just add some quirky names and it slides right down. Everybody cries at the end and we all go home feeling good because, while we are not the dying girl, we learned something from her, and we mourned her—but mostly because we are not her.
As someone who had cancer in college and thought maybe she was a dying girl for a while, I would love to see more films about angry, dirty, selfish dying girls. How about a film in which a dying boy is the romantic lead? Even something as simple as a reversal of roles like this could be politically subversive, potentially challenging gender norms that teach us women should be weak—or at least meek—and men should be strong. Furthermore, a reversal like this would upend familiar plot formulas. So just imagine what something more complex than a gender swap could do. Isn’t this what they tell us in Creative Writing 101: be surprising, be fresh, be strange? Do they mean it?
As many have said before, it’s easy to use stereotypes; they’re prefabricated. It’s also dangerous. Stereotypes enact a quiet violence, stuffing socks in the mouths of marginalized people and blindfolding privileged people to the real experiences of those marginalized people. In a post on Weird Sister, Caolan Madden describes the ways in which poets like Kenneth Goldsmith have presented ethics and aesthetics in opposition to one another. She questions the tendency to call unethical art “boring,” a term that relies on aesthetic values to call out artists like Goldsmith when they make exploitative art. Perhaps it’s okay, she argues, to call a racist poem “bad” even if it’s not boring: “Maybe we can reconcile ‘boring’ and ‘evil,’ maybe ethical and aesthetic systems tend to intersect at the point where we can point to ‘boring’ and also be pointing at ‘evil.’”
I want to agree with this position, but perhaps ‘evil’ isn’t the right word; after all, I don’t actually believe in what is usually denoted by that word. I’m equally sheepish about calling art ‘immoral’ or ‘amoral.’ Yet sometimes art is bad for reasons that are not fully aesthetic—unless ethics can be understood as something contained within aesthetics. Our tastes are culturally formed, after all—as are moral and ethical codes—so it’s conceivable that ethics are already incorporated into aesthetics. For example, perhaps we find violence in art to be moving (thrilling, terrifying, revolting) not totally because of some inherently provocative quality contained within violence, but in part because we are culturally ingrained to be morally opposed to it. Of course, the trouble comes in drawing the lines between thrilling, terrifying, and revolting. At what point do the screaming young girls of horror flicks become morally reprehensible? Perhaps it is when the mere quantity of them begins to enact real social harm by normalizing violence against women. In this case—and others, like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl—the problem is partly a matter of numbers. Stereotypes are harmful for the same reason that they are boring: by repeating a single depiction of a human experience, they exclude the possibility of complexity—and complexity is, of course, connected to empathy. If we understand that social groups are not monolithic, that they are composed of myriad complex individuals worthy of attention and empathy, then we’re one step closer to social justice.
You get the gist of Me and Early and the Dying Girl by now. It is a movie about Greg, from his own myopic teenage perspective—and what’s wrong with that, you might ask? The film’s title does suggest an ironic awareness of the main character’s self-centered nature—and Greg does realize the error of his ways in the end. In using Earl and the Dying Girl as props for the Greg-centered plot, one might argue, the film accurately depicts Greg’s failings in seeing these friends as complex people with lives outside of their interactions with him. But is that kind of accuracy really a worthwhile goal in a film like this? Think of how much more interesting an “inaccurate” reimagining of the old coming-of-age story could be.
This brings me to the other film about teenagers I saw this summer: Electrick Children, a film that is somehow both over-the-top and understated. It is a brooding indie film and a comic-book movie at once—not a confusion of genre but a hybrid genre that gets at the experience of being a teenager, weighted with mundane angst and Technicolor excitement. This aesthetic freshness is supported by the film’s willingness to subvert gender norms. It features a fifteen-year-old Mormon heroine, also named Rachel, who defies categorization—she is naïve, independent, and powerful at once. She believes that she became pregnant while listening to rock music for the first time, because of the physical sensation it provokes (orgasm by music is possible, by the way). Threatened with an impending marriage of moral convenience to a local boy, Rachel runs away to Las Vegas to find the father of her child (the rock musician who made the orgasmic song). The only “real” explanations the film offers for Rachel’s pregnancy are: 1. a brief and quickly dismissed suggestion of rape by her father; 2. immaculate conception. These two choices are perhaps equally uncomfortable—one on moral grounds (it’s horrifying) and the other on aesthetic grounds (it’s unrealistic). Rachel never reveals what the “real” explanation is—to anyone in the film or to viewers. In the context of traditional plot expectations, this could be seen as a narrative hole, but in this film that hole is a source of power for Rachel. By keeping her secret, she denies the viewer the opportunity to pass judgment on her as a victim or a virgin (or a promiscuous girl, for that matter). In this way, the film’s aesthetic subversion of narrative conventions allows its main character to transcend stereotypes and gain agency in her sexual experiences.
That said, Electrik Children is not a perfect film. It features almost no characters of color, and this is a shortcoming with which I grappled as a viewer when comparing the film to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Is it worse to misrepresent people of color or to exclude them altogether? But that’s an indulgent question, designed to get artists off the hook. The effect of both missteps is the same: ignorance.
Yet the film is socially subversive in at least one sense, and it is not surprising to me that this is a result of aesthetic subversion. I think the two often go hand-in-hand. While aesthetic experimentation does not always result in subversion or ethical writing, it can offer the potential for political impact through provocation, and for me, this potential is what reconciles ethics and aesthetics.
Rochelle Hurt, is the author of The Rusted City, published in the Marie Alexander Poetry Series at White Pine Press (2014). Her work has been included in Best New Poets 2013, and she has been awarded literary prizes from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Hunger Mountain, and Poetry International. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have been published in journals like Mid-American Review, The Southeast Review, The Kenyon Review Online, Versal and Image. She holds an MFA from UNCW, and is currently a PhD student in the Creative Writing program at the University of Cincinnati.