The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
genre: realistic fiction
rating: 8/8 tentacles
To her friends and family, Frankie-Landau Banks is just a little girl who can’t take care of herself, but she’s fed up with being patronized. When she heads off to her sophomore year at the same elite boarding school her father and older sister attended, Frankie becomes a part of her new boyfriend’s group of friends—confident, carefree boys who get up to all sorts of hijinks—and Frankie is having the time of her life until she realizes that none of them see her as an individual, but as an accessory of Matthew’s. Then Matthew begins ditching her for his best friend, always giving a vague excuse and avoiding her questions and Frankie decides she won’t put up with it. She follows him one night, and discovers that he and his friends are a part of the Order of the Basset Hounds, a secret society her father often cryptically reminisced about with his “Old Boy” school chums. Now she knows why she has been kept on the outside of things. Even though she is just as intelligent and as bold as them, perhaps even more so, she is girl, and the Bassets are a boy’s club. Frankie takes this as a personal insult. They think she’s just a pretty little girl who needs to be rescued and protected? Not good enough for their club? They think she’s content being arm candy? Well then she’ll prove them wrong. Frankie comes up with the perfect plan.
Frankie is a very strong female protagonist. She’s sharp, intelligent, clever, and a ruthless strategist. I kind of want to be her. Lockhart’s portrayal of Frankie’s values, her anger, and her urge to prove herself makes it easy to relate to her. As I watched all of the adults in her life (even her boyfriend and sister) essentially respond to Frankie’s frustrations at the school’s patriarchal mindset with: “There, there. Find something more pleasant to occupy your time, little Bunny Rabbit. Go sew a frilly apron or nibble on a carrot,” I shared her rage. I wanted to forcefully shove all of them off their high horses.
Even today, though women can vote and are ostensibly considered an equal gender, it’s difficult to get rid of centuries of perceived masculine superiority. People who claim to view the sexes without prejudice often have some inherited misconceptions lurking in the crevices of their subconscious. Sometimes they call this prejudice “tradition.” This is the case at Alabaster Prep. Frankie points out that the administration is primarily masculine. The “boys only” Basset Order provides further evidence of the school’s patriarchal mindset. She notices with irritation the way her boyfriend speaks to her as if she really were the weaker sex. When they first meet, Frankie has just fallen off her bicycle and Matthew runs over to help. He offers to show her around, even after she has told him she’s attended the school for a year, as if she were completely useless and the only way he knows to interact with her is to adopt the role of savior, of escort, and hence: of superiority.
It is this unacknowledged prejudice that Frankie rails against throughout the course of the school year—a fight roughly equivalent to repeatedly slamming one’s head against a closed door. It’s like arguing with idiots: you can’t use reason as a weapon against irrationality, so what hope is there of winning? Whenever Frankie confronts any of the boys about their behavior they claim loyalty, tradition, brotherhood. “But what if I was a boy?” Frankie would say. “Then you wouldn’t treat me like this.” And they agree, without realizing that by doing so, they are admitting to prejudice. It sees like a losing battle, and the outrageous double standard at the conclusion of the novel only solidifies its depressingly apparent futility.
sociology and the panopticon
The novel also looks at feminism through a sociological lens, particularly by illuminating the way that unwritten rules or societal expectations (like sexism: different expectations for males and females) can govern the behavior of a society even though there are no real repercussions for breaking these rules. In class, Frankie learns about a theory that can explain this type of behavior based on a prison design called the Panopticon, in which an impression of constant surveillance is cultivated in order to motivate inmates to adhere to rules out of a fear that they are always being watched, which allows wardens to get by with a limited amount of actual surveillance. I think Orwell was responding to the same phenomenon when he invented Big Brother and Thought Police, playing on a general fear of being watched. When Frankie writes a paper on a number of societies and cults that intentionally break these unwritten rules as political statements or to gain a sense of freedom, she gets all sorts of ideas. Why let ourselves be governed by the traditions of our society and its unspoken expectations? Why be afraid of refusing to succumb to an accepted path or an outdated tradition? Why not break free?
Lockhart tells Frankie’s story with an obvious delight in word play. Frankie comes up with something she calls “the neglected positive,” “false neglected positive,” and the “imaginary neglected positive,” where she removes negative prefixes and uses the uncommon or technically incorrect base words in every day conversation. She often tells her friends that she is “gruntled” (from disgruntled) and after getting ready for a party with her friend Trish, declares them “sheveled” (from disheveled), to which Trish replies, “You’re sheveled. I’m a normal person.” Matthew corrects Frankie’s grammatical fun and explains the error of her inventiveness, a response that is very telling about his outlook on the fixedness of other aspects of life. Frankie’s playfulness and curiosity in what happens when you take things apart and put them together in new ways appears in her fun with words and in all of the politically symbolic pranks she plans. In many ways, this book is about pulling apart accepted ideas, being open and innovative, of thinking outside the box, of being able to shift our perceptions. I am reminded of Ender Wiggin’s assertion that “The enemy’s gate is down!”
One last thing, and it’s a spoiler so don’t read any further if you haven’t read the book yet:
When all is revealed at the conclusion of the novel, Frankie’s role in the series of pranks that occurred receives a primarily negative reaction. Her family seems taken aback by her involvement and begins to regard her with suspicion, but they stop bugging her about being helpless. Good. They finally see her as an individual of consequence. However, all of her “friends” involved with the Bassets coldly reject her. When Alpha took credit for her actions to save face, her pranks were considered genius. But when Alpha gets caught—ALPHA, not Frankie—and she confesses to Matthew, he immediately turns against her, or perhaps you can’t turn on someone to whom you were never loyal. He runs off to the headmaster to tell on her like a little five year old, because as a new offender, her punishment will be less harsh than Alpha’s. He doesn’t give her a chance to turn herself in, which I think is another instance of underestimation on Matthew’s part. I really hate him.
When her identity as the authority behind the pranks becomes known, she gets called a liar and a psychopath. She tells Matthew that he lied to her too, but he rejects this accusation. He was being loyal to a brotherhood! NOPE. Bullshit. His reason for lying may have been loyalty. But he still lied. And Frankie had reasons for her lies as well. Who is he to decide that his lies were more justified than hers? Did he forget that the order was BETTER when Frankie was secretly governing it? What I can’t stand is the way the perception of the pranks flip flops depending on whose name is attached to them. Alpha planned it? Oh, wonderful. He’s so clever, what fun. Wait, it was Frankie? LIAR! PSYCHOPATH! MANIPULATOR! I think this name calling stems from a feeling of being outsmarted, of being proven wrong. The Bassets are so stuck in their belief that they are strong, invincible, wonderful, clever men, that when Frankie proves herself to be more capable than the best of them, instead of accepting this new idea and applauding her ingenuity, they pout like children and call her names. I am in awe of Frankie. I am proud of her for not tolerating belittlement, for seeing a way to prove herself and accepting the challenge, for not giving in. The fact that no one sees this—not her peers, not her teachers, not her parents—surprises and depresses me. A psychopath? Preposterous. She is genius.