Review by Keh Liu
Penguin Teen Canada, Penguin Random House, September 2018
244 pages, paperback, $21.99 CAD, 978-0-73526-377-2
Ages 15-17, Grades 10-12
Young Adult, LGBTQ+, Contemporary Realism, Horror/Thriller
Fifteen-year-old Claude Christie from Emmett, Idaho, is the Kens’ biggest fan. He has screenshots of all Ken Hilton’s nude Snapchats saved on his computer.
For his school talent show, he performed the dance number from the “Hunty” video. It was totally worth the black eye he got afterward from the school quarterback.
… The Kens are his greatest inspiration because they’re so post-gay it’s sickening. When Claude is being bullied by his cis-pig classmates he doesn’t let it get them down. He reminds himself that the Kens rule. And maybe one day he can too.
More than anything, Tommy Rawlins wants to be one of the Kens: a trifecta so fiercely popular at Willows High that the mean girls fear them and the straight guys “go gay” for them. Tommy’s wish is granted when, one day, the Kens welcome Tommy as their fourth member. But once Tommy crumbles under the pressure of being a Ken, and when a mysterious bad boy in town offers a helping hand, Tommy is determined to end the Kens’ evil reign. But can Tommy destroy the Kens without becoming something even more vile?
If the plot of Kens sounds familiar, it should. Like Heathers and other Valley Girl film predecessors, Kens creates a setting that is eerie in its materialism and superficiality. Its world-building reads like a carefully-curated Instagram account: “Willows High… looks more like a luxury store department than a school, with classrooms that could be display windows (Hermes throws over the backs of desks in case you catch a chill, lighting from the sides of the room and never from above to avoid unflattering shadows)…” The dialogue, too, is evocative of that heavily-stylized Valley Girl speak, such as this line of Tommy: “If a teste isn’t hanging out they’re not shorts. That’s Ken 101.”
Kens understands that young people enjoy movies like Mean Girls, in part, because there is something glamorous about the Plastics’ lifestyle. In the above epigraph, the book describes the appeal the Kens have over their fans. For Claude Christie, the Kens represent the promise of a “post-gay” future: one where queer boys can “rule” over their “cis-pig classmates” who bully them relentlessly. The moment is self-aware. Queer readers gravitate towards books like Kens because they are tired of feeling like tragic victims, both in life and in fiction.
But while the Kens are aspirational, they are also cautionary tales. A gay bully is still a bully, and social hierarchies remain fixed regardless of who is topping — uh, on top. What’s more, the Kens exploit identity politics and hashtag activism to gain social capital, feeding off a vulnerable fanbase they care nothing for beyond clicks and views.
The message is smart. The moment with Claude, heartbreaking. And yet, there are other moments where the book feels a bit too enamoured with the Mean Girl persona it emulates. Its casual fat-shaming and evisceration of certain groups come off too gleeful (one Black Lives Matter pun feels especially unnecessary). Reid markets his book as satire, but its social commentary seems to rely more on punching down than up.
But hey, maybe I’m too sensitive. In light of all the discussions we are having around so-called Cancel Culture in the comedy scene, some readers might find the book’s irreverent humour both edgy and refreshing. For my own part, I can’t help but compare the book’s narrative voice to Cady’s journey in Mean Girls. Initially, Cady joins the clique on a self-righteous mission before getting swept up into their lifestyle. I wonder if Kens falls into the same trap. When you can perform a vapid persona so flawlessly, and with such “ironic” joy, at what point do you, like Tommy, like Cady before him, become Plastic?
Keh Liu is in the Master of Arts in Children’s Literature program at UBC. He is also a television writer based in Vancouver and Toronto. When he’s not writing scripts or researching fairytales, Keh likes to do Maggie Smith impersonations when no one is around. He is doing one right now.