Fishbowl as Panopticon

Familiar guises of power, in German

In The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, we follow Frankie, a sophomore in a private school in Connecticut, as she pushes the envelope of what is personally and socially acceptable, exploring her sense of self and the Other in her relationship with her boyfriend, Matthew. She discovers her taste for subversive acts, both against the institution, and the boys’ club, the Bassett Hounds, to which her father, now a repressed doctor, once belonged, and in which her boyfriend Matthew, is currently king Dog. She reaps the rewards of seeing herself actively redefined in the eyes of the boys club, the school, her friends and family, and herself, while paying a minimal price for her actions of manipulation and resistance.

Two elements of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks caught my attention: class and privilege, and language. Since one is a key factor in framing the other, my interest lay in showing how language reflects class and privilege, and as an extension, character and identity. Naturally, gender issues are a foundational aspect of the above distinctions as well, and are reflected as well in language.

I enjoyed the wordplay in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. What is possible when a young person is given endless instruction, guidance, support and direction? Everything. Certainly the creative and idiosyncratic use of language, a tool in creating identity; a set of witty and imaginative calling cards that designate cliques; clever monikers reflecting status and roles within peer groups in a school that walks a tightrope between modern values and the codified social and gender hierarchy of the privileged classes.

So Frankie, already impressively developed as the product of endless attention and support,  is given great latitude to find her own voice, her own relationship, her own stance vis a vis male hierarchy and power. And most of it is cost-free. She breaks free of her limited role in her family; she re-defines herself romantically; and she has the luxury of considering becoming a social critic, from a secure, educated position. A win-win situation. The worst hits she receives are occasional grammatical corrections from Matthew, the language freak. Interesting that the ultimate marker of his social status is his  acquisition of the most meticulously developed language, as well as the right to correct any of his peers. Language is power, and everyone in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks has mountains of it.

I found myself wondering if I would ever be able to use this book with any student groups I have taught: I finally decided that maybe the girls I taught part-time at the Spence School, an exclusive all-girls school on the Upper East Side, might work. Many key aspects of the life written about in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks are shared by Spence girls, from the easy and blithe access to travel, food, resources, support, encouragement and attention to individual development; to the casual assumption of props, toys, accessories, and goods of any kind. So, while the ease of daily existence shared by almost everyone at Alabaster Preparatory Academy was not dwelt upon much in the book,  class allusions were made to the differences between the merely well-off (Frankie and her doctor father) and the super-rich, (Matthew and his famous newspaper father). The material difficulties of scholarship students such as Alpha were glossed over, while it was clear that Alpha’s method of compensating for his lack of social  and material position was to outdo the others by being “Alpha Dog” amongst the young studly men; his eagerness to abandon public school and return to Alabaster’s privilege and sequestered life indicated his desire to return to the upper class setting of Alabaster.

I also found similarities between the language skills exemplified by each character and their social standing in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and the kind of expressive and precocious communications coming from Spence girls, whose every thought, feeling, desire and opinion is articulated, and almost instantly responded to. The myriad ways the administration of Alabaster Preparatory Academy responded to expressions by Frankie and the Bassett Hounds, as well as others — discreetly, diplomatically, politically astute, was the book’s counterpart. A difference  would be that in Alabaster Preparatory Academy,  sexism and gender inequality is passively reinforced through a historic acceptance of the rebelliousness of the (male) Bassett Hounds, and the unchallenged  top social positioning of the upperclass young men. At Spence, the young women play out their power games, like Frankie, against a backdrop of endless support and security, challenging and sometimes taunting their teachers, boyfriends, fathers, chauffeurs, nannies, cooks or tutors. Their self-identities are reinforced by their social positions of power and money and while their all-femaleness is strengthened and supported at Spence, they, like Frankie, might be confronted out in the world by their gender, although still socially supported by their class. For Frankie, the gender issue is the clearest and easiest boundary to push against in a mixed gender school. I kept waiting for Frankie’s ultimate trump: the re-framing of the name of the boys’ club history book, The Disreputable History of the Loyal Order of the Bassett Hounds into the Reputable Future of the Loyal Order of the Panopticons, a new, all-female challenge to school authority, since the gender restrictions at Alabaster are not to be seriously challenged, just appropriated. If I were teaching this book at Spence, I would target the 5th grade girls, as there the levels of social awareness and sophistication are developed early. I would focus on the gender issues, as well as the creative uses of language.

So, while yes, we as readers can identify and support Frankie in her quest for self-autonomy and identity against a more unconscious projection of her female role in society, it seems imperative to factor in the ease of agency and minimized consequence the world of privilege and class provides her and her circle. I also have to ask: other than Spence girls,who is able to relate to these rarified circumstances? Really?


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