Beyond Stereotypes: The Outsiders – Book Analysis

Book analyses are essays which closely and critically examine specific characters, relationships, topics or themes in a book.

Spoilers

Read my spoiler-free review of The Outsiders here.

Content warning: Mentions of classism, child neglect, child abuse, suicide.

The Outsiders is a complex insight into the class system that overlooks, devalues and scapegoats the working classes. It gives voices to the forgotten people that live on the fringes of society and are deemed unimportant. Ponyboy, Soda, Darry, Johnny and Dally are ostricised, stigmatised and labelled “white trash” or “scum” because of the communities they live in and their family backgrounds, both of which they have no control of. They’re villanised by their communities who see them only as caricatures based on their prejudices and societal stereotypes.

You greasers have a different set of values. You’re more emotional. We’re sophisticated-cool to the point of not feeling anything. Nothing is real with us.

In this story, Hinton humanises the people we have a tendency to dehumanise in our society. We can look at the actions of the characters in The Outsiders and say, “They’re terrible people that deserve to be locked up; they’ve lied, fought, killed, committed arson etc.”, but that’s an injustice to those characters because it fails to consider the context and context is always important. Ponyboy, Dally, Johnny, Soda, Darry and Two-Bit are young boys – children – who are impoverished, living in unsafe homes with volatile family units, absent or neglectful parents and communites that are plagued by substance abuse, crime and poverty. This does not justify the characters actions but it does humanise them and that’s important for so many reasons.

I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better. I could see boys going under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn’t believe you if you did. It was too much of a problem to be just a personal thing.

In our society, we rely so much on boxes and categories and labels. We want everything and everyone to slot neatly into the binaries that we’ve created – male or female, black or white, gay or straight, good or bad, rich or poor – but none of these labels or binaries can ever fully capture the nuances of our lives or what makes us who we are. And that complexity of what it is to be human in a world that repeatedly forces us into various boxes and demands that we conform to those boxes or risk social isolation or loss of identity, is what Hinton achieved with this novel. She took a stigmatised group (young, white, poor males) and a stereotypical situation (crime, murder), and approached it from an angle that deconstructed these things to humanise the characters, without glossing over their awful actions.

Dally is a perfect example of this. He’s multi-layered. On the surface a stereotypical violent, criminal and self-serving jerk. But also a young kid that has lived an unstable life without parental guidance or care, who was forced to physically toughen up to survive in prison and was incredibly vulnerable. He valued self-preservation but was fiercely loyal and capable of selflessness and sacrifice for his friends. His relationship with Johnny encapsulated his vulnerability and reminded us how alone and unloved Dally is. Once Johnny was gone, he could no longer bear to live in the world. This fact alone demonstrates how devoid Dally’s life was of love and meaning, and his fate was heart breaking because of how young he actually was. His backstory and relationships with his friends doesn’t work as an excuse for the dark parts of Dally’s character but it did take him beyond the archetype of his character and deconstructed the stereotypes surrounding him, challenging even Ponyboy’s perception of Dally.

Dally didn’t die a hero. He died violent and young and desperate, just like we all knew he’d die someday.

Words hold so much weight and when we hear a word we immediately attach meaning to it. Labels and categories, in particular, can be very loaded words because they often come hand in hand with biases and prejudices. We categorise and label ourselves and others often based on surface-level information and those labels or categories come with a long history and very little context on an individual level. For example, we might assume that a person that has been to prison is morally corrupt, dangerous and perhaps “less than” someone that hasn’t been to prison. And in the moment when we are making that snap judgement, we fail to account for that person’s individual circumstance and identity beyond the “criminal” label. Once that label has been attached, we struggle to divorce our prejudices from the reality of context of what makes that person who they are, leading us to dehumanise them and perceive them as a living embodiment of that stereotype.

That’s why people don’t ever think to blame the Socs and are always ready to jump on us. We look hoody and they look decent. It could be just the other way around – half of the hoods I know are pretty decent guys underneath all that grease, and from what I’ve heard, a lot of Socs are just cold-blooded mean – but people usually go by looks.

For me, The Outsiders is about challenging these stereotypes. The novel goes beyond what it appears to be on the surface to provide social commentary on the norms and stereotypes that exist in our society and challenges them in a humanist way. It reminds us that despite our differences and the words, labels and categories we use to “other” each other and separate ourselves into subgroups, there’s an essential human connection between all of us, that we should always prioritise. This involves taking the time to focus less on our differences and more on our similarities, to challenge our prejudices and our judgements, to view people with openness, compassion and empathy and to account for the whole person beyond labels. The characters of The Outsiders represent the voices and lives of so many poor children that are abused or neglected, shunned and ostracised from society, that are derogatorily labelled before they’ve even reached adulthood and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ponyboy is the exception to that rule. He is the hope in the book, the one whose eyes are opened to this reality. He sees beyond the limits of his class to connect with Cherry and sees his brothers and friends as people, not just Socs or criminals. Ponyboy is the catalyst for the message about the importance of seeing beyond stereotypes to see the person and enables the reader to connect to that same message.

It seemed funny to me that the sunset she saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren’t so different. We saw the same sunset.

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.

Queerness and bisexuality: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo – Book Analysis

Book analyses are essays which closely and critically examine specific characters, relationships, topics or themes in a book.

Spoilers

You can find a full spoiler-free review of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo here.

Content warning: Discussions of biphobia, homophobia and sexual assault.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (TSHOEH) has multiple queer characters including the main protagonist and title character, Evelyn Hugo, who is an openly bisexual woman. Evenlyn has multiple romantic and sexual relationships with men and one serious long-term relationship with Ceila, a lesbian, whom she considers to be the love of her life. Evelyn’s character and her identity as a bisexual woman is going to be the focus of this post.

Queer representation in books has vastly improved in recent years, but there’s still a long way to go. It’s practically impossible to accidentally stumble upon a book with queer characters; it’s something that readers usually have to actively look for. Finding representations of bisexuality can pose even more challenges due to the high levels of bi-erasure both in and out of the queer community and across all mediums. Despite bisexuals representing over half of the LGBT+ community, its an identity that continues to be misunderstood and erased. Therefore, the power of having an explictly bisexual character with Evelyn saying the words, “I am bisexual” cannot be understated. It provides validation for bisexual readers and the significance of representation – of seeing ourselves reflected in what we read – is huge.

I’m bisexual. Don’t ignore half of me so you can fit me into a box, Monique. Don’t do that.

As a straight woman, Taylor Jenkins Reid (TJR) cannot always capture the complexity and first-hand experience of what it means to be queer, but she generally pulls it off well. Evelyn’s internalised biphobia, struggle to accept and understand her queerness and fear of being outed is particularly striking.

Maybe if I’d spent my whole life fighting off feelings for women, then I might have had a template for it. But I didn’t. I was taught to like men, and I had found – albeit temporarily – love and lust with a man. The fact that I wanted to be around Ceila all the time, the fact that I cared enough that I valued her happiness over my own, the fact that I liked to think about that moment when she stood in front of me without her shirt on – now, you put those pieces together and you say, one plus one equals I’m in love with a woman. But back then, at least for me, I didn’t have that equation. And if you don’t even realize that there’s a formula to be working with, how the hell are you supposed to find the answer?

Evelyn’s struggle to understand her sexuality and her feelings towards Ceila is a direct consequence of her attraction to and relationships with men. When the world in which we live is so binaried, often the only choices we believe we have are gay or straight. Evelyn is initially unable to recognise that her feelings for Ceila go beyond friendship and even when she does, her intense internalised biphobia prevents her from truly being able to accept it. This manifests itself whenever she’s faced with the possibilty of being outed and Evelyn immediately goes on the defensive.

Even when Ceila is insistent that she and Evelyn should be open about their relationship and to hell with the consequences, Evelyn is adamant that they can’t go public. It’s a recurring argument for the couple with Ceila tiring of having to hide and Evelyn insisting it’s necessary for their safety. In fact, when Evelyn is almost outed by a Hollywood newspaper, she takes the drastic action of eloping with a rock-star who she doesn’t even know which has a hugely traumatic outcome.

We’d tell the truth about our lives, and they’d bury us. We could end up in prison or in a mental hospital. Do you get that? We could be committed. […] The world is ugly, and no one wants to give anyone the benefit of the doubt about anything. When we lose our work and our reputations, when we lose our friends, and, eventually, what money we have, we will be destitute.

Evelyn’s fear of being outed and the consequences of that are very real for her and always at the forefront of her mind. She’s not just afraid of losing Ceila, but their careers, their money and everything they have worked to build for themselves. This fear is informed by the endless battle Evelyn has with internalised homophobia and biphobia.

Homosexuals were misfits. And while I didn’t think that made them bad people – after all, I loved Harry like a brother – I wasn’t ready to be one of them.

On the one hand, Evelyn embraces her love for Ceila and insists that it’s right; that it’s the world that’s wrong for not understanding or accepting them, but internally she feels turmoil over her relationship with Ceila. She never seems able to put the pieces together to make it work and ultimately sabotages her relationship with Ceila. What I struggled with most with the way this is written is that Evelyn’s reasoning for wanting to hide her bisexuality and relationship with Ceila is framed by TJR as being because she was fame and money hungry.

Now that I don’t have her, and I have more money than I could ever use in ths lifetime, and my name is cemented in Hollywood history, and I know how hollow it is, I am kicking myself for every single second I chose it over loving her proudly.

This completely invalidates Evelyn’s very real and justified feelings about coming out publicly. She doesn’t want to lose her career or money, that’s obviously a factor, but it’s so much more than that. Evelyn is genuinely afraid of what might happen to her and Ceila if they come out. The scene that really highlighted this for me was her reaction to the Stonewall riots.

I started crying when I realized those men were willing to fight for a dream I had never even allowed myself to envision. A world where we could be ourselves, without fear and without shame. Those men were braver and more hopeful than I was. There were simply no other words for it.

I knew it was imperative that I hide, yet I did not believe I should have to. But accepting that something is true isn’t the same as thinking that it is just.

Evelyn doesn’t hide out of selfishness or a desire for money or to protect her Hollywood career, she hides out of fear and because she believes it’s necessary for her safety and the safety of the woman she loves. She feels that she must make certain sacrifices in her relationship with Ceila to live a life free of discrimination, hate and danger.

I was under no illusions about how much it has cost Ceila and me to be together and it was gong to continue to cost us more. It was like a tax on being happy. The world was going to take fifty percent of my happiness. But I could keep the other fifty percent.

The one aspect of bi-erasure and biphobia that is handled very well is that which Evelyn faces from Ceila. It’s the type of prejudice and discrimination that bisexual women sometimes face from gay women. Ceila, like society, believes that there is only gay and straight and she projects her own identity and feelings onto Evelyn, even when Evelyn makes it clear that she’s not gay.

I hated being called a lesbian. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with loving a woman, mind you. No, I’d come to terms with that a long time ago. But Ceila only saw things in black and white. She liked women and only women. I liked her. And so she often denied the rest of me. She liked to ignore the fact that I had truly loved Don Adler once. She liked to ignore the fact that I had made love to men and enjoyed it. She liked to ignore it until the very moment she decided to be threatened by it. That seemed to be her pattern. I was a lesbian when she loved me and a straight woman when she hated me.

For me, this quote really captures the complexity of the tension that sometimes exists between gay and bisexual women. Ceila deeply loves Evelyn, but resents her attraction and past relationships with men. As a gay woman, she cannot relate to or completely understand Evelyn’s ability to be with men as well as women. She projects lesbianism onto Evelyn because it makes her feel more safe and secure in their relationship. This speaks to a very common aspect of biphobia – the assumption that a bisexual woman in a relationship with a woman will always inevitably leave her for a man. Despite Evelyn reassuring Ceila that she loves her deeply and is committed to her completely, Ceila’s insecurities get the better of her on occasion. It’s not to say that Ceila doesn’t have reason to feel the way she does, since Evelyn continues to have affairs with men whilst they are together and in the time they are apart, which brings me nicely onto my next point.

Although many aspects of Evelyn’s sexuality are well-written, the portrayal of her as a sexual woman and her ongoing sexual relationships with men plays into the negative stereotypes associated with bisexuals. Evelyn is an attractive, sexy woman and from a young age she willingly uses sex to her advantage. Her choice to sleep with Mick Riva is one that she makes out of desperation to hide her true sexuality and relationship with Ceila but may unwillingly contribute to biphobic narratives. Generally, Evelyn’s persistent sexual relationships with men insinuate that even when she’s in love with a woman and in a committed relationship with her, she cannot resist the lure of a man. This feeds into biphobic rhetoric about infidelity, promiscuity and the overbearing “straightness” of bi women. This is addressed by TJR with the following quote from Evelyn:

There’s a difference between sexuality and sex. I used sex to get what I wanted. Sex is just an act. Sexuality is a sincere expression of desire and pleasure. That I always kept for Ceila. […] Being bisexual didn’t make me disloyal. One has nothing to do with the other. Nor did it mean Ceila could only fulfill half of my needs.

This demonstrates some awareness from TJR that she was perhaps contributing to biphobic rhetoric in her depiction of Evelyn’s sexuality, so it’s important that she addressed that. Nonetheless, Evelyn’s insistence in Chapter 46 that it’s her selfishness and desire for fame that negatively impacted her relationship with Ceila is only half of the story. It feels lke a very purposeful attempt by TJR to take a backwards step and deny the significance of the consequences of Evelyn’s struggles with her sexuality and queer identity on her relationship with Ceila. Evelyn admits that her downfall is using sex to get what she wanted even when she had other options at her disposal, but there’s no acknowledgement that a large part of why she continued to use sex in this way is because she couldn’t accept her bisexuality.

I broke Ceila’s heart because I spent half my time loving her and the other half hiding how much I loved her.

This quote is taps into the true reasons for Evelyn’s actions and the hurt she causes Ceila – it’s because she never truly allows herself to love Ceila unreservedly, proudly and without shame. She’s unable to reconcile her love for Ceila with her bisexuality and uses sex with men as a form of self harm. This beckons to a very important and very real issue that bisexual women face of being at higher risk of sexual abuse, assault and harassment than straight women. In this regard, Evelyn’s experiences of poverty, domestic abuse and sexual assault are representative of the tragic experiences bisexual women face.

Therefore, despite the depiction of bisexuality in TSHOEH being flawed and sometimes contributing to biphobic rhetoric, it captures the core of a lot of the struggles bisexual women may face. It tackles the risks of poverty, domestic abuse and sexual assault that bisexual women face at disproportionate rates compared to straight women and actively addresses biphobia and bi-erasure. Many queer women, myself included, can see pieces of themselves reflected in Evelyn and that is important for so many reasons. Like Evelyn, many bisexuals today still do not have the formula to understand their attractions and sexual identity. Binaries continue to dominate our society and our understandings of sexuality and reading a book like this and finding a character like Evelyn might just help other queer readers to understand and/or accept their identity and live freely and proudly in a way that Evelyn was unable to.

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.