Review: Charm School

I first read Anne Fine’s MG novel Charm School years ago; I have no idea how old I was. Certainly old enough to be picking my own books out at Waterstones. I found my copy at my granny’s house a couple of weeks ago, and, well, here we are.

I’m reasonably impressed.

Bonny and her mother are new in town. It’s the beginning of the summer holidays and Bonny’s father is stuck in a layby with a broken-down removal van. Bonny’s mother is busy. Which all means that Bonny has to go, reluctantly, to Charm School, a sort of weekend club for pre-teen girls who compete for the Glistering Tiara by being the most beautiful, the softest-spoken, the most charming.

Bonny’s horrified by the effort these girls put into this, and the spite and jealousy they direct at each other. She decides that she needs to “save” them from a life of empty-headedness by making the competition a bit more exciting.

There are many surprisingly good things about Charm School! There are also, um, not so good things.

Let’s start with the feminism, because that’s what I’m all about. The book’s pretty on point about how the beauty industry perpetuates itself by setting women against each other, asking us all to waste our energy in competing for an impossible standard of beauty:

“One of them gets to come top and be the Supreme Queen. And all the rest go home feeling ugly, and think they ought to try harder. So they waste even more of their time shopping, and even more of their money on stuff to try to look nicer.”

and on how the system encourages women to police each other, so we end up doing its work for it, free of charge:

“Perhaps the pink frock suits your colouring better.”

“Are those split ends in your hair?…Maybe it’s time for a trim.”

“Your hem’s just the tiniest bit uneven.”

and even on the commodification of female beauty as a tool of capitalism:

“That’s what it’s all for, really, isn’t it? To make them buy more stuff. On and on and on.”

Entry-level feminist theory by way of The Evils of Capitalism! I clearly had excellent taste as a child. I really, really appreciate how aware Charm School is of how oppressive systems work, their self-perpetuating nature and their inescapability. (At one point Bonny has a conversation with the tea boy in which they theorise that the beauty industry is a conspiracy of “green glop men”, which is kind of perfect and I suspect has also fuelled my deep and abiding suspicion of anything a magazine might call a “beauty regime”.)

But. Of course there’s a but. In its haste to identify and condemn the systems that coerce women into wasting their energy in being rather than doing, I think Charm School overlooks how fashion and beauty are actually kind of important for most women. Through Bonny, it focuses its attack a little too much on the symptoms of institutional misogyny (spiteful, empty-headed girls) rather than the cause (the kyriarchy, woop). It judges these girls: there’s a sense that they’re obsessed with fashion not just because they’re being brainwashed by the green gloop men, but because they’re in some way less intelligent than Bonny.

If you’re a woman, what you wear to work, whether you wear makeup or not, how you wear your hair, can affect how seriously you’re taken by your colleagues – female and male, because the kyriarchy is self-perpetuating.

If you’re a woman, what you wear in public can dictate whether random men will hit on you, or worse. “She was asking for it” because her skirt was too short, her makeup too suggestive, her top too low.

If you’re a woman in cosplay, you might get unwanted attention from men who think they have a right to your body.

The point is that it’s not just women policing each other; it’s men too. And, unless Bonny is exceptional (and maybe not even then), a woman who dresses the “right” way is probably more likely to be promoted into “serious” jobs than she is, with her practical clothing.

Which is not a good reason to judge someone for not conforming; but it is a good reason not to judge someone who is – someone who chooses to play the game to protect herself. Because under the kyriarchy there are no good choices.

On a happier note, the book also glosses over the tremendous sense of empowerment the right clothes can give you: the pair of shoes that make you feel invincible, the necklace that gives you a little bit more courage to get you through the day, the outfit that makes you feel most you. Fashion may be a coercive, capitalist construct, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in coopting it for your own ends. Quite the opposite, in fact.

I think what’s actually most telling about my memories of reading Charm School (which I must have done several times, knowing my childhood reading habits as I do) is that I was far more interested in the dressing up than I was the feminism. (Even though I was not at all that kind of child.) Because even kids are capable of resisting the narratives that get foisted on them. Sure, women and girls are more than just decorations. Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that we should be shamed for choosing to dress up on our terms.

(I still like the book. It does great work. I would just like it to have done even greater work!)

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