At Hamilton High, the football players’ biggest rivals aren’t an opposing team: it’s the Hamilton High soccer team. Every year the two teams fight against each other. Lissa is sick of her quarterback boyfriend ditching her to take part in the stupid rivalry, so she devises a plan: all the players’ girlfriends will go on strike–on a sex strike–until the war ends.
Sigh. Readers, I wanted to like this one. I really did. I read Lysistrata–the Greek play the story is based on–when I was in high school and loved it. While it’s clear what Keplinger was trying to do in her sophomore novel–create a modern spin on an age-old story and tear down stereotypes and double-standards surrounding teenagers and sex–she fails on nearly every front. For every stereotype Keplinger attempts to examine, she reinforces several more. The result is a big old mess.
The problem is that the novel as a whole is a shallow look at gender politics. While the talk about sex is frank (some would argue too frank for high school kids, and more apropos for discussions had in dorm rooms at college), there’s no denying that the subject matter barely scratches the surface. The liberal use of language and seemingly fearless discussion of somewhat controversial subject matter distracts from the fact that there’s very little substance to be found. While Keplinger’s characters struggle to understand what normal means when it comes to sexual activity, they also send some very mixed messages.
Perhaps the biggest issue is that the girls use sex to attempt to control their boyfriends. This action starts to be equated with power. Sex = power, which Keplinger’s characters seem to believe makes them feminists. But that’s not what feminism is, and it bothered this reviewer that that particular message was sent out to readers.
There’s also the issue of assumptions that are reinforced with nary an acknowledgment. In Lissa’s world, only boys play sports (there’s never any mention of any of the females being athletic in any way), sex is more important to boys than it is to girls (which is, of course, patently untrue), and everyone is heterosexual. It is this last point that I had the hardest time with. For an author who is known for advocating sex-positivity, there seems to be a lot of the same old, same old happening within this novel’s pages.
That’s not to say that Keplinger doesn’t have talent, because she does. She manages to write believable dialogue. Her characters, while not especially well-developed, are interesting enough to propel the story. There’s a neat little narrative trick that Keplinger pulls off about halfway through the novel that provides some genuine intrigue to the story and illustrates the control she has over her characters. The problem is, Keplinger is so close in age to those in her novel that there isn’t much lesson-learning happening, simply because Keplinger herself still has a lot to learn.
Edgy contemporary YA meant for older teens. Some are going to love it simply because of the frank discussion of sex, but others are going to be uncomfortable with the talk and the mixed message.
Shut Out by Kody Keplinger. Poppy: 2011. Borrowed copy.