Thirteen is about a seventh-grader named Tracy who starts the school year with a room full of dolls and ends it as a multiply-pierced, drug-abusing, purse-snatching basket case with a report card full of F's. The turning point comes less than ten minutes into the film, when class skank Evie Zamora criticizes Tracy's socks and she actually cares. Everything else is just teasing out the consequences.

This is Thirteen's main observation: juvenile delinquency, taking Tracy as an emblematic case, has nothing to do with the actual acts and everything to do with people's reactions to those acts, in this case Evie's reaction. It starts with the clothes: Tracy doesn't dress to her own tastes, but to catch Evie's eye. She doesn't actually want the money she steals, but to impress Evie with her haul. She's not actually inherently curious about the drugs she takes, she just takes whatever Evie's taking. She's not even interested in sex per se: during her first sexual experience, four feet away from Evie, Tracy doesn't even look at the guy she's with — her eyes are locked on Evie the entire time, copying her moves gesture for gesture, searching for a sign of approval.

Watching Thirteen, I started to get a sense of what it is that attracts some people to Ayn Rand. I'd thought it was just that she provided handy pseudo-philosophical clothing that people could wrap around their naked selfishness and delude themselves into thinking their basest instincts were intellectually justified... but now I can see another angle. When Tracy looked all wounded when Evie mocked her socks, I was rolling my eyes with contempt — not for Tracy, but rather for the whole concept of actually caring about fashion and popularity. I can see how, surrounded by scenes like these, it'd be tempting to read about Howard Roark and think, "Yes! I too am a self-assured iconoclast genius with no concern for the worthless Evie Zamora and her ilk!" So I guess it's not just a smokescreen. But it's still a huge mistake.

It's a mistake to say that one person has more worth than another not because all people are of equal worth, but because the comparison doesn't even make sense: what's being compared? Part of the objectivist ideal is to be Independent with a capital I, free from all contexts — but not only can a person not escape contexts, not only is there no Sein apart from Dasein, no abstract existence apart from existing-here-this-minute, but when you think about it, what are you if not the sum of your contexts? What is a human being if not a locus for history and biology and statistics to play themselves out? The central fault with an egoist philosophy is that the ego is a fiction: there is no permanent, immutable "self" you can point to. What corresponds to "me" is always in flux. Take Tracy. The movie is not called Tracy, it's called Thirteen — and that's appropriate, because part of the point is that whoever Tracy was before has been overwritten by her thirteen-ness. She, like most thirteen-year-olds, is a walking endocrine disturbance. Remember thirteen? I sure do, and twelve, and fourteen, and nineteen — every emotion freakishly amplified, every slight a devastating blow, every crush a heartrending longing... I don't feel anything even a quarter as strongly as I did as an adolescent, and man oh man am I glad. So is that Tracy? It's Tracy, at thirteen, around certain people — if you think your "self" corresponds to only one thing, watch how you behave differently around each of your friends, each member of your family, everyone you work with. We are vast, we contain multitudes. Tracy-with-Noelle is not Tracy-with-her-mom is not Tracy-with-Evie. When someone like Steve Ditko declares that Tracy is worthless, which Tracy does he mean? Hell, 98% of the atoms in her body will be different before the year is out.

Take Evie. She's pretty unpleasant, from the sock comment onward. There are moments when she betrays some vulnerability, opens up about her history of abuse and practically begs for love, and for the moment, she's sincere... but then later, around her delinquent friends, she's plotting how she can take advantage of the trust these sincere moments have afforded her. That's pretty low. But what do you expect? Anything else takes a hell of a lot of careful nurturing, and if there's one thing Evie's upbringing lacks, it's nurturing. You hear a lot of talk on the right about "personal responsibility," and it's not totally without merit, but blaming Evie for being a lowlife is like tossing a vase at a brick wall and blaming it for breaking. Yeah, some vases won't break, but it's not like the surviving vases can somehow take credit: to see why some break and some don't we have to look at the skill of the manufacturer, the type of clay used, the quality of the kiln. Maybe someone else could go through the same crap Evie went through and emerge as a good-hearted contributor to society. Certainly I would rather spend time around that person than with Evie. Certainly we commend this person for overcoming a difficult background and make it clear to Evie that her behavior is Not Okay. But...

...this sort of blame-Evie, blame-the-vase ethic is what leads to vile attitudes like, "It's the poor's fault for being poor. Jim here used to be poor, but he worked really hard and now he's rich. So the poor must want to be poor." I mean, it's the most basic necessary/sufficient fallacy, but an appalling number of people buy into it. (When asked about unemployment figures, Reagan would always say that the morning paper had plenty of want ads in it, so unemployed people must just be lazy.) It's practically the organizing principle of US economic policy at present. And while this could hardly be further from the themes the makers of Thirteen had in mind, well, these writeups are supposed to be a way for me to clarify my thoughts about the media I take in, and these were my thoughts. So, yeah, it's not really that good a movie — it's not bad, but sitting through it was kind of a chore at times — but for the new vantage point it gave me on our current political plight I'm glad I saw it.

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