On the way to dinner the other night, I stopped by Barnes and Noble in Union Square to use the bathroom. The escalator was dotted with teenage girls in denim shorts and loose tank tops; I stood among their ranks in my khakis and tennis shoes as they chattered away in tight knots. I haven’t been a teenager for a while now, but I’m still scared of them. I snuck off to the bathroom and tried to stifle my curiosity over their presence, but as I washed my hands, I heard their whispers turn to shrieks. It must be some boy — Harry Styles, maybe? He’s in a band, right? — but I was wrong. Sitting on a raised platform on the top floor of Barnes and Noble were the last two people one might expect to show up in a bookstore: the youngest offspring of the Kardashian/Jenner family, Kendall and Kylie.
I follow both sisters on Instagram — Kylie is 16 and has more style than most adults I’ve met — so I was admittedly star-struck. I loitered around behind the velvet ropes blocking the growing crowd of spectators from the seating area reserved for people who had bought books, trying to catch a glimpse of the duo. I spotted Kylie first, with her shortdip-dyed turquoise and black hair, and next to her Kendall, slender and statuesque. The next day, I was reading their book on the train.
It’s called Rebels: City of Indra. The story centers around two girls, Lex and Livia, starting from childhood and climaxing at their 17th birthdays, and yeah, it’s terribly written. What did anyone expect? Revolutionary use of language the likes of which the world has not experienced since Tolstoy? Of course not. I explained it to a friend like this: Just because you pour carrots and chicken broth into a bowl, doesn’t mean you’re going to eat soup. In this case, the Jenner sisters (and their ghost writers) can squeeze a dystopian society, a princess trapped in her stifling castle, medieval sounding language, balls gowns and horse back riding through a field of flowers, the wind whipping through your loose curls, into the same story, but that doesn’t mean the result will be a successful fantasy novel. The result is, to absolutely no one’s surprise, a boring book, so stunted by cliché that I predicted the plot twist by the second page. Rebels depends on tropes that were already exhausted by the time Hans Christen Anderson wrote Cinderella.
So let’s not talk about the fairly obvious conclusion that it’s not a good book. What does it have to offer?
The most striking thing about this book is that it is a blatant indictment of celebrity culture. Sure, it’s the culture that made these young women famous, but they are also trapped by it. There’s so much talk about the strict rules that dictate each female member of society, especially in the higher classes, that it inevitably begins to point out how our society cannibalizes female celebrities: Indrithian society makes unachievable demands on women (sound familiar?) and still, Lex and Livia consider themselves flawed failures in their respective positions in life, no matter how hard they work to fulfill their roles. Whether you like the Kardashians or don’t is irrelevant. They could lose weight, marry rappers, wear the most beautiful couture available to mankind, and there will still be people out there prepared to call them stupid, slut, a waste of space. It becomes even more obvious later in the book when the girls discover there’s a chip embedded in their brains that allows the government to monitor and control their emotions and thoughts — they’ve been watched their entire lives. Never a moment of privacy. Hello, America! Are you listening? Yes, they signed up for this life, but lacking all subtlety (a tactic I appreciate) they are telling us that their world is suffocating them from the inside.
Livia, an orphan “airess” (GET IT?!?!) who lives on an island floating in the clouds, is a expert swords(wo)man. She rails against her etiquette training and escapes her Emergence Ball (equivalent in most respects to a debutante ball) where she has to choose a husband (or “cohabitant” in this world) to hang out with her horse, Veda. Pretty standard fare for a female character in a young adult novel: she rejects the strict standards of femininity that dictate her behavior. That’s lazy feminism, the kind of surface level rejection of gender norms that adds to nothing. The attempt to pass it off as progressive is insulting at worst, and at best, it’s still sort of insulting. There was no attempt to transcend the typical narrative of a girl in a dress who can also perform strenuous physical activity. I hope that readers in the 21st century are no longer surprised that being feminine and physically strong are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps I’m being too optimistic though.
Lex, her lower class and also orphaned companion, is more interesting. Lex is a slave to her emotions, most of which are anger at her situation in life. She is constantly bullied by her peers and by the adults who deem her worthless. So Lex becomes a soldier: she’s recruited into Indra’s military force half way into the book. She acts on her aggression, a reaction usually reserved for the male sex. I loved that sentiment coming from a female, the primal instinct to inflict pain — it reminds me of Lady Macbeth. After 17 years of being told she’s trash because she was born to lowest class, Lex is eager to release some of that hurt back onto the dregs of society, people she’s been trained to punish. That Lex falls victim to her anger and then learns from it almost redeems the book for me. I don’t advocate for violence in any gender, but I felt connected to Lex in that her character, perhaps unintentionally, reminds young women that it’s all right to be unlikeable sometimes. Even the aspects of our personality that we don’t like, that other people don’t like, serve a purpose in our lives: to teach us to think critically before we act, to practice compassion when we’d rather see our enemies bleed. Lex learns these lessons because — not in spite of the fact — that she spends most of the book angry and violent. She’s not burdened by her goodness or her purity — what I think of as “Virgin Mary Syndrome.” She’s human, and therefore complex, capable of screwing up and succeeding at, gasp, the same time. Lex is that dark impulse manifested, one that girls are told is unnatural or inappropriate for ladies, but is readily accepted and encouraged in young men. Lex, blasting her opponents, kicking in their faces, driving too fast through the clouds, gives girls an outlet, a means to say it’s okay to be pissed off as long as you learn from it or take it out on a punching bag during kickboxing class.
This book does try to have a social consciousness. It packs in rushed allusions to birth control, gay marriage, even sexual assault, that go unexplored. But these are social issues important to young people right now, and I suspect that the writers knew that jumping on the bandwagon of hot button issues would get them more readers. To that point, just because this book has female heroines does not make it another triumph for gender equality. This is important. So many of our society’s role models are women: Hillary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, Beatrice Prior, Angela Merkel, Hermoine Granger, not to mention that the combat test is now open for women in the Army. There is no shortage of heroic women in the world. Some of them kick ass, some of them make laws, some do both. I am happy to move past this notion that it is novel for women to be physically adept and also intelligent and also beautiful and also in love all at once, and so in some ways Rebels is regressive. It clings to the idea that girls are still fighting an isolated struggle to prove that we are capable. We have proven it, and well, and people are paying attention, though there are still battles to be fought. Rebels reads as dated, so unoriginal in it’s view of the role of women in our society, as though the writers ignored the progress that real-life women have made (which would not be surprising) in favor of the exhausted models that have sold books to girls in the past.
Given all that, I still I couldn’t help but imagine the rules that dictate Kendall and Kylie’s daily lives and feel bad for them: Always smile and look like you’re having fun, always look stunningly beautiful in public, always remain well groomed and well dressed, you never know who’s watching. Yes, but what if you aren’t always having a good time? What if you’re miserable? If anything, I thought this book was a cleverly veiled “fuck you” to a world (and maybe even to mom that set them up for this life) that forces them to follow these mandates to stay in the public’s good favor. Their family is good at playing the game, but the game is flawed, and these teenage girls already see through it.