Here’s a story of a troublemaker…

Okay, I have been watching way too much Brady Bunch this summer. I still have the theme song going through my head. Here’s a story…of a troublemaker…who was writing ’bout her troublemaking past… Anyway, a few days ago I wrote an entry about kids-as-disciplinary-problems, Judith Butler, and troublemaking. It got me thinking about my own narrative of growing up as a troublemaker.

As a child, I was a troublemaker. But, what does that mean? Well, I had a lot of teachers who really didn’t like me (from elementary school through high school). Not because I acted out in class. I didn’t. Not because I made faces in assemblies. I didn’t. And not because I “did really bad things.” Because, I really didn’t. No, they disliked me because they could sense—somehow—that I saw through their bullshit (for more on being a bullshit detector, see here) and that I wasn’t going to simply believe that what they said was the “Truth.” I guess I was a threat to their already tenuous hold on the classroom.

I asked a lot of questions (and not hostile ones. Just lots and lots of “why” questions). I always wanted to know why things worked the way that they did. I liked exploring ideas without immediately placing judgment on them. And even though I looked the part of the good little white student, I refused to fully buy into the rules and norms that undergird the white suburban school and its goal of molding the minds of children into good little consumer citizens.

So, when I think of my own troublemaking “roots” it is not through the tradition of disrupting class or being disrespectful to teachers. For me, troublemaking was never about breaking the rules (even though I can see why many rules need to be broken) or rebelling against authority/authority figures. No, the tradition of troublemaking that I draw upon in my own understanding and practice of being in/making/staying in trouble is the tradition of posing questions…and lots of them. The question that I used to pose a lot as a kid, and the question that Butler suggests is the first act of disobedience, is “why.” As in, why is something this way and not that? For Butler, to ask “why” is to introduce the possibility that something could be otherwise, that the way things are is not they only way that should or could be. It is to open up the possibility of making ourselves into subjects-who-disobey instead of subjects-who-merely-obey. [Of course, “why” is not the only question many of us do—or should—ask. With my training in feminist/queer/critical theory, the question that I pose a lot now is “at whose expense”? This question seems to infuse the somewhat innocent “why” with an awareness of oppression and a desire for justice.]

Here are some key passages from my earlier entry on Butler and asking lots of questions:

Butler argues that asking why things are the way that they are is a form of disobedience (or is way of not being obedient if obedience requires unquestioned acceptance). The emphasis here is not on disobedience as a refusal to follow the rules or a rejection of rules altogether–some rules are necessary and important and helpful.  No, Butler wants to emphasize disobedience as the refusal to be/become subjects who accept and willingly/unthinkingly obey the dictates that we are given without question. Again, in this sense, the disobedience is not to Rules or Law or the State (although that is important as well), but to the formation of us as subjects-who-merely-obey. So, Butler is particularly interested in how our obedience or disobedience functions on the level of self-(re)making (or what Butler would call subject formation).

Now, this idea of disobedience is not just about how and who we are as political subjects who engage in those practices that are traditionally considered to be political (like voting or protesting or being a part of activist communities or even participating in civic organizations). This idea of disobedience is about how and who we are as selves as we engage in our everyday activities and as we work (intentionally and not so intentionally) on our moral/ethical/intellectual development. And it happens when we ask “why”–not once or twice but everyday and all the time.

In this earlier entry, I link Butler’s promotion of asking questions with the “childish” behavior of asking “why”:

Kids are really good (sometimes too good) at asking “why”–from the mundane (why isn’t yellow your favorite color?) to the scientific (why can’t it snow in the summer?) to the existential (why can’t Nana live forever?) to the defiant (why do I have to eat my vegetables?) to the disturbing (why can’t I eat my own poop?) to the repetitive (Why? Why? Why?). The asking of these questions can be tedious for parents, but they are (most often) not done by children in order to be destructive or disrespectful. At their best, these “why” questions demonstrate curiosity and an interest in (caring about) the world and how it works. And, they are an assertion of a self-in-process who is claiming their independence from the forces that shape them.

Posing “why” and later, “at whose expense” questions (to myself and to others) got me in a lot of trouble. A lot of that trouble was bad (such as teachers hating me, being dismissed and discounted as a problem—not so much a disciplinary problem but just a problem), but a lot more of it was good (as in helpful/productive/motivating for me). The refusal to merely accept and the desire to remain open to other ways of being (instead of just fixing in on the way I am supposed to see and/or act in the world) shaped who I am and have, I think, made me a better (happier, more responsible, aware and just) person.

I am drawn to Judith Butler’s work because one primary aspect of her philosophy/ethos/system of thought is the value of asking (and never stopping your asking) of questions. When I look to Butler it is this important strain in her work that resonates with me. Not the acting out (and acting up) that is reflected in the narrative about her as a “disciplinary problem.” This single-minded reduction of troublemaking to bad behavior and the revaluing of “being bad” as good doesn’t work for me. It certainly doesn’t speak to my experiences. And, it is not, in my opinion, a helpful resource for a feminist or queer ethics.

Butler’s emphasis on always asking questions helped me to understand what I had been doing for so long when I was younger. When I was a kid I felt the pressure of opposing forces: 1. a family of intellectuals who encouraged me to think and question and challenge and care (about justice, from my dad the ethicist, and about the world and imagining it otherwise, from my mother, the artist/dreamer/social historian) and 2. the (almost completely) white suburban, conformity-imposing, competition-driven public schools that I attended from fifth through twelfth grade. From my family (and my position as white and middle/intellectual-class), I inherited a strong sense of entitlement–of course, I should ask questions and think, I could do anything and be anything! But from the schools I attended in suburban D.C. (in Northern Virginia) and suburban Des Moines (the insurance capital of the Midwest!), I was reminded everyday that I could ask some questions but only if they were framed in the right way and only if they furthered the goals of success in the forms of being better than everyone else and of acquiring the most stuff (status, possessions, awards, knowledge-as-commodity).

It has always been a struggle to navigate these forces. Why did I have to make everything so difficult? I would sometimes ask myself. Why can’t I just participate in the system like a “good girl”? [Of course, as a white, middle-class, heterosexual, I was a “good” and proper girl and my choice to not fit in was always just that…a choice. I always had the privilege to pass and fit in as normal, even if I often felt like I couldn’t force myself to do it.] How can I reconcile the desire to care about others/the world/justice that my parents instilled in me with the implicit (and sometimes explicit) command by many teachers/adults/”society” to care only about myself and how I could fit in and be very successful? Of course, this was definitely not how I phrased it as a child. But the language of feminist and queer theories and of Butler’s (albeit underdeveloped) notion of  troublemaking have given me a way in which to understand and articulate what was (at least partially) going on with my struggles to care but fit in, to question but not to outrage or alienate, and to stay open to new possibilities of thinking, being and doing.

So, there you have it. The opening chapter (or maybe the preface) to my troublemaking narrative. There is much more to say about my own experiences of making/staying in trouble. Indeed, I feel like I have barely scratched the surface.

A Disciplinary Problem? The unruly child as troublemaker

In the documentary, Judith Butler: Philosophical Encounters of the Third Kind, Butler recounts details of growing up in Cleveland:

I was never very good in school. I was what they call a problem child. A disciplinary problem. And, uh, I would speak back to the teachers. And I would not follow the rules. I would skip class. I did terrible things. And, yet, I was apparently smart in some way. But I didn’t understand myself as smart. I understood myself as strategic. One had to get through. One had to find one’s way in the school and in the synagogue. And I didn’t really like authority. My mother was called into the principal’s office…the principal who runs the school in fifth grade, I think. Probably the age of 11. She was warned that I might become a criminal and at that point they told me that I couldn’t go to the school anymore, to the Jewish Education program anymore, unless I studied privately with the rabbi. So, this was for me, terrific because I loved the rabbi.

Now consider how Liz McMillen shapes those details (given to her by Butler in an interview from 1997 entitled “Berkeley’s Judith Butler Revels in Role of Troublemaker” for The Chronicle for Higher Education) into a coherent—and rather neat and tidy—narrative and origin story about Butler as a troublemaker:

Long before Gender Trouble caused a stir, and before she became a prominent theorist with a devoted graduate-student following, Judith Butler was a kid in a Cleveland synagogue who frequently got herself in trouble. She disrupted classes. She made faces during assemblies. Finally, she was kicked out and told that she wouldn’t be allowed to return to the school until she had completed a tutorial with the head rabbi. The rabbi sized the 14-year-old up and decided that it was time for her to get serious.

So what do you want to study? he wanted to know.”Holocaust historiography” was her quick reply. Martin Buber and existential theology. Whether German idealism was responsible in any way for the rise of fascism. This after-school punishment laid the groundwork for a scholarly career marked by extreme diligence — and a knack for making trouble.”I was always talking back,” she says.”I guess I’ve elevated it into an art form.” Once a disciplinary problem, always a disciplinary problem.

So, according to McMillen, Butler was an unruly child. A student who refused to play by the rules and got into a lot of trouble. A disciplinary problem. Now, she is an adult who gets into a lot of trouble. She disrupts widely accepted notions of sex and gender. She challenges feminism as identity politics. She refuses to merely accept any idea as common sense. And she encourages others to be critical of their most treasured values. It would seem that Butler willingly (perhaps even proudly) takes on the role of unruly-child-as-troublemaker. Her acts of trouble (which up to the point of the interview included: Subject of Desire, Gender Trouble, Bodies That Matter, The Psychic Life of Power, and Excitable Speech) are at least partially inspired by a desire to continue to be a disciplinary problem. She finds pleasure in instability, being uncomfortable, and pushing at the limits. She enjoys laughing at/mocking the system and causing trouble for all those who perpetuate it. She even mocks herself and refuses to cash in on her status as superstar academic.

Samuel Chambers and Terrence Carver reinforce this assessment of Butler as the unruly child when they write in their introduction to Judith Butler and Political Theory: Troubling Politics:

how else to read the line that Butler leaves on its own as the fourth paragraph of the preface to Bodies That Matter, ‘Couldn’t someone simply take me aside?’, than with more than a touch of sarcasm and sass (x)? What other way to hear this question than as Butler’s declaration that she plans to continue getting into trouble, that she never expects to get out it? While her critics will persist in their desire to force her into line, she will continue to make trouble–and to trouble them (2).

And while they aren’t certain that she is actively taking up the trope of the “unruly child” (“We could ask her–she might even answer us,” they ponder, “but we’d still never know“), they do suggest that Butler’s role as the “disciplinary problem” is proof that she is a troublemaker. See, she disobeys. She disrupts. She sasses back. She must be a troublemaker. Immediately following this discussion, Chambers and Carver suggest that, while Butler is engaging in unruly behavior, her actions “prove to be of the far more sophisticated and important sort” (2). So, Butler is not just your average disciplinary problem, she is a serious and sophisticated disciplinary problem.

So, as the story goes: once upon a time there was a little girl from Cleveland. She always got into trouble…big trouble. She challenged authority figures. Disrupted class. And got kicked out of school. Everyone thought she was a disciplinary problem. Then, she grew up and became an academic superstar. She learned how to turn her knack for troublemaking into some serious and sophisticated scholarship about troubling sex, gender and sexuality. And she remained a disciplinary problem.

Sounds great, right? I like the idea of rethinking what it means to be a disciplinary problem (and I can relate to it, having gotten into trouble a lot as a child), but this narrative (particularly about Butler’s beginnings and more generally about the origins of troublemaking for theory and politics) raises some red flags for me.

The purpose of the narrative
First, the story offers some background on Butler. It demonstrates that she is a person and not just a theorist. In the McMillen interview, Butler reflects on the desire, by her readers, to know who she really is:

I was so theoretical in my presentation in Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter that you barely got a glimpse of who I was, which then produced this desire to expose this hyperintellectual, you know, hidden person.

Second, the story also offers some background on Gender Trouble and the idea of troubling gender. They come from someone on the outside, from a problem child, who always challenged authority. Gender Trouble, according to the story, is just one more (perhaps more sophisticated and “grown up”) example of how a “problem” child acts.

Finally, this story provides both Butler, as a queer theorist/theoretical activist/political thinker, and her work in Gender Trouble and beyond, with some credibility in queer activist communities. Butler isn’t just an academic who writes esoteric and overly complicated books like Gender Trouble; she is a bad girl! A rebel! She makes trouble for the establishment! She resists and fights back! And, where did it all start? When she was (*gasp*) a juvenile delinquent!

How much control has Butler had over the shaping of this narrative and the image of her as feminism’s and queer theory’s bad girl? Is the playing up of her as a problem-child a marketing ploy by others to sell more books? Or, could it be an attempt to discredit her work in troublemaking as childish? Oh, don’t bother with her, she’s nothing but trouble!?

The person as Subject/the author as Agent
The story, particularly the one articulated by McMillen, feels a little too neat and tidy. There appears to be a seamless connection between (1) the person who made trouble as a child with (2) the author who not only writes about trouble but makes it too (!), and (3) the book that successfully makes trouble for our understandings of gender/sex/sexuality. But, does Butler-the-person really fit that neatly with Butler-the-author? Does the move from Butler-the-person to Butler-the-author work that easily? And, does Butler-the-author have that much control over what her book did/does?

In the first chapter of Gender Trouble, Butler famously invokes Nietzsche and argues that “there is no doer behind the deed” (34). She challenges the idea of the agent as willful subject who has (total) control over their actions. She offers in place of the person who does, a subject who is created/perpetuated through the process of doing. Where might the story of Butler as a troublemaker fit in here? Is it reinforcing the notion of the person-as-willful-agent?

And, what about the connection between author and book? What control does Butler-as-author really have over what her writings do and mean for others? I need to think through theses ideas some more, but I wonder what we might make of this narrative in relation to Butler’s word at the end of Bodies That Matter. She is discussing the troubling question, “How will we know the difference between the power we promote and the power we oppose” (241)? In her reflections, she discusses her writings and the effects they might have on others:

The reach of their signifiability cannot be controlled by the one who utters them. They continue to signify in spite of their authors, and sometimes against their authors’ most precious intentions.…This not owning one’s words is there from the start, however, since speaking is always in some ways the speaking of a stranger through and as oneself (241-242).

Finally, in offering up this story of herself (through her written and spoken words) as an unruly child who turned into a troublemaking adult, what is Butler doing? Or, conversely, what is being done to her? In one of her more recent works, Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler argues that “telling a story about oneself is not the same as giving an account of oneself” (12). So, which is it–is the tale of Butler-as-unruly-child a story/narrative or an account? I am eager to re-read Butler’s ideas in Giving an Account to find out what she might say about all of this.

Okay, she was a disciplinary problem, but why?
The story of Butler as a disciplinary problem is compelling, but it leaves a lot out in the telling. Why was she considered a disciplinary problem? Or, more pointedly, what caused her to make (and be in) trouble? In “What is Critique?,” Butler writes:

One does not drive to the limits for a thrill experience, or because limits are dangerous and sexy, or because it brings us into a titillating proximity with evel. One asks about the limits of ways of knowing because one has already run up against a crisis…(307-308).

What sorts of crises did Butler run up against that made her push at the limits (against authority figures, etc)? Without a discussion of why, we are left with a narrative that is too easy and that could too easily become a story of a girl who was bad (maybe born that way?) and then found a way to continue to be bad (and earn money doing it!) as an adult. There is much that should be said/written about what causes girls to act out and/or to be dismissed/punished as troublemakers. In fact, the specific ways that gender and trouble get connected is part of the reason Butler wrote Gender Trouble. Take a look at her discussion of “female trouble” in her 1990 Preface for more. Of course, Butler speaks to the “why” in many of her writings. So, why is it left out of the narrative of unruly child–particularly the one shaped by McMillen?

*Note: At this point, I must veer off into a discussion of Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an entry about half-pint and the episode, “Troublemaker.” I promised to watch it and report back. I watched it yesterday morning. Actually, I had intended this article to be about Laura as one example of the “unruly child” and what kind of trouble they cause (or are accused of causing). As you can tell, this entry has gone in a different direction. I enjoyed the episode–aside from the fact that it convinced me that Mrs. Oleson is just plain evil. I was surprised out how much room there is for a feminist interpretation of how/why Laura is labeled as a troublemaker. I would like to devote an entire entry to it (and perhaps include the recent New Yorker review article about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane and some other thoughts from Little House in the Big Woods). Anyway, my point in referring to Little House and Laura here is that the “Troublemaker” episode offers one example of how/why a little girl might be dismissed and also punished for being a troublemaker. The (how/why) reasons have a lot to do with the fact that she is a poor little girl with no money who has very little status or, in Bourdieu-speak, cultural capital. The narrative of Laura as troublemaker in this episode has as much to do with how she has been labeled a troublemaker (and the consequences of that labeling) as it does with what kind of trouble she makes. What would a narrative of Butler that linked her troublemaking with her experiences growing up in Cleveland look like? Butler only hints at that in her 1999 Preface to Gender Trouble.

The origins of troublemaking:
The story of Butler as an unruly child seems to function as an origin story for gender trouble, both as a book and as a concept. To the question, where did gender trouble come from, we get the answer, a problem child who skipped class, made faces at assemblies, and did other terrible things. So, according to this line of thinking, troublemaking as a concept/practice/action is produced by someone who does it in order to disrupt/unsettle/disturb. And this disruption that they do takes some very particular forms: skipping class, disrupting assemblies, being kicked out of school, all of which conjure up images of the juvenile delinquent. But, is this the only source of troublemaking and the only way to imagine how children engage in it? Is the troublemaker fundamentally a bad girl (or bad boy) who willfully flouts the rules?

At this point, I have to stop writing this entry. I have more to say, but have run out of steam. I do like my final thought here. I will return to it an upcoming entry. The question becomes: is troublemaking all about daring to be bad (this is a reference to Alice Echols’ book) or could we think about it as daring to be good (another reference to the edited collection by Ann Ferguson and Bat-Ami Bar On)? What would that look like and what possibilities for ethics does it open up?

Is trouble an adjective, a verb, a noun, or what?

I was very excited to see the subtitle of this book by Samuel A. Chambers and Terrell Carver: Judith Butler and Political Theory: Troubling Politics. Like me, Chambers and Carver are interested in giving serious attention to Butler’s idea and practices of troublemaking. Excellent. As political theorists, their focus is on the politics of troubling. Connected but different, my approach is on the ethics of troublemaking and troublestaying.

Check out their description of the goal of the book:

Our goal in this book is to explore the types of trouble that Butler has got herself and her readers into, to investigate the manner in which she has made trouble and to track the effects that her troubling has had on politics and the political. In so doing we seek to bring Butler into clearer view as a political thinker–to bring to light her political theory as a politics of troubling and troubling of politics (2).

I find their discussion of troubling, especially in the introduction, to be very helpful in clarifying how troubling functions within Butler’s work. In that introduction, they offer three different ways in which to understand troubling politics

Cov_118221First, the troubling in troubling politics is an adjective. The vision of politics that comes out of Butler’s work is troubling (as in worrisome, disturbing, unsettling, problematic) to many theorists/activists. These critics describe Butler’s politics as troubling to indicate that there is something not quite right about her project, especially her understanding of the political subject. Sure, she might develop a vision of politics and political action, but that vision produces a politics that is troubled/troubling and that, according to some, doesn’t ultimately work. And because it is troubling to others/doesn’t really work, Butler’s vision of politics gets her in trouble.

Second, the troubling in troubling politics is a verb. Through her interrogation of feminist politics and her challenge to gender, Butler is destabilizing feminist politics as usual with the aim of transforming it. In this sense, Butler is engaged in the act of troubling politics and the term troubling describes that act.

Third, the troubling in troubling politics is a noun. Throughout Gender Trouble and beyond, Butler has developed a political vision that is predicated on (it is its groundless ground perhaps?) troubling everything: subjects, identity categories, politics, ethics, democracy, The Brady Bunch (oh wait, that’s me, not Butler). Troubling is not a description used to modify and undercut politics (adjective). Nor is it something that one does to politics (verb). Instead, it is “its own politics” (9).

Exactly. Could there be a correlation between these three types of troubling and my versions of trouble on this blog (that is, making/being in/staying in trouble)?

  • Does trouble as an adjective describe the state of being in trouble?
  • Does trouble as a verb describe the act of making trouble?
  • Does trouble as a noun describe the ethics of staying in trouble?

Wow. I need to think about this some more. How do these three understandings of trouble work together/against each other to form a more systematic politics and ethics of troublemaking? Are there other ways to describe trouble? How is my vision of troublemaking connected/disconnected from Chambers’/Carver’s vision here? Is it helpful to think about trouble in this way or do I just like it because of my fixation on things-in-threes (I am my father’s daughter) and things-that-fit-in-neat-packages? Ah well, three is a magic number…

Half-pint, the troublemaker

gilbert_lA week or so ago I mentioned that I had stumbled across a Little House on the Prairie episode called Troublemaker. Laura Ingalls (aka Half-pint) is wrongly accused of being a juvenile delinquent and is, gasp, expelled. Well, I just got it in the mail (from Netflix, of course) on Saturday and am planning to watch it today.

While I did read (and loved) all of the Little House books and I did watch the television series (well, not the last season or so when Mrs. Oleson lost her money and they all had to move away from the town. Am I remembering that right?), I was never as big of a fan of The Ingalls family as I was of the Brady Bunch. It is true that “Pa, I can’t see!” is a regular part of my lexicon and Albert and his brush with morphine addiction comes up sometimes in my conversations with STA. But, when I think back on my years (and I mean years) of intense television viewing as a kid/teenager/college student, Little House was never a big deal. Mabye it should have been.

When I came across “Troublemaker” I was immediately intrigued. Of course, Laura is the tomboy who is not afraid to speak her mind and who resists the feminine rules/regulations that are imposed on her. She is also the instigator who fights against the capitalist machinery (aka Nellie Oleson). And, she is someone who is curious about the world–a little scholar-in-training. All of these things indicate that she makes trouble and is in for some trouble. She refuses to accept her assigned status and she is willing to challenge those with power and privilege (her nemesis fluctuates between Nellie Oleson and her mom Mrs. Oleson, part of the richest and most powerful family in town). Therefore, she must be punished–occasionally or frequently–by being ridiculed, ostracized, shamed and dismissed as nothing but trouble. Looks like this episode will focus on Half-pint as the juvenile delinquent (more on this once I watch the episode).

little_house_big_woodsThis episode is not the only reason that I am intrigued by Little House on the Prairie. Last night, when I was randomly browsing some online journals (yes, I do that and I am proud of it!), I stumbled across an article in Frontiers entitled “Civilization and her Discontents: The Unsettling Nature of Ma in Little House in the Big Woods.” Who knew that there was so much to say about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her troubling relationship with Ma? Who knew that all of this could be connected to the tension between wilderness and progress/domestication and industrialization and the destabilizing of the frontier/Manifest Destiny ethos in late 1800s/early 1900s U.S? Who knew that so many feminists had written about this series of books? Well, maybe I should have known….

imagesAnd, to top it all off, Little House on the Prairie, The Musical (starring Melissa Gilbert as Ma!) is coming to the Ordway here in St. Paul this fall. The universe is trying to tell me something–I must watch (and perhaps embrace?) Little House on the Prairie! And I must reread the books series! It looks like I must also never, ever sleep again. Sigh…I mean, yawn.

Little Miss Trouble

FC0843174269When I showed my sister MLP the picture of RJP on this blog (with her troublemaker t-shirt on) she said, “Hey, that’s Little Miss Trouble!” I guess I should have known that, but I didn’t. I decided that I better read this kid’s book. It must be cool, right? A book about someone named Little Miss Trouble, how great is that, right? Well, hmmm…not really.

Here is a recap of the story: Little Miss Trouble likes to make trouble in order to get others in trouble. One day she decides to get Mr. Small in trouble. First she tells Mr. Uppity that Mr. Small calls him fatty behind his back (which is a lie). Mr. Uppity punches Mr. Small and gives him a black eye. Next she tells Mr. Clever that Mr. Small calls him Big Nose (which is another lie). Mr. Clever punches Mr. Small and gives him a second black eye. Feeling rather upset and suffering from two black eyes, Mr. Small visits Dr. Makeyouwell. Dr. Makeyouwell gives him some advice on how to handle Little Miss Trouble. So, Mr. Small tells Mr. Tickle that Little Miss Trouble calls him Pudding Face behind his back (which is a lie). Then, Mr. Small tells Mr. Bump that Little Miss Trouble calls him Mr. Nitwit behind his back (which is another lie). Uh oh. Now Little Miss Trouble is in trouble. Both Mr. Tickle and Mr. Nitwit are so mad that they decide to punish Little Miss Trouble by ticklebumping her for a full 10 minutes. This upsets her a lot. The story ends with Dr. Makeyouwell telling her that she should cheer up because she got a taste of her own medicine.

Little Miss Trouble is part of a series of Little Miss (and Mr. Men) books by Roger Hargreaves. Apparently this series is a big deal…very popular in certain areas–Since MLP lives in Australia I imagine it is big there. I never remember reading them as a kid and I can’t find many of the little books in the local library. After (very briefly) doing some research online, I found this wikipedia site about Roger Hargreaves and Cartoon’s Network’s official Mr. Men site.

Anyway, back to the story. So, how does trouble (and troublemaking) function in this story? Little Miss Trouble is trouble because she does bad, naughty, disruptive things. She is trouble because she gets other people in trouble…and for no particular reason. It seems as if she is, by nature, trouble. It is just who she is. Mr. Small isn’t trouble but, because of Little Miss Trouble’s actions, he is in trouble with Mr. Uppity and Mr. Clever. And, when Little Miss Trouble gets a taste of her own medicine, she winds up in trouble too. So, trouble works two ways: (1) trouble is a description of what someone is…here comes trouble, she’s nothing but trouble, etc. and (2) in trouble is a state of being or a consequence of actions (yours when you do something bad or other’s when they do something bad to you). Either way, trouble is something you don’t want to be or be in. If you are trouble, it means that you are bad and naughty and do mean and hurtful things to others. If you are IN trouble it means that you get big black eyes or suffer through 10 minutes of ticklebumping by others who are really mad at you. Again, I have to ask: Is the only way we should understand trouble and how it works? Can’t we imagine trouble differently, as something we might want to do? As something that has some redeeming value?

Now, I don’t know how to redeem Little Miss Trouble as a good troublemaker (although maybe there is more to the story that we don’t know. Maybe Mr. Small was a really big jerk and liked to say awful things about how Little Miss Trouble was just a stupid, weak girl or liked to harass her by whistling at her as she walked down the street or told all of his friends about how she put out on the first date). Instead, I want to ask: why couldn’t the troublemaker or the act of being in trouble be represented differently here? Why couldn’t Little Miss Trouble be trouble because she kept asking too many interesting questions or because she refused to follow rules that she felt were unfair?

The story about Little Miss Trouble (and my description of it in this entry) reminds me of the first part of my favorite passage by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble. Here is the entire passage with the first part highlighted in italics and bold:

To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it (xxix).

What does this passage from Butler suggest for Little Miss Trouble and how we (as parents and children) should read this *cute* kid’s story? Well, according to the story, by making trouble (for Mr. Small) Little Miss Trouble gets into a lot of trouble (10 minutes of ticklebumping!). Maybe the moral of the story–because isn’t there always some sort of moral lesson in these kid’s books?–is that we should never make trouble because it will always lead to us getting into trouble. Now, this is fine (or is it?) when we are trying to teach our kids not to lie about others and deliberately be mean and hurtful to them. But, when Little Miss Trouble’s specific troublemaking stands in for (signifies) all Trouble as what one is or the state one is in, isn’t the moral lesson that trouble–which not only is playing dirty tricks on others but is also stirring up the waters, disturbing the peace, challenging the status quo, rebelling against standard practices, rejecting the rules–is always bad and will always lead to no good (and to being in trouble)?

By the way, I just found a youtube clip of the Little Miss Trouble show. More on that in a future entry…