Sunday, November 1, 2009

Build a Better Chick Lit: College Life

I'm starting a new blog feature--posts where I break down the cliches that I love to hate about certain books/movies/TV shows. I call it: Build a better chick lit. Here's the college edition.

I used to love reading books and watching TV shows and movies about the college experience. It's so...collegiate. It's a world unto itself. Where it's always fall and professors are always throwing intimate parties at their houses and the lessons we learn in books somehow always reflect upon real life. Where there are mixers and box socials galore. As may be obvious, I'm telling this from the POV of the female protagonist since the whole Animal House frat boy thing has been done to death. Here are the staples of college life as told through fiction:

Bitchy roommate. If you're a freshman, you get usually stuck with a roommate, and she's not just a bitch. She's a rich bitch. She spends her time analyzing the different levels of sarcasm ("I love your new top!" versus "I love your new top--I wish I could get away with shopping at the Salvation Army"). She's got a thousand pictures on her wall of her and her blonde cute female friends in a variety of places from St. Tropez to Asspen. And, as I learned from Prep, she's got the perfect cute flowered bedspread which marks her as part of the upper echelon of society.

World weary 21 year olds. Our main character, if she's a senior, spends the bulk of her time talking about keggers of years past in a world weary tone of voice that suggests that she's been there, done that, and had the hangover to boot. Like Chloe (she of the novel Chloe Does Yale written by Yale's real life former sex columnist, and yes, I can think of at least two things wrong with that title, too) who regales us with stories of how as a freshman, she was declasse enough to go to a dive bar in four inch heels and a tight pair of jeans in the same tone of voice that Kanye probably uses to describe how he wore an off-white vest his first time at P. Diddy's White Party.

What, me study? No one ever studies unless a test or paper is impending and it's 85% of your grade and you're going to flunk out unless you make haste to the library. Anybody who so much as glances at a syllabus early in the semester may as well move into the Lamba Lamba Lamba house, stat. No normal student has time to study in advance.

Like Charlotte Simmons (of Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, a screed against college students who dare to have fun), who was too busy spending the weekend shedding her hymen all over a hotel's posh sheets after the fall formal to bother with writing an essay until the morning it was due. And of course, there's always a mad dash at the last minute because no else seems to have perfected the time-out that Zach Morris made famous (maybe he had it copyrighted).

I used to think this was just something to be found in the annals of fiction. But one of my suitemates senior year left off her entire thesis till the last few weeks of the semester and as a result subsisted on Pilsbury ready made cookies every night so she'd have time to work on her paper. As soon as you see that detail in a movie somewhere, you'll know I'll have sold my screenplay.

Always a Mary Anne, never a Ginger. This one's mainly related to books. The main character's never drop dead gorgeous. Sure, they'll get Scarlett Johansson or Amanda Seyfreid or Julia Stiles to play her in the film and the girl on the cover will always have a bitchin' bod. And she's never ugly (in fact, she's usually pretty cute), but she's meant to be an Every Woman type and she knows it. She'll drop so many lines about being self-conscious about her body that the woman settling in to read will feel justified turning off the treadmill and picking up a pint of the chocolate swirl strawberry ice cream. So we have Chloe, despite her charming silhouette on the cover, angsting over her excess fifteen pounds at Yale's Exotic Erotic (aka, the Ivy League's answer to Hefner's scantily clad Valentine's Day party), or internally sighing over having to go to the gym to compete with the anorexic automatons.

Of course, when it comes down to the big date or the important formal, the protagonist always pulls out all the stops to look incredible. But at 9 am when she's late for her English discussion group, she's a sweat pants wearing, flat-haired, bleary eyed hot mess.

Star pupil. Somehow, professors will be in awe of our heroine's shining intellect based on the fact that she did the assigned reading. (Hey, every other student on campus is busy sexually servicing barnyard animals.) If she not only did the required reading but read a couple of articles on the syllabus that were just "recommended", well, expect stars to fall from the sky, along with coveted research positions that most grad students are giving their eye teeth for. If Charlotte Simmons and little Joey Potter had been real freshmen given such coveted job offers, they would have been found on campus so badly mutilated by jealous overworked TAs that no amount of candlelight vigils and Take Back the Night marches would bring them back.

Orgy porgy, orgy porgy! When they're not pulling all nighters and studying under trees, college students enjoy a non-stop orgy lifestyle. Nowhere is that true more at The Rules of Attraction's college, Camden, where the semi conscious sex with townies is the average loss of virginity scenario, where smeared ketchup at the dining hall reminds them of the weekly abortion being procured by someone somewhere on campus, and where everyone's bi because it's just easier that way.

I have to admire Tom Wolfe for managing to make his book something more than Animal House lite. I have a feeling that when he prepared for Charlotte Simmons, he knew he'd have a hard time making his fictional DuPont seem more depraved than anything Bret Easton Ellis cooked up. So while I might ordinarily have responded to the detail about the drugged girl being carried off on frat boy's shoulder while feces trickles out of the leg of her pants with "Ewww, Tom, why couldn't you have written about a girl who was fed roofies laced with Pepto!" I suppose I have to give him his dues.

Culture clash. Because college is so debauched it would make Caligula, Hunter S. Thompson, and Hedonism-bot all cluck their tongues and say, "In MY day..." most writers rely on the innocent outsider who's supposed to gape at the horror of it all. Tom Wolfe once again wins because you can't get much more horrified than Charlotte Simmons' indignity at seeing a scantily clad actress on the cover of a Cosmo magazine left in the common room.

Here I have to give Prep (boarding school, not college, but still) some love because while it's all too easy to make your heroine head for the fainting couch every five minutes, the protagonist here felt some major culture clash for a pretty good reason--they're all east coast summer home owning types and she knows it.

That's sexual harassment, and I can take it. No girl seems to get out of college without at least one rape attempt on her resume, if she's halfway decent looking, three if she's a real looker, and one per season if she's Kelly Taylor. And professorial misconduct is absolutely de rigeur. Charlotte Simmons shocked me by getting quite bit of unwanted male attention from students but never from a prof. Joey Potter and her English professor made out a little, but that was okay because he was cute and so beloved by students that he often had to pull a Dr. Jones to get away from all his adoring fans during office hours. (Yes, I'm serious.) Topanga got a creepy come on in her dorm room from a prof played by Fred Savage (hey, that's what you get for passing up Yale--you could have been Harold Bloom's lovething, but no, you had to settle for sexual harassment from Kevin Arnold, Ph.D.).

These professors make Clarence Thomas look like a choirboy. After a steady diet of sitcoms and chick lit, I assumed that I'd have to show up to my first college lecture with RapeX and mace.

O Captain, my Captain. There's always that professor who mentors the main character(s), inspiring them to do lame but camera-friendly stunts when said teacher leaves, like rising on their desks screaming "O Captain!" or riding their bicycles after their teacher's departing car (that's Mona Lisa Smile, for those of you who had better things to do than go to the movies in 2004). For those of you wondering how you make that kind of effort if the teacher doesn't get kicked out, you're not paying attention. Good teaching means getting fired by a square administration who just doesn't get it. Anybody who actually stays and teaches clearly has never asked themselves the question, "How do I reach these keedz?"

Once again, much love to Prep for having a teacher character whom the rich bitch set mocks for her poor fashion sense and who clearly is trying to be that kind of mentor to protagonist Lee Fiora but pretty much just makes her life miserable.

One book to rule them all.

So, which of my favorite books/shows make the cut in terms of being the most cliched of all? We can rule out Chloe Does Yale. It fails at portraying college as anything close to depraved on the first page when the campus sex columnist won't even flash a freshman a single breast for free admission to the naked party (damn you, glossy pink cover, for promising something you failed to deliver!).

Bret Easton Ellis's The Rules of Attraction rocks the debauched, world weary characters, but fails on the teacher/class front because everyone's too jaded to care about GPAs or mentors.

I Am Charlotte Simmons comes close but it's ultimately College FAIL because Charlotte Simmons' self deprecating quotient is lacking. Charlotte is quite attractive and knows it. In fact, in one chapter when she and another character are commiserating over not having boyfriends and being on the fringes of the college scene, Charlotte's new friend mentions that she wouldn't mind trading legs with the dumb bimbo flirting with the stupid jock. Charlotte thinks to herself, "Wait till you see my legs"--sorry, babe, you haven't learned to internally either deprecate the paucity of your tits or the overabundance of your thighs.

Sadly, I think Dawson's Creek comes closest--we've got the debauched school party scene from the POV of the sheltered smart girl (consisting mostly of Joey at a party staring disdainfully at the cleanest, most candle/incest lit frat bathroom in the entire world while sighing over erstwhile lover Dawson at a "wild party"), the smart girl acing every hurdle in her path, the vaguely inappropriate professorial relationship, and the rich roommate. Though Joey is clearly a hottie, she still gets all her self deprecating points because, as people are always telling her, "'re beautiful, and you don't know're smart and you don't believe're the kind of girl that other girls get compared to."