Blurb: Seventeen-year-old Bianca Piper is cynical and loyal, and she doesn’t think she’s the prettiest of her friends by a long shot. She’s also way too smart to fall for the charms of man-slut and slimy school hottie Wesley Rush. In fact, Bianca hates him. And when he nicknames her “the Duff,” she throws her Coke in his face.
But things aren’t so great at home right now, and Bianca is desperate for a distraction. She ends up kissing Wesley. Worse, she likes it. Eager for escape, Bianca throws herself into a closeted enemies-with-benefits relationship with him.
This book gave me acid reflux. And I don’t mean that in a good way.
I’ll say this now: To all the girls who ever felt lesser, who didn’t feel beautiful, who felt like they could have been better, you deserve better than Bianca Piper.
This book tries so hard to be a story of reckoning for girls who have felt lesser. I know how this may be appealing; everyone, myself included, has at one point felt lesser, smaller, or less worthy than someone in comparison. It’s not a nice feeling. It’s horrible. This book tries to turn that upside down – it tries to give power to the other girls for a change.
However instead of being something that was empowering and self-actualizing, this book succeeds in perpetuating a problem: girl/girl competition or girl-hate, a symptom of internalized misogyny. Bianca prides herself in being a character that doesn’t care what people think, but Bianca’s contempt for these girls isn’t rooted to her self-confidence, it is rooted to her belief that she is better than some girls, because being beautiful and skinny and having sex partners has a negative correlation with intelligence, compassion, and value as a human being.
My problem isn’t that Bianca believes this. Bianca’s beliefs could be attributed to character flaw; Bianca could just be a narrow-minded character. My problem is that Keplinger doesn’t acknowledge that Bianca’s beliefs are problematic (or worse, Keplinger doesn’t think they are problematic at all), and there is no hint that perhaps Bianca is not a great person as she believes. Keplinger is trying to play on the underdog trope – a girl who is supposedly lacking in exterior beauty but is a human cornucopia of positive qualities that we are meant to identify with or root for.
The Irony (with a capital I) is that irrespective of Bianca’s appearance, she is not beautiful on the inside. Bianca is a horrible person through and through; she is arrogant, she has no respect for her friends, she is incessantly, unnecessarily rude to everyone (except to the boy she likes, wow, what a surprise), she is bitter and complains about every petty thing, and she calls herself ‘intelligent’ because she believes that teenagers don’t fall in love (except they can), and Valentines Day is stupid.
Give me a fucking break.
Example: In the second chapter of the book, she says, “I am intelligent. I am a good person.” Later on in the same chapter, she says, “I freely admit that I hate girls who say they love someone before they’ve dated them.” (I’ve been sitting here for ten minutes trying to think of what I could say about this, but I can’t think of anything general-audience friendly, so let your imagination do the work. So I’ll prompt you; it starts with “WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAT-“)
If this book wasn’t written in a way that framed Bianca as a good-person protagonist, then it would have been okay. There have been plenty of books where the protagonist had problematic views or attitudes. The difference is that they were later followed by self-awareness which led to self-growth. In The DUFF, all tone and narrative indicate that Bianca is intended to be perceived as a good person. (Except she isn’t.)
Bianca’s character is the sort of character that impressionable and naive people think are cool – ‘intelligent’, cynical, snarky – but in actuality, these people are extremely unpleasant and rude, develop manipulative habits or superiority complexes, and will probably become toxic people in your life. She should not be the sort of character that readers should feel obligated to identify with – not by a long shot.
The sex was surprisingly a very integral component of this book (then again, I didn’t know what to expect when my friend recommended me this book). I’m not against sex in YA. I think sex can be a very meaningful, positive thing between two characters. So here’s my qualm, but with a disclaimer: Maybe it is because I’m demisexual, but I just don’t understand how two people who do nothing but have sex and have one heart-to-heart can fall in love, or, at the very least, feel a deep emotional connection with one another. It doesn’t make sense to me. If a friend of mine proclaimed to be in love with someone after one intimate discussion with them, I would take said friend firmly by the shoulders and shake her vigorously.
More importantly to note, the romance is based on an unhealthy co-dependence, and this isn’t even addressed in the story. It sounds nice and maybe ‘cute’ in a story especially since the ending is ‘happy’, but it was an unrealistic portrayal of a relationship with such an unstable dynamic. What happened in the end was the best possible outcome. This book relies too much on inducing spontaneous excitement, and too little on making sense. Perhaps Keplinger’s goal was to use the former to subdue the latter.
The DUFF could have been a book about inner beauty. It could have been a book about mistakes. There’s a spiel about being kind to one another and not judging one another, but I think the only one who gained something from that revelation is Bianca. Compassion and tolerance are core in basic social skills and common decency. It is astounding (and insulting to teenagers) that this revelation was this book’s climax, and that it was even a ‘revelation’ in the first place. (Frankly, Mean Girls did it better, and it had a lot more honesty.)
I just couldn’t stand the narrative. It was grating, it was agonizing. I cheered when I finished it because I was so happy it was over. I have never (never!) been more happy to finish a book.
To end, I would like to share a quote. This was the last straw for me, when the violin string snapped, when loathe replaced confusion.
“Brontë?” I asked, seeing the cover of his book. “Wuthering Heights? Isn’t that a little girly, Toby?”
“Have you read it?”
“Well, no,” I admitted. “I’ve read Jane Eyre, which was definitely full of early feminism. I’m not saying that’s a problem. Personally, I’m a total feminist, but it’s a little sketchy for a teenage boy.”
*rips this book to shreds*
Book Name: The DUFF: Designated Ugly Fat Friend
Author: Kody Keplinger
Publisher: Little/Brown Poppy