Today I have the pleasure of having Emily M. Danforth, author of the recently released The Miseducation of Cameron Post, here on the blog to talk more about her book and telling us what it was like to write a book that is set in the 1990s. So without further ado, here is what she had to say.
Cameron Post, the eponymous narrator of my first novel, comes-of-age in a world that’s now two decades old. Her experiences as a teenager slogging through the insistent gray muck (thanks to Colson Whitehead’s novel Sag Harbor for that phrase) that was the pop culture of the early 1990s, while sometimes identical to those of fifteen year-olds today—certain songs on the stereo, teen movies with memorable catchphrases, particular kinds of style and slang—are also, in many ways, completely alien when contrasted with the American adolescent experience of 2012. In 1991 you made somebody you liked a mixtape, you didn’t link them to your playlist on Spotify. In 1991 the internet wasn’t even commercialized yet (in fact, the very first website—as in one website—was built in a research lab in 1991). Meaning that your average teenager, even the nerdiest and most tech-savvy teenager, would not have “been on” the internet, because there was no internet (at least not as we know of it today, or even as we knew of it a decade ago). And here’s just one more: in 1991, not only was Ellen DeGeneres not yet out as a lesbian, she didn’t even have a TV show. And when she got one in 1994, it was a sitcom, not a talk show. And she played a straight character on it for several seasons. (Heck, in 1991 even Melissa Etheridge—yes— singer-songwriter, folk-festival-appearing, lady-loving Melissa Etheridge) wasn’t out of the closet. That didn’t happen, for the record, until 1993). Which brings me to my point (in case you thought that I didn’t have one): if one of the things that popular culture often “does” for us (especially for teenagers) is reflect our lives—our selves and desires—back to us, there just wasn’t a whole lot of easily accessible, non-straight popular culture to come by in eastern Montana in 1991 to be “reflected back” to non-straight audiences. Don’t get me wrong: there was a heckuva lot more than there was even five years before, or five years before that. But there were no online communities to join, or episodes of Skins or Pretty Little Liars (or even reruns of Will & Grace) to catch up on, or Lady Gaga songs to sing along with for empowerment or affirmation or even just moments of recognition. (We did, however, have Lady Gaga’s predecessor: Madonna. And 1990 gave us this classic queer gem: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vogue_%28Madonna_song%29).
Because of all of this, teens who were eager to find non-straight representations in popular culture but who lived in rural communities or small towns, suburbs or even insulated urban neighborhoods, had to seek it out in often unexpected places—and usually in complete secrecy. And while there’s certainly a kind of thrill in privately discovering a scene in a movie or a character in a novel that you can relate to, the energy and joy of sharing that with your friends, of watching a movie—a “mainstream” movie in a theater or in someone’s living room—with non-straight adolescent characters falling in love or hooking up or just growing up—is lost if you have to do all of this discovering in private and don’t feel like you can share it. By the end of the 1990s, things had changed dramatically in terms of LGBTQ representation in popular culture, but The Miseducation of Cameron Post takes place just before many of those changes occurred.
Luckily, Cameron is resourceful; she learns to look for subtext and subtlety in the movies she rents constantly, and she’s willing to sit through an otherwise terrible movie if there’s the slightest chance of a powerful female lead or a tomboyish sidekick. And it just so happens that there’s a video rental store just a few blocks from her house, and since her parents’ death she’s moved a TV and VCR into her bedroom, so those things definitely help. Even luckier, she soon meets Lindsey, a girl who lives most of the year with her mom in Seattle, but who spends her summers in Montana with her dad. And streetwise “riot-grrrl in training” Lindsey knows all kinds of things that become crucial to Cameron’s education (and maybe sometimes to her miseducation, too). Lindsey introduces Cam to books and movies, magazines and music, even to slang terms and acronyms, that make her feel like she’s part of a community; one that’s imperfect, to be sure, but one that she can claim even from the windswept prairie of eastern Montana.
If you’re straight you’re used to having lots of characters and situations in the world around you that reflect the way you love, or the way you crush, or maybe just the way you want to be in love. I’m not suggesting that you’re necessarily enthralled by or even interested in each of those stories or situations, but you can’t deny their presence. From the pages of novels to the big screen to the small screen to advertising to a glossy spread in a bridal or entertainment magazine: guys and gals are always falling in love, or falling out of love, or struggling through love, in pop culture. So it makes sense then, that non-straight teens are so hungry for non-straight stories and representations to identify with that they sometimes dedicate a whole lot of time to the pursuit of those representations, to tracking down obscure and low budget 1960’s vampire movies or novels from now-defunct publishers, and when they find them it becomes sort of like badge of honor to have recognized one more, to have joined in a quasi-secret conversation. At least that was the case for Cameron Post, back in 1991.
Thank you Emily for stopping by the blog today. Be sure to continue following the tour through The Teen Book Scene.