MTV. The once great, final frontier. Where fine programming like Singled Out and Shipmates launched the career of Chris Hardwick, and a little show called Undressed launched the budding sexuality of twelve year-old me.
Watched under the cover of night (and in the basement, the furthest room in our house from my parents’), I was caught breathless when a young, pre-OC Adam Brody wondered, “Can a girl get pregnant from taking it up the butt?”, a stepbrother and stepsister tried to avoid their attraction to each other with disastrous results (think A Very Brady Sequel, but dirtier), and roommates tried to determine whether having a threesome was a valid life choice or not. In case you were wondering? Always go with what’s behind option C.
Undressed was a uniformly ridiculous show, but it was also the place where I first learned that you could have sex with different people and that it was okay. It didn’t make you slutty, you weren’t suddenly a whore, it just meant, …hey! You liked sex. It was the show that taught me what being gay meant in a positive and non-confrontational way, and that that was okay, too. It was a show that pushed a lot of buttons in a mostly casual and easy manner, and also a show pretty universally panned by every adult I knew.
An aunt once caught me sneaking an episode while on vacation and told me that “nice girls” didn’t watch “trash like that” and “shouldn’t I know better”? Well, Auntie Ramona, I did know better, and that’s where the phenomenon of MTV Books came in.
MTV Books, like its much tamer, distant cousin, the Love Stories collection, focused on the trials and tribulations of young people. Mostly teens, mostly disenfranchised teens, mostly disenfranchised teens who were either In Trouble or Getting There. Where the Love Stories novels almost always promised a happy, if not necessarily earned, or satisfying ending, MTV Books promised and delivered on cutting edge stories about cutting edge people doing cutting edge things.
It was the early aughts. It was expected for The Youth of Today to smoke cigarettes and talk back and listen to The Pixies so loud that the walls of their homes rumbled.
Such is the case for the protagonist of Brave New Girl. Doreen is fourteen, but she has already been cultivated as Other. She smokes, goes on long walks with her male best friend Ted (her parents do not approve), and longs for the time before her charismatic older brother was thrown out of the house by her bad-tempered and often-distant father.
Though released by MTV Books in 2001, I’m not sure when Brave New Girl found its way into my library. I have a bookcase that’s packed to the brim with things I’ve had for years and never even cracked the spine of, so it could have been idling there for a decade, or was perhaps a recent acquisition from a used book haul. Last week, while running out of the house for an errand that I knew would absolutely take the whole morning, I grabbed the slimmest thing I could find and stuffed it in my purse, hoping for at least an entertaining distraction.
Clocking in at just 208 pages, Brave New Girl is certainly a quick read. It’s also a compelling read, a disturbing read, and, much like the of MTV of the 90s itself, full of enough smoke and mirrors that the lack of narrative depth or quality is mostly hidden amongst a lack of capitals, proper punctuation or a satisfying conclusion.
Doreen is an unreliable narrator, like teenagers often are, and she’s angry, too. Her parents are a fascinating collection of traits that don’t necessarily translate into fleshed-out characters (and married for a long time, but with a twenty year age difference that’s just glanced upon and never delved into), her sister vapid and one-dimensional, and her best friend a barely-kept together, nervous wreck son of an overwhelming alcoholic. It’s not that these are uninteresting tropes or bad ideas. They’re not, it’s the way the story is presented that I found problematic.
There’s a sense of foreboding that snakes its way throughout the narrative; you’d know something terrible was coming even if you weren’t being bashed over the head with the imagery of it. When Michael, the boyfriend of Doreen’s flaky older sister shows up on the scene, and starts paying her an uncomfortable amount of interest and attention, I almost threw the book aside in disappointment. “Book,” I said, because I have a habit of speaking loudly to inanimate objects. “Please don’t go where I think you’re going.”
Much like HBO’s vampire Gothic, True Blood, it didn’t listen.
Doreen is raped, though because she doesn’t necessarily say the words “no”, or “stop”, she doesn’t consider it that way. She’d been captivated by Michael before the incident, so she considers his advances welcome, if confusing and unpleasant. She deals with it by not dealing with it, avoiding the topic like she avoids showering or eating, leading to the climax of the story where she faints on a stranger’s front lawn and is brought home by taxi, to the waiting parents who have been searching for her all day.
The following pages are a whirl of disbelief and yelling. A lot of yelling. Faces get punched, plates get smashed, skin is scarred beyond recognition, and there’s a whole, whole mess of blood. At the end of it, Doreen and her distant-for-the-last-200-pages father escape to the highway, where he reveals that the older brother she’d worshiped and idolized was, in fact, a manic depressive, and had threatened to terribly hurt his two young sisters if they’d been left alone together. Every ideal that Doreen holds dear gets shattered, including the secret hope she’d had that someday, he would return for her, and take her from this life of clueless parents and unpopularity.
As I was constructing this post, I had a chat with a good friend of mine about the subject of rape in fiction. How is it possible, I said, that an hour ago, I had ten novels in my head that dealt with this exact subject matter, and dealt with it better, and now when I need them most, they’ve completely deserted me? She suggested Google, I chose GoodReads, and at the top of their list of books about “rape” was none other than Stephen Chbosky’s, The Perks of Being A Wallflower. I had completely forgotten its existence, despite reading it at a seminal point in my life (and hating it) and watching the film as it premiered last year (and loving it). The fact that it was also released by MTV Books is just the icing on this cake of teenage desperation.
If your high school experience was anything like mine, and we fall into the similar category of gen y-ers, you’ve read Perks. If you haven’t read it, you’ve heard of it, and if you haven’t heard of it, you aren’t someone I would have been friends with at 16. Written by Chbosky in 1999, the book focuses on a myriad of things, including rape, coming out, abortion, and navigating the troubled waters of high school without a clear focus or sense of self.
Charlie, like Doreen, is too old for his years, and it’s the comparisons between them are what strike me as most interesting. These books were penned less than two years apart, and it’s obvious that Chbosky’s writing style made a great deal of impact on Luna’s, whether intentional or not. Both novels concern rape and kids who consider themselves to be outsiders, and who both come to understand that while some people will always let you down, some won’t. Simple as.
The point is this: at one time in the early 2000s, mixed among the dating shows, and the music videos, before being Sixteen and Pregnant was the most important thing on the docket, and the Jersey Shore kids were just kids… MTV was a place where racier subjects weren’t something to shy away from. Undressed wasn’t a show necessarily targeted at younger audiences, but it was a platform to talk about the stupid, silly parts of sex and how it was okay for it to be stupid and silly. The books released through that label, long may it continue, weren’t afraid to go after the tough subjects, whether they were successful at it or not.
I may not have been able to relate to Charlie and Doreen. I never had a threesome with my hot college roommates. But because those options were presented to me? I understand the impulses. I’m not alone, and because these things exist, neither is anybody else.