Girls in Pants: The Very Special Lesson on How to “Draw the Chair”

Cover for "Girls in Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood" By Ann Brashares, a light orange cover with the title in bright blue, authors name at bottom, and a pair of well worn blue jeans centered over the names of several universities "Brown, RISD, University of Maryland, Williams) in the background in darker orange.Gentle Readers! It has been a long time and I know you were afraid that I had forgotten to read and review Ann Brashares’ third installment of the much beloved YA series The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants! Well, fear not! I managed to fit it in whilst chewing my way through Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series (don’t you worry, I have something for all of you on that, as well!), which is not a small feat. Sometimes it is nice to read a book that isn’t beating me about the head with an Ayn Rand-ian philosophy cudgel.

*ahem*

*stops derailing her own post*

For those of you who haven’t read The Sisterhood of the the Traveling Pants series, I can give you my brief brush up, and if you have, feel free to skip ahead to the rest of this post.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is a wonderful series about four young women: Bridget (Bee), Carmen, Lena, and Tibby, born withing seventeen days of each other. They are more than just friends, having grown up together due to their mothers being best friends, and having grown so close that they forget where one ends and the other begins. It is not uncommon to find Tibby tapping her foot on Lena’s leg or Bridget leaning her chin on Carmen’s shoulder while playing with her hair. They can tell when each other are hurting or hiding something or bubbling over with joy or exciting news. They have grown up sharing in each others’ joys, triumphs, losses, and sorrows. They have experienced growing pains and growing up as a unit and have leaned on each other for support through things like Carmen’s parent’s divorce, Tibby’s parent’s decision to have more children when she was much older, and Bridget’s mother’s suicide. Even as the other three mothers drifted apart, they seemed to hold tighter to each other

We enter these young women’s lives as they are about to embark on their first summer apart, when by chance Carmen came to own the eponymous Pants, happening upon them in a thrift store while shopping with Lena and hers sister and mother one day. The Pants unleashed their magic, when each girl, each being different, was able to put them on. They then decided that the Pants would travel with them, being sent to each young woman with notes lovingly written updating each other on their adventures until they were together again.

The Pants, somehow, made them bolder, stronger, and in a way taught them to be themselves while showing them that they were never apart. The Pants helped them draw strength from each other as they had to stand on their own so far away from their support systems. They saw the things about themselves that they had to refine and define. They had to be apart to learn how to be themselves together, yet, in a heartbreaking moment, they find that they can pull together to be there for just one.

All Together Now!

The inaugural book’s cardinal theme seemed to be that young women had stories that mattered to other young women, and that their lives were important, even if some of the stories were told from the wrong point of view. In keeping with that theme, the second book showed us that a young woman can fight her deamons on her own terms, and that the generations of women in her life affect her while the friends she makes support her.

The third book, Girls in Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood has much to say about young women and the other women in their lives.

*Mild Spoilers Ahoy!*

Carmen has trouble moving on. She is afraid that if she leaves home that someone is going to replace her in her mother’s new life with her new husband. Carmen is almost willing to give up a great opportunity (a privileged one, paid for by her apparently more affluent father) to stay home and stake her territory.

Carmen also is the person who recognizes a horrible wrong taking place when she agrees to become the caregiver for Lena’s grandmother, Valia. In the second book, Lena’s grandfather died, and now Valia has been forced by Lena’s father to come to the U.S. from her lifelong home in Greece to live. It is Carmen who sees how much pain Valia is in, leaving her home where she has friends and a support system. It is Carmen who notices that Lena’s family tries to avoid looking a Valia, because she is making everyone miserable by being cranky. It is Carmen who realizes that there is a person there, hurting from the incredible loss, and points her out to Lena. Not Lena, who is credited by her family. What happens to Valia in this book hurts me, and makes it painful to read.

Tibby has a boyfriend, and is afraid of losing herself in the process. Tibby is the quiet one, afraid of change, and prone to panic. She doesn’t know how to move ahead and express her feelings. Having watched her Guinea pig die, then her friend, she shuts down when her younger sister tries to jump out of a bedroom window and crack her skull. Tibby is trying to grasp how to confront the changes in her life, and doesn’t want to lose anything else. Then she is thrown into a situation where she is needed to help confront a huge change, and it just might help her face those ghosts in the process.

Bee, having climbed back on top of her life again, is aptly described by Tibby on page 4 of the book as an ocean blue Ferrari minus breaks, with no air bags, and possibly no bumpers. In Tibby’s description of Bee, she would go a million miles an hour and would have no breaks. Bridget has been working on holding herself back from the fast forward life that has kept her one step ahead of her grief, and last summer she faced it head on. Now, back at soccer camp, this time as a coach, she is facing Eric, the guy who was the precipitating factor in her spiral of depression, or, at least, that is how it was framed in the book. If you will note from my previous post on this:

Bridget was very young and emotionally traumatized in the first book by the death of her mother. I read her as aggressively and almost destructively seeking the attention of Eric, the coach at her camp, and it was all very messy and complicated and I didn’t read any blame to be placed on any one person. That being said, Eric, as the older person, had the responsibility to stop the relationship if it was unwanted instead of allowing it to continue, being that Bridget was fifteen at the time of the encounter and he was eighteen. Some aspects of the relationship between Bridget and Eric make me uncomfortable, and some read to me as simply something I advocate for: Teenagers being allowed to discover sex on their own terms. Age of consent laws are awkward for teenagers, where the magic number between legal and illegal are literally overnight. I also wonder about the fallout of writing a character like Bridget seeking and having a sexual encounter and having such severe depression.

I don’t fault an author for writing a sexual relationship between teenagers, but I wonder about showing one this explicit resulting in a downward spiral into deep depression.

Now, Bridget has to learn how to hold back, and how to keep herself and her emotions in check, and she seems to learn that it can be a great asset to herself.

The biggest point in this book is the storyline with the character that I probably like the least, and that is Lena.

Lena is the most privileged of the four (although, Tibby runs a close second). In-tact “traditional” family, two-income, upper class household. She is described as more than conventionally attractive, and her parents are more than doting. She has an exceptional talent for art, and at one of her art classes her father walks in on her drawing a nude man. He throws a tantrum over this, and decides that he will not pay for that class or for her to go to art school. Lena is ready to give up on art school, until her art teacher, Annik, who is a wheelchair user, tells her that she can apply for a scholarship (after Lena does much sulking and whining). Annik tells her that she’s got to learn to fight for herself, because it is Very Special Lesson time.

Annik offers to sit for a drawing, and Lena draws her, from the shoulders up, but leaves out her chair. Annik tells her how her chair is a “complicated” part of her, but still, it is a part of her, and that Lena should have included it in the drawing. She tells her that she has talent, that her scholarship portfolio should be drawings, but that she’s “gotta draw the chair”, apparently meaning that Lena has to find the special thing about everyone she draws. This of course, is fleshed out in long expositions about how Lena draws the members of her family who are all hurting, because of the ways they have hurt Valia, who is pretty much invisible.

Supercrip Art Teacher has saved the day, teaching Lena how to see her family better, resolving all the painful problems. Of course, this means that Lena’s father thanks her for helping him to see that he treated Valia wrong, when it was Carmen who told them she was hurting (there was some rub on me that Carmen is Latina, taking care of Valia in the first place, and that kind of pushed it over for me, but wev).

I still like the series, I very much like the series, but there have been small slights in each so far that have given me pause. Of course, I have yet to read a YA book that has been perfect, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants has been more about young women and their lives than any other I have read recently (I should dig up my old Babysitter’s Club books!). That doesn’t excuse the other -isms I find in them, but I prefer to be aware of them as I read rather than ignorant.

Still, young women’s stories in YA are important. I will keep looking for them. And probably nannering on at you about them!

Until next time!

Cover Image from East Meadow Public Library

2 Comments

  1. I think this just really, really helped me to understand something, which I’ve read and maybe even said before but never really *got*.

    The problem with a lot of these tropes isn’t so much that they’re inherently…whatever the word I’m looking for is…but that they are problematic because they use dis/ability as a metaphor, as a rhetorical device the author can just plug in to solve a problem or explain something, and this therefore turns dis/abled characters into giant walking metaphors, not *people*, like all of the other characters. Because dis/abled people aren’t people. Which is ableist.

    The issue, on the other hand, isn’t so much the portrayal of dis/abled characters as it is the fact that the dis/abled character isn’t actually treated as a legitimate character at all.

    Makes so much more sense now.

  2. I love this review! Great writing. It leads me to wonder whether it’s actually possible for a TAB person to write about a disabled person without falling into an ableist pothole. I mean, how can you get the experience if you don’t actually have the experience? Even if the art teacher were not simply the magic maker who saves the emotional day, even if the art teacher were just an art teacher, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t find the depiction particularly satisfying.

    This is the main reason, for instance, that I don’t go to mainstream movies whose central characters are disabled—especially when the central character is autistic—because I always feel like I’m looking at a TAB person’s idea of a disabled person. I absolutely cringe at mainstream books or movies about autistic people, because every five minutes, I just want to yell, “No, no, no! I’m looking at a walking stereotype! Do people really believe I live in just one dimension? Please, somebody, make it stop….”

    All this aside, the books sound like they have some cool features. My daughter was very into them at one point. After camp one year, she and her friends created “The Sisterhood of the Travelling Shirt” and sent a very nice warm and fuzzy shirt around to one another between camp sessions. 🙂