I think the whole world is currently the teeniest bit in love with Holly Bourne right now. Not a day seems to pass without at least one person mentioning her books on my Twitter timeline. I wrote about Am I Normal Yet? and how that focused on OCD and feminism, and was generally just a bloody great read. As I eagerly anticipate my YouReview copy of How Hard Can Love Be? from Maximum Pop Books, I thought it was about time to write a bit about The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting.
I actually read Manifesto about a month ago, on a trip to London with Himself. The hotel room had a really nice bath, so two baths a day
(purely so I could read) for two days saw me run out of reading material before the trip was even half over (plus it gave Himself time away from me, even if I did insist on reading particularly funny things out to him through the door).
The premise of Manifesto is wonderful. Bree is living proof that money can’t buy you happiness. She lives in a giant house, has super rich parents and doesn’t want for anything… except friends, a writing career and her mother’s approval. She’s treated like a freak at school and can barely stand her closest friend, Holdo, at the best of times. Another book query rejection, and some harsh words on needing to be interesting from her favourite teacher, Mr. Fellows, sees the birth of The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting: a blog where Bree documents steps to becoming somebody relevant. Manifesto raises some extremely interesting points:
‘Rule 1: One must be attractive.’
The best thing about this particular rule is that it appears as a pivotal plot point in most teen movies geared towards girls – Clueless has a montage where Dionne and Cher take it upon themselves to give Tai a makeover in order to help her fit into the right social circles; Mean Girls sees Cady fit in with the Plastics when she learns how to dress properly; The DUFF has a scene where Bianca is taken to have her ‘uni-booben’ (
serious bastardisation of the German language) corrected with some properly fitting bras and flattering clothes, all in order to reverse her role as the ugly fat friend; The Princess Diaries sees Mia transformed from wild-haired geek to beauty queen (because being a geek is clearly an external thing) and launched into a popular social circle. The list is literally endless – I Googled it and realised I forgot ones such as Pretty Woman and even (shockingly) The Hunger Games (nobody in the Capitol liked Katniss until she was the beautifully dressed, tragic, fake-pregnant Girl on Fire). I love that this was the start of The Manifesto. It’s a feminist bone of contention as we are constantly being fed the message that pretty is interesting. Attractive is interesting. Not conforming to beauty standards makes you a geek. Makes you a nerd. Makes you uncool and uninteresting and unworthy. Being attractive is good. It is safe. It is acceptable. I feel it is implied throughout the book that Bree is somewhat of an emo – the pink and black tights and dubious hair dye attempts – but the label is never presented fully. She gets a hair cut, implores her mother to take her shopping, walks into school – and BOOM. She’s suddenly relevant. I guess, sadly, this does apply in real life. I know people are sick of hearing about them, but something I find incredibly interesting about the Kardashians is the volume of ‘This is what Kylie/Kendall/Khloe/Kourtney looked like 2/3/4 years ago’ articles going around that seem to suggest that they weren’t worth anything then, compared to now that they’re all deemed universally attractive and have clothing lines and makeup lines and whatever else it is that they have. It’s as though the world’s media can only put emphasis on your appearance and whether you fit into a standard of beauty deemed acceptable enough that others will almost respect you for it. Mind boggling, yet the patriarchy at its finest.
‘Rule 2: One must make friends with other attractive people.’
Bree is suddenly launched into relevance. Jassmine and all the other ‘cool’ kids from her school suddenly want to be friends with her. Mr Fellows, the teacher she is so desperately in love with, suddenly cannot keep his eyes off her. The boys in her year who would have never given her a second glance suddenly can’t wait to get Bree into bed with them. I suppose, and somewhat confusingly, the saying ‘like attracts like’ applies here
(confusingly because opposites attract is another saying and really people are just reaching to explain attraction) as Bree is suddenly irresistible to other attractive people. As though being attractive is a club and you recruit to join. As though being attractive is the definition of self worth. I love this inclusion in Manifesto as the sudden acceptance Bree experiences is juxtaposed with self-harm. I’ve written rather extensively about self-harming and what I think of it before, but I think it’s important to reiterate that a lot of the time it’s used as a coping strategy. Rule 2 is presented as a way to highlight that external appearances aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.
‘Rule 3: One must fall in love with somebody forbidden.’
THIS. THIS. Manifesto is not just a book about a teenage girl searching for relevancy. It’s a book about a person in a position of power abusing their status to take advantage of a young teenage girl. Following Bree’s makeover and her sky-rocketing popularity, she and Mr Fellows, her English teacher, start an affair. He’s married. She’s a teenager. Granted, he was interested in her before the grand makeover, but that by no means makes it right. She’s in love with him and he knows that. The student-teacher relationship has been played out in countless films (such as The Unrequited Crush)and TV shows (Including Friends), plus it’s no secret that the ‘slutty schoolgirl’ trope is a really really really common porn film plot
(if you can call that a plot) and I love how it’s addressed in Manifesto. Bree isn’t stupid, she knows it’s wrong and that the relationship could have really serious repercussions. I also loved that Mr. Fellows turns out to be a spineless gimp after he learns that Bree has – gasp! – had sex with someone that wasn’t him, before their relationship had even begun. This detail reflects a still present culture where girls are expected to be pure and innocent – except with the boy/man they’re dating, and woe betide if they happened to have been pure and innocent with the exception of the boy/man they were dating before the current man/boy. If you’re not sexually active, you’re a prude, you’re uptight, you’re boring. If you are, you’re a slut, you allow people to use you, you have no self-respect. There’s no winning. The only hope is that one eventually meets a boy/man who does not base one’s worth on previous number of sexual partners
‘Rule 4: One must lose all sight of oneself, get into a huge emotional mess, and break down as a person.’
A huge number of things happen in this portion of Manifesto at roller coaster speeds. There’s the leaking of a sex tape, Mr. Fellows’ ungainly dumping of Bree, Jass and the rest of the school discovering The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting blog and realising Bree had been faking their friendship all along, plus a pretty horrific, accidental suicide attempt. Holly Bourne really tackles a huge amount of topics in 448 pages that are wonderfully, masterfully addressed. The outcome of Manifesto has a powerful message:
Choose life. Choose love.
And always remember to live.
Of course I realised AFTER I’d finished writing most of the Manifesto review that I’d completely messed up the order of the rules, as Rule 3 is ‘one must have sex with other attractive people’ but it’s not on the cover, and I was trying to do the review mostly from memory. Forgive me.
The last Rule that Bree comes up with is the be all and end all on how to be interesting: stop caring. Stop caring about what other people think. Stop caring about being cool or being interesting or being different or about trying to fit in or trying to become something you’re not. I think a really strong message that comes from this is that it really doesn’t matter who or what you are, some people will just not like you. Others will love you without really knowing you. Others still will love you no matter who you are. There is absolutely no way to be perfect in a world that uses social media as a means to barrage young people with impossible standards that they cannot reach: be tall be short be skinny be curvy shave don’t shave wear this don’t wear this wear that instead don’t wear this if you look like this wear this if you want to look like that this is worn by this person who wants to look like this other person oh my god this person has gotten so fat oh no now they’ve lost too much weight this person got a haircut that we don’t like this person looks amazing and we love them because they look amazing wow someone should tell this celebrity to wear makeup coming out of the gym be fat embrace your size be skinny fat is bad eat these things sugar is bad for you everyone will envy you if you do these workouts everyone will want to be you if you carry this bag blah blah blah blah blah….
It’s just white noise. A cacophony of voices screaming into a void where there are people sitting and waiting and trying to figure out where they fit in in the world. Manifesto was the perfect nod to the culture of suggesting that one must be physically appealing in order to be in any way accepted in society. It was a perfect antidote. Holly Bourne is fast becoming a household name and there is absolutely no question in my mind as to why this is.
TL;DR: Holly Bourne is awesome and a writer of wonderful feminist books. Read them, read them all!!