I loved the movie Easy A, not only because it was hysterical, but also because there is a lot YA writers can learn from this movie. A lot, in fact, that many writers can learn from it.
Here is a flick where they pull from an old classic (The Scarlet Letter), and toy with all sorts of clichés, all while creating something entirely new and fresh. And if there’s something the world of YA needs, it’s new and fresh.
This post kinda ties into my Agent Monday post on originality. From the writer’s point of view, I’m always trying to think original. It’s tough. There’s a ton of stuff that’s been done and overdone.
In the world of contemporary YA, that includes stuff like high school with its hot jocks, snotty cheerleaders, cafeteria tables divided up by cliques, gossip and reputations ruined, distant parents, dead parents, crazy parents, loss of virginity, finding your self-worth, the ditzy best friend, the sweet nerdy guy who comes to your rescue in the end. Etc. etc. etc. (as Yul Brenner would have said).
So what do you do? Ignore it all? For me, it was important to have bits of these elements thread into my novels but to approach the subject of a teen coming into their own in a unique way, in a world that I made real. In What I Meant… that meant that the Indian-American family dynamic added its own humor, pathos and heart and that it wasn’t the daughter’s virginity that was in question, but the history of an adult’s… In Over My Head, it meant that the snotty girl was a threat, but also was complex. And that a college aged guy brought into question what was mature, what was real love, and when did we truly grow up. In Drawn, it meant pitting a normal teen existence against a backdrop of abnormal and even psychic occurrences, and having my heroine find meaning in a world where nothing makes sense anymore.
So what’s Easy A got to do with it? Here’s a movie that acknowledges every cliché “in the book” and makes fun of it, even runs with it. It starts off with the heroine talking about her sad existence and then saying, “Blah, blah, blah. So original.” And you know you are in for some fun. Lots of familiar stuff. You’ve got rumors (that she’s a slut sleeping with all the guys in the school). You’ve got mean girls (the snotty super religious chick who is out to “save” her, but really just wants to take her down). You’ve got the gay student who is being bullied. You’ve got the nerdy guy who helps her save the day in end (Lobster Todd – who wears a stuffed lobster on his head in his restaurant job, and sings the longest birthday song EVER, with lots of hep-hep-heps in it). There are references to cheesy 80′s flicks…and a dance number is included. But it all works.
They even make fun of product placement in movies. For some bizarre reason, a Quiznos restaurant mascot is in the midst of the zealot anti-slut mob amid all the hateful posters being waved. He yells, “Eat at Quiznos!” Our heroine says with disgust, “Not now, Quiznos Man.” And he shouts back, “You’re a slut!”
Okay, can I just say that every time I walk by a Quiznos, I now mutter, “You’re a slut!”?
See, the heroine isn’t really sleeping with anyone, she just gets roped into lying about it. First she jokingly says she did to appease her ditzy best friend. Then the mean girl overhears and spreads the word. Our heroine is labeled as a slut and starts being treated differently (she’s reading The Scarlet Letter in English, BTW). So, what the heck, she starts dressing the part. She’s mad. Then she gets roped in to lying about having sex with a gay friend to protect him from homophobes who have been hassling him, and before you know it, it’s open shop. Every tortured nerd is appealing to her kindness to help their sad images through lying.
It’s poignant. And it’s hysterical too. And the religious group creates a lynch mob, and it all spins out of control… Here’s a flick that uses every cliché, makes fun of them, and also gives us a fresh look too. At how girls are viewed. At how that overweight kid really feels. At how being kind to someone can actually hurt yourself.
And I appreciate how some clichés are avoided, and how some characters can run deep. Her parents are kooky and original and funny, but they are there and they are supportive and they love our heroine. They don’t pry too deeply, and they tell her, “you’re going to be just fine.” In YA lit, that’s something you don’t see enough of.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that we writers need to know our genre clichés. We need to know how avoid clichés, how to spin them, and even how to make fun of them. It’s about keeping it fresh.
Hep hep hep!