I’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.
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!