Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being an Andrews Character

I'm not really expecting a lot of diversity from my V.C. Andrews.  She was a lily-white lady writing pretty, sexy novels to appeal to other lily-white ladies at a time, albeit a relatively recent time (within the past thirty years), when the very idea of racial diversity in media was a concept tossed about by high-minded academics in the company of other high-minded academics, most of them white and all of them very probably drunk.  Moreover, the very book that made V.C. Andrews famous took place in a locked room and featured a grand total of six major characters.  There's not a lot of wiggle-room for representation within those perimeters.

But she tried, God love her, she tried.  The very few people of color in Andrewsland are by and large kind, cheerful, generous people who do their best to ease the lives of the (invariably young, white, and clueless) heroines.  When both Heaven and her mother feel out of place in the rambling halls of Farthinggate, they are welcomed into the kitchen by the jovial Rye Whiskey, who dispenses home-cooking and advice.  The Dollangangers are led to safety by the mute housekeeper, Henny Beech. 

Taken all together, it points to a kind of genteel racism, the logic of which goes something like this: I am a white writer, and as such have no experience with persons of color as individuals.  It's not that I don't like them--heavens no!  It is just that I fear that I, ensconced in my whiteness, can never do justice to their inner nobility, and also because I am secretly terrified of being called a racist.  Therefore I will go out of my way to include them in my work, and furthermore, I will make them dear and kind and decent and well-nigh saintly, prescribing to no negative stereotypes.  How can that possibly be racist?  It's a Scarlett O'Hara attitude, pointing out that the slaves at Tara get a ham every Christmas while never addressing the moral question that there are slaves at Tara.  The trouble with genteel racism is that in the end, it feels as if the author expects a pat on the head for acknowledging the very existence of anyone who isn't white.

Let's cut off the apologetics at the pass.  I am well aware that the majority of Andrews' work (both her own and most of the later books by Neiderman), are set in the 1960s.  It is entirely possible that an upper-middle class white teenager of that period really wouldn't encounter a person of color outside of the capacity of a domestic.  Furthermore, all Andrews' novels tend to be very insular in that they deal with the politics of a single small group of people, generally family members (and family members tend to be, um, really close-knit in Andrewsland).  Outside this claustrophobic inner circle, the rest of the world simply does not happen.  The woman got through an entire series set in the late 50s/early 60s with only a single reference to Elvis and no mention of, say, the moon landing, the Civil Rights movement, or the Kennedy assassination.  I mean, these people generally don't even have neighbors.

I'm willing to bet that V.C.'s personal life did not involve a wealth of PoC, simply because by all accounts her life didn't involve a wealth of anybody.  Much like the world of her characters, Andrews' life appears to have been composed of a circle of highly protective family and friends-of-family.  Pure Baseless Speculation on my part.  Anyone from the Andrews estate wants to prove me wrong, you can buzz me through Blogger.  Be prepared, though, because I have a list of interview questions as long as my arm in the event of this possibility.

What cannot be denied is that Andrews had a lot of problems with characters, period.  This woman couldn't write a realistic straight white female--and she was one.  Considering all the misogynistic men, self-loathing females, all-around slut-shaming, and consistently downeriffic depictions of the physically and mentally handicapped, it's almost a good thing that PoC don't turn up much in Andrewsland.  She would have fucked them up too.

Then we have Andrew Neiderman, who really doesn't have any excuse.

Neiderman was the mind behind the Landry Saga, where every PoC is either a domestic or a practitioner of voodoo (or both).  The lone exception is a minor biracial character who tries to pass as white, and who is publicly humiliated when her secret comes out.  Neiderman also brought us the Shadows series, a painful study of adolescent lesbianism (I've only read the first book, but the gist seems to be that the main character, April, struggles with her sexual identity because her older sister is a lesbian, because April herself was seduced by an older woman, and because she's fat, which in Andrewsland means you are unattractive to men and must resign yourself to either lesbianism or spinsterhood). 

Pictured above: a total blimp.

Considering that these PoC characters (not to mention the lone lesbian) turned up in a cluster, within a particular time period (between 1999 and 2009), their inclusion screams 'contractual obligation.'  Again, this is baseless speculation on my part, as one of the mysteries of the modern Andrewsverse is exactly how much input Neiderman gets on the actual creative process of the novels.  By tradition (read: legend), there is meant to be a treasure trove of original Andrews notes and manuscripts that Neiderman is simply completing and expanding, as before her death, Andrews frequently claimed she had notes for some 60+ novels/series.  However, I highly doubt that Neiderman was plowing straight back through the file cabinet and hit the "let's throw in some racially diverse heroines" strata.  This was a cold, calculated strategy.  Somewhere, someone wanted to V.C. Andrews to appeal to a broader audience . . .  and this person was probably puzzled when the mere existence of a PoC heroine did not produce the expected surge of PoC readers.  For one very good reason.


You know what you want when you come to a V.C. Andrews novel: rape, incest, murder, madness, and family trees that look more like Christmas wreathes!  You want ballerinas who miscarry onstage and sexual deviants that miscarry on their cousins' carpets!  You want infant abductions and vain psychobitch foster mothers!  If we wanted gritty urban realism, we know where to find that shit!

But the PoC characters in the later Andrews novels fail to provide the sort of wacky over-the-topness that is the hallmark of a V.C. Andrews novels.  It's not that they're PoC.  It's just that they are systematically and without exception boring as fuck.  But they are boring as fuck in one unified and highly significant detail:

There's Star of the Wildflowers series, whose biggest problem in life is . . . being black.  There's Raven of the Orphans mini-series.  Raven's biggest problem is . . . being Cuban.  There's Phoebe of the Broken Wings mini-series, whose biggest problem is . . . being black.  There's Delia, a Latina character who actually got her own three-book series, whose biggest problem is . . . you guessed it, being Latina.*  

White model + desaturation filter = Latina!

You may have noticed a trend in the previous examples: with the exception of Delia, all the characters above are only the main characters in their own single volume of a different mini-series, each mini-series consisting of four books of roughly about 150 pages each.  The heroines of the other three volumes of each mini-series are, without exception, white chicks.  Normally, I wouldn't quibble about screen-time if at least one of the characters contributed significantly to the plot; to draw a rather poor parallel, Hannibal Lecter's only on-screen for sixteen minutes of Silence of the Lambs but those sixteen minutes were enough to win Anthony Hopkins an Oscar. 

But, since they did not lose any of their readership by gambling on PoC characters, they decided that this was proof enough that the experiment was a success to unleash a full-length, four-volume "traditional" V.C. Andrews series upon the world: the Hudson Saga.

The heroine of the Hudson Saga is Rain, a girl who is as close to the classic Andrews heroine as a character gets.  She lives in a tough neighborhood with a working-poor family, abusive parents, and beloved younger siblings.  But Rain has dreams, y'all.  She dreams of the day that she will escape her poverty and become a concert pianist.  But one Dark Day, she finds out that--gasp!--her parents are not her real parents!  They are only some people who are being paid to take care of her on behalf of her real (white) mother, who was so shamed by pregnancy that she could not keep her baby.  Rain's real (white) family is of course fabulously wealthy and can afford to do this shit.  Rain sets off to find them, on a journey not at all motivated by financial need but in an effort to discover who she really is.

Gilding over some of the unsavory concepts behind this premise (if her bio-family's so wealthy then why didn't they find a more upscale environment for her to grow up in?  Why not just hide her in the attic?  It worked for everyone else!), so far, Rain seems to be the urban Heaven.  Except that Rain's biggest problem in life is--and sing it if you know the words--she's biracial.**

And the sad thing is there is a story to be had in a character whose biggest problem is being biracial, a story about the often arbitrary lines of identity.  The Tragic Mulatto trope has stuck around a while for a reason, and at its heart, that reason is Nature Versus Nurture, which can also be interpreted as Predestination Versus Free Will.  It offers hope that ultimately, one is not doomed to be a slave in the harness of Fate--that you are capable of changing your own destiny, that you are more than society says you must be.  Not coincidentally, this is also a theme in both the Dollanganger and the Casteel series: two young women attempting to overcome their very genetics.  Cathy succumbs to her fate, repeating the incestuous cycle of her parents, while Heaven learns that the background that once shamed her is actually the better part of her dual nature.

So it is a shame, and a cop-out, and really really gross, that Rain's biggest problem is "because she's black." 

It's kind of hard not to draw one rather cynical conclusion: marketing wanted to add PoC to a franchise largely driven by sales from white ladies.  Therefore they had to make the PoC prescribe to the white ladies' preconceived notion of the sort of problems PoC have.  And white people apparently believe that PoC biggest problem is existing.

Moreover, this attitude betrays an unsettling implication.  In all V.C. Andrews books, the beautiful heroine must struggle against insurmountable odds to find love and success.  Heaven endures crippling poverty; Cathy endures the emotional scars of forced imprisonment; Audrina overcomes being raped and brainwashed.  Once she is launched into her new life, Rain's biggest recurrent problem is just being biracial.  So . . . being biracial  is equivalent to being raped, imprisoned, poor, or mentally ill?

Again, I am not sure if it's the old genteel racism creeping back in (i.e. "I must spare my heroine the usual sort of over-the-top batshittery because it might look as if I'm racist if I had her raped by her stepbrother-who-is-secretly-her-half-brother-whom-she-not-so-secretly-digs!") or if the general consensus in Andrewsland is that all black characters come from deprived socioeconomic classes and must struggle with all their will not to like hip-hop (I wish I was making that up, but Rain has a stated hate-on for hip-hop and her decision to become a classical pianist seems almost a direct reaction to that dislike).  I won't argue which of these attitudes is more racist--they're both pretty fucking racist.  But it is sad, and not a little telling, that the PoC of Andrewsland are unified only in their unalloyed boringness.  It's like they're not good enough to be batshit.  

It might all go down better if it didn't feel so much like either a cynical marketing ploy or a deliberate stock response to current criticisms of popular literature--or both, which is my guess.  It is a place to which both writers and publishers can point and go "nuh-uh!  We do too have a black character!  Right here!"  If I could believe that this came from some essentially good place in someone's heart, that it was a sincere effort to address a significant absence in Andrewsland, that it was only clumsy and awkward in the way that a handmade valentine from your favorite four-year-old is clumsy and awkward . . . maybe.  But reading over the list of PoC heroines and their damning list of similarities, one detects the cold, fishy glint of a marketing department and a ghostwriter who, in my kindest moments, can only be described as an artisan.

The Canon Eight, for their part, are mostly blameless.  Yeah, we had all of two PoC characters to show for it, and yes, they were both textbook Magical Negros, but dammit, one of them was Henrietta Beech: a character who never spoke a word, but who managed to generate more heartfelt compassion than four whole books of Hudsons. 

*Sort of.  Her real biggest problem seems to be that being Latina means you have relatives who are Latin@ who tend to show up at all sorts of socially inopportune moments.

**Also in the third book she's in a car accident and gets stuck in a wheelchair, but V.C. Andrews's portrayal of disabilities is a whoooooooole other can of worms.


  1. yay, an update! i check every other day to see if you've written and this is another gem =) can't wait for your next/final petals on the wind recap!!

  2. Rain actually made me think more of Dawn. With the giving her away and her being returned to her birth family

  3. LOL! I adore your reviews! So funny.

    I would like to see you see you do the Cutler series. I believe you said you read them.

    Would you consider that? or are you doing the canon eight, and that's it?

    Anyway, upload soon!


  4. So glad you're back! I hadn't checked the blog in a few months because I figured you were done with it. Off to read the new posts now :)

  5. Hey, I'm a huge fan of Andrews and this blog! I couldn't find a contact link anywhere, but was wondering if you read this interview with Andrews's former editor Ann Patty that was published today and what you think. She mentions working on a memoir of her experience with Andrews. Can't wait to see if that pans out!


    1. This is really fascinating, especially the background info about Audrina and the confusion about "The Obsessed" and "Flowers," as well as confirming my suspicion that Andrews was sort of a perpetual adolescent. Thank you for sharing! I'm on like a billion Andrews news feeds but hadn't seen this yet. I so hope Patty publishes, since her memoirs would instantly become the primary source for biographical info on Andrews.

      In spite of the long hiatus, I am really eager to get back to this blog and continuing the recaps but have been delayed by university obligations (dissertations, sigh). Plus Lifetime's supposed to be working on a new Flowers in the Attic movie, which has to be talked about when/if it's released.

      Again, thanks!

    2. wow, thanks for the article tip! that was so interesting. i was especially intrigued by this quote: "totally under the control of her mother, who she did not have a great relationship with."

      did you guys see the post by the editor on the same website? that's even more fascinating: the-toast.net/2013/08/12/planting-flowers/

      btw, very happy to hear that the recaps are coming back!