The glorious and triumphant return of now-19 year old Blogger, the revival of a once-grand and dare I say influential webspace that produced daily content, and the crippling anxiety of a young woman who no longer has any time or motivation to write, and feels like any ability she had acquired in the past through repetition and sheer will alone is now slowly slipping out of her grasp. Brief history of the Blog and Blogger can be found here.

Here be personal journal entries, observations, slices of life, questions and conclusions, as well as exploration of social and political topics seen through the lens of a Malaysian Muslim, feminist, lesbian, Marxist, and horse enthusiast.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

This Is A Non-riot Hearse

Like I said, I finished The Princess Diaries series a few days ago and my rediscovering the series was undoubtedly the catalyst that got me to start writing in this blog again. When Hanna slept over last week, I suggested we watched the movie (the first one - not the wildly inaccurate, pulled-out-of-someone's-ass second one with Chris Pine) and Hanna only got about halfway before she dozed off. But I've developed a nocturnal sleeping schedule for the past, oh, 18 months so I didn't even bother to toss and turn in the dark. Instead I dug out my old Princess Diaries first volume which contains the first three books and started rereading.


The Princess Diaries is a series written by renowned YA and chick lit author, Meg Cabot, but I found out about it like I'd imagine most people did: through the Disney movie (they used to play it really often on the Disney channel). I was obsessed with the second movie when it came out (I made really bad decisions as a kid), which was around the time I went to the UK to visit my brother. Someone got the DVD for me and I'd watch it everyday and I even held a mock coronation where I got my niece to wear a tiara and hold a scepter and chucked a stuffed cat on her lap to play Fat Louie. My sister in law got me the tenth and final book for my... I guess thirteenth birthday? (And about that, who gives someone the tenth book in a series as a present? It's like that time I had a birthday party and someone who didn't even know whether I liked Harry Potter got me Prisoner of Azkaban but at the time, I already had two copies of PoA because my cat scratched the first one and I cried so hard my brother went to the store to buy me another copy right then and there). So I've gotta admit, seeing all the doodles and drawings I scrawled on the pages all the books I own (I don't have a copy of Princess on the Brink and Princess Mia) was a real trip. Like, there was this one page where I had written, "Afreena is a slut" in pencil and I can't for the life of me remember what the context for it was.

I'd like to have a reading list that's full of sophisticated books that had a common theme to tie them together and aren't half filled with Jacqueline Wilson's oeuvre (that's why I deleted my old Goodreads account and made a new one) but that's impossible, because then not only would I be ignoring some of my all time favorite books (The Candy Darlings, The Seer and the Sword), I'd also be neglecting children's, middle-grade or YA books that are important in the contemporary literary landscape, like The Hunger Games trilogy and The Percy Jackson series and its continuations (I haven't read any of Rick Riordan's recent books, but apparently a character in his Heroes of Olympus series, Nico, is queer). So maybe The Princess Diaries contributes nothing new to its genre, and certainly it's not without its faults, but I've said this and I'll say it again: I would definitely recommend it to just about anyone looking for a light and fluffy read.

But 'light and fluffy' is more characteristic of the first three books in the series than the other seven, or rather, the first three books read together as a trilogy. Because they (The Princess Diaries, Princess in the Spotlight, Princess In Love) are probably as close to the movie as you're going to get, after which, the fourth book veers entirely from the Royal Engagement movie (which starts off with a significant time-leap anyway). I tried to understand what the overall purpose of the books are, like, what a reader is supposed to get out of them, and I've concluded that the first three books comes off as disconnected from the series as a whole. Perhaps it's because they could have (and maybe should have) existed as standalones in a trilogy.

The first three books are your typical, wish-fulfillment YA fluff. Like everything else in the genre, the protagonist Mia is your every girl that readers are supposed to identify with. She has self-esteem issues (as expressed by her quest to achieve self-actualization) and constantly fixates on her appearance. She goes through are your quintessential high school experience as a freshman: flunking classes, fighting with friends, crushing on a senior and having to deal with a nemesis who's from the 'popular' crowd, as well as adjusting to the fact that her mother who has singlehandedly raised her all these years is now dating her Algebra teacher. But of course there's the twist: she's a princess. And not only does everyone at school including her long-time best friend, Lilly Moscovitz, envy her and wish they lived in her shoes, I'm pretty sure everyone reading along are thinking the same things, too (even now I wouldn't mind being Mia - she has a palace). So, that's nothing out of the ordinary. Gossip Girl and its many knock-offs offered readers a glimpse into the lives of the rich and tragic. Twilight and the following vampire craze offered... I don't actually know, but those vampires were loaded, too. So mostly, it was money. Because with money you can buy clothes and do your hair and redecorate your room, which are all the things teenage girls are supposed to be interested in and spend their money on, and YA books targeted at girls don't beat around this subject with subtlety. 

So based on the fact that these books aren't exactly standouts in YA literature, just how good was it? How did they compare to the movie? Why exactly do I vehemently encourage my peers to read these books, even though as Marissa said - and I don't particularly disagree - Mia does whine a lot and after a couple of books, her worries start to blur together and the story comes off as entirely forgettable and dry (and I do agree with Mia's English teacher, Ms. Martinez's assessment of her writing style - and by extension, Cabot's - as too forcefully 'quirky' and 'zany' in some places, downright asinine in others, and overall peppered by pop culture references that not everyone is going to understand)?

The simple answer is, sue me, I want to be a princess. Mia can be annoying, but when I reread my old blog posts, I definitely came off way worse than anything Mia's ever written. Keep in mind, she's supposed to be 14 in the first three books. I was crazy at 14, too. And to be able to go through everything with Mia again, for a second time, but this time I am 3 years and a couple of lifetimes older than Mia's 14, well, it's just nice to revisit a time in my life when the size of my boobs was my biggest concern. It's a thick volume, the three books stacked one after another, but I managed to finish it in under 24 hours, and I've been known to power through the entire thing on a transcontinental flight. Sometimes you just need a pick me up, something that facilitates reader insertion. And the fact that Mia, all things considered, is a few pegs less annoying than Bella Swan, is much appreciated on my end.

By the end of the third book, I was left in the clouds, with a feeling like I could take on anything or fly anywhere. Mostly, though, I wanted to continue with the next book because that's where the relationship between Mia and her new boyfriend, Michael (Lilly's brother), really plays out. But the thing is, the more you add onto the sundae that is The Princess Diaries series, it transforms into a different beast entirely. The longer Cabot drags Mia's story on, the more you start to notice and question about Mia's constructed world, and the shiny, glitter-filled world of tiaras and happily ever afters that the first three books promised disappears as if transfigured into a pumpkin at midnight.

The thing that bothered me the most and continued to be the voice nagging at me from the back of my mind? Michael. His age, first of all. I know that 18 year old, soon to be college freshman deign to date 14 year old high school students all the time. People at my old school dated guys in college and even in their early 20s and it was disgusting, yeah, but it's not exactly a huge controversy. But it just wasn't very... sensible? For Mia and Michael's story to play out the way it did. Another thing was that whole thing where Michael said he wasn't going to wait around all his life for Mia to be ready to have sex with him. Of course it's sensible for them to be talking about it and the fact that they had scheduled when to have The Talk and all of that, that was very mature of Mia. But Mia was not mature. I know she amended in the final book that she was, in fact, physically ready to have sex before she and Michael split up, but I hear that all the time. Oh, in hindsight, I know I was ready and I wanted to do it with Michael, I just wasn't emotionally ready. And yeah, Mia wasn't. She was nowhere near ready. So excuse me if I think it's really fucking gross for 19 year old Michael to be jacking himself off in the shower all the time while 15 year old Mia continued to call her virginity her 'precious gift'. 

But while reading Princess on the Brink, one thing became clear and I had no idea why that thing didn't occur to me earlier on: Mia is not a reliable narrator. She's biased - justifiably so - about everything in her life because she's such a 'worrywart' (that's what they would call Mia's crazy obsessions. Given the therapy arc and all, I'm surprised they didn't call it what it is: anxiety), while everyone else around her feels very differently. Lana admitted to being jealous of Mia all along. The tabloids and news outlets called her a statuesque beauty and made many references to the fact that she looked like a model. Being royal, something Mia has struggled with from the day she found out, was something everyone else envied and coveted. The thing is... the thing is. Mia is wrong about a lot of things. She calls herself a freak and a spaz every chance she gets. But what if she's wrong? Then that would mean that her friends, her family, her boyfriends, they'd all look at her and just see someone normal.

Not that that excused Michael's 'I'm not going to wait around forever', but it does explain why he thought he could get away with saying something like that. All along, I was thinking, how insensitive could Michael be, to not realize that Mia is an immature teenager with the emotional capacity of a ten year old? How could Lilly not realize that Mia is incredibly naive and impressionable? Well, because they all thought she was a normal, emotionally-adjusted human being with only an occasional flair for the dramatics, while really, she was totally batshit.

There were a lot of things that I ended up enjoying about the series in its entirety. One of it was Lana's 'redemption'. I don't think much of this because of the fact that the reason Lana had anything to do with Mia in the first place was because of that Domina Rei thing, which is some exclusive club for elite, rich women. And then Lana and Mia go shopping a lot. Like, hey, I understand that this is a YA novel, and I shouldn't expect much, and that I myself have days when I'd like nothing better than to be a Girl, like the ones on Gossip Girl or 90210 or something. So it was really nice that by the end, the Geeks and the Popular Cheerleaders sort of merged together and Lana (or Trisha) never even said anything mean to Tina and Boris, and had no reservations about encouraging Mia to go out with someone everyone used to call The Guy Who Hates It When They Put Corn in His Chili. 

The other is the depression arc. I'm not saying that YA books these days are shying away from the topic of therapy and medication for mental illnesses, but The Princess Diaries is meant to be read by a really, really young audience (because I can't actually imagine someone who's 17 would enjoy reading it for the first time). It's very clean. There are no explicit make out scenes and other than the few scenes of Ransom My Heart interspersed in Forever Princess, Mia stays coy about the physicalities of her love life. This time around was my first time reading Princess Mia (I never could find that and the eighth book in stores) so I don't know what 13 year old me would have thought about it. But for right now, I think Cabot wrote it with sensibly and sensitively, in a way that the young audiences of YA books can relate to, while still maintaining special Mia eccentricities that doesn't weigh the book down or make you think too much.

I could go further, of course, and talk about how desperately the books push for this idea that media or any form of distraction that 'doesn't make you think too much' is necessary and equally as important as those that discuss heavier topics (this is surely not a bone to pick with an individual book or even author, because it's pervasive in all forms of media. Besides which, the twist that The Princess Diaries presents is that yes, Mia probably has no idea half of what she's talking about - with regards to her social advocacy work, especially; she should just stick to saving the environment - Mia is also a princess and throughout the years, she has learned to put the needs of her people above her own and that is one message that definitely didn't get lost through the series). There's also the ending, which seemed a bit too abrupt (maybe I'm just disappointed that her reconciliation with Michael wasn't celebrated with more fanfare?). Her final journal entry was cliched and I think some of the sentences sounded like exact replicas of Sky High (or some other Disney movie) dialogue. To be fair, it's a series that spanned 10 books that probably already achieved its purpose by the third. By that point, Mia had already attained self-actualization several times over. It could not possibly get anymore climactic without drastically changing the tone of the series.

By the end, I think it's pretty clear what kind of story Cabot is trying to tell through her unreliable narrator. Mia gets a lot of things wrong, and when she manages to fix it and do the right thing at the end of the day, another problem comes rolling in for her to worry over. I don't like what Mia said about the whole 'fashion' thing - how what you wear reflect how you feel about yourself, and if you don't put an effort into your appearance, that means you don't care about yourself and you shouldn't expect other people to care either - but one thing I did appreciate was seeing Mia come into herself, to not look in the mirror and always have something negative to say about her appearance. The latter books really hits the nail on juxtaposing others' perception of you versus your own. Mia's paranoia that people see her through a negative lens, her fixations on other peoples' opinion of her, and the accompanying anxieties were all proved to be unfounded. I think this is an important message for young readers, even though most people know (theoretically, at least) that what other people think of you has no stock in the truth. 

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