thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Scored: A GLG Reading Group

In Uncategorized on March 13, 2012 at 5:59 pm

In Lauren McLaughlin’s Scored, all public school children are monitored and scored on their “fitness.” This includes academic achievement, but also behavioral items such as relation to “peer group,” “impulse control,” and “rapport.” Imani, our working class, mixed-race protagonist, must only maintain her above-90 score for two more months in order to receive an automatic scholarship to any state university and thereby fulfill her dream of resuscitating the dying Atlantic coastline she calls home. However, the arbitrary police state apparatus associated with the score proves more challenging for Imani to navigate than she expected. Consequently, she faces a host of ethical quandaries that she had never encountered before. Complicating her struggle, of course, is a boy—Diego Landis, one of the dreaded “unscored.” He challenges Imani with an audacious proposal that may prove her salvation—or her downfall.

Recently, GLG’s Sarah Todd interviewed McLaughlin about her novel. Subsequently, GLG opted to do a digital reading group of the book. In it, we discuss race, the education system, and the sisterhood between Imani and Katniss. And, we would love to hear what you thought of Scored in the comments!

Sarah S.

Respondents: Sarah S., Jeni, Gina, and Austin.

*Spoilers Warning! No joke!*

Let’s begin with the questions that McLaughlin posed at the end of her interview with Sarah T: “I’d love to ask readers what they think they would do if they were in Imani’s shoes. Would they give up their best friend to salvage their future? Or would they remain loyal? Also, I’d love to know whether they’d ever faced similar moral dilemmas in their own lives.”

Sarah S: In all honesty, this is a tough one for me only because Imani faces real consequences because of Cady’s behavior and the stakes are incredibly high. Obviously, the system is totally screwed up and unfair but I also think it’s unfair to judge people by privileged ethical standards in such cases. At the point when Imani’s score drops because of Cady, the potential for her future life plummets as well. I like Cady as a character, and am glad they resuscitate their “pact.” But I also think she was unfair to keep her relationship a secret from Imani and, therefore, deprive Imani of the true opportunity to choose friendship over the score. In this sense, I think the book brilliantly unfolds these ethical quandaries, making them complex questions to be wrestled with, rather than obvious missteps.

Gina: But I think that Cady keeps her relationship a secret, precisely because she is afraid of how it will influence Imani’s score. She is naive (she’s only a teenager) and believes that she can outsmart the magnetic chip tracking. In my own life, I have had friends like Cady, young women whose lives seemed predestined to preclude them from academic or financial success and who try to protect their friends from a similar fate. These are the young women who don’t invite you to a crazy party or to hang out with a sketchy boyfriend because, even in our “unscored” society, they want to keep you pure.

Jeni: I agree with Gina; it’s a tough question to answer, partly since it’s hard to tap back into the naivete of teenage life. This is especially true because that naivete is so often combined with the feeling that all of these relationships and decisions are HUGE, High Stakes Situations. It’s interesting how often the question of relationship loyalty looms large in these YA books: should Imani choose her friend or her future? In The Hunger Games, the question of Katniss’s loyalty in relationships is at the heart of the book (what would she give up for Prim, Rue, Gale, Peeta? her mom?). For me, this book raised a different question: in what ways do I choose “my future”  or “my career”—and its attendant work and planning—over loyalty to friends/family? Too, is this question (do you choose relationship loyalty over your future) a gendered question? Scored seems to suggest Imani can have both—the future she wanted (college, a chance at a successful future) and a healed, more honest relationship with Cady. As a bonus, she gets a new relationship with a boyfriend! The price for this seems to be the loss of belief in the system of power—a loss of innocence.

Sarah S: I completely agree with both of you about the ambiguity. What I meant to get at was that it’s easy to do a knee-jerk, moralistic response: I would never turn my back on a friend. But I think it’s to McLaughlin’s credit that she constructed a situation, and a world, that’s truly more complicated than that. Readers are put in a position where they cannot, truthfully, fully condemn either Imani or Cady.

Austin: I also was puzzled and concerned that Cady kept such a secret from Imani. In my own life, girls who took such paths reveled in sharing their scandalous secrets with us goody two-shoes, to thrill and appall us, though we were certainly never invited to join the fun. I can understand that silence might be a preferred option, especially in such a high stakes world as that of scored Somerton, but (of course) my own experiences of teenage girlfriends shades my reading. For this reason, I found it difficult to understand why Cady wouldn’t breathe a word about her relationship, even out on the river, even if only a partial confession.

As far as McLaughlin’s question, I will admit, that I was such a naively high-minded teenager, obsessed with my own version of the score (my class rank and likely admission to preferred colleges), that if I had been forced I probably would have sacrificed a friend to preserve my own future, telling myself that she had picked her own path and it wasn’t my job to save her. My current self would like to have strong words with that teenage girl and explain exactly what those scores would be worth in a few years, but I doubt it would change anything. Thank goodness such a choice was not required; I doubt I would have come through it anywhere near as well as Imani. For that reason, I hope Scored takes off in popularity. While The Scarlet Letter and Othello (and similar required texts in high school) deal neatly with ethics, I was always much more influenced by role models in the novels I read for pleasure. I think Imani would have done me more good than some of my more beloved heroines, especially that last year of high school.

What are people’s thoughts on race in the book?

Sarah S: For one, I appreciated McLaughlin’s open and un-shy representation of race from characters of diverse racial backgrounds, most noticeably mixed-race protagonist Imani. I also felt that by depicting a multi-and-mixed raced America, the novel emphasizes class as the true inhibitor to equality. I thought this was a great move, and overdue, but what do others think?

Gina: Also, it made me better understand the distinctions between class and race. In the twenty-first century class is the true dividing factor to educational opportunity, but this should not diminish the very real impact of race, ethnicity, gender, etc. Particularly McLaughlin’s point, which is expressed through the research for the scholarship essay, that class can be reversed (for a small percentage of the population), but race and other phenotypical qualifers can never be changed.

Jeni: Yes, I agree with Gina. I thought taking this very fraught question out of our particular cultural context and exploring it in another was a useful way to think about it. I liked that it was an important part of the fabric of the book without being the central focus or question; I don’t see a lot of stories frame race in this way. The fact that it could be something the characters noticed—and talked and thought about, even casually—was refreshing, and made me think of how whitewashed other books are. I appreciate that a dystopian novel didn’t imagine a post-racial world.

Sarah S: Building on this discussion of race and class in the novel, McLaughlin depicts a world filled with people of diverse races, ethnicities, and classes but the wealthy (that we see) are still all white, revealing the lingering privileges of whiteness. Having said that, she returns it to class by emphasizing the powerful drive, even unto moral decay, that desire for social improvement can create, exhibited in Ms. Wheeler—born working class and brought to a middle class position through her adherence to the dictates of the score.

Austin: Oh definitely. I think this technique of discussing race would be very helpful for a teenager or young adult learning to navigate the hierarchies of our own world. I’ve heard so many teens proclaim that racism is over and behind them, that it doesn’t impact their own lives, that their generation is over race. (Of course, these were mostly white teens, so that may be part of the problem.) I think McLaughlin’s quiet way of inserting race casually, as you all mention, is a great way to emphasize it is still very much a factor, but it isn’t the only factor and it definitely works differently than class.

Scored highlights the current divide in American schooling between the public and private sectors. What questions does the text raise about the privatization of education?

Sarah S: McLaughlin clearly uses the private/public school dichotomy to create her profoundly classed world and to make her point about class. What I find intriguing is that I get the sense that, right now, people believe private schooling is privileged but also objectively better—because of resources, staffing, and, possibly, student engagement. However, in the America of Scored, people seem to attend private schools because they must or some such, not because it actually educates them. This world draws attention to the fact that education and intelligence mean little or nothing if one has money and/or a “legacy” at a major private institution behind them. To build on that, what do we make of Diego/Mrs. Landis’s aggressive, political decision to participate in public schooling?

Austin: I feel like part of the reason that private schools are (perceived as) better is that they are free from certain scores, namely [No Child Left Behind] standardized tests. In a private system, while evaluation and critique are still very much a part of every student and teacher’s lives, they can be tailored to a specific group or community. McLaughlin’s scoring software would place a greater burden on the individual student, and would arguably produce a more meaningful result than a scantron sheet filled out once a year in a hectic and stressful week. It would also replace tests that test knowledge with ones that not only reflect content but also character. By constant evaluation, it could put less of a burden on regurgitation of content for a one-off test and more of a burden on actually learning to learn, a skill that seems to be forgotten in the educational system (the system as a whole, that is. I know many talented teachers who still strive to teach that all important skill). In that sense, I can see the merit of a system like that of the score and its ability to boost students in public schools, whether mediocre or otherwise.

In the novel, I feel like our main evidence of whether private or public schooling is best is demonstrated by Imani’s interactions with students from both groups. Really, both groups are full of cliques, pranks, and fads; though each group is distinct, they could easily be interchanged. It was more an examination of class—the (rich) private school kids could do more obvious transgressions (bizarre makeup or harassing park rangers), both because of their money and their place outside of the scored hierarchy. The (poor) public school kids had to put on the show of playing the score game (leaving them with sneakier transgressions away from the eyeballs) or were unscored (or underscored) and thus even more underprivileged. This place at the bottom of the pyramid does provide a certain degree of freedom not shared by the poor-but-scored, resulting in more obvious rebellions (cobbled together scooters and forbidden relationships) but with less means than the rich unscored these transgressions have much higher stakes.

Gina: To clarify, I think that the McLaughlin depicts the very real ways in which American public schools are highly privatized, specifically the way that non-government structures (educational corporations like the ETS, Pearson, The College Board, etc.) begin to dictate curriculum at all levels. ScoreCorp seems to be an allusion to all of the above.  Moreover the current public school system is completely data driven; students are tested continuously, all week long, and their progress is tracked through an online portal, which is shared with their parents, teachers, and administrators. This portal is usually run by another educational corporation. Data can be a very good thing, but I wouldn’t say that collecting data, alone, actually moves the educational process away from the banking model (the teacher fills the child’s head with the relevant content knowledge for one and only one test) and toward a more authentic sense of the learning process. With so many different competing corporate interests, twenty-first century public school students are mastering the art of test-taking, rather than the opportunity to engage in project based learning or critical thinking, something that Diego was able to experience in his private school. Both public schools and private schools are heavily influenced by private funding structures, the difference is that only one group of students have access to the curriculum, that will teach them to be “owners” rather than “workers”  (Jean Anyon writes about this concept in “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work”).

Mclaughlin’s story offers a thoughtful portrait of the changing role of the teaching profession in the 21st C. school. What do you think of the depiction of tenured Mr. Carol in contrast to the first-generation scored principal, Ms. Wheeler?

Sarah S: Ms. Wheeler seemed to me a genius character because she’s not entirely unsympathetic (only mostly) and she gives a nice snapshot of what Imani might become. As to Mr. Carol, he’s obviously meant to by sympathetic yet it remains unclear how much good he’s actually doing with his untouchable, tenured state. Which is not his fault, but the novel makes no bones about the limited power of even an un-firable, passionate, political teacher in the world of the score. For the most part, as shown, his motivated, intelligent students will be slavishly attached to the score and its dogma and the unscored will largely be the underprivileged and, through their lives’ hardships, unmotivated and unwilling to fight such an inequitable system. Again, I want to applaud McLaughlin for the real ambiguity and nuance she created with Scored; she really rejects unambiguous, uncomplicated conclusions.

Austin: Sarah, I find your response compelling and find myself agreeing that the nuanced dichotomy between the characters is far more complicated than at first glance. Both turn out to be a bit of a disappointment, and both offer sound advice and serve as examples of how to play the game (or not) in this new world. So do, for that matter, the parents of Imani and Diego. Imani’s are poor and unable to adapt successfully in this new world but have love and companionship and strong family values. Mrs. Landis is a calculating, successful lawyer who is working for a good cause but is far less likable than the LeMondes. Really, Imani has no solid adult role models in her life, though there are teachers aplenty to guide her next steps. I appreciate that Imani is forced to pick and choose what is good and noble, what is worth emulating and what is worth fighting and that her choices aren’t always obvious or easy. It is realistic and thoughtful, and a marker of successful YA lit.

Gina: Austin, yes the novel seems to really encourage teens to consider a wide variety of sources to help develop one’s destiny, but ultimately the protagonist must look within to develop the answer: a great classical message for readers of all ages. Mr. Carol reminded me of Faber in Fahrenheit 451, who seemed to have all the answers, but was powerless without his protege, Guy Montag.

I want to turn now to the obvious comparison (obvious in terms of contemporary interests): The Hunger Games. How does Imani stack up against Katniss? Could we read the world of Scored as the same America that will eventually become Panem? Have we reached a new high for female protagonists in post-apocalyptic/dystopian sci-fi? (Lisbeth seems akin here, as does Oryx [Oryx and Crake] and Emiko [The Windup Girl].)

Jeni: I’ll actually pose a different question: why must we imagine so many of our strong, thoughtful female heroines in dystopian futures? (I’m thinking of Hunger Games and Matched, too, in addition to the ones listed above.)

Gina: Since I am behind on my Hunger Games reading, I think I can more comfortably walk into this question. I think it displays the very real, and very uncomfortable position that young women and young men experience. I think the true heroes and heroines of the young twenty-first century, the ones of a more valiant nature, who defend social justice, do not have a space within the current commercial climate.

Sarah S: Jeni, I really like your switching of the question and, after pondering it, what I find interesting is that Imani is not “strong” in the way that Katniss is strong. Katniss is physically and intellectually capable and (as noted earlier) also morally, loyally strong. Imani is far more average than Katniss. But I don’t mean that as critique. As messed up as is Imani’s world, it has nothing on the institutionalized horror of Katniss’s. This makes her and her experience not only more quotidian but also more identifiable. Imani resonates because readers can more readily identify with her experiences. To crib from Spiderman, if with great power comes great responsibility, then with smaller scale power and responsibility comes the potential for more relevant, relateable truths.

Austin: I find a comparison to Tally Youngblood from Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series (reviewed by our own Sarah T.) series a closer comparison—a dystopic future in which everyone is surgically altered upon adulthood to physical beauty and perfection, thus eliminating that social marker and theoretically leveling the playing field for all to achieve their best. The fourth book posits a new structure based on social media, gossip, and popularity that replaces the previous structure of appearance. The heroines of each must evaluate and ultimately reject the social mode in order to achieve their own personal potential (and find boyfriends, of course). These girls must be strong in similar ways and while Imani’s world is much closer to our own, the concerns and pitfalls these girls face—social cliques, fitting in, finding who they want to be—are perhaps those closer to the girls (and boys) in the readership.

Katniss, I think, stands more with Lyra (His Dark Materials) or Hermione (the Harry Potter series) or Wren (Mortal Engines), heroines who begin as ordinary girls but are forced into extraordinary circumstances, forced to play superheroes whether or not they have superpowers, and are changed profoundly for it (Tally certainly fits into this grouping as well, given her character across the series, but from the perspective of the first novel she remains comparatively ordinary). Imani certainly finds change and growth over the course of the novel, even if she comes to her epiphany a bit late, but she remains essentially the same ordinary girl.  I agree with Sarah—this isn’t a criticism. It is far easier to step into her shoes than those of Katniss and Lyra—though perhaps not as fun—and this can make her epiphany much easier to swallow, just as Gina notes. Her world is also the closest to our own, so it makes sense that her character is closest too.

I’ve completely strayed from the original question here. I would argue that we imagine these powerful young girls in such terrible futures not because they are necessary for a girl to be powerful, but because it is so very effective to challenge a reader’s world view from a place that seems so far removed. While we can see eerie and often terrifying familiarities in the worlds of Oryx and Crake, The Hunger Games, and The Windup Girl, they are also very obviously not our own worlds. Therefore any vitamins, as Gina phrases it, that the author includes of social criticism are able to slip in the cracks before we notice. For Katniss and Imani, being observed constantly is part of an accepted social system and they learn to play along. It takes longer for the reader to see the parallels to reality programming, youtube uploads, or CCTV. But once these parallels are made, the author has made the reader pay attention in a new or different way and perhaps the world will take a different path than the one imagined in a story. This is easier and arguably more powerful than an article discussing Foucault’s panopticon, especially with a teenager. I myself would much rather read The Hunger Games than Foucault, and I’m supposed to be a highly educated adult. (This is arguable). It is also possible that we still can’t quite imagine a young woman with such power in our own world, that feminism must still fight on, but I think this is becoming less and less so.

Jeni: Interesting response, Austin. I also found myself wondering if one of the reasons we like our heroines to be in these dystopian futures is they are so obviously trapped and limited by a system of power (the Capital in HG, the Society in Matched, ScoreCorp in Scored) that feels, as you all say, too familiar. What is both helpful and problematic, I think, is how Obviously Evil these systems of power are—although it often takes our heroines a while to discover this. As you guys mention, this allows the authors to subtly level critiques of those systems of power and thus our own—the “vitamins.” However, this “good girl in a bad system” plot, as much as it parallels the troubling systems of power in our own world, also presents a version of the “good guys/bad guys” mentality. This is, of course, why we cheer for our heroines—and why (along with the romantic entanglements, I’d argue) these books are so deliciously readable. I don’t want to claim that every book has to present complex, nuanced ethical dilemmas—sometimes I want to simply cheer for the good gals in the face of evil, too! But I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea that we simplify what are really difficult real-world challenges by reducing the other side to “bad guys” and fighting the systems of power in our own way with “vitamins.” And I’m surprised at how prevalent this format has become, in terms of how we present our strong, thoughtful female heroines. This is a DRASTIC oversimplification of all of these books, of course, but hopefully you see what I mean.

That said, I think Scored is interesting because it does present the potential good of the other side—it gets a full debate between Imani and Diego, argument vs. counterargument style, even. But as a reader, it was clear that Imani needed to be relieved of her illusions and see the problematic side of being scored—the slow unfolding of this “education” (undertaken by two male teachers, interestingly—Diego and Mr. Carol) dominated the second half of the book. That is, even though both sides were presented in ways that they often aren’t in YA lit, the evils of the scoring system were still evident.

Sarah S: Jeni and all, taking it back to The Hunger Games for a second (*spoilers*), the total evil that causes Jeni concern actually becomes more expansive, and therefore more innately human, in book three, Mockingjay. In the final offing, politics and power always corrupt absolutely and the only solution is to carve out a small, ethical and satisfying life for yourself and your loved ones. It’s bleak but it moves beyond the “good girl overcoming a bad world scenario.”

So, to take it back now to Scored, McLaughlin says that she’s written a prequel about the early days of the score in a juvenile detention center. I would not be surprised if here we see a lot more moral ambiguity, not only in those kids and their situation, but also in a closer look at the creators of the score—particularly the vanished Sherry Potter.

New question, as I want to respond to something Gina said earlier. She wrote: “I think it displays the very real, and very uncomfortable position that young women and young men experience. I think the true heroes and heroines of the young twenty-first century, the ones of a more valiant nature, who defend social justice, do not have a space within the current commercial climate.”  To counter, I feel like I’ve been hearing many people (such as the authors of Generation We) that the current generation thinks more communally and ambitiously that their predecessors and are poised to change the world for the better (as seen in the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, and so forth). Do you think that the current crop of teens and young adults feels powerless or emboldened to fight for change? And what role does dystopian fiction, particularly one so close to home as Scored, have to play in your answer?

Gina: I think that’s a great question. This is why teens need dystopian fiction, so they can imagine themselves in a world where change is possible

About the contributors:

Austin is a freelance writer in New Zealand and blogs about her experiences at andunder.wordpress.com.

Gina Liotta’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in New York Quarterly, Slate and the Sierra Nevada Review; she blogs at 30WaysofWalking.wordpress.com.

Jeni R. is a teacher and PhD candidate at the University of Oregon, as well as a co-founder of No One Way Arts. She writes about food and poetry at http://breadbutterpoetry.wordpress.com/.

Sarah S’s official loves are modernism and World War I literature, which is why she wants to be a flapper for Halloween. When not thinking of new things to write for GLG, you can find her rock climbing, running, eating, or opining loudly.

  1. Reblogged this on 30 Ways of Walking and commented:
    You should follow the smart and sassy women over at Girls Like Giants!

  2. […] too were writing. In turn, the writing process has become collaborative. For example the folks at Girls Like Giants invited me to participate in their discussion of Mclaughin’s YA novel Scored. Additionally, […]

  3. Looks like we aren’t the only ones wondering about why dystopia is the new hit thing for teen girls – I just saw this over at The Dish: http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2012/03/dystopia-is-the-new-vampire.html. I followed the link and read Abby McGanney Nolan’s piece, which I found interesting – I haven’t read the other books she mentions but they are now on my queue – though it does seem to deal mostly with a different sort of dystopia than Scored.

  4. […] amazing contributors Narinda Heng, Taylor D., Jennifer Lynn Jones, Austin H., Jeni R, Sarah H., and Gina L. for allowing us to post their thoughts on everything from rock climbing to The Hunger Games, […]

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