February 8, 2013

"Oh my gosh, I’ve got total Diet Coke mouth: Aftertaste, not Transformation, in She's All That" by Megan Boatright

A masterpiece of all that is slangy, self-assured and sweet-after-the-fact. Pygmalion (per the back of the box) haunted by “The Real World,” the most compellingly motivated high school Iago to be let out of the saccharine romance box and then recontained as ridiculous, something like class conflict and Usher as a Puck manqué.  The first and favorite hate-pony of the budding early aughts feminist: gorgeous, talented and mature Laney Boggs (Rachael Leigh Cook) somehow makes it to senior year hiding behind shaggy hair and paint stains, until the captain of the soccer team removes her glasses and she becomes Worthy, Prom Court, All That by virtue of having been, inexplicably, nothing. Meanwhile, simply by being All-That-and-some-art-house-dwarves, she is transformed from Zack (Freddie Prinze Jr.)'s project into his inspiration—granted, "Inspiration to what?" is difficult to answer, as he's not really an asshole to begin with, nor does he require much opening up or settling down. His half-assed self discovery redeems him for befriending her on a bet and exposing her to ridicule (and the predatory notice of Dean Sampson—more on that later); toss in a spontaneous, meticulously choreographed prom theatrical number, and She's All That is nearly impossible to separate from its snarky spawn, Not Another Teen Movie.

When it came out, my sister and I were still young enough to be playing "high school" in the garage on a pretty regular basis, and with a healthy supplement of Pokemon and lip gloss, we swallowed all the fundamentals She's All That had on sale: a high school with the social dynamics of a college for students insouciant as middle schoolers about the "real world." A group of undeserving populars who could be easily loathed, exposed and dethroned (the popularity metric at my high school turned out to be Christianity—not much in the way of "mean girls," but athletic girls with acoustic guitars who prayed for, rather than preyed on, the outsiders, showing off their magnanimity to the twitchy New Girl in the hopes of revealing yet another someone Just Like Them). Quirky outcasts teeming with artistic promise, genuine and universally accepting of fellow weirdos (I spent freshman year eating lunch outside with the Juggalos, blissfully unaware of the ROTC kids getting handjobs under the picnic benches, waiting on some big reveal of deep and longing souls from people blown away by my inexperience who liked me mostly for asking them what "blowjob" and "jerking off" meant). At the end of eighth grade, I left my tiny, unacredited religious school to finally merge with the sprawling, no-uniforms-or-creation-science public school, den of sex, drugs, popular music and false gods, as the Southern Baptists assured me on my way out. I was going to be the New Girl, and despite failing to establish myself as anything but remarkably sweaty and tall in summer volleyball camp, I knew with something bordering on the religious that I was going to get my transformation. My mother (who graduated top ten and went to prom solo), grandmother (rejected from the cheerleading squad for refusing to shave her naturally smooth legs) and sister helped me put together my slow-motion entrance, Nana singing over the phone, "Who's the most popular gi-irl in schoo-ool?" And I shipped off my first morning to realize in the parking lot that the cliques had already formed, and that, darting between cars like a sprawling, heavy-kneed deer in mom jeans, I was not Rachael Leigh Cook.

Whither the transformation?

The same could actually be asked of the original film. The dramatic removal of glasses and shaking down of ponytail parody of Not Another Teen Movie becomes less resonant upon actually rewatching She's All That. For one thing, no one in She's All That seems to be under the impression that Laney Boggs isn't gorgeous—and in 1999, real, less-stellar bodies were still permitted to roam the fictional high school, even to dance on floats at the MTV spring break party, something probably owing to the recurrence of “The Real World” in the movie. “The Real World” is a persistent undercurrent against which the popular couple, Zack and Taylor frequently, unwillingly measure their lives, Zack in his dreams and Taylor in her relationship with Matthew Lillard as Puck (“Brock”) from the 1994 season. The reality show holds the movie hostage to some idea of the real, even at its most extravagant: the ridiculed prom scene choreography is restricted to the school dance team, and amongst the Rachael Leigh Cooks and Lil’ Kims (yes, really) there are also pigeon chested guys doing the monkey, girls with rolls and tankinis. Rather, we see Zack begging off transforming "The Boggster" into prom queen because, “Look, fat I can handle. Weird boobs, bad personality, maybe some sort of fungus. Scary and inaccessible is another story.” Laney isn't up for transformation; while Mac pretties her up for the big party, the scene which comes closest to justifying the comparison to Shaw's Pygmalion, she is announced at the stairwell as "The new, not improved, but different, Laney Boggs." What's really being announced in taking off the glasses and cutting the hair back from her face is that the feat here is opening up the girl already there, not Pygmalion nor yet Taming of the Shrew, but finally, simply the normal process of getting to know and trust another human being. Not Another Teen Movie is meant to scrape the veneer of plausibility off the "teen movie" fantasy, and in juxtaposing scenes from the original movies with Janey's painfully awkward reality, disclaims not against She's All That but against the self-identified Uniquely Rebellious Girl who masturbates to it. But why does this presentation eclipse and finally come to replace the nuance and, potentially, the truth of the original movie?

My little sister and I turned the perpetual swoon into a way of being, but something about going to public school and just being generally more grounded made her abandon FPZ, the posters, the tiny denim backpack full of love poems, well before I did. We moved imperceptibly from my stepdad shooing us outside upon interrupting an afternoon of damn near Victorian crying over "My Girl," to my mother's discovery of making us write essays on "From Justin to Kelly" as creative punishment. But for far longer than I'd like to admit, something about She's All That resonated—in what, I couldn't tell you, but disappointment after disappointment, on into the graduation ceremony, I was a believer. Not in the choreographed prom, or the perfect first kiss, not even in the well-funded high school art department, but in some vision of identity, of the possibility of being seen that is dramatized in She's All That and that isn't so easily laughed off. 

Laney and Zack are united, against the sea of other high schoolers, by their inability or refusal to choose a self that will progress into college, a self cut away from friendships, hobbies, small loves that won't be made to pay the bills. They are defined, loosely, by these friendships and extracurriculars, as we are in high school, but there's no nod to how those hobbies and loves will be subverted, incorporated, traded off in the name of making a living. The movie, compressed into the two months between spring break and senior prom, recognizes the pressures on them to make these large decisions, sees Laney and Zack confronting each other in the indecision to which they feel they have no right...and yet, by graduation, we have no idea where they are going. The movie ends, not with a graduation into the world of career (Legally Blonde), not with Julliard or Sarah Lawrence on the horizon (Save the Last Dance, 10 Things I Hate About You), not even with a marriage or some presumption of at least the continuity of this relationship into the future. No acceptance letters are answered, there's no saying whether Laney would be able to afford art school in the first place.  

She's All That is brazenly not about becoming, but about being. The first backlash against the excesses of the movie, the "fucking teenagers" uttered by Molly Ringwald at the end of Not Another Teen Movie, could be directed at any fantasy--the complications and disappointments of real life don't get adequate representation on screen. This is the realm of the school DJ, Usher, who knows the lives and loves of all the students and makes them important, who transforms the prom from Laney's perfect updo and awkward dancing, from the teens taking bad pictures and drinking in the bathroom, to a scene of spontaneous choreography that presupposes some kind of high school hive mind and universal talent and confidence. It's the other fantasy, the presentation of high school as an end in itself, this insistence on what we are rather than what we could become. This is what makes the movie hard to live with. This fantasy is both encapsulated and neatly demolished in the spontaneous rap battle, complete with a beat boxer who couldn't possibly be in high school, that informs us of the school-wide investment in the battle for prom queen, an homage to Laney Boggs and her rise to popularity, supported by this universal voice. 

The idea of Laney Boggs, of anyone, being  raised up from the small details of her life and seen, universally, as this polished an unimpeded Self, is what we came to see, what we want--and what we're forced to acknowledge as impossible, ridiculous, in the scene of the rap battle. The double truth that the Self I preened on weekends, putting in makeup and clothes I was too shy to actually wear to school, posing and reading Cosmo and writing, would cease to be true in the presence of another person who would also have such a Self—and that, no matter how little I wanted to care, how little reason I had to believe myself secretly on everyone's radar, the homecoming and prom court nomination slips would always stab at the validity of this private me. Forcing that acknowledgement, that we did really want this, that maybe we still do, borders on cruelty, but also forces some recognition of that preening self as still valid. There's a disconnect, for women at least, between this process of becoming an interesting, mature self, and the fact that we don't usually become this person while still in our high school bodies. Even if we were to meet this stripped down and shimmering Self, rip off the glasses to reveal something satisfying, adequately representative of the myriad things passing through us and the sensation of motion and looking out when we close our eyes alone, the Self of sediment—she would not inhabit the body in which I first became aware of her, of my obligation to her, this Self that would fail to be seen by anyone else and which I somehow must promote in the world. This is what lies behind that cringe when we read our high school diaries, their unapologetic declarativeness, shoddy performativity, their belief in their right to exist and to be seen, and that does not, finally, unite with an actual person existing in the world. The pages of trying on new signatures, new slang, confidence and religion and pathos in various shades of gel pen. 

Instead of something final and determinate to rail against, like the idea of high school relationships being forever or romance stories that end at marriage and leave out the rough bits, we end with Zack completing the exchange that brought him into dialogue with this other undecided person, making good on his bet as he walks the stage naked, covered by a soccer ball which he finally throws to Laney: Zack, naked on stage, and being laughed at. Another blow to our universal and embarrassing desire to be seen, yes, but sexuality in She's All That is a strange beast, an unseen reality that may finally be uninhabitable. Not Another Teen Movie opens on a dark screen, Laney's voice coming through over Janey's clothes strewn on the floor as the latter prepares her vibrator, "I just hope I didn't cause any permanent damage." This is reference to the rape horn in her tiny beaded clutch; when Zack and Jesse fail to warn her of Dean's intentions in time, she holds the horn over his ear and blasts it. Before this moment, and his final appearance as comically deafened at graduation, Dean actually has a claim to sympathy that's almost Shakespearean, as he holds Zack to their bet and drops his plan to ask Laney to prom, “Screw you, Zack. You know, for four years I’ve watched you fool people into thinking you’re some sort of god in this place. Well, guess what? This is one contest you’re going to lose." And he surrenders this sympathy unseen by his...what, exactly? Assault? Suggestion? Attempted rape? It's impossible to tell what's at stake when he escorts Laney from the prom with the intent to get her into his hotel room: Zack and Jesse immediately begin the chase for Laney, presuming her complete sexual ignorance, and her description of what does happen is similarly opaque: "Sexual harassment is a growing concern these days." It plays more into her identity as a CNN watcher, whose heart bleeds ineffectually for whales, child labor in Mexico, victims of riots in Mogadishu, than it serves to characterize her common-sense relationship to her own sexuality. With Zack, however, there's the possibility that sex, or sex with the right person, might be the catalyst for his transformation, the removal of Laney's glasses matched by his throwing of the soccer ball covering himself at graduation. Zack, who can't identify himself with the composite identity put together for his admissions essays, however well received. Prom king, student body president, fourth highest GPA and captain of the soccer team, none of which add up to "Zack." This last fantasy, unrepresentable because maybe letting go of it would be too much, is of a self completed by sexual identity, the high school body upon graduation into the world.

Whither the transformation? Towards the end of high school, quantifying myself for another scholarship search engine, I dismissed a drop-down menu of eclectic, highly specific disorders. My mother twitched, flashed the menu again over my shoulder, laughed nervously. "What?" She laughed again, just looking. "Nana said never to tell you." She clicked us away from the list before I could look again. "I'm kidding, I'm kidding!" We moved on. The only term I had been able to identify: "hermaphroditism." I spent the week on edge, half positive I had had a secret penis removal at birth, trying to assimilate this into something like a key to my identity. The actual question came out less dramatically. "Oh God, no!" My mother laughing authentically. "No no no. Here, look at the list." "Tourette's?" "Yeah. That's all."

I mined it for possibilities, something revelatory, some way that I was reducible to my tics and squeaks that I'd been dismissing for years. Not much. A ready answer for applications asking about my "greatest hardship." It became a useful accessory, landing me firmly in the realm of quirk, but organic quirk, quirk as an extension of my body, explaining nothing but covering its multitude of sins. Maybe an explanation for the way words enter and leave my body. A touchstone, to which I keep returning—impulse, or desire?  

She's All That presents us with the uncomfortable proposition that there can be an "I am" stripped clean of "I do," "I enjoy," "I believe." That this self is not available for display as we live it and know it, but must be given openings onto the world--a ritual, a bet, a twitch. That these openings are often most effective when they take the form of another person, whatever this may suggest about unhealthy dependencies and failures of self actualization. That this private self requires an observing gaze in order to exist, that this gaze may be predatory, that we may finally be unable to tell who is seeing us, who is seeing themselves by means of us, who is simply mocking.

There's something to admire in Not Another Teen Movie, in its frantic, breathless, baldly declarative scope. Like it knew it could never happen again and had to speak an entire genre at once, destroy an edifice of cute and quirk in one blast and leave time in the exhale for something like a real, necessary claim. There's a version of this, my writing, that gets everything at one go, that moves deftly from close reading to symptomatic analysis, that reveals the right things and hides the unchecked, uncertain gel pen awkwardness of performing myself, all while being formally intriguing, unpretentious, and finally creating an interest in Me, without ever giving the impression that this is what I wanted. That version, of course, doesn't happen. Balancing my needs with leaving room for unaccountable desires from without, spending too long and saying too little. Not Another Girl Poet: the fear of not being prickly enough, of being too easily consumed and finally dismissed as just bleeding out for an audience. But what She's All Thatputs out, what's missing from so many high school movies after they abandoned themselves to the snarky scream of Not Another, is that the gesture, even though the circumstances fall away, can be repeated.

Megan Boatright is from the Florida panhandle, currently a doctoral student at the University of Chicago in comparative literature working in critical animal studies. Her work has appeared in ditch, Short, Fast and Deadly, Word For/Word, flashquake, and Kaleidotrope. She has written for cracked.com under the name Megan B. and lives/works with her cat, Sophie.

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