January 24, 2013

"Unlikable Protagonist: Young Adult" by Amy Lawless

Yesterday my friend Jackie Clark emailed me a few pages from Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence a book by Geoff Dyer, which I totally plan on reading.  I printed out the PDF and underlined these lines as they highlighted a particular characteristic found in Mavis Gery, the protagonist of Young Adult (2011) who manages to be at once both completely unlikable and completely relatable:

“it is a relief from something else - anything else. And so, after squandering a day working through this demoralising routine that I have worked through innumerable days before, I would resign myself, would in fact abandon myself to not giving up, to picking up my pen and trying once again, if for no other reason than to render listening to my CDs a little less dispiriting, to make some progress with my study of D.H. Lawrence” (Dyer 231). 

In the opening scene of Young Adult, Mavis seemed to be doing absolutely nothing. She was watching trashy TV and examples of a clinical depression littered the physical setting; phone calls from editors went straight to voicemail before they were ignored completely, cans of dog food doubled as serving bowls. A birth announcement that her ex-boyfriend was a new dad, doubled as a motivation that her life clearly lacked.  Kinda sick, right? However, if we are to read Mavis Gery through the lens of Dyer, depression consists of not doing anything and this questionable behavior is, at the very least, something...an improvement.

Mavis Gary [played by Charlize Theron], the unlikable protagonist of Young Adult, is a character wrought with an ambiguous sense of morality. She’s a poplar girl turned Young Adult serial novel author [think the Sweet Valley High series] who is not only just as razor-sharp beautiful as she was when she lorded over her high school as the prettiest and most popular girl in school, she’s also just as self-involved. Most of the film consists of her pursuit of a married ex-boyfriend, Buddy Slade [played by Patrick Wilson] whose wife just gave birth. For most us, this causes our stomachs to fall with disappointment or our genitals fold up for business. However, for the truly lonely in a world fraught with ambiguity, negotiating the desire for something that one can not have is entirely relatable. Grey area is a large and messy conversation topic for human beings with brains. Most of us just stalk the ex-boyfriend on the Internet. Not Mavis. She returns to the hometown after receiving the birth announcement in order to win back Buddy Slade, who she has decided has issued a “Call for Help” in the form of his baby daughter’s birth announcement.

Is Mavis just morally bankrupt?  I would argue no.  She has a number of qualities that would qualify her as being in a state of frozen maturity [arrested development] and is thus stuck in the emotional age of high school girl. In a slow reveal, it is shown that Mavis miscarried Buddy’s baby years ago, and probably due to this and her native immaturity and self-loathing has caused her to fall apart semi-completely after the failure of a subsequent marriage. For example, Mavis obsessively pulls her hair out (one strand at a time), has a drinking problem, watches really bad television [usually young teen girls crying or performing in front of an audience risking complete public failure or “The Kardashians”].  Mavis is also someone who remembers everything from high school with the same violent emotions as if the events in question had just occurred last week. [Note: High School totally sucks and I don’t mean to diminish anyone’s pain from High School.  I have found through personal experience making new and stupider adult mistakes will help one to forget the distant child’s-play mistakes.]


At minute 33, Mavis calls Matt Freehauf [played by an every-scene-stealing foil played by Patton Oswalt] and says, “it is way more complicated than you can possibly understand. Buddy Slade and I have years and years of history and it is very rich and very complex.”  Here she is telling Matt, who is physically handicapped and can therefore see beyond Mavis’ Ice Queen good looks straight down into the throat of her soul, that when he’d seen Mavis trying to get Buddy Slade drunk, he got the wrong idea.  It was too complicated for anyone to understand.  He would just never get it. In 2010, Esquire Magazine published an anonymous, brave, and yet equally cowardly [see? More grey area.] piece written by a man on why men cheat. One line stayed with me long after I read it: “You have to enlist the sympathy of the woman you are fucking.”  Mavis isn’t the man in this scenario, and she isn’t fucking anyone—just trying. However, she deeply tries to elicit the sympathy of Matt.  Like a true friend, self-possessed with his own solid moral compass, he only ever gives her the straight dope: he tells her she needs a therapist, she’s crazy, and through it all, it’s very clear that he is falling in love with her and all of these flaws.


The song “The Concept” by Teenage Fanclub served as a refrain throughout the film.  To this song, Mavis had given Buddy his first (and her first) blowjob in high school!   When Mavis drove from Minneapolis back to her home down, she played the song on repeat.  Buddy, it seemed, had made her a mixtape back in the day.  The song on repeat reinforces her sickness. It was her physical proof that they had loved, that they had wanted one another, and it was physical proof that they were one, that they belonged together. Later when Buddy’s adorable wife’s “mom band” covers “The Concept,” Mavis’s face turns blank. Her ownership over “The Concept” was lost.  Buddy may just like the song a lot.  But due to Mavis’ giant egotism, it is more likely that she believed that he was thinking of her still when he listened to it. She reminded him of the blowjob in the bar as the wife’s band sang the lyrics “I DIDN’T WANT TO HURT YOU, OH YEAH.” He played dumb. He didn’t want to hurt her. Oh yeah.

We all have those songs that meant something to us. I have memories of a Madder Rose song, being 16 at a party I wasn’t supposed to be at and making out with a boyfriend. It was so romantic; I’ll never forget it.  Listening to songs like that bring me back to a place that I am sort of glad I’m not in right now.  However, in the darkest onyx of the darkest hour, the darkest place sounds like the song on repeat and the memory of that which is no longer here – a first love. An innocent love. Love used to be like that. The mirror changes, becomes more cruel, but that Teenage Fanclub song sounds exactly the same. The difference between Mavis Gery and most of us, however, is that we have a voice or friends we listen to who say(s), “No fucking way. Have some god damned pride.” Ooooh yeah.


Patton Oswalt’s character Matt deserves attention for not only being the foil to the cruel Mavis, but for being the most likable character in the film.  Matt’s locker was adjacent to Mavis’ in high school. She did not recognize him in adulthood; he wasn’t a popular kid. In fact, he was so unpopular he was beaten violently and severely for being gay (hate crime) by bullies, and now he has to walk with the help of a cane. Additionally, his penis was disfigured (though still basically operational). And when it was found out that he was not gay, the crime was not prosecuted as a hate crime – but as just another beating. Matt, however, like I said, serves as Mavis’ foil: he’s not beautiful physically and in fact is crippled (Mavis remains youthful in appearance).  Matt sees the world as it is; Mavis lives in a fantasy world.  Due to his struggles, Matt works on modest projects: he makes his own bourbon, “hacks” small super hero figurines into better and more powerful ones. These are projects that make him happy on the inside and sustain him. In contrast, Mavis’ outward fixation with worldly achievements: living in Minneapolis (the ‘big’ city--LOL), bragging about her Young Adult series despite its wan in popularity (it’s ending), and attempt at the destruction of a marriage not her own. However, despite these differences they understand each other—perhaps because they are so very different.

Matt answers the phone holding Ranch Dressing.  He and his sister had been engaging in some kind of a dining ritual which consists of putting Ranch Dressing on pizza before eating it. This sounds disgusting and delicious, but also some kind of a ritual engaged in by children. It looked good; I won’t lie. Ranch dressing appears in their house as commonly as a clock might appear on a wall. It’s never explained, but it explains them.  Ranch Dressing takes 94% of its calories from fat (Wikipedia, 2012).  But more saliently, Ranch has been America’s most popular dressing since 1994, and is the dressing “of the everyman” (Koerner 2005). Matt and his sister represent your average Americans who have hopes, but don’t want to be stars.  They have their own lives and want to maintain what they already have. Ranch is just a way to put more fat onto what you already have.  I’m not 100% sure what this means, but I’m pretty sure that it’s approaching a metaphor for the idea that Americans want to maintain what they already have and also want a little bit more. Ranch provides this.  But like every American, I’m sure you’re thinking “Don’t tell me what my Ranch Dressing does for me.  Get your words off my Ranch.”  And Iove you for this, America.  I wouldn’t have you any other way.


In an interview with Marc Maron, Diablo Cody, the screenwriter, discussed the ending of Young Adult. I won’t tell you what happens, but it’s important to note that Mavis Gery does not change. In conventional fiction, a main character is supposed to change in some way. Sometimes it’s not huge. Sometimes a character just looks at something in a slightly different way, like turning a baseball so the seams face the other direction. Cody spoke at length about the riskiness of such a character and how they were almost going to have another ending (one in which Mavis does change). It’s great that she doesn’t change because we humans rarely change. I know that sounds so desperately and deeply pessimistic. I wish I believed otherwise. However, I have yet to bear witness to something as dramatic as a personality shift in an adult person. After a drink out with Mavis early in the movie, Buddy remarks that she looks the same (physically) as she did in high school.  He said, “the rest of us changed. You just got lucky.”  Sure she didn’t change, but luck had nothing to do with it.


Anonymous. Why Men Cheat. 10 March 2010. 1 December 2012 <http://www.esquire.com/features/reasons-why-men-cheat-0410>.

Dyer, Geoff. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence. New York: Picador, 2009.

Koerner, Brendan. "Ranch Dressing. Why do Americans love it so much?" 5 August 2005. Slate. 1 December 2012. <http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/number_1/2005/08/ranch_dressing.html>. Wikipedia. Ranch Dressing. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranch_dressing>.
Young Adult. By Diablo Cody. Dir. Jason Reitman. 2011.

Amy Lawless
is the author of
 Noctis Licentia (Black Maze Books, 2008), the chapbook Elephants in Mourning ([sic] Press, 2012), and My Dead (Octopus Books, forthcoming in 2013). She was named a 2011 New York Foundation for the Arts fellow. She lives in New York City. For more information go to http://amylawless.blogspot.com/.

No comments: