Sunday, January 25, 2015

Why Harriet the Spy Is my Fictional Hero

I saw the movie Harriet the Spy when I was 8 and read the book when I was 10, and I felt a strong bond with Harriet right away. I've written about this topic a bit before, but now I'd like to go more in-depth about why I've always felt such a deep connection with Harriet the Spy:

1. Most children's media has this assumption that you want to be around other kids and get along. It assumes that you are interested in playing, interacting, sharing, and cooperating with other children your age. Many times, stories and TV shows take it a step further and assume that getting along with other kids is important to you - important enough that you are willing to sacrifice other things you want for it. I saw so many stories and TV shows where kids had a conflict over what they wanted to do, one kid went off on their own because they didn't want to do what the group was doing, they found that it was no fun being alone, and they realized that doing anything with a group of friends is better than being by yourself. The end conclusion always emphasized how important it was to get along with other kids.

As a child, I could not relate to any of this. I had no interest in sharing or cooperating with my peers. I could take or leave playing with other kids. I generally preferred to play by myself, and I always preferred to do what I wanted to do by myself than to do something I didn't want to do with other kids. I never found that I was happier joining in a game that I didn't feel like playing than I was going off on my own. Getting along with other kids was just not something that interested me at all.

Harriet the Spy was like me. She only cared about her spy route and her notebook and never concerned herself with getting along with her peers. She had friends, but spying came first for her. She turned down lots of social invitations in order to do her spy route by herself. That is a rare thing to find in stories aimed at children. Harriet said that if she had to choose between being a spy and having friends, she'd pick spying. The first time I heard Harriet say this, I felt like she was speaking directly to me. I would have made the same choice.  I had never met a character like her before.

(Note: I have much closer relationships with my friends now, so this isn't true for me anymore in the literal sense. But Harriet says this at a point where her entire class hates her, not just her best friends. I would choose my best friends over anything, but if I had a choice between doing something I wanted to do and being liked by my peers, I'd pick doing what I wanted to do. Every single time.)

2. There is a common plot line in children's stories and TV shows where one kid is doing something that the other kids think is uncool. The kid gets teased and decides to stop doing the "uncool" thing in order to fit in with their friends. Then they feel bad because they really want to do the thing, and an adult comes along and tells them that they should just be themself and that true friends accept you for who you are.

I understand the importance of stories like this, but again, I could not relate to this at all when I was a kid. I never stopped doing something that I wanted to do in order to fit in with other kids, and at the time, I did not understand why anyone else would. I knew perfectly well that I did not want to be friends with anyone who wouldn't let me do whatever I wanted to do. I never needed an adult to tell me that.

Harriet is the same way. She never backs down no matter what. Even when her friends ditch her because of what she wrote about them in her notebook, even when her entire class gangs up on her and forms a spy-catchers club specifically to torment her, she still will not stop spying and writing in her notebook. And what I like best is that her actions don't come off as some adult-driven message of standing strong in the face of adversity. Harriet just does what she wants because she wants to, and the possibility of stopping never even occurs to her, no matter how many people hate her for it.

3. Harriet truly lives in her own little world in her notebooks and doesn't care much about the real world. I do have a big attraction to stories where the main character writes in a journal and we get to see into their internal world, which is why I love Amelia's Notebooks and the As Told by Ginger series. But Harriet's notebooks are different in the sense that she's more disconnected from real life. Even though she spies on real-life people and writes notes about them, she does it because she finds their lives interesting as an outside observer. She doesn't write about stuff that involves herself, like wondering who she'll ask to the school dance. Even when she writes about her close friends, she does it from a disconnected point of view, like she's just observing them rather than being personally invested in what happens to them. She treats the people she spies on like characters in a story that she likes to read, but is not a part of.

Harriet and I are very different on this because I am very much invested in other people and things in my real life, but I do basically like to live in my own little world like Harriet does. And in any case, I think her point of view is fascinating.

4. Harriet is untamable. I use the word "untamable" a lot nowadays, but I think the first time I used it in recent years was actually to describe Harriet. Harriet's parents take her notebooks away because of all the trouble they've caused, and she's not allowed to have notebooks at school (I never quite understood how this worked - it seems like she'd need notebooks for her schoolwork and she could write her personal stuff in those notebooks if she had to, but it's not really explained).  When her parents take the notebooks away, she flat-out refuses to function. She doesn't do any of her schoolwork at all, she treats her classmates horribly, and she carves things into her desk at school since she doesn't have paper to write on. Sometimes adults will take things away from kids hoping to make them behave and "earn" those things back, but Harriet won't play that game. Harriet is not willing to do anything until she has her notebooks back, and her parents are finally forced to give in.

5. The story doesn't simply end with Harriet apologizing. Harriet wasn't writing about her classmates on a public blog that everyone could see. She wasn't spreading around rumors and gossip that would hurt people. She was writing in her private notebook, which someone else grabbed off the ground and started reading without her consent. In the movie, a girl who doesn't like Harriet grabs the notebook, but in the book, it's actually Harriet's best friend who picks it up, and her friend never apologizes for that. Even though I hadn't started writing in a journal yet myself, I understood that Harriet could write whatever she wanted in her notebook and that the other kids had done something wrong by reading it. I knew that I would never, ever apologize if something like this happened to me. But I also knew that in a story like this, Harriet would be the one who had to apologize and set things right again, even though it was the other kids who had done something wrong.

Harriet's nanny Golly tells her that she's going to have to apologize and she's going to have to lie. She explains that sometimes you have to lie, and that Harriet will need to lie in order to fix things. I had a hard time understanding that when I was younger, since my instinct back then was to be completely honest all the time, but I appreciated the acknowledgement that it was a lie, that Harriet was not actually saying that she did anything wrong by writing what she wanted in her own private notebook.

When Harriet says that she would pick being a spy over having friends if she had to choose, she also says that maybe you're not allowed to have both. I understood that feeling. I understood the feeling of, "No one likes me because of this thing, but it's not something I'm willing to change in order to have friends, so maybe people like me just weren't meant to have friends." That has crossed my mind a lot throughout my life.

Golly says to Harriet, "You're an individual, and that scares people, and it's going to keep scaring people your whole life."
Harriet: "My whole life? What do I do?"
Golly: "You stay true to Harriet and accept the cost."

I had seen countless children's stories with the message of, "Just be yourself and everything will turn out fine!" As someone who was being myself, I knew this was not true. I felt like Golly was speaking directly to me. It was the first time that anyone in a "be yourself" conversation had told the truth.

Harriet's friends never do apologize for reading her notebook, which does bother me, but the way that they come back together is mutual because they start to miss her. They get tired of being against her and want to be friends again, and I think that deep down, even though they're upset about what she wrote, they do know that it was her private business and they shouldn't have looked.

At the conclusion of the story, Harriet becomes editor of the school newspaper and writes true, positive things about some of the people who had read the bad things she wrote about them in her notebooks. She also does a "retraction" of all of the mean things she wrote in her notebook. It's a clever way of apologizing because by retracting the mean things from the newspaper, she is basically saying that she's sorry people saw the notes and were hurt by them. She never actually says that she is sorry for writing what she wanted in her private notebook or that she shouldn't have done it.

There are two things that make me really happy about the ending. One is that Harriet uses her passion order to fix the problem, rather than reducing it or learning to "balance" it with other things. And the second is that the conclusion goes beyond getting back together with her friends and not having everyone hate her. In writing the school newspaper, Harriet grows as a writer, which is what she had wanted to do from the start.

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