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To Understand Orientalism and the Cultural Other, Read Paper Towns

To Understand Orientalism and the Cultural Other, Read <i>Paper Towns</i>

"Why you so out of focus, Margo?" All images via 20th Century Fox

Paper Towns means a lot to people a) because Nat Wolff, b) because it's eminently tattooable, c) because we have all thought about running away from home, and d) because John Green, just generally.  We all love John Green. We all love Paper Towns, but since the moment it came out, the character of Margo Roth Spiegelman has confused and tormented us. Is she a manic pixie dream girl? John Green says no, and it's obvious that he was aiming to imagine her "more complexly," but can a male writer even do that? Or should he stfu and let a female writer dismantle the MPDG trope?

John Green actually tapped into the Very Important world of post-colonial scholarship when he wrote Paper Towns. So if you enjoy John Green, and aren't sure what to make of Wide Sargasso Sea... or the subaltern or Orientalism or the cultural Other... prepare for a dazzling, easy introduction to all these fancy-sounding concepts through Q's magical mystery tour, with a hilarious GIF of Cara Delevingne if you make it to the end.

Actual Paper Towns

It's a paper town, with paper houses and paper people, everything is uglier up close. - John Green, Paper Towns

You, the nerdfighter, will be very familiar with the map of Agloe, New York, (particularly if you have it tattooed on your body) and the dismissive way Margo Roth Spiegelman looks out over the Florida subdivisions that she and Quentin grew up in. When she refers to "paper towns" she means two things: 1) that the planned Orlando suburbs demonstrate a kind of boring homogeneity, in which individualism is stamped out (OH WON'T YE LET THE TEENS BE WILD AND FREE, AMERICA!), and 2) the concept of a town that only exists on a map—Agloe, New York, was basically a prank pulled by a cartographer that became real. People saw the label on the map and were like, "Oh, I guess I live in Agloe? Welcome to Agloe!"

Cool, but what does this have to do with post-colonialism?

Well, in his book Orientalism, Edward Said, who was Palestinian, argued that Western writers portrayed the Eastern world (Asia) through a condescending point of view that saw the West, and the British Empire, as the center of the world (the "Occident") and home of the writing "Self", and the East as exotic, mystic, and distant (the "Orient"), and populated by the subjects of Western thinking (the cultural "Other"). You know how people reject the male/female binary (why do we refer to men as "comedians" and women as "female comedians"?)? Well the East/West binary is damaging and limiting for the same reasons:

I emphasize in it [my Orientalism] accordingly that neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other. - Edward Said, Orientalism

You've probably heard the phrase "history is written by the victors," the basic idea of which is that whoever writes history, writes it in their own favor, and represents their own interests and perspective. So the paper maps that Margo gets so obsessed with have a deeper meaning: she leaves home, headed for this non-existent paper town in New York, hoping to, in some sense, rewrite the map and create a place for herself on that map.

Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings. - Edward Said, Orientalism

Margo's Rejection of the Patriarchy!

The rules of capitalization are so unfair to words in the middle of a sentence. - John Green, Paper Towns

Paper Towns is written from the perspective of Margo's ever-crushing neighbor Quentin (deliberately, but more on this in a bit), and gives us little pieces of insight into how Margo's brain works. After vanishing, her trail of breadcrumbs shows us how completely she rejects everything their paper world stands for, not least the rules of capitalization—Margo ranDomly capitaLiZes midDle lEtteRs. To be honest, when I first read the book, I thought this was a bit too high-quirk for me—something shaken out of the John Green plot-o-matic—but it's kind of clever if you think of her as answering back to the patriarchy. She is rejecting the "rules" of society, the male-penned history of the world, and therefore her place in society as a simple, lusted-after goddess who lives next door to a totally average Joe Blow who, despite being unremarkable, is given the deluxe-character-sketch treatment.

I wanted to put more Margo quotes into this post to illustrate my point, but tbh there aren't that many in the book, because the book is narrated by Q., who says things like this:

She loved mysteries so much, that she became one. - John Green, Paper Towns

John Green is either a genius, or unaware, or trolling us, or some heady mix of the three, which leads us to...

Of course Q. gets to hold the camera.

Margo As the "Other"

What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person. - John Green, Paper Towns

It is more rewarding - and more difficult - to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about “us.” - Edward Said

Up until the moment Quentin finds Margo and finally realizes she doesn't want to be rescued, he fancies himself a bit of a hero (he literally says hero!), setting out to imagine Margo complexly, but winding up making it alllll about him. It's classic white-male-author behavior—no matter how invested he is in Margo's story, it's his book, narrated by him, offering only guesses as to what is going on in Margo's head.

John Green could have written the book from Margo's perspective, but it wouldn't have been a mystery then, I guess, just a long bitch session about how self-obsessed the teen boys of the world are, while the author would have been yet another white guy scoring points for writing a female POV. Presumably, the point of the exercise was teaching us a lesson by committing the same act of Othering that male writers have done throughout history to the dispossessed and unrepresented (those without a voice are known as the "subaltern")—that is, the gatekeepers who only published male novels, or the English colonizer who imagines what it is like to be a native of Africa (the colonized), or your friend who did one themethter in Bbarthelona and now thinkth he knowth everything about the thpanith, rather than letting his subject speak for him or herself.

The intellectual is complicit in the persistent constitution of the Other as the Self's Shadow - Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds-Essays in Cultural Politics

Another place we see the Other given unusual treatment is in Radar's home, which is decorated floor to ceiling with Black Santas. This, again, reads like a bit of a >>>~quIrK¥!* paint job, until you think about it from the POV of Radar's family. To them, Black Santas aren't "black Santas," they are just "Santas." To them, what the world knows as a Santa is, rather, a "white Santa," just like the West has reinvented Jesus as "blonde Jesus" from the exotic Middle-Eastern Other figure the West usually discounts or demonizes.

In Which Quentin Gifts Margo the Distinction of Being "Not Like Other Girls"

I always got very nervous whenever I heard that Margo was about to show up, on account of how she was the most fantastically gorgeous creature that God has ever created. - John Green, Paper Towns

I am 9-out-of-10-Black-Santas sure that John Green meant for us to cringe when we read this, and not just because the bulk of YA readers are female. The literary crime that is taking place is not that John Green's narrator is trying to provide space in his novel to explore the motivations and experience of a girl, but that in doing so, he instantly falls into the trap of elevating her to a higher imagining rather than just letting her speak for herself. Fwiw, John Green is aware of this:

Isn't it also that on some fundamental level we find it difficult to understand that other people are human beings in the same way that we are? We idealize them as gods or dismiss them as animals. - John Green, Paper Towns

No amount of complex imagining can overcome this problem—the only antidote is to invite a diversity of voices to participate in the conversation, and to shut up and let them speak. It's tricky, because it's not enough for the men to invite in more voices; the goal is to remove the self-appointed gatekeepers altogether.

Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.- Edward Said, Orientalism

Read my signifiers, biyatch!

The Missing Person

Okay, so we understand now that Paper Towns, beyond bringing us a bang-up scene involving Nair and a jock's eyebrow, is John Green's attempt to answer to and atone for the Othering he is guilty of committing in books like Looking for Alaska. How can we understand the search for Margo—the entire structure of the book?

To find Margo Roth Spiegelman, you must become Margo Roth Spiegelman. And I had done many of the things she might have done: I had engineered a most unlikely prom coupling. I had quieted the hounds of caste warfare. I had come to feel comfortable inside the rat-infested haunted house where she did her best thinking. I had seen. I had listened. But I could not yet become the wounded person. - John Green, Paper Towns

Q. goes searching for Margo and finds only traces of her: pin marks in a wall, signs left in windows, notes she has left behind. His journey requires him to leave his world and drive north to hers, even though he will never really inhabit the same world as Margo. The idea of geography representing the power and situation of a character is not new: Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte used the moors and the domestic indoors to look at the ways in which their characters were trapped in a patriarchal world. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys took this idea further by developing the backstory of Rochester's mad attic wife, Antoinette, into her own story—she was born in an English colony, importantly, far from the cultural center of the world, London, and in that sense an outsider.

Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings. - Edward Said, Orientalism

It's a big problem, right? John Green can't stop being John Green, and he can't stop living in John Green's world. The best he can do is become more aware of his biases.

It is easy to forget how full the world is of people, full to bursting, and each of them imaginable and consistently misimagined. - John Green, Paper Towns

So the last thing that bears saying is that Margo is, at the end of the day, for all her Otherness, a white girl. And white girls aren't exactly the most disenfranchised people in America—women of color earn less and experience far greater systemic oppression. There is where the concept of intersectionality comes in—the idea that overlapping categories of identity (race, class, gender) combine to create an experience of relative social justice or injustice for any given person. This is where I acknowledge that parsing the post-colonial theory through a YA novel about a white girl somewhat defeats the intent of writers like Spivak and Said and Homi Bhaba to empower those who don't have a voice. It's a caveat.


Does this make earthly sense to you? Have you studied any of these concepts in school? Did you like Paper Towns or do you find it problematic?

Sparkitor note: For a real great look at sexism in YA, can I recommend you read this excellent overview.

Topics: Books
Tags: john green, paper towns, cara delevingne, deconstruction, the subaltern, orientalism, edward said, gayatri chakravorty spivak, homi bhaba, post-colonialism, theory, to understand _, paper towns themes, paper towns the other, the other, paper towns quotes explained, manicest pixiest dreamiest other, paper towns orientalism

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About the Author
Janet Manley

Janet is the Sparkitor who most resembles a common field potato, and isn't opposed to pineapple appearing on a pizza. She is proof that dreams can come true, as long as your dream is to share a love seat with Benjamin Barnes for nine and a half minutes after standing him up for five because you can't work out hotel elevators. Janet once had a smexy dream where Haymitch Abernathy hugged her meaningfully, which I think means they are married now. She would like to third-person you on Twitter @janetmanley

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