NOTE: This essay was written for a course in Young Adult Literature I completed in the Fall of 2014. Certainly an interesting course, it’s important to realize that all literature (not just the canon) is worthy of study, from children’s literature to comic books, and even things as non-canonical as picture books. While Block’s Weetzie Bat is a peculiar text, it is certainly worthy of discussion as a work of literature that has a lot to say. While the book was not amongst my favorites due to its style of prose, I do appreciate its depth despite its brevity. While I didn’t particularly favor the text, it doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t like it. Consider reading a bit more about it from other excellent reviewers on GoodReads.
Join me after the jump for my thoughts.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, a fairly tale can be defined as “a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (as fairies, wizards, and goblins)” or “a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending” (Merriam-Webster.com). Fairy tales have historically been used to create a cohesive cultural identity through values and characteristics exhibited by the characters. Lia Francesca Block’s 1989 novel, Weetzie Bat, is a young-adult novel that examines themes of lifestyle, friendship, and acceptance in an urban environment that features homosexual relationships, unorthodox parenting arrangements, and elements of magic. Weetzie Bat is a novel that plays with the language and conventions of fairy tales to create a postmodern version of the fairy tale that urges a normalization of alternative lifestyles and values. For children enduring the formative years of adolescence, Weetzie Bat offers a voice that encourages children to be accepting of various people and lifestyles while also promoting self-discovery and pride in their identity despite the challenges that may arise.
The Oxford English dictionary discusses typical features of postmodernism as being “references to, or the use of, earlier styles and conventions, a deliberate mixing of different styles and media, often with self-referential or parodic intent, and the incorporation of images relating to consumerism, mass-communication, etc.” (OED). Weetzie Bat certainly makes references to past styles and conventions, especially those of the fairy tale discussed in the following paragraphs. The mixture of styles is a notable characteristic of Weetzie Bat, which creates a pastiche of fairy tale conventions, magic realism, pop culture, and contemporary issues, but Weetzie Bat’s acceptance of controversial issues serve to subvert taboos of modern society.
Weetzie Bat makes several cultural references to the punk rock music of the 1980s, fashion, television talk shows, film, and fairy tales, ultimately creating a new kind of intertextuality that introduces elements of pop culture into the novel (2; 3; 11; 49; 52; 91-92). The playfulness and humor exhibited in Weetzie Bat aids in allowing for a postmodern reading while also creating a more entertaining story for young adults. Weetzie Bat could also be viewed as playing with the postmodern conventions of maximalism and minimalism. The rapid-fire plot of Weetzie Bat could be viewed as representing a kind of maximalism that ultimately reflects reality. In addition, the simple language and brevity of Weetzie Bat presents a type of minimalism. Through its use of maximalism and minimalism, Weetzie Bat also represents a kind of fragmentation that is exhibited through the jarring shifts in plot, jumps in time, and in sentence structure.
Syntax and sentence structure are integral parts of what makes Weetzie Bat read like a contemporary fairy tale. The language is simple, and sentences are often short and declarative. While it is possible that the language of Weetzie Bat moves quickly to represent the surreal or fantastical nature of the story, sentences that exhibit concision and brevity are common in stories often marketed toward children. Block’s writing style may also serve a dual purpose relevant to the time of composition. Mark Vogel and Anna Creadnick, writing in 1993, stated, “Even a brief look at contemporary YA novels tells us that adolescents in the 1990s face a fast-paced and bewildering culture” (37). With a “fast-paced and bewildering culture” in mind, it is not difficult to view Weetzie Bat as a textual representation of the 1990s adolescence that Vogel and Creadnick mention. Every abrupt plot shift is simply accepted, almost bewilderingly so. Instead of playing a large role in the story, the genie grants Weetzie her wishes and disappears within three short pages. Just as Weetzie does not question the existence of the genie, Weetzie also refrains from questioning the existence of a witch child or the results of Vixanne’s curse. Like Dirk’s homosexuality, all is accepted with little more than a shrug.
The ultimate exhibition of acceptance in the overall novel is key to Weetzie Bat and its attempted normalization of what would have been considered, and still is considered, alternative lifestyles. Dirk and Duck are loving parents who create a stable, albeit unconventional, home, unlike Weetzie’s own divorced parents. When Weetzie urges her mother to contact Charlie in the midst of his depression, her mother declines, saying, “It makes me too sad” (Block 90). When Duck runs away in crisis after a friend becomes ill with what may presumed to be HIV/AIDS, Dirk reaches out and comforts him, something that Weetzie’s mother fails to do with Charlie despite her admission of her love for him. Block does not explicitly say that one form of lifestyle is better than any other, but she certainly suggests that alternative lifestyles have the potential to be an improvement over some conventional relationships, and it is this form of acceptance and normalization of alternative lifestyles that makes Weetzie Bat an important novel.
The acceptance expressed in Weetzie Bat also undermines conventions of fairy tales and fantastic literature. With Weetzie’s response of “It doesn’t matter one bit honey-honey” (8) to Dirk’s homosexuality in mind, Anne Balay writes that “Epic fantasy feeds on suspense, conflict, and tension, all of which dissolve with these words” (935). Thus, Weetzie’s ever-changing sources of conflict and her unflinching acceptance of Dirk’s homosexuality undermine the single conflict nature of fairy tales, thereby placing Weetzie Bat and her world in a more realistic setting. It is interesting to note that gender normativity still plays a role in the novel. Anne Balay comments, “Being gay is something Block’s characters take in stride, but violating gender norms disturbs both the violator and their social world” (936). Balay refers to Weetzie’s sensitivity about having previously been mistaken for a male. While Balay assumes that Weetzie’s sensitivity refers to gender norms, the sentence that follows is equally important: “All she needed now was some gay man trying to pick up on her” (40). In other words, Weetzie is not upset that My Secret Agent Lover Man may be a homosexual, but, instead, she is worried that she is being mistaken for a male. Thus, it is not necessarily gender normativity that is being expressed, but rather, it is another way of expressing Weetzie’s ready acceptance of homosexuals in society, something that is not always present even in 2014.
Juxtaposition is key to Weetzie Bat’s being viewed as a contemporary fairy tale. Block makes a reference to fairly tales that could allude to either Sleeping Beauty or Snow White: “She was the girl in the fairy tale sleeping in a prison of thorns and roses. … But she was suffocated by roses that no one else saw—only their shadows showed on her lips and around her eyes” (91-92). By comparing Weetzie to a fairy tale princess, Block thereby places Weetzie amongst the princesses of fairy tales as comparable characters, ultimately including Weetzie Bat as a fairy tale princess herself. Instead of dwarves or poisoned apples, Weetzie is introduced to the magic world via a magic lamp that grants her three wishes. In addition, Block refers to “shadows” around Weetzie’s lips and eyes, creating an imperfect princess that is visibly affected by her circumstances and the events that occur around her, unlike the beautiful and flawless depictions of fairy tale princesses.
Weetzie is not a fairy tale princess in the classic sense. Weetzie is constantly changing and is not fully-formed, nor does she experience a single transformative experience. The end of the novel does not neatly bring all loose ends together into a “happily ever after.” Instead, the reader is left with Weetzie’s thoughts: “I don’t know about happily ever after…but I know about happily,” (109). Dirk and Duck still must deal with the worry of HIV/AIDS, and the family unit must also continue to work together to raise both Cherokee and Lily. What Weetzie represents is a modern “princess” that readers can relate to. Weetzie is not prim, proper, and conservative like classic princesses. Instead, Weetzie engages in premarital sex, has children outside of wedlock, and acts impulsively.
Writing about fairy tales, Carrie Hintz and Eric Tribunella write that “Many tales were a means to express the ambitions, fantasies, and fears of the folk” (136). Weetzie Bat represents ambitions, fantasies, and fears of ‘80s and ‘90s youth, a generation of youth ultimately seeking a measure of happiness in a world much different from the world of their parents and the conventional nuclear family. Block may use her novel as a means of expressing her ambitions and fantasies of a more accepting world in an attempt to create a new social standard. Hintz and Tribunella write about the “utopian quality” of fairy tales, a quality that’s present in Weetzie Bat in the seemingly magical and idealized version of Los Angeles as well as in the character’s acceptance of adversity and what may be considered shocking factors (137). Hintz and Tribunella also mention how certain tales can “[invert] the established order,” something that Block does in her reconstruction of Los Angeles (137). The importance of Block’s fairy tale lies in the normalization of gender identities and sexualities that are traditionally considered taboo. Young adults and teenagers experiencing their own gender or sexual crises may find relatable characters in Weetzie Bat, as the characters undergo similar transformations or experiences that result in a coming out of sorts. The characters express acceptance of individuals for who they are, a message that can be important for adolescents undergoing their own identity changes. In addition, Hintz and Tribunella also suggest that the novel is one that reflects “the changing cultural atmosphere and increasing possibilities for lesbian and gay young people” (413). Ultimately, Weetzie Bat serves as a text of solace, comfort, and relatability, a fairy tale that explores homosexual relationships, “an especially urgent pursuit,” according to Hintz and Tribunella (145).
Weetzie Bat ultimately represents a new kind of postmodern fairy tale—one that incorporates contemporary issues and a greater sense of realism while paying attention to pop culture and creating a surreal version of Los Angeles. According to the Merriam-Webster’s definition of a fairy tale, Weetzie Bat can be considered a fairy tale as it does include fantastical creatures, albeit briefly, and does include improbable events that lead to a happy ending. Weetzie Bat’s style of dialogue and use of language also contributes to its status as a fairy tale. On the other hand, Weetzie Bat’s acceptance and exploration of contemporary and controversial issues positions the novel in a new light, containing elements of postmodern literature in its plot, language, and cultural references.
For children struggling to come to terms with their identities, Weetzie Bat presents a positive image of self-acceptance and of alternative lifestyles, including homosexual relationships. Block does not simply stop at mere tolerance, but also goes on to depict homosexual relationships as being no different from heterosexual relationships. Dirk and Duck make as capable a set of parents as My Secret Agent Lover Man and Weetzie and Weetzie’s parents. Each set of parents experience their own crises. Dirk and Duck deal with the potential threat of HIV/AIDS, Weetzie’s parents deal with divorce and their ensuing relationship and estrangement, and Weetzie and My Secret Agent Lover Man learn to accept their children and become a family. Block suggests that no style of relationship is better than any other and thereby combats connotations regarding same sex relationships, creating a rather vision of society that is more open and accepting. Consider this a rebooted version of the fairy tale.
Balay, Anne. “‘Incloseto Putbacko’: Queerness In Adolescent Fantasy Fiction.” Journal Of Popular Culture 45.5 (2012): 923-942. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.
Block, Francesca Lia. Weetzie Bat. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Print.
“Fairy Tale.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.
Hintz, Carrie, and Eric L. Tribunella. Reading Children’s Literature: A Critical Introduction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. Print.
“postmodernism, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 16 October 2014.
Vogel, Mark, and Anna Creadick. “Family Values And The New Adolescent Novel.” English Journal 82.5 (1993): 37. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.