June 2010

Adrienne So

nonfiction

Confessions of a Rebel Debutante by Anna Fields

Before anything else: The writer of Confessions of a Rebel Debutante, Anna Fields, grew up in North Carolina. I grew up in Virginia, which recently declared April “Confederate History Month.” She was an outspoken tomboy who dodged homemade dogwood switches and loved reading; I was an outspoken tomboy whose favorite childhood game was “War” and who regularly ran off to paddle in the creek behind my house. She went to an elite boarding school; I went to an elite charter school.  

She dropped out of her debutante classes after learning the box-step. I, too, forced my short, skinny high-school boyfriend through endless dance classes before dropping out of my own debut. And we both fled the South at the first opportunity. She went to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, while I high-tailed it to Berkeley the minute I graduated from the University of Virginia. 

I also read a great essay by her in Marie Claire, of all places. It was about the drive for perfection that led her to begin taking laxatives at age 15. In the North, people at least pretend that looks matter less than being smart, nice and accomplished. In the South, a real woman is expected to be gentle, beautiful, thin and perfectly put-together, and then maybe “smart” if you have the time. If you can't be any of the others, you might as well be thin, which is a way of thinking that led Fields to faint in the shower at 16, after subsisting on less than 150 calories a day for months.  

So I picked up Confessions of a Rebel Debutante, expecting to find both a great sense of kinship with Anna Fields, and also a nuanced, intelligent portrait of girlhood in the American South. I guess I should've gotten a clue when the book arrived and the cover was bright pink. Neon pink. 

I just didn't like it. Confessions is supposed to be a light-hearted confection of a memoir, but it's mean-spirited, tedious and only occasionally funny. For someone who promises, on her book cover, to debunk stereotypes about the South, she confirms an awful lot of them. Ham biscuits, crispy bangs, meathead boys and clueless debs in pearls; a lot of the horrible stereotypes are there, and not very many good ones.  

Come on, Anna -- what about swimming holes and cut-off shorts? What about dancing in your bare feet to Robert Randolph in the middle of a field? What about brunch at the Bluebird Cafe after church, or reading under an oak tree? Nope. Even delicious Southern food makes Fields angry, since all those biscuits and gravy just make her fat. Apparently the only things the South has to offer are cute catch phrases, like “anywho” and “bless your heart,” which, as Fields says, really means “Screw you.” 

Her lengthy descriptions of deb and southern culture are of vague anthropological interest. As you might expect, most of a deb's time is spent in hair and makeup, picking out dresses, drinking and standing around. Fields characterizes herself as the chubby girl who's always speaking out of turn, and so never ends up getting her own debut. And all the raw honesty of her Marie Claire essay is totally absent, although I guess it's not Fields's fault that I already knew that she spent most of her high school and college years battling eating disorders.  

Later, she takes her lazy stereotyping on the road, to Brown University and Providence (full of mean Jewish people!), Los Angeles (full of mean, crazy-ass people!), and eventually film school at New York University (hey, y'all! New Yorkers are mean! And they wear all black! And the subway sucks!). Always interspersing the occasional cute Southernism, and reminding everyone that she still wears pearls and is very tall and blonde. 

Fields's distrust of other women is also striking. She and her high school best friend spend many happy hours thinking of names to call other girls, like “whore-bot” or “skank-tron.” One of her major college accomplishments is stealing another classmate's “boyf” (go Ivies!). She attempts to make it in the world of movies and theater, and comes across some pretty famous names. Unfortunately, none of these A-listers comes in for any better treatment. Maggie Gyllenhaal looks like a raccoon; Julia Stiles has a stuck-up, snobbish nose; Diana Ross should know better than to stick her skinny hips in “Spanx sized for a teenager.” 

But then what size Spanx should she be wearing? Let me remind you that Ms. Ross is a diva, and thus could not conceivably give a rat's ass about passes for good taste in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Divas don't wear pastel sweater sets, for God's sake.

Northerners think she's a hick and Southerners think she's “too rebellious.” Thus she finds herself on the butt end of discrimination from here to there, all over this glorious country. Which is strange, because most of the people I know from Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana don't find themselves too Southern to function in the world at large. And last I checked, most people -- anywhere you go -- are inclined to treat tall, blonde women pretty gently.  

In the spirit of background research, I asked my boyfriend, a good ole boy from Mississippi, if he ever experienced discrimination based on his looks, accent or background. “No,” he said, and looked puzzled. “To most people, the accent's a really big advantage.” 

Confessions is occasionally entertaining, but ended up leaving a bad taste in my mouth. On behalf of all expat Southerners, to any Yankees who may or may not pick up this book: I apologize. Not all of us are petty, small-minded people who leave the South because of prejudice, and then proceed to impose our own on everyone else. Yes, Southerners walk among you every day. People from Alabama and Tennessee, and we all look and act just like regular people.  

I just kept thinking of the first time that my own mother came to visit me in California, after I'd moved there after college. “Oh, honey,” she said, gazing upon all the happy hippies and weirdos that Berkeley had to offer. “You've finally found a place where you fit in.” Here's a tip, Ms. Fields: If no matter where you go, no one likes you, maybe you're just a jerk. Bless your heart.

Confessions of a Rebel Debutante by Anna Fields
Putnam
ISBN: 0399156313
304 Pages