On Identity Politics, Pink Macarons & Teal Peacock Feathers in The Belles

The Belles is the type of young adult novel that teens and adults alike will want to read. It is a novel perfect for the post-Disney Princess era in which girls and women have been taught to revere royalty, but not to sit around and just look pretty waiting for their white knight to save them. The girls in the story are pretty and strong and feisty and independent and quite proactive. It has all of the pomp and circumstance of Marie Antoinette’s royal court, the magic of a Harry Potter novel plus a fantastical take on Mean Girls. In a word, it is perfect amalgamation of what the people want.

It would seem that the author, Dhonielle Clayton’s imagination is filled with delicately layered pastries, jeweled-toned peacock feathers, succulent exotic flowers… and glitter. It is a wonderful place to be, especially when Clayton’s prose is magical itself, a lush mix of sugar-coated Alice Walker verse combined with the elusive prose of Jane Austen. All pretty and sticky-sweet, a delectable, indulgent word fest, a veritable collage of loveliness. At some point, you might wonder if Clayton wouldn’t be better off writing a cookbook, a love story to Parisian pastries, in which each recipe grows lighter and fluffier as you turn the page. But then again, you’ll be glad she chose fiction.  The reader is equally captivated by Clayton’s deft characterization and world building. The universe she creates is amazing and gorgeous and believable. Or at least, you’ll want to believe that a place like this filled with magnificence and sweetness actually exists. A little bit steampunk, a little bit fairytale, you will remain hungry for the patisserie she so eloquently describes, but you’ll be hungrier more for her story.

It is surprisingly fast-paced… and interesting for a novel so full of sensual word play and cinematic moments. It is usually one or the either. In this case, Clayton is talented at both. Even without the smoke and mirrors of Clayton’s wordsmithery, you’ll find the story of the Belles at once mesmerizing and perplexing. For behind the pretty lace, tulle and chiffon of the story, is the lingering scent of something dark and exceedingly ominous, it lurks in the shadows of the sparkling ballrooms like the rotting flesh of an overly ripe mango, and your stomach begins to quicken as the pages turn and you wonder what precisely are the dark secrets of this story. You have the feeling that it is something spectacularly horrid. You will rush through the pages, unable to imagine what dark cold thing could possibly exist amongst so much jewel-encrusted splendor.

A veritable collage of loveliness

The story recalls the age-old obsession with beauty. It revels in just how mean girls can be. . In this politically charged environment, I bet some readers will not be able to resist searching for a political statement. Perhaps, something about gender or race, the media’s subjects du jour. I found the lack of political statement refreshing. It’s fun to be entertained for the sake of entertainment, isn’t it?

Or was the author making a political statement by not making a political statement? Oh, we know she is exploring the problems with beauty and body images, but I found just a bit more. Our Miss Clayton is ever so clever. Was she talking about race by not talking about race? It can all get just a little bit confusing, what with the miniature dragons whizzing by and pastel-colored macarons crumbling on the floor.

In the world of the Belles, men and women are able to make changes to the color of their skin, eye and hair color, just like we can change our shirt or hairstyle. The amount of melanin in our skin, eye and hair is a fashion statement. It’s significant… or not. It’s interchangeable. But what it is not, is important.

That is political, I’d say, in this climate of identity politics. The media tells us we must place ourselves in a box based on appearance and then do as all of the others who have placed themselves in boxes. I thought we were taught to think outside of the box? But not where race is concerned apparently. For we are constantly asked, what are we without our identities? You must choose! And everyone is choosing. Oddly enough, I do not see anyone wondering why we must choose. Must we? Then why? Why are identity politics… a thing? Is it because, if you cannot identify as black or white or conservative or feminist or gender fluid, you’re just… what? Human? An Earthling? And then what? We cannot be conquered, because we cannot be divided? Or is it more mundane than that? Is it as simple as, our votes cannot be had if the politicians do not have an angle, a strategy for winning our group as identified by color or race?

The people are mad for change

The world of the Belles takes us to a place where people cannot be divided based on the color of their skin, eyes or hair. In their world, color is superficial, pretty, ugly, average, extraordinary, all things that are subjective, based on the beholder. What it is not… is important. The Belles have the ability to change the appearance of a person, and the people are mad for change. They cannot wait to change their skin color, from snow white, to luscious buttermilk to honey-drizzled tan to fudgy-brown and back to snowy white – oh, let’s make it eggshell! It’s all a mad dash, so much fun, it is practically Alice In Wonderland with Pantone slides.

Clayton shows us how fun it can all be, she tells us in story that color like race is not that important, particularly when treated like a fashion accessory. Brown skin is the new black. Except when it is not. Based on how you feel, white could be the new black. And that is okay because in The Belles race and color are not political, rather they are something to be seen as part of beauty, a facet of appearance. It is after all just the amount of melanin a person has in their body. Color is only skin deep. In The Belles, no one is defined by their color, no one takes action or believes in certain things because of their color. Is this purposeful? Is it a political statement? Or is it a lesser statement to the one Clayton shares about how dangerous obsessions with beauty can be?

If you could change your skin color to suit your mood, you would have to identify with… yourself. Whatever that is. What is it, you wonder? Or have you never wondered? That is a question for another day. The one that begins with… Why are we here? Who made us? Who are we? What makes me me? But, as long as you are fixated on the superficial, you’ll never go further than skin deep. Will you?

The Belles then, in a very pretty and sweet way asks you, Who are you when the color is stripped away?

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