Katlin Robinson Professor Moore

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Katlin Robinson

Professor Moore


08 December 2009

The Elusive White Girl in Diverse Young Adult Literature

When people close their eyes and picture diversity, what do they see? Do they see an African American male wearing baggy clothes? Do they see an elderly Hispanic woman cleaning a hotel room? Diversity’s description varies as much as people’s images of the term. The definition is not limited to the concept of minority. Diverse does not merely describe those that are other than the norm. People need to consider the diverse nature of the majority in relation to the minority. Imagine living in a country where the standard of beauty is white, blonde, and blue eyed, and you are not. Minorities deal with this type of diversity by seeing and interacting with a standard that they cannot meet. Friction can develop between the interaction of the ideal and reality. During adolescence that friction can become a larger issue as sexual attraction and sexual maturity develop. Teens may start to internalize the American standard of beauty as means to achieve the goal of peer popularity. Meaning, if they date the ideal white female, they will be accepted into the majority’s culture despite other vast cultural differences.

In the novels American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Jin Wang and Arnold Spirit Jr. display the problems adolescent American male minorities face when dealing with an attraction to a diverse culture. They begin to objectify and fantasize about the ideal white female. Through their thoughts, they detail the differences between the white girls and their culture. The depictions of these boys’ dream girls are physical. They mention the girls as delicate, beautiful, and unattainable. For Jin Wang, Amelia catches his attention as she sits quietly in class taking off her sweater. Penelope draws in Arnold with her beautiful looks immediately after their first meeting. Both girls meet the American standard of beauty. They are blonde, blue eyed, and beautiful. To further the ideal, they act similar to the 1950s standard woman, stunning and educated to increase her significant other’s status. Everything about her benefits the male. When she no longer serves a purpose, he can forget her. Jin and Arnold exhibit these expectations regarding Amelia and Penelope. The boys use the girl’s physical appearance, intellect, and social status in an attempt achieve popularity and self satisfaction.

Amelia and Penelope are physically beautiful and noticeable white girls in these yound adult texts. Both authors provide actual drawings of the adolescent girls to note further their appearance. Yang depicts Amelia with long blonde hair and big blue eyes that seem to jump off the page (87). Her body is thin and maturing, which can be seen by her taunt collarbone and developing curves (Yang 91). He wants his audience to recognize the reason for Jin’s attraction making her relationship to the American standard of physical beauty evident in her graphic. She plays nicely into the girl next-door stereotype with her purple overalls. Yang sexualizes her understated attire when depicting Jin’s fascination with Amelia. He first takes notice of her in class, peeling off her sweater, she reveals her bare arms. Her action appears sexualized because of his reaction to her newly bare skin, “Life was never quite the same again” (Yang 87). Jin does try to discount Yang’s purpose by saying, “I would lie awake late at night analyzing my feelings for her. She was not exceptionally beautiful and she spoke with a lisp…But when she smiled” (Yang 88). He is not believable when he constantly stares at her in class and asks his friends questions about her, “I was asking-before the two of you almost made me puke-do you think Amelia likes Greg?” (Yang 94). His teenage mind cannot connect his attraction to his desire to be a part of her white American world. The reader sees past his misconceptions of the truth. She represents the lifestyle he believes will make him happy. By being with her, he can achieve his dream of completely assimilating into the stereotypical American culture.

Jin’s opinion of female beauty varies drastically from the native-born Wei-Chen. Jin does not find the girls of his culture attractive. In fact upon meeting Suzy Nakamura, he states, “We avoided each other as much as possible” (Yang 31). Yang limits the audience to Jin’s thoughts and opinions during his sections of the novel. Suzy and Wei-Chen happily date despite Jin’s apathetic feelings toward her. Wei-Chen finds a satisfaction in his diversity that escapes Jin. Jin’s desire to assimilate fully into the white American culture causes him to imagine transforming into the ideal white male according to American standards. Wei-Chen finds the beauty in his culture, and he does not need to prove himself as American. He is native to China and finds comfort in his heritage, which shows in his choice to be with Suzy. The only statement Jin makes regarding Suzy’s attraction is “She is not my type” and that clearly demonstrates his attraction to white females over his ethnicity (Yang 191).

Arnold takes idealizing the white female’s physical beauty to an extreme with his obsession of Penelope. He constantly mentions her beauty whenever she enters the story. His first sketch depicts a cartoon version of a pretty girl sitting at a desk. He tells us her hair is blonde, and she is “totally, absolutely gorgeous” (Alexie 59). He even becomes “emotionally erect” at the sight of her in his classroom (Alexie 59). Arnold’s explicit confessions differ from Jin’s drawn expressions. Arnold paints a more descriptive picture with his words and fascination. He continues the praise of her conventional beauty: “She was so pretty and her eyes were so blue. I was suddenly aware that she was the prettiest girl I had ever seen up close. She was movie star pretty” (Alexie 61). The reader gets a stunning sketch of her drawn by Arnold within the text. In the picture, her soft round features are expressed in a predominately white fashion. Her nose small with a rounded tip, full lips, and large around eyes gently invite him, because “Penelope was crazy beautiful” (Alexie 113). The variety of ways he refers to her physical appearance is astounding. In one scene, he pays particular attention to the color of her skin. “Her skin was pale white. Milky white. Cloud white. So she was all white on white on white like the most perfect kind of vanilla dessert cake you’ve ever seen,” shows his obsession with her race (Alexie 114). He wants to be a part of her majority world. The white world creates hope for him as depicted by the Pegasus with the word “white” repeated eight times underneath with his commentary, “I don’t know if hope is white. But I do know that hope for me is like some mythical creature” (Alexie 51). Penelope appears to be his mythical white creature that can provide him hope and popularity. Although he does date her, he never considers her completely in his control. She always remains slightly unattainable because of her American standard of beauty. Penelope can reach the goals and dreams that Arnold has for himself because she is white. He believes her white association will help him achieve his hopes.

Like Jin, Arnold does not have much interest in the girls of his culture. They do not have the currency of the stunning white female. A Native American girl cannot move him up the social ladder in high school. His brief mention of Native American girls pales in comparison to his fascination with Penelope. “All of those pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty white girls ignored me. But that was okay. Indian girls ignored me, too, so I was used to it,” exemplifies his attraction to white girls over his race (Alexie 63). He does not refer to the Indian girls’ physical appearance. He only mentions their actions. When he talks about his first crush on the reservation, he notes “She was tall and brown and was the best traditional dancer on the rez. Her braids, wrapped in otter fur, were legendary” (Alexie 74). He does not discuss her physical beauty just describes her appearance. Arnold’s purpose for mentioning the Native American girl relates to his feelings for Penelope. “I knew that I would be one of those guys who always fell in love with the unreachable, ungettable, and uninterested,” describes his current feelings about Penelope (Alexie 74). He does not talk about an attraction to Native American girls after recalling this memory. His only focus remains on the elusive Penelope and her white world.

A white female’s intellect plays an important role in meeting the standard concept of beauty. Jin and Arnold mute Amelia and Penelope with a focus on their physical appearance. These boys are not looking for an airhead. They desire someone who can maintain an intellectual conversation, but who does not challenge them. Amelia and Penelope’s intelligence appears in the text, but the audience cannot hear it over the boys. This coincides with the American standard of beauty. The stunning blonde needs to have intelligence to entertain the males, but the focus needs to be on her beauty. A female is more attractive when men see her, not hear her. Besides Amelia’s physical appearance, which initially attracts Jin, she speaks very little throughout the entire novel. When she and Wei-Chen are trapped in the closet, he talks more than she. He praises his friendship with Jin while she listens and asks the appropriate questions to facilitate his tribute. In the graphics depicting the scene, Wei-Chen receives a whole frame filled with text, and Amelia says three sentences asking about Jin (Yang 102). It is important to remember she is not being dumb or shallow, because those are not ideal traits for the white girl. A dumb girl cannot help an outcast move up the social ladder, because she reflects poorly on him. In fact, her immediate volunteering to assist with the animals after school for extra credit suggests a pride in grades (Yang 91). In the disruptive class, she works diligently on the assignment, while other students appear rowdy (Yang 157). Her work ethic in the classroom acts as proof of her academic success. But she does not outwardly express her intelligence. Her lack of speech is further perpetuated during Jin and Amelia’s date. The purpose of a date is for two people to get to know one another. On their date, Amelia only speaks six times over nine pages with at least four frames on each page. When she does talk, the topics are limited to concern for Jin, commentary on the romantic movie, and a desire for ice cream (Yang 164-173). Despite the audience’s knowledge of her academic ability, she never proves her intellect in interactions with Jin. He fantasizes about the life she could give him with her white beauty, and she cannot speak over his fantasy.

Penelope is intelligent and compassionate. Her decision to donate money to the homeless demonstrates her passion and aptitude. Arnold finds her commitment admirable, but instead of commenting on her mission, he states, “she was the most beautiful homeless woman who ever lived” (Alexie 77). He silences her political statement by addressing her appearance. Alexie confirms her academic ability not through Arnold’s words, but her own. She declares herself “pretty and smart and popular” (Alexie 108). Arnold never discusses her intelligence. She speaks, and he sees her looks. He further mutes her voice when he catches her vomiting in the school bathroom. Penelope tries to open up to Arnold when she“ starts crying, talking about how lonely she is, and how everybody thinks her life is perfect because she’s pretty and smart and popular, but she is scared all the time” (Alexie 108). He does not recognize her confession because of his focus on her beauty and social status. Despite her vomiting, he says “How is it that a bulimic girl with vomit on her breath can suddenly be so sexy? Love and lust can make you go crazy” (Alexie 109). If he was truly concerned with Penelope’s well being, he would attempt to help her. When she shares her aspirations, Arnold mocks them internally, “Yeah, she talked like that. All big and goofy and dramatic. I wanted to make fun of her, but she was so earnest” (Alexie 111). He deems her thoughts below his despite their similar dream of escaping the small town. Her sincerity is the only reason he does not outwardly ridicule her. Arnold cannot take her seriously, because he needs to have a higher intellect to maintain the white female fantasy and reach his ultimate goal.

Jin and Arnold want to use Amelia and Penelope’s conventional American beauty to gain popularity and acceptance among the dominate American culture. The most important contribution Amelia can give Jin, in his mind, is the hope for the American dream. The graphic on page 177 speaks volumes about what he expects from his blooming relationship. He immediately believes they will fall in love in the first frame. She even initiates their love in his fantasy to prove her desire for him. Frame two depicts their lovely classic white Christian wedding with no hint of his Chinese heritage. He even imagines their sex lives in frame three with her disrobing her typical purple overalls for him after their wedding. And most importantly, he envisions their child. The baby is white with blonde curly hair like Jin’s false representation. His fantasy baby does not resemble the real baby he actually may have one day. He dreams the child will have Amelia’s white complex and attributes. It is not logical for their child to have only the characteristics from one parent. Besides, minority genes often dominate white genes in ethnically mixed children. Jin wants to be seen as American, not Chinese. By having a family with Amelia, he assumes he can achieve the ideal American life. The idealistic representation of the white female is Jin’s means to be purely American without first being perceived as Asian.

“I was kind of using her, too. After all, I suddenly became popular,” Arnold directly states (Alexie 110). He does not hide the purpose for desiring Penelope. Alexie chooses to have Arnold explicitly express her ability to make him popular to show the audience the importance of her whiteness. “Penelope was so popular, especially for a freshman, and I was popular by association” is how he plans to climb the social ladder despite his minority status (Alexie 123). He needs a beautiful white girl as currency to exchange for position within the majority culture, “I thought that she’d start paying more attention to me and that everybody else would notice and then I’d become the most popular dude in the place” (Alexie 81). Being Native American is not cutting it, so he longs for the status Penelope can provide for him. Similar to Jin, Arnold desires the American dream of being popular and accepted by everyone important. Even though he is a full American, he does not correspond with the image of an American. He believes he needs the ideal white girl to accomplish acceptance.

The boys in the young adult novels American Born Chinese and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian use the standard concept of female American beauty as means to achieve happiness through acceptance in the majority cultures. They focus on the beautiful white girls’ physical appearance, intellect, and social status, because the girls offer the minority teens the necessary tools to become popular. Being from diverse cultures, Jin and Arnold idealize the majority’s women. Both boys do not find their culture attractive and deny its importance until the end of the novels when they find happiness within themselves. Once they reach personal acceptance and satisfaction, they completely disregard the American standard of beauty. She has no purpose when the boys develop self-satisfaction. When they return from desiring white females and their world, Jin and Arnold start rebuilding the relationships with their best friends from a similar culture. The representation of the white female in these minority texts equates her to a symbol of the dominate culture by defining her within their standard of beauty.

The cultural norms of the majority are desirable to the adolescent males, because they want to achieve acceptance and popularity in the dominate culture. In America, the acceptable social norms are associated with white culture. This influence on the minority makes the white culture an essential component of diversity in America. When considering diversity, people highlight the minority; however, the white culture is part of the diverseness of America. Other cultures desire the benefits of being white that is why Jin and Arnold want Amelia and Penelope. The majority cultural cannot be ignored because of it profound influence on the surrounding culture.

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