There is a novel out right now (it’s currently in hardcover but will come out in paperback next month) that features a young figure skater. It’s called My Sister, My Love and is written by Joyce Carol Oates, an author who has won all kinds of prestigious literary awards and teaches at Princeton. She has published 34 books since 1964. Though I haven’t read any of her other full-length books, her short stories stand out as some of my favorite. I was delighted to see her read from one of her books when I was in graduate school. So I was excited to learn that she had written about our sport and curious to see how she did it.
Well, not only is this a book I absolutely cannot recommend in general, it is offensive and I think it would be to anyone even remotely involved in figure skating.
It turns out that this is basically a fictional rendering of the infamous JonBenét Ramsey case, the six year-old beauty pageant girl who was mysteriously murdered in 1996 in Boulder, CO. Though DNA evidence seems to have proven that no one in the family committed the crime, the parents and even the little girl’s older brother were suspects; the tabloids focused on them relentlessly. In 2006, an American teacher living in Thailand admitted to the murder but the DNA at the crime scene didn’t match his either, so the case remains unsolved.
In Oates’s book, the family is called the “Rampikes” and is told from the perspective of the girl’s older brother who is now a 19 year-old with a mind addled by drugs. In this version, the little girl is a promising figure skater and the murder is pinned on a creepy man who had been stalking her. However, Oates makes the mother the actual murderer – it was a drunken, angry accident. As if this all isn’t dark and sinister enough, the mother tells the father that the son did it. She drugs the kid then tricks him into admitting it in front of a video camera and the father proceeds to try cover this up. Along the way, there’s lots of child abuse, perversion, jealousy, insanity, drug addiction, alcoholism, obsession, philandering, delusions of grandeur and, well, that not-so-uplifting murder.
So I guess I’ve spoiled it for you – but I don’t think you should go out and buy this book. That is, unless you enjoy seeing skating depicted in the worst possible light and grossly misrepresented. In fact, the way Oates has made a mockery of our sport caused me to slam the book closed several times.
Not only does Oates equate skating with beauty pageants, she makes skating out to be a dirty, perverse circus, teeming with stalkers and sexual innuendo.
Let me interrupt here to say that, though I have been involved in skating for most of my life and currently make my living in this field, I do not believe that I am overly sensitive about it. I do think skating turns out to be a positive experience for most who participate, but I certainly recognize that, like most activities, it has some foibles.
And most of us are accustomed to the fact that skating is rarely depicted accurately in movies or books. We all know, for example, that triple jumps aren’t mastered in a matter of weeks, that real competitions don’t feature spotlights, and that skating isn’t and never was (at least in recent history) judged on a scale from 1-10. These are some common misrepresentations. But I think we’re all willing to cut non-skating people (producers, directors, writers) some slack. I, for one, loved the spoof, Blades of Glory, and that was of course wildly inaccurate.
Likewise, I’m willing to forgive Oates for some of her mistakes. She thinks that five year olds get scores of 5.9 out of 6, they skate six-minute “routines” and then if they win a competition, they get prize money of $5,000. The protagonist’s best skating move is apparently something called a “butterfly gyre.” Huh? In this book, promising local skaters get featured in People magazine, and sought after by television crews and newspaper staffs. She thinks that when little skaters do well, the parents are suddenly admitted into the most prestigious country clubs.
Part of me finds some of these inaccuracies kind of amusing and the other part finds her lack of research disappointing. I’d like to think that if I was going to write a whole novel about tennis or fly fishing or professional knitting, I’d learn at least some of the correct terminology and try to figure out how that particular world actually works. The internet makes this kind of basic information so readily available.
But I digress. The point is that Oates is completely off base on just about every skating detail. Her biggest gaff is pretending/assuming that skating is like beauty pageants. For example, here are the names of the skating competitions in this book. They will give you a good chuckle: Little Miss Royale New Jersey, Starskate Ice Capades, Little Miss Jersey Ice Princess Challenge, Miss Tots-on-Ice Debutante. Winners of these competitions are “crowned.” They wear tiaras and they win that aforementioned prize money.
Here is what the announcer says to introduce our little skating contender for the Miss Atlantic City Ice Capades:
“Ladiez ‘n’ gentlemen…what a luscious sight: she’s wearing a black lace Spanish veil mantilla d’you call it? Quite a dramatic costume for a 5 year-old. This little skater is a real pro…left shoulder daringly bared, tight black-sequined bodice, black taffeta skirt very very short…black lace panties peeking out beneath, black eyelet stockings and sexy black leather high-top skates like boots.”
Yikes! I don’t know if this is how announcers and commentaries sound at kiddie Beauty Pageants (doubt it) but this is certainly not how it goes in skating. I found Oates’s constant reference to peek-a-boo panties so frustrating – “a peep of white-lace panties flashing beneath,” “crimson-lace panties teasingly visible beneath,” “a hint of white-silk panties” – that I started angrily counting: the total was at least 15 mentions.
Granted, skating costumes aren’t overflowing with extra fabric. Our little skaters do wear make-up and sometimes too much. Granted, the costumes are sparkly. And yes, this is really the only sport where smiling and gracefulness are part of what is being judged. But this is part of what makes skating so difficult: making these complicated moves look so effortless requires lots of technique, discipline and athletic strength. These facts get almost entirely omitted from the Oates’s story. She includes some falls, some injuries, a few quick images of training, and a string of demanding Russian coaches, but these details take a back seat to the costuming, the cosmetic dentistry (at age five!), and the provocative, airbrushed headshots for modeling contracts. The main character (again at age five) has her hair dyed and her mother changes her name from Edna Louis to Bliss for publicity purposes.
What’s most bothersome is Oates’s over-sexualization of the competition scene. She describes the ushers as “shapely young girls in skating costumes, pink satin high heels and pink satin caps with Tots-on-Ice 1994 in white.” She describes the stands as being filled with nefarious, middle-aged men: “hoping to be inconspicuous, even as they cradle cameras, camcorders, and binoculars in their laps appear to be alone. For invariably at such young-innocent-girl skating competitions there are such male spectators.”
No, Oates, this is not how it is.
To make matters worse, Oates makes the little figure skater an idiot outside of the rink. By age six, though she can supposedly do all these jumps and is headed for “the Nationals,” she doesn’t know the alphabet, can’t write her own name, and still wets her bed. We are to presume that this underdevelopment is the result of being so focused on skating. Surely I don’t need to say that successful skaters are notoriously disciplined and that this dedication most often spills over into the rest of their lives. Or do I need to say that? This book has made me wonder how the general public perceives our sport. How does it look from the outside?
I suggested this book for my bookgroup. (Still hoping that they’ll forgive me.) I was concerned to discover that the non-skating people (intelligent, discerning women) took no offense to the depiction of skating. They figured that skating is probably just like this. In fact, combing the web, I couldn’t find any other reviews that address the skating aspect of this book. The negative reader reviews on Amazon.com also make no mention of it. That is…until I added my own review this week. To read it, click here.
I recognize that Oates’s novel is a critique of society. She is critical of the tabloid press, of pushy, delusional parents, of our culture’s over-reliance on medications and many other negative things that are going on right now. I realize that much of this book is exaggerated for effect (i.e. anorexics in 4th grade, 8 year olds overdosing on pharmaceuticals, etc.)
I just think Oates has gone too far here, especially since the fiction/nonfiction line is blurred: she is writing about a real event. She’s also writing about a real sport and making it into something it’s not. In the end, all I can really say is that for me, and most of my students, skating has been a source of strength and confidence. The costumes are pretty and the glitz is fun, but these are just parts of a much larger whole.
Do you think the general public sees figure skating as a type of beauty pageant? What can we do to promote it in the best possible light? Did you happen to read this book? Please click on “comment” below.
Do you think skating should be depicted in literature in a more real and positive way? I’m working on it, I’m working on it…:)
Thanks for reading. To see what else I’ve been writing, lately, click here.