She’s the Only Evidence of God I’ve Ever Seen
I’ve never considered myself a “not nice” girl. In fact, I never even considered nice as an obligation to femininity until my boyfriend when I was 13 years old told me I wasn’t very nice for a girl but he was okay with it because I was pretty. I’ve read a lot about likability politics in literature and I’ve observed people my entire life and done a lot of analysis about personality types but the fact remains: likability is a hugely gendered issue. The rule has been that when a man is unlikable, he’s deemed an antihero, showing the depths of his humanity and when a woman is unlikable, she’s an anathema. It’s something I’ve played with in my own constructions of identity, how far can I go in my snark, how much does my socio-economic status and my physical appearance give me the privilege to act like a white man instead of deferring to them, and it’s complicated. I was raised on Anna Karenina and Ellen Olenska and Becky Sharpe, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Scarlett O’Hara, women who aren’t likable and aren’t easy to love and anybody that said otherwise was lying but I related more to them than I ever did their “likable” counterparts. But today, I want to talk about teen girl books, in particular “Dare Me” and “The Fever” by Megan Abbott and “Cracked Up to Be” and “Some Girls Are” by Courtney Summers. I regard the young women in these four novels as in the same vein as my childhood literary heroines, sometimes mean and petty and cold and hyperemotional on varying intervals but afforded the depth of emotional range usually only granted to men. The most important lesson I want to bestow on girls as a 20 year old who just left adolescence is that they are allowed to be human, as funny and brave and intelligent and sexy as they want to be and they are not obligated to be anything more or anything less than they are.
Both “Dare Me” and “The Fever” are written by Megan Abbott, who adapts noir tropes from the Golden Age of Film to teenage girls who are as hungry as the hard boiled antiheroes of the original films. Her books are about girls wanting validation in both masculine and feminine manners, from their friends and loved ones and most of all from themselves, because in some twisted way, they can’t love themselves unless they are first loved by others. “Dare Me” has that oft misunderstood line “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.” It’s no secret that I loathe the trope of the Reverse Lolita, the teenage strumpet that deserves to be abused or manipulated because she totally has the capacity to be so much worse than her abuser, not to mention the overt romanticization of Hades Persephone Narratives. (Sorry, but you really can’t reclaim a rape myth as subversive and empowering when somany real girls are being mistreated in such a manner to this day.) The thing is that these girls are made dangerous by that wanting but most of all to themselves and any other victims are simply caught in the crossfire. They aren’t sadistic or cartoonishly mean but their machinations are subtle, driven by ugly emotions and deep rooted insecurities that they often don’t even realize in themselves and that behavior is so realistic it’s terrifying.
“The Fever” is more fantastical than “Dare Me” because it uses natural symbolism to evoke the depths of female desire. I’m not solely referring to sexual desire but obviously, the expressions of sexuality represent the possibility of an emotional backlash there’s no coming back from, and that’s why the acknowledgement of that empty wanting that exists in so many young women is important. Personally, I never played it safe growing up no matter what image I tried so hard to convey; I’ve been told I’m subconsciously manipulative because I’ve had so much practice balancing what I have to risk to get what I want and whether the opportunity cost is worth the reward that it’s become second nature. Yet, I wasn’t ever told that bargaining with God or rather myself as God was normal, and I don’t think the level to which I acted was healthy, but the feelings which drove my behavior were as human as they come, and honestly, if I was given that validation growing up, I would have saved myself a good deal of actualization if I was actually as crazy as people said. Spoiler alert: I definitely was not.
On the other hand, “Cracked Up To Be” and “Some Girls Are” are about girls that aren’t exactly unlikable, or the sort of mythic that characterizes Megan Abbott’s protagonists and antagonists but are more grounded in their construction as well as their motivations and implications. I had this conversation with Courtney Summers on Twitter about Parker and Regina and I think it’s very interesting how people respond to the two girls. I think it’s telling we condemn Parker far more than Regina, genuine meanness versus a very valid and realistic response to trauma. Regina encouraged an eating disorder in another girl and was a direct catalyst to another girl’s suicide attempt, and those actions definitely don’t excuse Donnie for attempting to rape her or the abuse she endures from her former friends but like she’s told when she begs for forgiveness: “You’re not sorry you’re guilty. That’s why Liz didn’t forgive you. Because you just feel sorry for yourself.” I’ve noticed that as human beings, we obsess over suffering as redemption in a way that’s not conducive to true progress; we want people to be punished for their sins but we neglect to take the steps to ensure those sins aren’t committed again. Feeling annoyance and anger and resentment for how we are treated doesn’t mean we’re remotely sorry or guilty for what we’ve done and those we have hurt, either by intent or inadvertently. But, it must be noted that Regina is bluntly informed that she isn’t forgiven for her past actions while we bend over backward to excuse men who have committed crimes as having learned from their mistakes and truly changed their ways. Let’s talk about Sean Penn, who literally broke into Madonna’s house when he was married to her, tied her to a chair and physically and emotionally abused her for nine hours, hitting her with a baseball bat, until she managed to escape but who is lauded as a “good Liberal” for appropriately condemning the Iraq War and campaigning for marriage equality and awarded two Oscars in the 20 years since. The world isn’t fair and adulthood is coming to terms with this inequality and fighting the battle upright instead of becoming resigned to it.
There’s a quote by Catherynne M. Valente from “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There” that I think is applicable when discussing forgiveness: “For there are two kinds of forgiveness in the world: the one you practice because everything really is all right, and what went before is mended. The other kind of forgiveness you practice because someone needs desperately to be forgiven, or because you need just as badly to forgive them, for a heart can grab hold of old wounds and go sour as milk over them.” One of the things I most hate about myself is how quick I am to forgive those that decidedly don’t deserve it and hold unreasonably strong grudges towards those I ought to forgive but who hurt me in a way that exposed my flaws and insecurities in ways that I wasn’t able to arrange as remotely positive aspects of my being. I almost instinctually hurt others when I see the possibility of being hurt and I have to actively stop myself from wondering who has and who hasn’t forgiven me because that sort of thinking is detrimental to my own psyche and doesn’t achieve closure. Another aspect of adulthood: accepting that things don’t have pretty ends a lot of the time and moving on without regressing to our past selves but also being willing to regress when need be. But personally, I forgave Regina for her actions not because of her suffering but because I believe she developed the empathy she previously lacked but I never even thought Parker had anything to forgive, perhaps because I resemble Parker far more than Regina. Parker wasn’t nice, but her ambition and reclusiveness aren’t things I see as terrible, and while Regina was more active in her awfulness, Parker was reactive and I found myself going: “Well if you didn’t go touch the fire, then you wouldn’t have gotten burned.”
Anyway, I’m biased because I’m a lot more Blair Waldorf than Katniss Everdene but I want you to read about teenage girls since humanity is complicated and these four novels express every ugly facet of it. And if we can accept and even laud it in men, we can stomach it in girls.