“The trouble with free speech is that it insists on living up to its name.” – Jonathan Yardley
“He’s a wallflower. . . . You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.” – Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Literary Censorship and The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Banned Books Week, celebrating its 33rd anniversary September 27th - October 3rd this year, is an annual worldwide project celebrating the freedom to read. Booksellers, publishing houses, journalists, teachers, librarians, and avid readers alike are encouraged to support the freedom to seek out and express ideas, even if those ideas are considered to be unorthodox. As this year’s focus of Banned Books week centers on young adult books, Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 epistolary novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower—criticized for its exploration of adolescent anguish, depictions of homosexuality, rape, drug use, masturbation, and suicide— is an appropriate point of focus, as it has found itself at the top of the American Library Association’s banned books list throughout the last decade.
Young adult books are often at the center of controversy due to the sensitive nature of their target audiences as children are often seen as too delicate and susceptible to new ideas. Parents Protecting the Minds of Children (PPMC) justifies literary censorship stating, “We filter the Internet, we rate movies, we rate television; we should be screening literature.” Additionally PPMC insists that banned books “are not educational in content; they are biased sexual rhetoric, and instructional sexual pandering to children.” Critics often refer to The Perks of Being a Wallflower as “child pornography.”
Pat Scales, author of Teaching Banned Books, encourages parents to turn a work of questionable literature into a “teachable moment” maintaining that “you cannot just have one view in a library.” She goes on to explain that, “Children will not learn sympathy and empathy if they don’t understand how others live. Reading about child abuse, for example, is not illegal; abusing children is.” In discussing difficult toipics in books with children, you simultaneously trust those children with sensitive subjects and help them to thoughtfully navigate them.
While The Perks of Being a Wallflower does not necessarily cover new ground in the bittersweet tumult of the high school experience, it employs a narrator with unapologetic honesty. Charlie, the eponymous “wallflower,” exhibits the ignorance of a sheltered youth. The reader is allowed access to Charlie’s innocent sincerity through a series of letters to an unknown recipient. These letters detail the inner struggles of an introvert who is discovering the courage to become involved and allow others into his life: “Standing on the fringes of life . . . offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.”
One of the tragedies of the successful censorship campaigns to remove The Perks of Being a Wallflower from school and library shelves across the United States is that it alienates an audience who, all too often, finds itself already alienated in a number of ways. Adolescents struggle to both discover and affirm their own unique voices while simultaneously managing a precarious balancing act between academics, familial pressures, and the ruthless social hierarchies of high school. Chbosky’s Charlie does not offer teenagers a how-to guide on successfully navigating high school, nor does he aim to offer any definitive advice. What Charlie offers to children and young adults alike is the simple affirmation that they are not alone in their struggles, an affirmation which, for many teens, makes a tremendous difference in their day-to-day lives. While Chbosky delves into difficult subject matter, he is never unrealistic, nor does he try to sensationalize the more graphic events of the novel. The Perks of Being a Wallflower has had a positive impact on many readers, adults and children alike. Chbosky has even been credited by several teenagers for saving their lives, saying that they did not commit suicide because they had read his book.
However, one pertinent issue to raise with The Perks of Being a Wallflower is its somewhat negative portrayal of introverts, or wallflowers. Charlie cannot be affirmed by his peers until he conforms, playing some of the social games and succumbing to the pressures that high school demands of students—going to parties, doing drugs, having sex, etc. Indeed, Charlie is recognized for his unconventional perception of the world, though encouraged to shed the very qualities that make him unique in order to be truly accepted. Chbosky, even for the solidarity he creates among his readers, fails to demonstrate that it is acceptable to be an introvert, and even alludes to severe trauma as a necessary precursor to introversion. Additionally, Charlie’s introverted personality is implied to be symptomatic of the autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, though it is never explicitly stated as such.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Popular Culture
Stephen Chbosky often cites J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye as his inspiration for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and even pays homage to the literary classic by including it among the books Charlie’s English teacher gives him to read. One unique aspect of the novel is watching Charlie as he discovers new books, films, and musicians. He details his various reading assignments for his English class. He describes each individual book as his favorite, from Burroughs and Kerouac to Rand and Camus. The effect of such literary name-dropping sparks the reader’s interest to seek out works that a beloved fictional character has deemed worth mentioning, furthering the efforts of Banned Books Week to get adolescents excited about the prospect of reading challenging works, especially considering that several of the classic titles Charlie mentions are still being challenged in schools and libraries today.
Descriptions of Charlie’s favorite films are scattered throughout the book as well, including the interactive The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Producers, Harold and Maude, and The Dead Poets Society. He also eagerly shares the track list of a mix-tape he makes for his friends. Fans of the novel have cited the mix as one of the best created by a teenager, albeit a fictional one. Charlie’s mix-tape features The Smiths’ “Asleep” as both its opening and concluding tracks, Ride’s “Vapour Trail,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” Procul Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and “Blackbird,” Suzanne Vega’s “Gypsy,” The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin,” The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Daydream,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” U2’s “MLK,” and Genesis’ “Dusk.” Through the exchange of music, or the shared experience of an interactive film, Charlie is able to adequately “describe” to those he cares about what he means when he says, “I feel infinite”.
Directed and written by Stephen Chbosky, the film adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower was released in theaters in 2012. The film, originally given an R-rating for “teen drug and alcohol use, and some sexual references,” appealed for a PG-13 rating, making it accessible to the age groups the story deals with. The appeals board consented, changing the rating to PG-13 for “mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight—all involving teens.” Though the film translation failed to live up to the earnest sincerity and quiet observations of Charlie’s letters, instead finding itself criticized and misrepresented as an unnecessarily flashy coming-of-age drama, wherein the first person narrative that made the book so engrossing is lost to the viewer.