Cristina’s Close Look: Marginalized Identities and Intersectionality in Eleanor & Park

Posted January 16, 2015 by Cristina (Girl in the Pages) in Cristina's Close Look, Discussions / 22 Comments

closelook2I’m really excited to launch this new feature! Cristina’s Close Look is a more specific type of discussion here at Girl in the Pages, where I find a trope, topic, or theme and explore the topics more in depth with a little bit of analysis and a lot of enthusiasm. Feel free to join into the discussion in the comments!

Topic: Marginalized Identities and Intersectionality in Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

*Warning: This post will contain spoilers for the novel Eleanor & Park. Just a heads up if you haven’t read it yet!

I picked up Eleanor & Park for the first time this month to join in on She Reads A Lot’s Book of the Month feature. It’s a book that had been on my TBR for quite a while, and the last I had to read to complete all of Rowell’s books. I had a vague idea of what the book was about (I had also heard about the controversy about how some areas were trying to ban it) and I had high expectations going in, which can often ruin a book. Instead, I found Eleanor & Park not only to be a five star read for me, but I was extremely impressed at how Rowell manages to represent so many marginalized identities and intersection of multiple systems of oppression that her characters suffer under without overwhelming the reader or lessening the experiences of those groups.

The story is set in 1986 in Nebraska, and within the 328 page novel Rowell includes marginalized identities and sufferers of oppression including:

  • Minority races in a predominantly Caucasian area (Park’s Korean heritage)
  • Families living in poverty (Eleanor’s family)
  • Victims of domestic abuse and sexual harassment, esp. females (Eleanor, her mother, siblings)
  • Victims of bullying (Eleanor and Park)
  • Males and Females who do not conform to societal gender norms (Eleanor and Park)
  • Stigmas surrounding weight and “fat-shaming” (Eleanor)

Not only are all of these oppressed and marginalized identities represented, but Rowell expertly portrays the very real problem of intersectionality between different systems of oppression, such as poverty and domestic abuse, or race and gender.

Take Park, for example. While Eleanor may be the obvious choice for the character who is oppressed the most, Park suffers a lot of bullying and subtle discrimination despite the fact that he is semi-popular, has a comfortable home life, and seems relatively “happy.” As the novel progresses, it is clear that Park faces discrimination and internalized racism from most of his peers:

“What the fuck does Sheridan know about kung fu?” Mikey said.

“Are you retarded? His mom’s Chinese.”

Mikey looked at Park carefully. Park smiled and narrowed his eyes. “Yeah, I guess I can see it,” Mikey said. “I always thought you were Mexican.”

“Shit, Mikey,” Steve said, “you’re such a fucking racist.”

“She’s not Chinese,” Tina said. “She’s Korean.” -pg 7

Park’s Asian heritage is constantly used to stereotype him by his peers, who cannot even distinguish any cultural or ethnic differences between Chinese and Korean, let alone anything that is different from the overwhelmingly white community they’re encased in. Park’s behavior may seem like he just “shrugs off” this ignorance, but it really seems more like a lack of defending himself. Being half white in a community with very little demographic diversity, the racism and bullying due to his Asian heritage from his peers has led to internalized oppression, as he resents his partially Asian appearance:

All the women in his family were tiny, and all the men were huge. Only Park’s DNA had missed the memo. Maybe the Korean genes scrambled everything. -pg 177

Being Tina’s first boyfriend kept Park out of the lowest neighborhood caste. Even though they all thought Park was weird and yellow, even though he had never fit in…They couldn’t call him a freak or a chink or a fag, because- well, first, because his dad was a giant and a veteran and from the neighborhood. But second, because what would that say about Tina? -pg 177

Park is also constantly feeling emasculated being near his father and brother, who are both Caucasian looking and considerably taller than him. When Park starts to wear a little bit of makeup, his father is enraged and Park assumes it’s more to do with a built up fear his father has of Park being too feminine than the single incident of makeup itself. Park is aware that his race often is linked to how people perceive his gender, and he is doubly oppressed by his “different” race and his behavior that isn’t consistent with “typical” gender norms:

When Tina liked Park instead of Steve in grade school, Steve had said, “I think she feels safe with you because you’re like half girl.” Park hated football. He cried when his dad took him pheasant hunting…And he kind of wanted his mom to give him blonde highlights. Park knew he was different. -pg 104

 Likewise, Eleanor suffers at the hands of the intersection of multiple systems of oppression, specifically poverty and gender. Eleanor’s family severely lacks the necessary income to meet the basic needs to two adults and five children, to the point where Eleanor didn’t even have a toothbrush and all five children (ages ranging from sixteen to infant) shared one small bedroom, most of them sleeping on the floor. In addition to this neglect, both Eleanor and her mother suffer emotional, physical, and sexual abuse by Eleanor’s step father Richie, who dominates the women in the family:

She woke up to shouting. Richie shouting, Eleanor couldn’t tell what he was saying.

Underneath the shouting, her mother was crying. She sounded like she’d been crying for a long time- she must be completely out of her head is she was letting them hear her cry like that. -pg 48

That’s a relatively tame example compared to a majority of the conflict and abuse Richie imposes on the family, which include physical harm, drunk driving while others are in the vehicle, and shooting. In addition, Eleanor suffers sexual harassment by Richie, as he leaves lewd notes on her textbooks, refers to her as derogatory names such as “slut” and “whore,” and she must hide showering and changing from his predatory eyes:

How he looks at me. Like he’s biding his time. Not like he wants me. Like he’ll get around to me. When there’s nothing and no one else left to destroy. How he waits up for me. Keeps track of me. How he’s always there. When I’m eating. When I’m reading. When I’m brushing my hair. You don’t see. Because I pretend not to. -pg 288

Living in an impoverished socio-economic circumstance has made Eleanor more susceptible to other systems of oppression- gender-based abuse at the hands of her step father. It has also made her a target for bullying, as she cannot afford decent clothing or exhibit normal familial behavior in her neighborhood. Eleanor’s family’s dysfunctions have a catastrophic impact on her social life and her gender experience (as one could argue that he preference for baggy male clothing could be to divert her step father’s attention away from her female form).

Overall, I think Rainbow Rowell did a nuanced job portraying so many different systems of oppression without making the novel an “issue” book. The book is at its core a romance, but honestly and subtly acknowledges the layered discrimination, abuse, and intolerance that is present in her characters’ lives, and that certainly is present in many real teenagers’ lives. It takes a critical and talented author to be able to handle one of these oppressive topics, let alone several, and Rowell took that risk and succeeded, which is one of the best points about the book for me as a reader. Though the book’s content has created some controversy with parents wanting to ban it due to the language and content, I believe these elements are necessary to the story to portray the very real oppressive systems that exist and how characters work to exist within them as well as overcome them; you can’t write triumph without writing about the ugliness that has to be overcome.

Let’s Discuss!

How did you feel about the different systems of oppression layered in this novel? Did you identify with any or have you witnessed any in action? Did you find that the challenges Eleanor and Park faced promoted better character growth? Did one instance of oppression or marginalization stand out more for you as a reader? Let me know in the comments, and be sure to look out for my full review of Eleanor & Park coming out later this month!


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22 responses to “Cristina’s Close Look: Marginalized Identities and Intersectionality in Eleanor & Park

  1. This post is brilliant! You touched on a lot of things I want to discuss in my upcoming discussion posts. Especially the variance of socioeconomic status between E & P and their families and how both of their self worth/identity is greatly influenced by these factors. Also I’m massively impressed by the handling of non traditional gender roles in this novel. I mean, the layers of gender-bias and nonconformity are just beautiful and honest and written so admirably. I’m so impressed with this book, and I have no why I haven’t read it before now. Also, I don;t understand how TFIOS got more attention than this book. I mean no offense to TFIOS fans (I thought it was good but not spectacular, I wasn’t blown away by it). Eleanor and Park moved me… it was just… everything I never knew I needed in a book.

    • Ugh yes I can’t believe how much more hype TFIOS got over this book (although to be fair I’m not the biggest fan of the “sick lit” trend). I loved how both Eleanor & Park sort of explored the full spectrum of gender and how that wasn’t reflective of their sexual preference, they were just able to explore different gender roles for the sake of exploring them!

      • I completely agree about the gender roles. (Although Park does at one point question his sexuality… and I loved him even more for it). I really like how you point out the Rowell manages to fit all these marginalized identities into one novel without overwhelming the reader or lessening those groups. I think you also made a great point that, while it is a romance novel, it also deals with so many important issues without making it an “issues book”, as you put it. I loved that!

  2. shannyreads

    I skimmed a bit through this article as I was afraid of any spoilers since this is a book I have yet to read but I totally agree with some of the things you said. I thought Eleanor and Park was just like any other YA contemporary romance, but after reading this post it’s definitely motivated me to pick it up and really take a look at the other subtle themes in this book. Wonderful idea! I’ll be looking forward to your next Close Look post (:

    • I’m glad you liked this feature! It’s definitely not your “normal” contemporary romance and that’s why I love it, because it sets itself apart since it’s not afraid to tackle tough issues.

  3. I completely agree- Rainbow Rowell definitely broke some barriers in this novel, and she does it in such a brilliant way that it doesn’t sound forced. I especially love how Eleanor is not the perfect girl that often star in YA romances. She’s not the stereotypical pretty girl, but Park loves her all the more for that. We need more Eleanors in YA! Awesome post! 🙂

    • Thank you! I loved Eleanor, especially because I wasn’t made to love her up front- we’re made to feel all of her awkwardness and pain and she isn’t a protagonist who we instantly feel is written to be our “best friend.” I grew to feel for Eleanor and discover her nuances just as Park did and loved her all the more for them!

  4. Such a great post! I read Eleanor & Park a while back and liked it a lot because they weren’t your ‘typical teenagers’ falling in love the way we’re used to from a lot of other YA books. But I’ve never really thought about all the things Rainbow Rowell addresses the way you have and now realize that I really should have. You point out some very important aspects of the story and thinking about all these things makes me like the book even more.

    • Thank you! I like how Rowell kept a lot of those issues subtle not because they’re unimportant but because she doesn’t want them to overwhelm the story, which at its core is a contemporary romance, but she also acknowledges that these forms of oppression are present in many teens’ everyday lives. I think Eleanor & Park is the type of novel that one can reread and find a lot of layered meaning in each time! Thank you for stopping by and for the lovely comment!

  5. First, I just want to say that I LOVE this feature. I love diving in to the details of books beyond just a book review. And you are spot on with your analysis of Eleanor & Park — there’s a reason this book stands out from a more “literary” standpoint.

    I had my students read E&P in my YA Lit class this fall, and they had a few issues with the book, mostly related to Park. They felt that Park’s race was treated superficially and veered toward stereotyping him as a Korean (how his parents met, his feminine side, how he and his mom are characterized, etc). They also had a huge problem with the end of the novel and the fate of Eleanor’s siblings (is Eleanor responsible for them? I found that realistic, but they felt it was irresponsible). While I can see these points, I found the portrayal to a good one, considering the place and time. The novel is not supposed to be a fluffy romance, it is more than romance. It’s literary fiction, where highly flawed people do highly flawed things. I loved it!

    • Thank you! I was really excited to launch this feature and have been waiting for a novel that would work well with the “deconstructing” process. Along came Eleanor & Park and I knew it was the perfect opportunity!

      I think it’s interesting how your students felt Park was stereotypes as Korean, and I can definitely see why. I took that stereotyping more to be a reflection of how he is treated by his peers in a very mid western, nearly all-white community (we seem him through this stereotypical lens because his peers do…or he even sees himself this way because he’s fulfilling those societal stereotypes subconsciously). It’s interesting to note though that I actually had a family member who served in Korea and fell in love and came back to the states married and started a family. So I suppose I found those aspects less stereotypical because I’ve seen it really happen!

      I also worried for Eleanor’s siblings (especially with the sort of implied threat that Richie may have been abusing her little sister, considering how Eleanor reacts when she sees her sister sitting on his lap). But I agree with you- realistically a sixteen year old girl with no resources had no way to drag out four siblings and hide them/run away. The ending is ambiguous but I assumed that her siblings and mom eventually left, based on how distraught Richie was when Park encounters him at the end of the novel.

  6. I adore this. I’ve thought of doing a similar thing with a couple “tropes” that stuck out.

    And my that’s some fancy wording for the topic title. 😉 (No, but seriously, haha). I loved how Eleanor and Park dealt with a wide number of issues, mostly involving home-life. It was so interesting to see how race, poverty, expectations and domestic abuse affects a person. Especially poverty! That’s never seen in YA. Then there’s bullying, self-identity and weight issues, it was wonderful. I really loved the identity issues Park had, that really stuck out to me. He has his parents expectations, his classmates/friends’ thoughts about him and then he’s trying to figure out who exactly he is during all of this.

    Fantastic post, I can’t wait to see more.

    • I was surprised by the depth of Eleanor’s poverty as well! The fact that she didn’t even have a toothbrush…or soap…it was heartbreaking, but also served as a reminder that neglect can be just as bad as abuse. I liked how they both had their issues despite the fact that Park had a pretty good home life. His issues didn’t come off as being angsty but rather sincere questioning of his identity. He’s one of my favorite YA males I’ve read in a long time because he’s just as insecure and has to grow as much as the females, which you often don’t see. Usually the male love interest is mature and *perfect* and the female has to grow to be with him.

      Thanks for the lovely comment! 🙂

  7. I absolutely love this post. My boyfriend is Asian (Vietnamese and Laotian) and people constantly make jokes or call him Chinese. He usually shrugs it off but does reveal sometimes how much it bothers him. In general, it is still “okay” for people to stereotype the Asian community. People mimic Asian accents when they tell stories about Chinese restaurants – imagine if that kind of racism was used for other minority groups? It would be considered offensive and actually racist. I’m not sure why people still think that type of thing isn’t racism at all, and do it without realizing it’s offensive. Why is that it’s one of the few groups where it’s “socially acceptable” to stereotype them? I completely agree with the gender-related comments you made, both for Eleanor and Park. I too love that Rowell wrote this book without making it seem like she was pushing issues like these down your throat. It makes you think without taking away from the main romantic/cute message. Great feature!!

  8. […] Woo, lots of diversity in this one I feel like! The book takes place in the 80’s and follows around – obviously – Eleanor and Park. Eleanor comes from a poor, broken family with an abusive stepfather, and Park is a half-Korean boy. The two of them make an interesting couple, according to their classmates. My girl Cristina posted an amazing discussion that delves more into the “issues” explored in this book, so check it out! […]

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