English 112

Reading, writing, gaming (with analysis!)

Archive for the tag “close reading”

Of Reading Blogs and “Ponies,” Explanation and Musings

Hello everyone, and happy Friday! So, as I mentioned in class, through the semester I will be updating this blog periodically to include my musings about our texts, including bits and pieces I’ve remembered from class discussion, interesting things I’ve noted in your blogs, etc. Occasionally I may link to your blogs as I do my own thing here, so remember the writing you do in these blogs doesn’t have to be formal, but it is certainly produced in a public space for a public audience. So keep the rhetorics of reaching your audience at the back of your mind as you do these posts.

This post is going to be a sort of hybrid of me noting important things and instructions for your reading blogs, and me actually writing a reading blog for you to use as a model. Early on, I don’t think you should worry too much about doing your reading blogs “wrong.” If I’d like you to do something a bit different, I’ll tell you, but I’m likely to forgive any confusion early on in the semester, so you won’t have to worry about losing points just yet. That sort of thing comes into play later, when we’ve settled in and know the expectations for proper completion of work.

So, every week (usually on Monday, but on Wednesday for week 2), you’ll be posting in your blog. Each blog will cover the text we talked about in class on the previous Wednesday, and the texts we will be talking about for that Monday. So in essence you’ll be reporting on, reflecting on, and reacting to what we talked about in class on Wednesday, and “priming the pump” for class discussion on Monday. Now, you need only focus on our primary texts—that is, the fiction we’re reading. If one of the other readings strikes you as really cool and important, then you are always welcome to include it, but I’m not requiring it.

Reading blogs are a mixture of personal reaction and close reading. About half of your post should be devoted to discussing your reaction and general feelings about a text, and the other half should be focused on examining some specific part of the text—either a short passage (of one small paragraph or a few sentences), or even just one sentence if you can glean enough meaning from it. Relate the passage to the text as a whole and pinpoint interesting literary features in it.

Okay, so now that I’ve outlined what goes into one of these posts, it’s time for me to actually do one. Please keep in mind that in this post, I’m only going to look at “Ponies,” since I want to keep my thoughts about the other two stories to myself for now. That way my ideas won’t creep into your Inquiry One papers, and you guys will get the joy of working toward your own opinions of these texts.

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I find Kij Johnson’s “Ponies” to be delightfully savage. And no, not just because of the concept of little girls maiming ponies that are very much portrayed as symbolic extensions of themselves. (Symbols of exactly what, though, I’m still unsure.) The tone of this work is juvenile and somehow “preppy” like the girls the story portrays, and Johnson is not holding back with the underlying meaning of this one. This is pure allegory, and satire at its most cutting. There are no parts of this story that we would usually think of as “laugh-out-loud” funny.

In fact, this story is so uncompromising that many have very mixed feelings about it. Just read the comments section at Tor.com. Many there say they don’t want to like the story partly because they see the truth in it, but the revelation of the story’s “aboutness” makes them respect it all the same. A few others simply can’t get past the heavy-handedness of the allegory, which is a valid criticism. One could wonder if Johnson was a bit too obvious in places, but I think this story in any other context would be a major flop. Imagine trying to read a story with the same concept, but with realistic characters and details. I’m just not sure it would work for me. It would probably just devolve into the genre of horror instead of making its point.

Overall, the “aboutness” I get from this story is, as many people have mentioned in class so far, the danger of changing oneself in order to fit in. The groups that would demand this change, the story suggests, are not worth being a part of, and the damage to oneself may become far more than expected, as we see with Sunny. Once she’s gone too far to turn back, another demand is leveled, and then it’s too late—she must conform or lose everything.

But this interpretation is, I think, just scratching the surface. There are multiple themes here: the politics of childhood (from the perspective of girls), the limitation of female expression, and a hint of criticism for society’s conception of “femaleness” as a whole. This last one sticks out to me the most, probably because feminist theory is a major focus of my own scholarly work. Of course, this isn’t just the over-working of a brain trained for finding arbitrary feminist readings in texts—the text itself supports this reading as an undercurrent of subtext throughout.

In order to become accepted members of society—ie, fit in with “TheOtherGirls”—women and girls learn early on that they must alter themselves to conform to an expected (and accepted) image of femininity. They must change their appearance and maintain it scrupulously, must change their behavior in order to fit into the niche of what is all right for a girl. Take the image of Sunny’s cutting, for example:

It’s not the way it would be, cutting a real pony. The wing comes off easily, smooth as plastic, and the blood smells like cotton candy at the fair. There’s a shiny trembling oval where the wing was, as if Barbara is cutting rose-flavored Turkish Delight in half and sees the pink under the powdered sugar. She thinks,It’s sort of pretty, and throws up.

The use of “real” here in the first sentence is vexing. Clearly these Ponies are real in the context of this story, although they don’t fit our conception of what “real” ponies are. But Sunny plainly feels pain, so I think something else is going on here. There are clues, apart from the tone of the text, that the narrator is buying into this idea of the “cutting-out” as a necessary price for inclusion. (Sidenote: “cutting-out,” “coming-out” . . . I hadn’t noticed this before, but I’m really thinking it’s intentional.)

So if the Ponies are an extension of the girls’ personality and feminine self-expression, then it makes sense that anyone invested in the idea of paring this part of themselves down would also buy into the idea that it’s not really themselves being hurt. After all, Barbara isn’t cutting herself with that knife, right? (Well, wrong, but you get the psychology behind the issue.)

Then there’s the details of the cutting. The cutting of the wing is described as “smooth as plastic,” giving me a striking image of someone cutting parts off a Barbie doll. (Which is interesting . . . Barbie, Barbara . . . not sure what it means, to be honest. Must investigate further!) We also consider plastic things to be fake, so once again we’re getting the idea that Sunny isn’t real, and at the same time we’ve got an image of femininity: plasticness, the idea of altering oneself into the context of fakeness. (And isn’t that what we like to call the girls who are the epitome of the popular embodiment of American femininity, “fake”?)

Okay, this is getting long (hovering at about 800 words just for the part talking about Ponies), so I’ll just note the last line of the passage. Yes, it is sort of pretty. We are certainly taught to feel that altering oneself to embody the ideal notion of “female” is pretty, but it’s also (underneath the surface) ultimately harmful. We recognize this even as we internalize the “prettiness” of it all—hence Barbara throwing up.

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There’s so much more in the story, and please don’t take my reading as the ultimate Word on the text. Also notice something: a reading journal is an invention activity. What I have done here is basically a type of focused freewriting and annotation. It’s more than idle observation of a text, but it’s not quite formal, paper-worthy close reading yet. It’s jumbled, I’m not sure what everything means yet, etc, etc. It’s a step in the right direction, though, and I could certainly use it to start a paper, so keep this in mind as you write your own posts.

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