Mar 4, 2011

Review: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

I once did a presentation for a Criticism of Children's Literature class that heavily relied on the panopticon and its implications in/on everyday life.  Quick recap: the panopticon is a 1785 circular prison building design from the mind of Jeremy Bentham.  There's a watchtower in the middle so prisoners always have the sense of being watched.  The feeling this creates is why Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me" exists.

For me, everything is panoptical, but even more so in the lives of children.  Think about it.  Parents threaten their kids with the "eyes in the back of their heads," they use Santa Clause and those super scary Elf on a Shelf dolls to keep kids behaving in December, and they sometimes keep cameras hidden in teddy bears.  Kids are always under surveillance! 

The use of the panopticon in E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is the reason why I really liked this book, even if she explicitly states that the boarding school Frankie attends is a panopticon twenty too many times. 

The story is about rebellion and lashing out at the panoptical society that Ms. Landau-Banks realizes controls the students' every move.  Under the guise of their leader she secretly takes over a secret society, The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, in order to challenge the administration and launch discussions among the students.  She causes the Basset Hounds to play witty pranks on the school's campus, but her plans go slightly astray because nobody really understands their true purpose.

Unfortunately, Frankie also takes charge of the secret society to impress her boyfriend and his friends.  There's a lot of feminist discussion throughout the novel, which is great because it gives Frankie potential for a place on the list of kickass female characters that have become popular in recent years (Katniss from The Hunger Games, anyone?).  But the fact that her initial goal is to win over her boyfriend takes away some of her feminist edge and makes me sad, even though I know this storyline adds to the whole idea that the panopticon is inescapable.  She assumes he can always see her so she does things to impress him, even though (duh!) she's achieving these pranks under the name of his best friend.  Oh well.

The story is funny, Frankie's pranks are ridiculous, yet witty, and there are occasional funky narration shifts that work well with the panoptical subject matter.  That is, the narrator is the guard in the watchtower and randomly addresses the reader because like panopticon prisoners, the reader is always susceptible to being watched.  I like it and it's definitely worth reading.  The novel could also serve as a great way for library teachers to collaborate with ELA and history subject teachers for a lesson on Bentham's panopticon and evidence of the panopticon in modern society. 

On a slightly panoptical related note, I'm in love with this entry on Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi" song/music video.  Read it.  It's awesome.

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