Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Played, by Dana Davidson
A little over fifteen years ago, I was a doctoral student at The University of Michigan teaching with a team of graduate students in a summer writing program for inner city kids in Detroit, MI. While I worked with a small group of elementary teachers and students at The Dewey Center for Urban Education, others worked at Northern High School. This experience changed my life, and set me on the road to a career as an urban teacher educator.
Over the duration of this unique summer program (documented in part in David Schaafsma's book Eating On The Street), I heard lots of discussion about the program at Northern High. In particular, I recall a good deal of debate among the teachers involved about the appropriateness of several highly provocative love poems that the high school students had produced.
Fast forward to today, and in particular to Played, by Dana Davidson, a 2007 Top Ten Quick Pick f0r Reluctant Young Adult Readers, and I see that the subject of love is still very much on the minds of teenagers in Detroit, MI. My guess is that the debate among teachers and parents about the appropriateness of reading and writing about teenage love--and yes, sex--is also alive and well, too. It doesn't surprise me that Dana Davidson is in the midst of this debate, since I recall her as an active participant when both she and I were students at The University of Michigan.
Played tells the story of a handsome young man, Ian, who accepts a challenge posed by his soon-to-be high school fraternity brothers to sleep with plain-faced Kylie Winship within a time period of three weeks. In addition, he takes on the task of getting her to fall in love with him, too. While Ian is prepared to meet these challenges, given his history of success with the ladies, he is totally unprepared for the changes in thinking and emotion that his relationship with Kylie eventually brings.
Just as Ian's relationship with Kylie produces changes in perspective for which he is unprepared, so too Davidson's narrative has the potential to spark unexpected changes in the mindsets of readers. Male readers, for example, will be challenged to look at fraternity games and sexual conquests from an alternative perspective--even as the novel highlights the advantages that come from such activities. Female readers will be challenged to stand up for themselves and cast a critical eye on the attitudes of the boys they love--even as they derive pleasure from reading about a girl who is unable to resist the superficial come-ons of a handsome young man. Last but not least, adult readers like myself will be challenged to appreciate the useful lessons about relationships and the importance of hard work that are conveyed in Played amid the more attention-grabbing representations of sexy, affluent teenagers living in the New Gilded Age (for a concrete example of teenagers living in the New Gilded Age, see this column by Clark Hoyt; it discusses a recent controversy regarding the use of a teenage model in a higly provocative photo shoot for a fashion magazine put out by The New York Times).
So, how should we older adults think about books like Played that put before readers a detailed and somewhat enticing portrait of teenagers enacting values not typically reinforced in church, home, or school? To be honest, Played and books like it are not ones I want my own younger adolescent reading; however, I don't have any issues with older (15+) or more mature adolescents reading this kind of literature, especially if the goal of the reading moves beyond the acquisition of social and sexual knowledge to using the texts to understand the nature of the contemporary world. The contemporary world is full of examples of how sex and fashion are being used by various people to make money, get attention, and derive short-term rewards. Undoubtedly, the Internet is fueling this trend, as can be seen in the example of Obama Girl.
Do I want teens to be aware and critical of this trend, of the way in which sex and sexiness is being used to play consumers and readers of all kinds and to shift their attention toward the interests and desires of others? Absolutely. The only way to do this, I believe, is to read the world--including television, YouTube, and books like Played--and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the sales pitches represented therein. This is certainly a discussion that many teens are ready and willing to have, but many adults continue to put obstacles in the way of such conversations, out of a fear of touching on topics that are still taboo within public domains. Dana Davidson is to be commended for challenging these anxieties, and attempting to draw more teenagers into a productive conversation about the complexities of sex and love and the contemporary world.