On Identification, Sexism, J.D. Salinger, and a Bunch of Other Stuff

Chestnut is reading The Catcher in the Rye for school. She is not enjoying it, which came as a surprise to me. I loved it. No doubt, I love it still—if I picked up her copy I am sure I would fall into it immediately, and succumb to the charms of that easy familiar voice.

What's her problem with it, I wanted to know. Because her dislike—it's active. The book has pissed her off. "Well all he does is curse." OK. (She's in 7th grade, and pretty squeaky clean.)

"And all he ever does is put people down: this guy's a phony, and this guy's a phony—it's like he hates everyone." Well, pretty much true. Accepted. Go on.

"And he's so sexist! He talks about girls in this way that's like, all he cares about is whether they're pretty. He doesn't seem to care about any of them like they're people." Ouch.

This one hit home in an uncomfortable way. For one thing, I feel like I know too much about the author in this regard (oh, for the blissful ignorance of another time!). For another, she then said something like, "I wouldn't want him to think that way about me." And that's where I fell apart.

Because it became clear to me that I had never really thought about any of those girls. They hadn't fully seemed like people to me either. Because who I identified with—who I still identify with—is Holden.

I don't even know how I'm defining "identified with" precisely. Many years ago I was hanging around with friends and talking about Gilligan's Island (it just happens sometimes) and we (women) were talking about whether we felt more kinship with Mary-Ann or Ginger, and my very beautiful friend said, "I always identified with Gilligan." Which shocked me. It still shocks me. It somehow hadn't occurred to me as an option.

Because when I read David Copperfield, I am (in some way) David Copperfield. When I read Catcher in the Rye I am Holden Caulfield. It never occurred to me that I was—as of course I was, of course I would be—one of the women, those bordering characters who just don't matter so much. And yet Chestnut can read it and see it….is it more widely? More truly? More critically? Less forgivingly? I am not sure, it's just that somehow she skips that moment of assuming an identification with the narrator, and is instead floating freely through the story, unmoored and unbiased, seeing things with her coolly appraising 12-year-old eyes.

But…is this how everyone reads? What is this thing I'm calling identifying? How much of her remove is due to the book's great age? How much is from all the sexism/racism that was invisible to me when I read it?

In other words, what do you make of this?

4 thoughts on “On Identification, Sexism, J.D. Salinger, and a Bunch of Other Stuff

  1. Be proud! She’s practicing one of the principles of critical literacy: exploring multiple perspectives. By challenging the text, she is not accepting the status quo. I teach pre-service elementary school teachers. We spend weeks practicing how to analyze children’s books with a critical lens because they have few experiences questioning a text like Chestnut.
    Here is more information about Critical Literacy: http://mansour.lbpsb.qc.ca/documents/other/critical-literacy.pdf

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  2. I think part of it is that sexism/racism in books is more noticeable now, and more for our kids than it was for us coming up–even though there’s still that pesky assumption that “girls will read about boys but boys won’t read about girls,” our girls are not being trained so thoroughly as we were to identify with male literary protagonists. And part of it may also be Chestnut’s age– my experience is that empathy for Holden’s particular blend of cynicism, profanity, and wide-eyed idealism generally comes on a bit later than 12.
    And part of it is that you have a smart critical reader on your hands, and should indeed be proud.

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  3. I think it’s the time, and I think that book just doesn’t hold up. I’m sorry to say that, but I believe it. My son (now 15) read it, too, in seventh grade, and I imagine that’s part of the problem because isn’t that earlier than when we read it? He, like your daughter, didn’t like it either but for different reasons. “I don’t get it,” he said. And “it’s so relentlessly negative,” and “he’s boring, really, Mom.”

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  4. As a reader I identified with Holden, but then, I suffer from depression. “Negative” and “boring” are pretty much what my teen said, too. “Whiny” may have been used. But the essence is that he comes across now as a bad guy, not a tragic victim.

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