Paper Towns hits the big screen this weekend after years of being stuck in pre-production. I thought I would give the book a reread, and just do a review. But as I read, I started to look at the female lead, Margo Roth Spiegelman, in a different light. When I first read Paper Towns in high school, I didn’t know how to pick up on queer subtext. Queer readings were only mentioned in passing in class. But things are different now, oh yes. I’ve learned to pick up on queer coding both accidental and purposeful. I’ve turned in actual papers about this stuff. Reading Paper Towns with these new anaylical tools lead me to some interesting insights about Ms. Spiegelman.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman serves as one of the cornerstones of the book both thematically and plot wise. You might not know this, even if you read the collection in high school, but Leaves of Grass is pretty gay. As in there’s an entire section that celebrates “the manly love of comrades.” I’m not making this up. It’s in the subtext enough that I can believe Q, being a dense straight boy, wouldn’t pick up on it. But Whitman’s coded writing about forbidden desire might have resonated with Margo because she herself experiences it.
Margo longs to escape from Florida, a place she feels forces herself and others to be fake. But she doesn’t want to escape to just anywhere, she longs for New York City. I know for most people that San Francisco is the Gay Capital, but New York is the most famous center of queer life on the East Coast. Stonewall and the first Pride Parade happened there. It has a big theater scene, and nothing brings queer people together like putting on a show. Not all queer people like theater, I know, but it’s an important and vital part of the culture. Besides, Margo, concocter of epic schemes, would make a great stage manager. There are a lot of other cities Margo could have gone to, ones that were closer, but she picks the gay capital of the East Coast.
Margo’s disillusionment and frustration with the hollowness with suburban life is real. I felt for her. But what makes her different from the people around her doesn’t seam like that big of a deal. She collects records, wants to travel and likes poetry. I guess it sucks that she has to feel like she has to hide those parts of herself, but come on! That stuff is socially acceptable! Hell, that stuff beyond acceptable, it’s cool! I have a hard time believing that her quirks are the only reason she needs to leave. But you know what creates a longing for escape and is not cool? Being gay. Her situation echoes my own when I was growing up. Too smart, too queer for straight artifice but told to stay in the closet.
Of course, you don’t have to be gay to want to escape the place you’re in. Bruce Springsteen expresses similar sentiments in his music. While it resonated with me, I never picked up a queer vibe from him. His longing for more than his small, decaying town had to offer felt real. But unlike The Boss, Margo doesn’t live in an urban wasteland. Her parents are well off. Her high school seems pretty excellent with interesting extra curricular classes and good teachers. There’s stuff to do besides get high by the train tracks. Like go to record stores and concerts (she gets her vinyls from somewhere), going to theme parks, breaking into theme parks, scuba diving, anything you could think of in a big city! From my perspective, she could have a pretty fulfilling life. I grew up in a small, rural town and would have traded with Margo in a heartbeat. So to me, her need to escape felt shallow and I had to wonder if there wasn’t something deeper there.
I don’t think John Green intended for Margo to be queer. She does have a crush on a boy. In this culture, if you’re a girl with a crush on a boy, you’re assumed to be straight. People tend to forget about sexualities that are queer, but also include people of different genders. Why couldn’t Margo be bi or pan or some other prefix? Margo’s experiences of suffocating alienation and her affiliation with gay icons and landmarks lead me to read her as a girl in the closet, ready to kick down the door.
Abigail Gruchacz is a writer in Asheville, NC. She works a day job to support her craft and hopes to support herself writing one day. You can find her reviews at booknerdblogging.wordpress.com and she tweets as booknerdtweting.