Feminism (n.): Plural
The world changes faster than we can fathom in ways that are complicated. These bewildering changes often leave us raw. The cultural climate is shifting, particularly for women as we contend with the retrenchment of reproductive freedom, the persistence of rape culture, and the flawed if not damaging representations of women we’re consuming in music, movies, and literature.
We have a comedian asking his fans to touch women lightly on their stomachs because ignoring personal boundaries is oh so funny. We have all manner of music glorifying the degradation of women, and damnit, that music is catchy so I often find myself singing along as my very being is diminished. Singers like Robin Thicke know “we want it.” Rappers like Jay-Z use the word “bitch” like punctuation. Movies, more often than not, tell the stories of men as if men’s stories are the only stories that matter. When women are involved, they are sidekicks, the romantic interests, the afterthoughts. Rarely do women get to be the center of attention. Rarely do our stories get to matter.
How do we bring attention to these issues? How do we do so in ways that will actually be heard? How do we find the necessary language for talking about the inequalities and injustices women face, both great and small? As I’ve gotten older, feminism has answered these questions, at least in part.
Feminism is flawed, but it offers, at its best, a way to navigate this shifting cultural climate. Feminism has certainly helped me find my voice. Feminism has helped me believe my voice matters, even in this world where there are so many voices demanding to be heard.
How do we reconcile the imperfections of feminism with all the good it can do? In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.
The problem with movements is that, all too often, they are associated only with the most visible figures, the people with the biggest platforms and the loudest, most provocative voices. But feminism is not whatever philosophy is being spouted by the popular media feminist flavor of the week, at least not entirely.
Feminism, as of late, has suffered from a certain guilt by association because we conflate feminism with women who advocate feminism as part of their personal brand. When these figureheads say what we want to hear, we put them up on the Feminist Pedestal, and when they do something we don’t like, we knock them right off and then say there’s something wrong with feminism because our feminist leaders have failed us. We forget the difference between feminism and Professional Feminists.
I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain … interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.
I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.
I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal. People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up. Consider me already knocked off.
When I was younger, I disavowed feminism with alarming frequency. I understand why women still fall over themselves to disavow feminism, to distance themselves. I disavowed feminism because when I was called a feminist, the label felt like an insult. In fact, it was generally intended as such. When I was called a feminist, during those days, my first thought was, But I willingly give blow jobs. I had it in my head that I could not both be a feminist and be sexually open. I had lots of strange things in my head during my teens and twenties.
I disavowed feminism because I had no rational understanding of the movement. I was called a feminist, and what I heard was, “You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady person.” This caricature is how feminists have been warped by the people who fear feminism most, the same people who have the most to lose when feminism succeeds. Anytime I remember how I once disavowed feminism, I am ashamed of my ignorance. I am ashamed of my fear because mostly the disavowal was grounded in the fear that I would be ostracized, that I would be seen as a troublemaker, that I would never be accepted by the mainstream.
I get angry when women disavow feminism and shun the feminist label but say they support all the advances born of feminism because I see a disconnect that does not need to be there. I get angry but I understand and hope someday we will live in a culture where we don’t need to distance ourselves from the feminist label, where the label doesn’t make us afraid of being alone, of being too different, of wanting too much.
I try to keep my feminism simple. I know feminism is complex and evolving and flawed. I know feminism will not and cannot fix everything. I believe in equal opportunities for women and men. I believe in women having reproductive freedom and affordable and unfettered access to the health care they need. I believe women should be paid as much as men for doing the same work. Feminism is a choice, and if a woman does not want to be a feminist, that is her right, but it is still my responsibility to fight for her rights. I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves. I believe women not just in the United States but throughout the world deserve equality and freedom but know I am in no position to tell women of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like.
I resisted feminism in my late teens and my twenties because I worried that feminism wouldn’t allow me to be the mess of a woman I knew myself to be. But then I began to learn more about feminism. I learned to separate feminism from Feminism or Feminists or the idea of an Essential Feminism—one true feminism to dominate all of womankind. It was easy to embrace feminism when I realized it was advocating for gender equality in all realms, while also making the effort to be intersectional, to consider all the other factors that influence who we are and how we move through the world. Feminism has given me peace. Feminism has given me guiding principles for how I write, how I read, how I live. I do stray from these principles, but I also know it’s okay when I do not live up to my best feminist self.
Women of color, queer women, and transgender women need to be better included in the feminist project. Women from these groups have been shamefully abandoned by Capital-F Feminism, time and again. This is a hard, painful truth. This is where a lot of people run into resisting feminism, trying to create distance between the movement and where they stand. Believe me, I understand. For years, I decided feminism wasn’t for me as a black woman, as a woman who has been queer identified at varying points in her life, because feminism has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others.
But two wrongs do not make a right. Feminism’s failings do not mean we should eschew feminism entirely. People do terrible things all the time, but we don’t regularly disown our humanity. We disavow the terrible things. We should disavow the failures of feminism without disavowing its many successes and how far we have come.
We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.
Feminism will better succeed with collective effort, but feminist success can also rise out of personal conduct. I hear many young women say they can’t find well-known feminists with whom they identify. That can be disheartening, but I say, let us (try to) become the feminists we would like to see moving through the world.
When you can’t find someone to follow, you have to find a way to lead by example. In this collection of essays, I’m trying to lead, in a small, imperfect way. I am raising my voice as a bad feminist. I am taking a stand as a bad feminist. I offer insights on our culture and how we consume it. The essays in this collection also examine race in contemporary film, the limits of “diversity,” and how innovation is rarely satisfying; it is rarely enough. I call for creating new, more inclusive measures for literary excellence and take a closer look at HBO’s Girls and the phenomenon of the Fifty Shades trilogy. These essays are political and they are personal. They are, like feminism, flawed, but they come from a genuine place. I am just one woman trying to make sense of this world we live in. I’m raising my voice to show all the ways we have room to want more, to do better.
Feel Me. See Me. Hear Me. Reach Me.
Niche dating sites are interesting. You can go to JDate or Christian Mingle or Black People Meet or any number of dating websites expressly designed for birds of a feather to flock together. If you have certain criteria, you can find people who look like you or who share your faith or who enjoy having sex in furry costumes. In the world of the Internet, no one is alone in his or her interests. When you go to these niche dating sites, you can hope you are working with a known quantity. You can hope that in love online, a lingua franca will make all things possible.
I think constantly about connection and loneliness and community and belonging, and a great deal, perhaps too much, of how my writing evidences me working through the intersections of these things. So many of us are reaching out, hoping someone out there will grab our hands and remind us we are not as alone as we fear.
I tell some of the same stories over and over because certain experiences have affected me profoundly. Sometimes, I hope that by telling these stories again and again, I will have a better understanding of how the world works.
In addition to not having done much online dating, I have never really dated anyone I have a lot in common with. I blame my astrological sign. Over time, I definitely find common ground in my relationships, but the people I tend to date are often quite different from me. A friend recently told me I only date white boys and accused me of being … I’m not sure what. She lives in a city and takes for granted the diversity around her. In retaliation, I told her I dated a Chinese boy in college. I told her I date the boys who ask me out. If a brotha asked me out and I was into him, I’d go out with him, happily. Brothas don’t step to me unless they’re in their seventies, and I’m not trying to date a geriatric. I also seem to have a penchant for libertarians. I seriously cannot get enough of them and their radical need for freedom from tyranny and taxation. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have a lot in common with someone I’m dating from the first encounter forward. I do not mean to suggest that I would have a lot in common with someone simply because we’re both black or both Democrats or both writers. I don’t know that there is someone in the world with whom I have a lot in common, especially not in the ways that would make sense on the kinds of websites where you enter some key characteristics and preferences and might somehow meet your match. I haven’t even tried, which I do not see as a bad thing. I love being with someone who is endlessly interesting because we are so different. Wanting to belong to people or a person is not about finding a mirror image of myself.
BET is not a network I watch regularly because I am very committed to Lifetime Movie Network and lesser cable network reality programming. Also, the shoddy programming on BET is a travesty, and considering that I have watched two episodes of WE tv’s Amsale Girls, my tolerance for shoddy programming is exceptional. It’s a shame how black people consistently have to settle for less when it comes to quality programming. It’s a shame so few options exist beyond BET. The networks offer a numbing sea of whiteness save for shows produced by Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal), who makes a deliberate effort to address race, gender, and, to a lesser extent, sexuality when she casts. Beyond that, black people—all people of color, really—only get to see themselves as lawyers and sassy friends and, of course, as The Help. Even when a new show promises to break new ground, like Lena Dunham’s Girls, an HBO show set in Brooklyn, New York, that follows the lives of four friends in their twenties, we are forced to swallow more of the same—a general erasure or ignorance of race.
Where BET is concerned, we settle for nothing at all unless it is airing reruns of Girlfriends, which is criminally underrated. It took me a long time to appreciate Girlfriends, but that show was onto something and never got the support it deserved. Sometimes, though, I feel like looking at people who look like me. Brown skin is beautiful; I like seeing different kinds of stories. The problem is that I see people on BET who look like me, but that’s where the similarities end. This is partly because I’m in my late thirties. In BET years, I am ancient. As much as I am plugged in to pop culture, there are things I don’t know about. Geography and my profession don’t help. As I began writing this essay, there was a show airing on BET called Toya. I’ve seen the name when I’ve browsed TV listings, but I’ve never really watched it. I eventually saw a couple of episodes and don’t even understand why this show is a show. What is the premise? I consulted Dr. Google and learned Toya is the ex-wife of Lil Wayne, but that’s it. She’s not even a backup singer or video ho, I don’t think. The threshold for fame weakens ever so rapidly.
I watched the Toya show, and there was nothing about any of it I could relate to other than caring about my family. I vaguely got the sense that Toya cares for her family and is trying to help them get on the right track, but it was fairly unclear because mostly the show involved people talking about boring things. During the show she dated someone named Memphitz (they are now married), who was looking at gorgeous diamond rings. Is he a rapper? What do these people do for a living? Lil Wayne’s child support can’t be that good. I wish BET did more to represent the full spectrum of black experiences in a balanced manner. If you watch BET, you get the sense that the only way black people succeed is through professional sports, music, or marrying/fucking/being a baby mama of someone who is involved with professional sports or music.
Once in a while, I would love to see an example of black success that involves other professional venues. On most television shows, white characters provide viewers with a veritable panoply of options for “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up.” There are exceptions, certainly. Laurence Fishburne played the lead on CSI for a season or two. Back in the day, Blair Underwood played a lawyer on L.A. Law. There are the aforementioned Shonda Rhimes–helmed shows. I suppose the thinking is that a person of color as a lawyer or doctor or writer or, hell, a jazz musician or school teacher or professor or postal worker or waitress wouldn’t be as interesting for the kids because the allure of current offerings is undeniable. And yet. At some point, we have to stop selling every black child in this country the idea that he or she only needs to hold a ball or a microphone to achieve something. Bill Cosby is kind of crazy these days, but he knows what he’s talking about, and he’s kind of crazy because he’s been fighting this fight for his whole damn life. BET frustrates me because it is a painful reminder that you can have something and nothing in common with people at the same time. I enjoy difference, but once in a while, I do want to catch a glimpse of myself in others.
In graduate school I was the adviser of the black student association. There was a negligible black faculty presence on campus (you could count them on one hand), and those folks were either too busy or burnt out or completely uninterested in the job. After four years, I understood. The older I get, the more I understand lots of things. Advising a black student association is exhausting and thankless and heartbreaking. It kind of destroys your faith after a while. A new black faculty member came to campus a couple years in, and I asked why she didn’t work with the black students. She said, “That’s not my job.” That person said, “They’re unreachable.” I hate when people say something is not their job or that something isn’t possible. We all say these things, sure, but some people actually believe they don’t have to work beyond what is written in their job description or that they don’t have to try to reach those who seemingly cannot be reached.
I get my work ethic from my tireless father. When it comes to showing young black students there are teachers who look like them, when it comes to mentoring and being there to support students, I feel it’s everyone’s job (regardless of ethnicity), and if you don’t believe that as a black academic, you need to check yourself, immediately, and then check yourself again and keep checking yourself until you get your head on right.
When I was an adviser, the black students respected me, probably, but they didn’t really like me a lot of the time. I get it. I am an acquired taste. Mostly, they thought I was “bougie.” Many of them called me redbone and laughed when I got irritated. They thought the way I use slang is hilarious because I round my vowels. They’d tell me, “Say ‘holla’ again,” and I would because that’s one of my favorite words even if I maybe say it wrong according to the kids. I kind of singsong the word. They especially loved how I said “gangsta.” I didn’t mind the teasing. I minded how they thought I expected too much from them where the definition of “too much” was to have any expectations at all.
Yes, I was a demanding bitch, and at times I was probably unreasonable. I insisted on excellence. I get that from my mother. My expectations were things like requiring the officers to show up to the executive meetings, insisting officers and members show up to general meetings at least five minutes early because to be early is to be on time, insisting that if students agreed to perform a given task they follow through, insisting they do their homework, insisting they ask for help and get tutoring when they needed that kind of support, insisting they stop thinking a C or D is a good grade, insisting they take college seriously, insisting they stop seeing conspiracy theories everywhere, insisting that not every teacher who did something they didn’t like was being racist.
Many of those kids, I quickly realized, did not know how to read or be a student. When talking about social issues in academia and even in intellectual circles, we talk about privilege a lot and how we all have privilege and need to be aware of it. I have always known the ways in which I am privileged, but working with these students, most of them from inner-city Detroit, made me realize the extent of my privilege. Whenever someone tells me I don’t acknowledge my privilege, I really want him or her to shut the fuck up. You think I don’t know? I’m crystal clear on privilege. The notion that I should be fine with the status quo even if I am not wholly affected by the status quo is repulsive.
These kids didn’t know how to read so I got them dictionaries, and because they were too shy to discuss literacy in meetings, they would catch me walking across campus or in my office and whisper, “I need help reading.” It had never crossed my mind before that it was possible for a child to be educated in this country and make it to college unable to read at a college level. Shame on me, certainly, for being so ignorant about the galling disparities in how children are educated. Shame on me. I learned so much more in grad school out of the classroom than I ever did sitting around a table talking about theoretical concepts. I learned about how ignorant I am. I am still working to correct this.
One-on-one, the students and I got along much better. They were far more open. I had no idea what I was doing. How do you teach someone to read? I consulted Dr. Google regularly. I bought a book with some basic grammar exercises. Sometimes, we just read their homework word for word, and when they didn’t know a word, I made them write it down and look it up and write the definition down too because that’s how my mother taught me. I had a mother who was home every day after school and who sat with me day after day and year after year until I went away for high school, helping me with my homework, encouraging me, and certainly pushing me toward excellence. There were things in my life my mother was unable to see, but when it came to my education and making sure I was a good, well-mannered person, she was on point in every way.
At times, I resented the amount of schoolwork I had to do at home. My American classmates didn’t have to do any of the stuff I had to do. I didn’t understand why my mom, both of my parents really, was so hell-bent on making us use our minds. There was a lot of pressure in our household. A lot. I was a pretty stressed-out kid, and some of that pressure was self-induced and some of it wasn’t. I enjoyed being the best and making my parents proud. I enjoyed the sense of control I felt by being good at school when there were other parts of my life that were desperately out of control. I was expected to get straight As. Bringing home a grade less than an A was not an option so I didn’t. This is a typical child-of-immigrants story, not at all interesting. When I worked with those kids in graduate school, I understood why my parents showed us how we had to work three times harder than white kids to get half the consideration. They did not impart this reality with bitterness. They were protecting us.
At the end of our sessions, the students I worked with would generally say, “Don’t tell anyone I came to see you.” It wasn’t that they were embarrassed to get help, most of the time. They were embarrassed to be seen putting effort into their education, to be seen caring. Sometimes, they’d open up about their lives. Many of the kids I worked with did not have parents who would or could prepare their children for the world the way mine did. Many of them were eldest children, the first in their families to go to college. One boy was the eldest of nine. One girl was the eldest of seven. Another girl was the eldest of six. There were many absent fathers, incarcerated mothers and fathers and cousins and aunties and siblings. There was alcoholism and drug addiction and abuse. There were parents who resented that their children were in college and tried to sabotage them. There were students who were sending their student loan refund checks back home to support their families and spending the semester without textbooks, without enough money to eat, because the mouths back at home needed to be fed. There were certainly students with a great parent or parents, with families who were supportive, who knew nothing of poverty, who were well prepared for the college experience or well prepared to do what it took to get up to speed. Those students were the exception. I often think about the danger of a single story, as discussed by Chimamanda Adichie in her TED Talk, but sometimes, there actually is a single story and it tears my heart open.
By the end of my last year of school, with all the other things I was dealing with in my personal life, I was completely burnt out. I had nothing left to give. All too often, the students just did not give a damn and neither did I. I’m not proud of this, but I really was dealing with a lot. That’s what I tell myself. The students didn’t show up to the BSA meetings. They half-assed their participation in club events and didn’t promote events and dropped the ball, and I no longer had the energy to glare and yell and push and prod and make them want to do better. If after four years they had learned nothing, I had failed, and there was little I could do to rectify that. They were just being college students, of course, but it was frustrating. When the last semester ended, I was relieved. I would miss the students because they were, to be clear, a great joy—bright, funny, charming, kind of crazy, but good kids. I still needed a break, a very, very long break.
The woman who recruited me to grad school had worked with the black students for about twenty years. When she retired, she was so burnt out she couldn’t even talk about them without being overwhelmed by her frustration with their unwillingness to change, the ways they had been wronged, their lack of faith that there was a different, better way, the administration’s piss-poor efforts to create change, all of it. I understood her burnout too. It took me a mere four years, but I got there. And yet. There was an end-of-the-year banquet where the students surprised me. They gave me a plaque and read a beautiful speech where they said I was the epitome of integrity and grace. They thanked me for recognizing they were talented and powerful beyond measure. They said I stood up for them even when they were wrong and that I was family, which did nicely explain our relationship—unconditional but complicated. They said lots of other gorgeously flattering things. They didn’t have to say any of it. I left grad school feeling like I had reached them. They certainly reached me, made me feel like I was a part of something even though it was my job to make them feel like part of something.
As a faculty member, I haven’t sought out the black student association yet because I’ve been trying to summon the energy. I feel guilty about how I’m dragging my feet. I feel this sense of responsibility. I feel weak and stupid.
I had a black student in my class during my first year who felt I was picking on him because he was black. I’m told this comes up often for black faculty. I wasn’t picking on this kid. For one, I don’t have that kind of time. Also, I expect excellence from all my students, without exception. He had a perfect GPA before and simply couldn’t believe he was not earning an A in my class. He was incredulous that I did not think he deserved a proverbial cookie for having been a good student before coming to my class. I was incredulous at his arrogance. I got the sense he wanted me to be impressed that he was “different,” that he was a good student, like I should just grade him on past performance instead of how he did in my class. He once told me, “I’m not like the other [N-words] on campus.” I told him he’d better check his attitude and his language. We had some very tense conversations, one of which was so tense my boss, unbeknownst to me, stood in the hallway just out of sight the entire time because he felt this kid might get rowdy. I thought the kid was going to get rowdy. It took me a whole semester to get a handle on this kid’s issue. I eventually realized he didn’t want to be seen as one of those students who come in and don’t know enough to get through or don’t care enough to get through. His way of doing that, of proving he was different, was to maintain his perfect GPA by any means necessary. That student graduated and I don’t know where he is now, but I hope he won’t spend his life negotiating respectability politics.
I work hard. I volunteer for things. I try to deliver when I say I will do something. I try to do my job well. I extend myself, then overextend myself. I work at work and I work at home. I study my teaching evaluations, trying to make sense of my imperfections so that next time, I might get it right. I sit with my colleagues and think, Please like me. Please like me. Please like me. Please respect me. At the very least, don’t hate me. People often misunderstand me, misunderstand my motivations. The pressure is constant and suffocating. I say I’m a workaholic and maybe I am, but maybe I’m just trying, like my student, to show how I’m different.
In graduate school, early on, I once overheard a classmate talking in her office as I walked by. She didn’t know I was there. She was gossiping about me to a group of our classmates and said I was the affirmative-action student. I went to my office, trying to hold it together until I was alone. I was not going to be the girl who cried in the hallway. As soon as I crossed the threshold, I started sobbing because that was my greatest fear, that I wasn’t good enough and that everyone knew it. Rationally, I know it was absurd, but hearing how she and maybe others saw me hurt real bad. There was no one I could really talk to about what I had heard because I was the only student of color in the program. There was no one else who would understand. Sure, I had friends, good friends who would commiserate, but they wouldn’t get it and I would never be able to trust that they didn’t feel the same way.
I stopped joking about being a slacker. I tripled the number of projects I was involved with. I was excellent most of the time. I fell short some of the time. I made sure I got good grades. I made sure my comprehensive exams were solid. I wrote conference proposals and had them accepted. I published. I designed an overly ambitious research project for my dissertation that kind of made me want to die. No matter what I did, I heard that girl, that girl who had accomplished a fraction of a fraction of what I had, telling a group of our peers I was the one who did not deserve to be in our program. Those peers, by the way, did not defend me. They did not disagree. That hurt too. Her words kept me up at night. I can still hear her, the clarity of her voice, the confidence of her conviction. At work, I constantly worry, Do they think I’m the affirmative-action hire? I worry, Do I deserve to be here? I worry, Am I doing enough? I have a PhD I damn well earned, and I worry I am not good enough. It’s insane, irrational, and exhausting. Frankly, it’s depressing.
I know none of this might make sense, but for me, it is all connected.
I am still writing my way toward a place where I fit, but I am also finding my people in unexpected places—California, Chicago, upper Michigan, other places, some not on any kind of map. Writing bridges many differences. Kindness bridges many differences too, and so does a love of One Tree Hill or Lost or beautiful books or terrible movies. There are times when I wish finding community was as simple as entering some personal information and letting an algorithm show me where I belong. And then I realize that in many ways, this is what the Internet and social networking has done for me—offered community.
Or perhaps I am not looking for an algorithm at all.
An algorithm is a procedure for solving a problem in a finite number of steps. An algorithm leads to a neat way of understanding a problem too complex for the human mind to solve.
That’s not what I am looking for. John Louis von Neumann said, “If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.” Mathematics may well be simple, but the complexities of race and culture are often irreducible. They cannot be wholly addressed in a single essay or book or television show or movie.
I will keep writing about these intersections as a writer and a teacher, as a black woman, as a bad feminist, until I no longer feel like what I want is impossible. I no longer want to believe these problems are too complex for us to make sense of them.
When I was young, my parents took our family to Haiti during the summers. For them, it was a homecoming. For my brothers and me it was an adventure, sometimes a chore, and always a necessary education on privilege and the grace of an American passport. Until visiting Haiti, I had no idea what poverty really was or the difference between relative and absolute poverty. To see poverty so plainly and pervasively left a profound mark on me.
To this day, I remember my first visit, and how at every intersection, men and women, shiny with sweat, would mob our car, their skinny arms stretched out, hoping for a few gourdes or American dollars. I saw the sprawling slums, the shanties housing entire families, the trash piled in the streets, and also the gorgeous beach and the young men in uniforms who brought us Coca-Cola in glass bottles and made us hats and boats out of palm fronds. It was hard for a child to begin to grasp the contrast of such inescapable poverty alongside almost repulsive luxury, and then the United States, a mere eight hundred miles away, with its gleaming cities rising out of the landscape and the well-maintained interstates stretching across the country, the running water and the electricity. It wasn’t until many, many years later that I realized my education on privilege began long before I could appreciate it in any meaningful way.
Privilege is a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor. There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege, and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold. Nearly everyone, particularly in the developed world, has something someone else doesn’t, something someone else yearns for.
The problem is, cultural critics talk about privilege with such alarming frequency and in such empty ways, we have diluted the word’s meaning. When people wield the word “privilege,” it tends to fall on deaf ears because we hear that word so damn much it has become white noise.
One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do is accept and acknowledge my privilege. It’s an ongoing project. I’m a woman, a person of color, and the child of immigrants, but I also grew up middle class and then upper middle class. My parents raised my siblings and me in a strict but loving environment. They were and are happily married, so I didn’t have to deal with divorce or crappy intramarital dynamics. I attended elite schools. My master’s and doctoral degrees were funded. I got a tenure-track position my first time out. My bills are paid. I have the time and resources for frivolity. I am reasonably well published. I have an agent and books to my name. My life has been far from perfect, but it’s somewhat embarrassing for me to accept just how much privilege I have.
It’s also really difficult for me to consider the ways in which I lack privilege or the ways in which my privilege hasn’t magically rescued me from a world of hurt. On my more difficult days, I’m not sure what’s more of a pain in my ass—being black or being a woman. I’m happy to be both of these things, but the world keeps intervening. There are all kinds of infuriating reminders of my place in the world—random people questioning me in the parking lot at work as if it is unfathomable that I’m a faculty member, the persistence of lawmakers trying to legislate the female body, street harassment, strangers wanting to touch my hair.
We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy, which we resent because life is hard for nearly everyone. Of course we resent these accusations. Look at white men when they are accused of having privilege. They tend to be immediately defensive (and, at times, understandably so). They say, “It’s not my fault I am a white man,” or “I’m [insert other condition that discounts their privilege],” instead of simply accepting that, in this regard, yes, they benefit from certain privileges others do not. To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.
You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about. They might endure situations you can never know anything about. You could, however, use that privilege for the greater good—to try to level the playing field for everyone, to work for social justice, to bring attention to how those without certain privileges are disenfranchised. We’ve seen what the hoarding of privilege has done, and the results are shameful.
When we talk about privilege, some people start to play a very pointless and dangerous game where they try to mix and match various demographic characteristics to determine who wins at the Game of Privilege. Who would win in a privilege battle between a wealthy black woman and a wealthy white man? Who would win a privilege battle between a queer white man and a queer Asian woman? Who would win in a privilege battle between a working-class white man and a wealthy, differently abled Mexican woman? We could play this game all day and never find a winner. Playing the Game of Privilege is mental masturbation—it only feels good to those playing the game.
Too many people have become self-appointed privilege police, patrolling the halls of discourse, ready to remind people of their privilege whether those people have denied that privilege or not. In online discourse, in particular, the specter of privilege is always looming darkly. When someone writes from experience, there is often someone else, at the ready, pointing a trembling finger, accusing that writer of having various kinds of privilege. How dare someone speak to a personal experience without accounting for every possible configuration of privilege or the lack thereof? We would live in a world of silence if the only people who were allowed to write or speak from experience or about difference were those absolutely without privilege.
When people wield accusations of privilege, more often than not, they want to be heard and seen. Their need is acute, if not desperate, and that need rises out of the many historical and ongoing attempts to silence and render invisible marginalized groups. Must we satisfy our need to be heard and seen by preventing anyone else from being heard and seen? Does privilege automatically negate any merits of what a privilege holder has to say? Do we ignore everything, for example, that white men have to say?
We need to get to a place where we discuss privilege by way of observation and acknowledgment rather than accusation. We need to be able to argue beyond the threat of privilege. We need to stop playing Privilege or Oppression Olympics because we’ll never get anywhere until we find more effective ways of talking through difference. We should be able to say, “This is my truth,” and have that truth stand without a hundred clamoring voices shouting, giving the impression that multiple truths cannot coexist. Because at some point, doesn’t privilege become beside the point?
Privilege is relative and contextual. Few people in the developed world, and particularly in the United States, have no privilege at all. Among those of us who participate in intellectual communities, privilege runs rampant. We have disposable time and the ability to access the Internet regularly. We have the freedom to express our opinions without the threat of retaliation. We have smartphones and iProducts and desktops and laptops. If you are reading this essay, you have some kind of privilege. It may be hard to hear that, I know, but if you cannot recognize your privilege, you have a lot of work to do; get started.
Typical First Year Professor
I go to school for a very long time and get some degrees and finally move to a very small town in the middle of a cornfield. I leave someone behind. I tell myself I have worked so hard I can’t choose a man over a career. I want to choose the man over the career. I rent an apartment, the nicest place I’ve ever lived as an adult. I have a guest bathroom. I don’t save lives, but I try not to ruin them.
This is the dream, everyone says—a good job, tenure track. I have an office I don’t have to share with two or four people. My name is on the engraved panel just outside my door. My name is spelled correctly. I have my own printer. The luxury of this cannot be overstated. I randomly print out a document; I sigh happily as the printer spits it out, warm. I have a phone with an extension, and when people call the number they are often looking for me. There are a lot of shelves, but I like my books at home. In every movie I’ve ever seen about professors, there are books. I quickly unpack three boxes, detritus I accumulated in graduate school—sad drawer trash, books I’ll rarely open again—but I’m a professor now. I must have books on display in my office. It is an unspoken rule.
I put a dry-erase board on my door. Old habits die hard. Every few weeks I pose a new question. What’s your favorite movie? (Pretty Woman.) What’s your favorite musical? (West Side Story.) What do you want for Christmas? (Peace of mind.) Currently: What is your favorite cocktail? Best answer: “Free.”
The department’s administrative assistant gives me the rundown on important things—mailbox, office supplies, photocopy code. I forget the code weekly. She is friendly, patient, kind, but if you cross her, there will be trouble. I vow to never cross her.
There is a mind-numbing orientation that begins with a student playing acoustic guitar. A threatening sing-along vibe fills the room. The student is not a chanteur. Most of the audience cringes visibly. I hide in the very last row. For the next two days I accumulate knowledge I will never use—math all over again.
I’ll be teaching three classes, two of which I’ve not quite taught before. Turns out when you say you can do something, people believe you.
Ten minutes before my first class, I run to the bathroom and vomit. I’m afraid of public speaking, which makes teaching complicated.
When I walk into the classroom, the students stare at me like I’m in charge. They wait for me to say something. I stare back and wait for them to do something. It’s a silent power struggle. Finally, I tell them to do things and they do those things. I realize I am, in fact, in charge. We’ll be playing with Legos. For a few minutes I am awesome because I have brought toys.
Teaching three classes requires serious memorization when it comes to student names. The students tend to blur. It will take nearly three weeks for me to remember Ashley A. and Ashley M. and Matt and Matt and Mark and Mark and so on. I rely heavily on pointing. I color-code the students. You in the green shirt. You in the orange hat.
I get my first paycheck. We are paid once a month, which requires the kind of budgeting I am incapable of. Life is unpleasant after the twenty-third or so. I’ve been a graduate student for so long it’s hard to fathom that one check can have four numbers and change. Then I see how much The Man takes. Damn The Man.
Students don’t know what to make of me. I wear jeans and Converse. I have tattoos up and down my arms. I’m tall. I am not petite. I am the child of immigrants. Many of my students have never had a black teacher before. I can’t help them with that. I’m the only black professor in my department. This will probably never change for the whole of my career, no matter where I teach. I’m used to it. I wish I weren’t. There seems to be some unspoken rule about the number of academic spaces people of color can occupy at the same time. I have grown weary of being the only one.
When I was a student listening to a boring professor drone endlessly, I usually thought, I will never be that teacher. One day, I am delivering a lecture and realize, in that moment, I am that teacher. I stare out at the students, most of them not taking notes, giving me that soul-crushing dead-eye stare that tells me, I wish I were anywhere but here. I think, I wish I were anywhere but here. I talk faster and faster to put us all out of our misery. I become incoherent. Their dead-eye stares haunt me for the rest of the day, then longer.
I keep in touch with my closest friend from graduate school. We both really enjoy our new jobs, but the learning curve is steep. There is no shallow end. We dance around metaphors about drowning. During long conversations we question the choice to be proper, modern women. There is so much grading. There’s a lot to be said for barefoot kitchen work when staring down a stack of research papers.
Walking down the hall, I hear a young woman saying “Dr. Gay” over and over and think, That Dr. Gay is rather rude for ignoring that poor student. I turn around to say something before I realize she is talking to me.
I worry some of my students don’t own any clothes with zippers or buttons or other methods of closure and fastening. I see a lot of words faded and stretched across asses, bra straps, pajama pants, often ill-fitting. In the winter, when there is snow and ice outside, boys come to class in basketball shorts and flip-flops. I worry about their feet, their poor little toes.
Helicopter parents e-mail me for information about their children. How is my son doing? Is my daughter attending class? I encourage them to open lines of communication with their children. I politely tell them there are laws preventing such communication without their child’s written consent. The child rarely consents.
There is nothing new in the new town, and I know no one. The town is a flat, scarred strip of land with half-abandoned strip malls. And then there is the corn, so much of it, everywhere, stretching in every direction for miles. Most of my colleagues live fifty miles away. Most of my colleagues have families. I go north to Chicago. I go east to Indianapolis. I go south to St. Louis. I take up competitive Scrabble and win the first tournament I enter. In the last round, I encounter a nemesis who gets so angry when I beat him he refuses to shake my hand and flounces out of the tournament in a huff. The sweetness of that victory lingers. The next time I see him, at another tournament, he’ll point and say, “Best two out of three. Best. Two. Out. Of. Three.” I best him in two out of three.
My own parents ask, How is my daughter doing? I offer them some version of the truth.
Sometimes, during class, I catch students staring at their cell phones beneath their desks like they’re in a cone of invisibility. It’s as funny as it is irritating. Sometimes, I cannot help but say, “I do see you.” Other times, I confiscate their electronic devices.
Sometimes, when students are doing group work, I sneak a look at my own phone like I am in a cone of invisibility. I am part of the problem.
I try to make class fun, engaging, experiential. We hold a mock debate about social issues in composition. We use Twitter to learn about crafting microcontent in new media writing. We play Jeopardy! to learn about professional reports in professional writing. College and kindergarten aren’t as different as you’d think. Every day, I wonder, How do I keep these students meaningfully engaged, educated, and entertained for fifty minutes? How do I keep them from staring at me with dead eyes? How do I make them want to learn? It’s tiring. Sometimes, I think the answer to each of these questions is I can’t.
There is a plague on grandmothers. The elder relations of my students begin passing away at an alarming rate one week. I want to warn the surviving grandmothers, somehow. I want them to live. The excuses students come up with for absences and homework amuse me in how ludicrous and improbable they are. They think I want to know. They think I need their explanations. They think I don’t know they’re lying. Sometimes I simply say, “I know you are lying. You say it best when you say nothing at all.”
I try not to be old. I try not to think, When I was your age … , but often, I do remember when I was their age. I enjoyed school; I loved learning and worked hard. Most of the people I went to school with did too. We partied hard, but we still showed up to class and did what we had to do. An alarming number of my students don’t seem to want to be in college. They are in school because they don’t feel they have a choice or have nothing better to do; because their parents are making them attend college; because, like most of us, they’ve surrendered to the rhetoric that to succeed in this country you need a college degree. They are not necessarily incorrect. And yet, all too often, I find myself wishing I could teach more students who actually want to be in school, who don’t resent the education being foisted upon them. I wish there were viable alternatives for students who would rather be anywhere but in a classroom. I wish, in all things, for a perfect world.
A number of students find my website. This is teaching in the digital age. They find my writing, much of which is, shall we say, explicit in nature. News travels fast. They want to talk to me about these things in the hall after class, in my office, out and about on campus. It’s awkward and flattering but mostly awkward. They also know too much about my personal life. They know about the random guy who spent the night, who helped me kill a couple bottles of wine and made me breakfast. I have to start blogging differently.
I get along with the students. They are generally bright and charming even when they are frustrating. They make me love my job both in and out of the classroom. Students show up at my office to discuss their personal problems. I try to maintain boundaries. There are breakups with long-term boyfriends and bad dates and a lecherous professor in another department and a roommate who leaves her door open while she’s getting nailed and this thing that happened at the bar on Friday and difficult decisions about whether to go to graduate school or go on the job market. Each of these situations is a crisis. I listen and try to dispense the proper advice. This is not the same advice my friends and I give to one another. What I really want to say to these students, most of them young women, is “GIRL!”
I am quite content to be in my thirties, and nothing affirms that more than being around people in their late teens and early twenties.
In grad school, we heard lurid tales of department meetings where heated words were exchanged and members of various factions almost came to blows. I was looking forward to the drama, only to learn my department meets once or twice a semester rather than every week. Instead, we meet in committees. The chairs of those committees report to the department chair. Committee meetings are not my favorite part of the job. There are politics and agendas and decades of history of which I know little and understand even less. Everyone means well, but there’s a lot of bureaucracy. I prefer common sense.
The first semester ends and I receive my evaluations. Most of the students think I did a decent job, some think I did a great job, but then there are those who didn’t. I assign too much work, they say. I expect too much. I don’t consider these faults. A student writes, “Typical first year professor.” I have no idea what that means.
Over winter break, my friend from graduate school and I have another long lamentation about choices and taking jobs in the middle of nowhere and the (relative) sacrifices academics must often make. It is tiring to constantly be told how lucky we are. Luck and loneliness, it would seem, are very compatible.
I go drinking with the guy I … go drinking with. To call it dating would be a stretch. We are a matter of convenience. I sip on a T&T and lament my evaluations. I want to be a good teacher, and most days, I think I am. I give a damn. I want students to like me. I am human. I am so full of want. He tells me not to worry with such authority I almost believe him. He orders me another drink and another. I hope we don’t run into any of my students because I cannot pull off professorial in my current state. That’s always my prayer when we go out. Because of this, we often end up in the city fifty miles up the road. At the end of the night, two very short men get into a fight. Clothing is torn. We stand in the parking lot and watch. The men’s anger, the white heat of it, fascinates me. Later, after taking a cab home, I drunkenly call the man I left behind, the man who didn’t follow me. “My students hate me,” I say. He assures me they don’t. He says that would not be possible. I say, “Everything is terrible. Everything is great.” He says, “I know.”
Another semester begins, three new classes. Winter settles, ice everywhere, barren plains. There are three new sets of students, different faces but similar names. Hey you in the khaki hat. Hey you with the purple hair.
The goal, we are told, is tenure. To that end all faculty, even first-year professors, have to compile an annual portfolio. I assemble a record of one semester’s worth of work. I try to quantify my professional worth. My colleagues write letters to attest to my various accomplishments, verifying I am on such and such committee, that I participated in such and such event, that I am a valuable and contributing member of the department. I update my vita. I clip publications. I buy a neon-green three-ring binder. This is how I rage against the machine. I spend an afternoon collating and creating labels and writing about myself with equal parts humility and bravado. It’s a fine balance. Later, I tell a friend, “It was like arts and crafts for adults. I went to graduate school for this.”
I stop getting lost looking for the bathroom. The building is strange, with many hallways, some hidden, and an arcane numbering system that defies logic. When I leave my door open, students passing by will ask, “Where is Dr. So-and-So’s office?” I say, “I have no idea.”
Summer, we are told, is a time for rest, relaxation, and catching up. I teach two classes. I write a novel. I return to the place I moved from, spend weeks with the man I left behind. He says, Don’t go. I say, Please follow. We remain at an impasse. I return to the cornfield. There are mere weeks of summer left. They are not enough.
A new semester begins. I have new responsibilities, including chairing a committee. Ten minutes before the first class on the first day, I run to the bathroom and puke. In my classroom, I stare at another group of students whose names I will have to remember. You in the red shirt. You with the pink shorts. I refuse to expect less. I try to learn better, do better. I have no idea how I got to be the one at the front of the classroom, the one who gets to be in charge of things. Most of the time, I feel like the kid who gets to sit at the adult table for the first time at Thanksgiving. I’m not sure which fork to use. My feet can’t reach the floor.
To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically
My third tournament started with a brutal game where I lost by more than 200 points. I was the fifth seed, ranked like tennis with words, and feeling confident—too confident, really. “We Are the Champions” may have been on an infinite loop in my head. And yet. It was also early on a Saturday morning. I am not a morning person. Before the tournament started, people milled around the hotel meeting room, chatting idly about the heat, what we had done since the last time many of us had seen one another (the previous tournament in Illinois), and some of the more amazing plays we had made recently.
Scrabble players love to talk, at length, with some repetition, about their vocabulary triumphs.
There were twenty-one of us with various levels of ability, but really, if you’re playing this game at the competitive level, you generally have some skill and can be a contender. The more experienced players, the Dragos to my Rocky, studied word lists and appeared intensely focused on something the rest of us couldn’t see. Many wore fanny packs without irony—serious fanny packs bulging with mystery. As I waited for the tournament to begin, I studied the table of game-related accessories—books, a travel set, a towel, a deluxe board, and some milled French soaps clearly taken from someone’s closet—all for drawings to be held later in the day.
At nine o’clock, sharp, the tournament director, Tom, began making announcements, one of which was that his wife had died just days earlier. The tournament was going to go on, he said. It was an awkward, touching moment because grief is so personal and this man was clearly grieving. The room was silent. It was difficult to know what to do. He announced that the first pairings would be posted in a few minutes, so we waited quietly until the pairings were posted around the room. We all hovered around the sheet of paper, quickly writing down the names of our first two opponents. I sat across from my first challenger. She was seeded nineteenth. My confidence swelled vulgarly. She stared at me, smug, almost imperious. I felt an uncomfortable chill. We determined she would go first. She drew her seven tiles. I started her time and fixed her with a hard stare as she began shuffling the seven plastic squares back and forth across her rack. I began drawing my tiles. Beneath the table, my legs were shaking.
This is competitive Scrabble.
You have to understand. I was lonely in a new town where I knew no one. I wanted to be back home, with my boyfriend, in our apartment, complaining about how SportsCenter seems to air perpetually or listening to him nag me about my imaginary Internet friends. My apartment was empty, no furniture, because I left my sad graduate-student furniture behind. After work, I’d sit on my lone chair, a step above sad, purchased at Sofa Mart, wondering how my life had come to this.
When my new colleague invited me to her home to play with her Scrabble club,6 I was so desperate I would have agreed to just about anything—cleaning her bathrooms, watching the grass grow in her backyard, something smarmy and vaguely illegal involving suburban prostitution, whatever.
I didn’t quite know what a Scrabble club was, but I assumed it was a group of people enjoying friendly games of Scrabble on a Saturday afternoon. I told my mother I was going to play Scrabble and she laughed, called me a geek, her accent wrapping around the word strangely. I was roundly mocked by my brothers, who were always the popular kids while I was the shunned nerd, a fact they gleefully reminded me of as they made a series of increasingly absurd Scrabble-related jokes, like, “You sure are going through a DRY SPELL.” The man I left behind said, “Come home. You’re freaking me out.” I ignored them all.
My colleague Daiva and her husband, Marty, live in a large home in a wooded neighborhood on the very edge of our very small town. Everything is modern and unique and interesting to look at—slick leather chairs, pottery, African art. In their finished basement, there is enough space for ten to twenty people, sometimes more, to get together once a month to play Scrabble all day.
Marty7 is a nationally ranked player, top fifteen. He knows every word ever invented as well as each word’s meaning. If you give him a seven-letter combination, he’ll tell you all the possible anagrams. I would not be surprised to learn he thinks in anagrams. There are thirty-nine possible Scrabble words in “anagram.”8
When you are new to the club, Marty carefully explains the rules of competitive Scrabble, and rules, there are many. You have to keep score. When you have completed your turn, you have to press a button on a game timer. You have to monitor time because there are penalties if you exceed twenty-five total minutes for your plays. There’s a proper etiquette for drawing tiles (tile bag held above your eyes, head turned away).9 There’s a procedure if you draw too many tiles. There’s a protocol for challenging if you believe your opponent has played a phony, a word that isn’t in the Official Tournament and Club Word List.10
As Marty told me all these rules that first day, I laughed and rolled my eyes like an asshole and struggled to take any of it seriously. Until that day, my Scrabble playing had mostly involved drinking, friends, crazy made-up words, haphazard score keeping, and never ever any time constraints. It was an innocent time.
People slowly filed in with large round cases. One woman’s case was wheeled, like a suitcase. They set their cases on tables and pulled out custom turntable Scrabble boards, timers, tile bags, and racks. They got out their scoring sheets and personal tokens. The games started, and the room hushed. I realized this was no time to crack jokes. I realized Scrabble is very serious business.
I have a Scrabble nemesis. His name is Henry. He has the most gorgeous blue-gray eyes I have ever seen. The beauty of his perfect eyes only makes me hate him more. He has been known to wear a fanny pack and often scowls. Nemeses aren’t born. They are made.
Shortly after I started playing with my local Scrabble club, Marty told me about a charity tournament he holds in Danville, said it would be a great experience for me to play. I had nothing to lose so I agreed. I had no idea what to expect as I walked into the main building of the community college in Danville. After I registered, I stood awkwardly, wondering what to do, until my club friends took mercy on me and showed me the lay of tournament land.
Serious Scrabble people study words and remember matches from eight years ago where they played a word for 173 points. They remember when they didn’t challenge a phony and lost the match. They remember everything. Some serious Scrabble players are poor losers. I am a good loser. I love Scrabble so much I don’t care if I lose. I also have to be a good loser because I lose a lot, so practicality plays a role. Unlike most serious Scrabble players, I don’t have the patience to study all the possible three- and four-letter words, for example, but still, I am extremely competitive. It’s an awkward combination.
I began the tournament thinking, I am going to win this tournament. I approach most things in life with a dangerous level of confidence to balance my generally low self-esteem. This helps me as a writer. Each time I submit a story to fancy magazines like, say, The New Yorker or The Paris Review, I think, This story is totally going to get published.
My heart gets broken more than it should.
After getting all my paperwork and such, I looked around at the other word nerds. I felt like people were checking me out. I was prepared to reenact the beginning of “Beat It” when everyone is silently stalking one another, trying to size up the competition. There were thirty-two players, four groups (based on ranking) with eight players in each. We would play seven rounds to determine the one Scrabble player to rule them all. The tournament director read off the name of each person in each group along with his or her seed. He read my name last, and I understood my place. I was the lowest-ranked (worst) player in the room. I was the last kid who would be picked for dodge ball.
I sat down for my first round with the top seed in my division, and she was pretty cocky. I was too, or I was trying to project cockiness and calm. My hands were shaking under the table I was so nervous. My primary ambition was to not humiliate myself, make any missteps where Scrabble etiquette is concerned, or shame the members of my Scrabble club, several of whom were in attendance.
My opponent looked up and said, “I was in the next highest division yesterday.” The gauntlet was thrown. She said it with a kind, warm smile, but she was trying to intimidate me. I could tell by the way her upper lip curled. Well played. I wondered if I could purchase adult diapers at the nearest gas station.
The tournament started, and I managed to spell my words and use the timer correctly. I got into a rhythm. I placed a bingo. I was feeling good. My skin flushed warmly with early success. I started thinking I had a chance. Then Number-One Seed proceeded to wipe the board with my ass; the final score was 366–277. I smiled and shook her hand, but a small piece of my soul was destroyed. I thought, Je suis désoleé.
When I composed myself, I took stock of what had happened. I played decently and had two bingos overall. There was simply nothing I could do. I kept drawing terribly (JVK) and getting outplayed, and she was so damn confident the entire time. Worse yet, Number-One Seed played me better than she played the game. At the beginning of the match, she asked if I was a student. I said, “No, I teach writing,” and she said, “Oh, I’m in trouble,” pretending to be the weaker prey. Here’s the thing. I play poker. I know a bluff when I see one. Once she got going, she kept smirking, letting me know her foot was leaving an ugly mark on my neck.
I was determined to win my second match because I am that competitive and I have pride and winning feels way better than losing. My opponent was really quiet and taciturn. It was not fun playing her. I slaughtered her 403–229 and I wanted to scream I was so happy. I was very tempted to jump on the table and shout, “IN YOUR FACE.” For the sake of sportsmanship, I remained quiet and polite and thanked her for the game. She coldly walked away without so much as a by-your-leave. Later, as I drove home, I did gloat. I gloated a lot.
The third match was with a woman I play regularly. She’s really nice and we get along well. She always beats me, and that day would be no exception—score: 390–327. My ambitious, delusional goal of winning the tournament was faltering. There were four matches left after the break, so before resuming play, we had lunch and I ate a vegetable sandwich. I told Daiva, the woman who had introduced me to the craziness of competitive Scrabble, “I’m going to win this tournament.” She gave me the saddest look, as if to say, There, there, crazy little Scrabble baby.
There’s something to be said for the delusion of confidence. I won my next four matches (389–312; 424–244; 352–312; 396–366). I was a demon. I had my word mojo. I was seeing bingos everywhere and making smart, tight plays, blocking triple-play lanes and tracking perfectly. With each win, I felt increasingly invincible. I wanted to beat my chest. I was also trying to distract myself.
In the middle of the night, hours before the tournament began, I received a frantic call from my mother, the kind of call, as your parents get older, you hope to never receive. My normally healthy father had to be rushed to the hospital—chest pains and shortness of breath. My first instinct was to say, “I am coming home,” but fortunately, my youngest brother lives nearby and was able to be there. Throughout the tournament, I was getting updates on my father’s condition, trying to reassure my mother that everything would be fine. I was trying not to lose my shit completely. There are 227 possible Scrabble words in “completely.”
In my last match of the day, it became clear the winner of our match would win the entire tournament for our division. This is how my nemesis was born.
Henry with the beautiful, piercing blue-gray eyes was sly like a fox. At the start of the match, he kept playing two-letter words, so I did the same. We were stalking each other around a cage. You know the naked fight scene in Eastern Promises? It was like that, only we weren’t criminals, naked, or in a Turkish bath, and I was the only one with a number of visible tattoos. He wore a T-shirt that read, “World’s Best Scrabble Player.” It was the T-shirt that made me extra motivated to win. The level of competition was very strong, and as the game unfolded, my excitement grew.
As the second seed, Henry the Nemesis was confident he would defeat me. I could smell the confidence on him. He reeked of it. I played three bingos during the course of the match. He tried to play TREKING for 81 points, but I knew that was not a word. “Trekking” takes two Ks. I challenged. He rolled his eyes like he couldn’t believe I had the nerve to challenge his bad spelling. My hands shook as I typed his word into the computer. I won the challenge. By the end of the match, he was irate and I was giddy. When I won, he realized he wasn’t going to win the tournament and had fallen to third place. Because I was seeded so low, his ranking was going to take a hit. He refused to shake my hand and stalked off angrily. I thought he was going to throw the table over. Male anger makes me intensely uncomfortable, so I tried to sit very still and hoped the uncomfortable moment would pass quickly. Henry’s bad sportsmanship did not temper my mood for long. I won my first tournament despite being the lowest-seeded player in the field and took home a small cash prize. The size of my ego for the following week was difficult to measure. It would not last, though. What Scrabble giveth, another player, at another tournament, will taketh away.
When you succeed early at an endeavor, you convince yourself you will easily replicate that success. Ask child actors. Three months later, I played in another tournament, the Arden Cup, a twenty-match, two-and-a-half-day affair where I won eight games and lost twelve. I learned a lot. I especially learned that it is insane to believe you will walk into a competitive tournament, among a much larger field, with a fragile and inflated ranking, and somehow win that tournament.
Henry the Nemesis was in attendance, as was a host of equally intriguing and intense players who would get under my skin nearly as much as Henry does. My least favorite player was Donnie, who tried to mansplain Scrabble because he didn’t recognize me and took me for a neophyte. As we sat down to start our match, he said, “Now, you just play this the same way you play Scrabble at home.” I made it my life’s purpose, right then, to destroy him. Another opponent asked if we should play at his board or mine. When I told him I didn’t have my own set, he gave me a pitying look. I quickly realized I was swimming with Scrabble sharks. I was the blood in the water.
There was one redemptive moment despite the humiliation of that tournament, one where I lost so many times the matches blended into a depressing blur, where I lost mostly to mansplainers who defined words even though I did not ask for definitions, regaled me with tales of their sordid Scrabble histories, and otherwise drove me crazy. I beat Henry the Nemesis again. We played twice during the tournament—he won a game and I won a game. At the end of our second game, the one I won, he stood and pointed at me. He said, “You’ve won two out of three times. Two. Out. Of. Three.” I looked down, bit my lower lip to keep from smiling my face off.
“I wasn’t keeping track,” I said.
I excused myself and ran to the restroom, where in the privacy of my stall, I whispered, “I beat you, I beat you, I beat you.” There was fist pumping.
And so. My third tournament started brutally and the brutality was unrelenting. I ended up winning six matches (one was a bye) and losing six and took fifteenth place. My friends told me that was a good outcome. I’m pretty sure they were just being nice given the increased fragility of my Scrabble ego.
I did not get to play my nemesis, but he was there and he performed well. I took that personally.
A new nemesis was also made early during that tournament. In my first match of the day, I was tired. I had slept for only three hours after a late night in the city with friends. I am not a morning person. I did not have time to find the nearest Starbucks. I could not find any dollar bills to buy a Diet Pepsi. I could not find my Visine. I was hungover—gin, which doesn’t settle well with me the day after. My stomach kept turning uncomfortably. I was drowsy. If I closed my eyes, I would simply fall into an uncomfortable sleep. I was a mess.
I was the fifth seed in a field of twenty-one, so I was stupidly pleased with myself to still be seeded so high after the previous tournament. My opponent was unseeded and had no ranking so I mistakenly assumed she was a novice player. From the outset I was certain I would win the match handily even though I was hungover and barely able to cope with the dryness of my eyeballs.
Toward the end of the match, I played BROASTED and BO for a Triple Word Score. My opponent challenged, and she won. When you challenge multiple words, though, the computer only tells you if the word combination is good or bad. If the combination is bad, it will not tell you if one or all the words in the combination are bad. I thought, because I was mentally incapacitated, that BO must not be a valid word. I may not know my three-letter words, but I do know my two-letter words. I was confused. I was not at my best.
A couple moves later, I played BROASTED and BA in the same location. My opponent’s eyes widened. She stared at me like I was the stupidest person alive. In that moment, I hated every last cell in her body.
“You’re going to do that again?” she asked, but it wasn’t quite a question.
It was her tone that totally set me off. I had just laid down the tiles, thereby making it crystal clear I was going to make the same, ridiculous, amateurish mistake twice. What did she fail to understand?
In my defense, I was so convinced BROASTED was a word, because it actually is a word, that I remained unwavering in my commitment to play the word. Had I succeeded, I would have earned 87 points. As we walked to the challenge computer, I could feel her laughing at me. I wanted to cry, but my eyes were still so terribly dry, and also there is no crying at a Scrabble tournament unless you’re in the bathroom and you have carefully checked all the stalls to make sure you are alone.
The next time I see New Nemesis, I must explain, “I am not the idiot you think I am, or at least I am not an idiot for the reasons you think.”
The match was a massacre. The final score: 500–263. That match set the tone for the tournament. Time and again, lower-ranked players taught me painful lessons. Time and again, I was humbled. At the end of the tournament, after the prizes were handed out and we applauded each of the winners and the players who had played the highest-scoring words, we losers stood in small clumps of failure bemoaning how terribly we had played while those who played well tried not to gloat. Their modesty was good-naturedly false. We packed up our boards, and the excitement of the tournament slowly seeped out of our muscles. We shook hands and bid one another good-bye until the next club meeting or tournament. We were no longer adversaries.
[Gender & Sexuality]
How to Be Friends with Another Woman
- Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive. This myth is like heels and purses—pretty but designed to SLOW women down.
- This is not to say women aren’t bitches or toxic or competitive sometimes but rather to say that these are not defining characteristics of female friendship, especially as you get older.
- If you find that you are feeling bitchy, toxic, or competitive toward the women who are supposed to be your closest friends, look at why and figure out how to fix it and/or find someone who can help you fix it.
- A lot of ink is given over to mythologizing female friendships as curious, fragile relationships that are always intensely fraught. Stop reading writing that encourages this mythology.
- If you are the kind of woman who says, “I’m mostly friends with guys,” and act like you’re proud of that, like that makes you closer to being a man or something and less of a woman as if being a woman is a bad thing, see Item 1B. It’s okay if most of your friends are guys, but if you champion this as a commentary on the nature of female friendships, well, soul-search a little.
- If you feel like it’s hard to be friends with women, consider that maybe women aren’t the problem. Maybe it’s just you.
- I used to be this kind of woman. I’m sorry to judge.
- Sometimes, your friends will date people you cannot stand. You can either be honest about your feelings or you can lie. There are good reasons for both. Sometimes you will be the person dating someone your friends cannot stand. If your man or woman is a scrub, just own it so you and your friends can talk about more interesting things. My go-to explanation is “I am dating an asshole because I’m lazy.” You are welcome to borrow it.
- Want nothing but the best for your friends because when your friends are happy and successful, it’s probably going to be easier for you to be happy.
- If you’re having a rough go of it and a friend is having the best year ever and you need to think some dark thoughts about that, do it alone, with your therapist, or in your diary so that when you actually see your friend, you can avoid the myth discussed in Item 1.
- If you and your friend(s) are in the same field and you can collaborate or help each other, do this without shame. It’s not your fault your friends are awesome. Men invented nepotism and practically live by it. It’s okay for women to do it too.
- Don’t tear other women down, because even if they’re not your friends, they are women and this is just as important. This is not to say you cannot criticize other women, but understand the difference between criticizing constructively and tearing down cruelly.
- Everybody gossips, so if you are going to gossip about your friends, at least make it fun and interesting. As a corollary, never say “I never lie” or “I never gossip” because you are lying.
- Love your friends’ kids even if you don’t want or like children. Just do it.
- Tell your friends the hard truths they need to hear. They might get pissed about it, but it’s probably for their own good. Once, my best friend told me to get my love life together and demanded an action plan, and it was irritating but also useful.
- Don’t be totally rude about truth telling, and consider how much truth is actually needed to get the job done. Finesse goes a long way.
- These conversations are more fun when preceded by an emphatic “GIRL.”
- Surround yourself with women you can get sloppy drunk with who won’t draw stupid things on your face if you pass out, and who will help you puke if you overcelebrate, and who will also tell you if you get sloppy drunk too much or behave badly when you are sloppy drunk.
- Don’t flirt, have sex, or engage in emotional affairs with your friends’ significant others. This shouldn’t need to be said, but it needs to be said. That significant other is an asshole, and you don’t want to be involved with an asshole who’s used goods. If you want to be with an asshole, get a fresh asshole of your very own. They are abundant.
- Don’t let your friends buy ugly outfits or accessories you don’t want to look at when you hang out. This is just common sense.
- When something is wrong and you need to talk to your friends and they ask you how you are, don’t say “Fine.” They know you’re lying and it irritates them and a lot of time is wasted with the back-and-forth of “Are you sure?” and “Yes?” and “Really?” and “I AM FINE.” Tell your lady friends the truth so you can talk it out and either sulk companionably or move on to other topics.
- If four people are dining, split the check evenly four ways. We are adults now. We don’t need to add up what each person had anymore. If you’re high rolling, just treat everyone and rotate who treats. If you’re still in the broke stage, do what you have to do.
- If a friend sends a crazy e-mail needing reassurance about love, life, family, or work, respond accordingly and in a timely manner even if it is just to say, “GIRL, I hear you.” If a friend sends you like thirty crazy e-mails needing reassurance about the same damn shit, be patient because one day that’s going to be you tearing up Gmail with your drama.
- My mother’s favorite saying is “Qui se ressemble s’assemble.” Whenever she didn’t approve of who I was spending time with, she’d say this ominously. It means, essentially, you are whom you surround yourself with.
Girls, Girls, Girls
A television show about my twenties would follow the life of a girl who is lost, literally and figuratively. There wouldn’t be a laugh track. The show would open deep in my lost year—the year I drop out of college and disappear. With no ability to cope and no way to ask for help, the main character—me—is completely crazy. She makes a spectacular mess.
A lot happens in the pilot. About ten days before the start of junior year, my character gets on a plane and abandons everything. She runs away to Arizona by way of a trip to San Francisco with a much older man she has only corresponded with via the Internet. We’re talking about the old-fashioned Internet, in 1994—a 2400-baud modem or some such. It is a small miracle she isn’t killed. She cuts off all contact with her family, her friends, or anyone who thought they knew her. She has no money, no plan, a suitcase, and a complete lack of self-regard. It is real drama.
The rest of that first season is equally dramatic. Before long, she finds a seedy job doing about the only thing she’s qualified to do, working from midnight to eight in a nondescript office building. She sits in a little, windowless booth and talks to strangers on the phone. She drinks diet soda from a plastic cup, sometimes with vodka, and does crossword puzzles. It is so easy to talk to strangers. She loves the job until she doesn’t.
There is an interesting cast. Her coworkers are girls who are also messy. They are different races, from different places, but all lost together. They give themselves names like China and Bubbles and Misty, and at the end of a long shift they hardly remember who belongs to which name. My character has many different names. She wakes up and says, “Tonight, I’m Delilah, Morgan, Becky.” She wants to be anyone else.
This is late-night television. Cable. China does heroin in the bathroom at work. Sometimes, she leaves a burnt strip of tinfoil on the counter. The manager calls them all into her office and yells. The girls will never rat China out. Bubbles has baby daddy problems. Sometimes, her man drops her off at work and girls smoking in the parking lot watch as Bubbles and her man yell at each other, terrible things. In another episode, the baby daddy drops Bubbles off and they practically fuck in the front seat. Misty has been on her own since she was sixteen. She is very skinny and has scabs all over her arms and never seems to wash her hair. After most shifts, the girls go to Jack in the Box and then lie out by the pool of the house where my character is staying. The girls tell my character how lucky she is to live in a house with air-conditioning. They have swamp coolers and live in crappy apartments. My character stares up at the sun from the diving board where she loves to stretch out and thinks, bitterly, Yes, I am so fucking lucky. She is too young to realize that compared to them she is lucky. She ran away but still has something to run back to when she is ready. My character doesn’t come to this realization until the season finale.
Every woman has a series of episodes about her twenties, her girlhood, and how she came out of it. Rarely are those episodes so neatly encapsulated as an episode of, say, Friends, or a romantic comedy about boy meeting girl.
Girls have been written and represented in popular culture in many different ways. Most of these representations have been largely unsatisfying because they never get girlhood quite right. It is not possible for girlhood to be represented wholly—girlhood is too vast and too individual an experience. We can only try to represent girlhood in ways that are varied and recognizable. All too often, however, this doesn’t happen.
We put a lot of responsibility on popular culture, particularly when some pop artifact somehow distinguishes itself as not terrible. In the months and weeks leading up to the release of Bridesmaids, for example, there was a great deal of breathless talk about the new ground the movie was breaking, how yes, indeed, women are funny. Can you believe it? There was a lot of pressure on that movie. Bridesmaids had to be good if any other women-driven comedies had any hope of being produced. This is the state of affairs for women in entertainment—everything hangs in the balance all the time.
Bridesmaids could not afford to fail, and didn’t. The movie received a positive critical reception (the New York Times referred to the movie as “unexpectedly funny”) and did well at the box office. Critics lauded the cast for their fresh performances. Some people even used the word “revolution” for the change the movie would bring for women in comedy.
A revolution is a sudden, radical, or complete change—a fundamental shift in the way of thinking about or visualizing something. Could one movie really be responsible for a revolution? Bridesmaids is a good movie, one I really enjoyed—smart humor, good acting, a relatable plot, a somewhat realistic portrayal of women in a cinematic wasteland where representations of women are generally appalling. Bridesmaids isn’t perfect, but given the unfair responsibility placed on the movie, the burden was shouldered well. At the same time, the movie did not bring about radical change, particularly when, as Michelle Dean discusses in her review of the movie for The Awl, many of the familiar tropes we see in comedies and in the depictions of women are present in Bridesmaids. She notes that the portrayal of Melissa McCarthy’s character, Megan, in particular, treads familiar ground: “Almost every joke was designed to rest on her presumed hideousness, and her ribald but unmistakably ‘butch’ sexuality was grounded primarily in her body type and an aversion to makeup.” Within this context, considering Bridesmaids revolutionary is a bit much.
Why do we put so much responsibility on movies like Bridesmaids? How do we get to a place where a movie, one movie, can be considered revolutionary for women?
There’s another woman-oriented pop artifact being asked to shoulder a great deal of responsibility these days: Lena Dunham’s Girls, a television series on HBO. The show debuted to a lot of hype. Critics almost universally embraced Dunham’s vision and the way she chronicles the lives of four twenty-something girls navigating that interstitial time between graduating from college and growing up.
I am not the target audience for Girls. I was not particularly enthralled by the first three episodes or the first two seasons, but the show gave me a great deal to think about. That counts for something. The writing is often smart and clever. I laughed a few times during each episode and recognize the ways in which this show is breaking new ground. I admire how Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, doesn’t have the typical body we normally see on television. There is some solidity to her. We see her eat, enthusiastically. We see her fuck. We see her endure the petty humiliations so many young women have to endure. We see the life of one kind of real girl and that is important.
It’s awesome that a twenty-five-year-old woman gets to write, direct, and star in her own show for a network like HBO. It’s just as sad that this is so revolutionary it deserves mention.
A generation is a group of individuals born and living contemporaneously. In the pilot, Hannah Horvath is explaining to her parents why she needs them to keep supporting her financially. She says, “I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a generation … somewhere.” We have so many expectations; we’re so thirsty for authentic representations of girls that we only hear the first half of that statement. We hear that Girls is supposed to speak for all of us.
At times, I find Girls and the overall premise to be forced. Amidst all the cleverness, I want the show to have a stronger emotional tone. I want to feel something genuine, and rarely has the show given me that opportunity. Too many of the characters seem like caricatures, where more nuance would better serve both the characters and their story lines. In the first season, for example, Hannah’s not-boyfriend, Adam, is a depressing, disgusting composite of every asshole every woman in her twenties has ever dated. We would get the point if he were even half the asshole. The pedophile fantasy Adam shares at the beginning of the “Vagina Panic” episode is cringe-worthy. The ironic rape joke Hannah makes during her job interview in that same episode is cringe-worthy. It all feels very “Look at me! I am edgy!” Maybe that’s the point. I cannot be sure. More often than not, the show is trying too hard to do too much, but that’s okay. This show should not have to be perfect.
Girls reminds me of how terrible my twenties were—being lost and awkward, having terrible sex with terrible people, being perpetually broke, eating ramen. I am not nostalgic for that time. I had no money and no hope. Like the girls in Girls, I was never really on the verge of destitution but I lived a generally crappy life. There was nothing romantic about the experience. I understand why many young women find the show so relatable, but watching the show makes me slightly nauseated and exceptionally grateful to be in my thirties.
As you might expect, the discourse surrounding Girls has been remarkably extensive and vigorous—nepotism, privilege, race. Dunham has given us a veritable trifecta of reasons to dissect her show.
Lena Dunham is, indeed, the daughter of a well-known artist, and the principal cast comprises the daughters of other well-known figures like Brian Williams and David Mamet. People resent nepotism because it reminds us that sometimes success really is whom you know. This nepotism is mildly annoying, but it is not new or remarkable. Many people in Hollywood make entire careers out of hiring their friends for every single project. Adam Sandler has done it for years. Judd Apatow does it with such regularity you don’t need to consult IMDb to know whom he will cast in his projects.
Girls also represents a very privileged existence—one where young women’s New York lifestyles can be subsidized by their parents, where these young women can think about art and unpaid internships and finding themselves and writing memoirs at twenty-four. Many people are privileged, and again, it’s easy to resent that because the level of privilege expressed in the show reminds us that sometimes, success really starts with where you come from. Girls is a fine example of someone writing what she knows and the painful limitations of doing so.
One of the most significant critiques of Girls is the relative absence of race. The New York where Girls takes place is much like the New York where Sex and the City was set—a mythical city completely void of the rich diversity of the very real New York. The critique is legitimate, and people across many publications have written deeply felt essays about why it is damaging for a show like Girls to completely negate certain experiences and realities. In the second season, Girls tried and failed to bring race into the show in a relevant way. During the premiere, Hannah has a black boyfriend and it’s handled fairly well. The boyfriend, Sandy, is conservative, and there’s a clever moment in which Hannah claims she doesn’t see race, thereby exposing that she is not nearly as evolved as she might believe. The episode is smart, but not smart enough because it misses the point—clever defiance does not a diversity problem address.
Every girl or once-was-girl has a show that would be best for her. In Girls we finally have a television show about girls who are awkward and say terribly inappropriate things, are ill equipped to set boundaries for themselves and have no idea who they’re going to be in a few years. We have so many expectations for this show because Girls is a significant shift in what we normally see about girls and women. While critics, in their lavish attention, have said Dunham’s show is speaking to an entire generation of girls, there are many of us who recognize that the show is only speaking to a narrow demographic within a generation.
Maybe the narrowness of Girls is fine. Maybe it’s also fine that Dunham’s vision of coming-of-age is limited to the kinds of girls she knows. Maybe, though, Dunham is a product of the artistic culture that created her—one that is largely myopic and unwilling to think about diversity critically.
We all have ideas about the way the world should be, and sometimes we forget how the world is. The absence of race in Girls is an uncomfortable reminder of how many people lead lives segregated by race and class. The stark whiteness of the cast, their upper-middle-class milieu, and the New York where they live force us to interrogate our own lives and the diversity, or lack thereof, in our social, artistic, and professional circles.
Don’t get me wrong. The stark whiteness of Girls disturbs and disappoints me. During the first season, I wondered why Hannah and her friends didn’t have at least one blipster friend or why Hannah’s boss at the publishing house or one or more of the girls’ love interests couldn’t be an actor of color. The show is so damn literal. Still, Girls is not the first show to commit this transgression, and it certainly won’t be the last. It is unreasonable to expect Dunham to somehow solve the race and representation problem on television while crafting her twenty-something witticisms and appalling us with sex scenes so uncomfortable they defy imagination.
In recent years, I have enjoyed looking at pictures from literary events, across the country, wondering if I will see a person of color. It’s a game I play that I generally win. Whether the event takes place in Los Angeles or New York City or Austin or Portland, more often than not, the audiences at these events are completely white. Sometimes, there will be one or two black people, perhaps an Asian. At most of these literary events I attend, I am generally the only spot of color, even at a large writers’ conference like Association of Writers & Writing Programs events. It’s not that people of color are deliberately excluded but that they are not included because most communities, literary or otherwise, are largely insular and populated by people who know the people they know. This is the uncomfortable truth of our community, and it is disingenuous to be pointing the finger at Girls when the show is a pretty accurate reflection of many artistic communities.
There’s more, though, to this intense focus on privilege and race and Girls. Why is this show being held to the higher standard when there are so many television shows that have long ignored race and class or have flagrantly transgressed in these areas?
There are so many terrible shows on television representing women in sexist, stupid, silly ways. Movies are even worse. Movies take one or two anemic ideas about women, caricature them, and shove those caricatures down our throats. The moment we see a pop artifact offering even a sliver of something different—say, a woman who isn’t a size zero or who doesn’t treat a man as the center of the universe—we cling to it desperately because that representation is all we have. There are all kinds of television shows and movies about women but how many of them make women recognizable?
There are few opportunities for people of color to recognize themselves in literature, in theater, on television, and in movies. It’s depressingly easy for women of color to feel entirely left out when watching a show like Girls. It is rare that we ever see ourselves as anything but the sassy black friend or the nanny or the secretary or the district attorney or the magical negro—roles relegated to the background and completely lacking in authenticity, depth, or complexity.
One of the few equivalents to Girls we’ve ever had was Girlfriends, created by Mara Brock Akil. Girlfriends debuted in 2000 and ran for 172 episodes. It followed the lives and close friendships of four black women in Los Angeles—Joan (Tracee Ellis Ross), Maya (Golden Brooks), Lynn (Persia White), and Toni (Jill Marie Jones). I particularly admire how the show rarely made race its focal point. Joan, Maya, Lynn, and Toni simply lived their lives. They were all professionals (a lawyer, a writer and secretary, a real estate agent, and an artist/actress/whimsy of the week) who dealt with job stresses, romantic troubles, romantic successes, and new adventures, and tried to become better women. It took me years to appreciate Girlfriends and I’m not sure why, but once I fell in love with the show, I fell hard. Finally, I was able to recognize something about myself in popular culture. The writing was smart and funny, and the show did a good job of depicting the lives of women of color in their late twenties and thirties. The show wasn’t perfect, but the women were human and they were portrayed humanely. Girlfriends, to be sure, is a show that never received the critical attention or audience it deserved, but it lasted for eight seasons and still has a very dedicated fan base of women who remain so relieved to see themselves in some small way.
Women of color come of age and have the same experiences Dunham depicts in her shows, but we rarely see those stories because they don’t fit the popular imagination’s rendering of Other girlhood, which is generally nonexistent in popular culture. At least there have been a few shows for black women to recognize themselves—the aforementioned Girlfriends, Living Single, A Different World, The Cosby Show. What about other women of color? For Hispanic and Latina women, Indian women, Middle Eastern women, Asian women, their absence in popular culture is even more pronounced, their need for relief just as palpable and desperate.
The incredible problem Girls faces is that all we want is everything from each movie or television show or book that promises to offer a new voice, a relatable voice, an important voice. We want, and rightly so, to believe our lives deserve to be new, relatable, and important. We want to see more complex, nuanced depictions of what it really means to be whoever we are or were or hope to be. We just want so much. We just need so much.
I’m more interested in a show called Grown Women about a group of friends who finally have great jobs and pay all their bills in a timely manner but don’t have any savings and still deal with sloppy love lives and hangovers on Monday morning at work. That show doesn’t exist, though, because stability holds little allure for the popular imagination and Hollywood rarely acknowledges women of a certain age. Until that show comes along or I decide to write it, we have to deal with what we have.
I Once Was Miss America
In 1984, Vanessa Williams became Miss America. She would later have to step down because of a nude photo scandal, but when she was first crowned it was an amazing moment for black girls everywhere. Williams was the first black woman to wear the Miss America crown in the pageant’s sixty-three-year history. I was not the kind of girl who cared much about pageants or being a beauty queen, but watching Williams and her perfect cheekbones and glittering teeth as she accepted the crown gave girls like me ideas. That moment made us believe we too could be beautiful.
While Vanessa Williams offered black girls a new image of who the All-American Girl could be, the more traditional image of the All-American Girl could be found in Sweet Valley, an idyllic town in sunny Southern California where the lawns are perfectly manicured. Everyone is fit and beautiful and successful. As is the case in most perfect places, life in Sweet Valley is episodic. There is a narrative arc to each day or week or month, always a valuable lesson to be learned from life’s experiences. The endings, in Sweet Valley, are mostly happy. The meek inherit. All good things come to those who wait. There is nowhere in the world like Sweet Valley.
Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield are the sweethearts of Sweet Valley. They are blond and thin and perfect even with all their human flaws. The Wakefield sisters are twins—twice the perfection. Elizabeth is the good twin, and Jessica is the more rebellious twin. Jessica is a bad, bad girl, even though in Sweet Valley, a bad girl is never quite that bad. The sisters wear matching lavaliere necklaces, and they drive a red Fiat. Elizabeth and Jessica love each other and are best friends, but they are also rivals. Sisters are complicated even when they are perfect.
Elizabeth is responsible and universally adored for her sweetness and patience. She wants to be a journalist. She loves Todd Wilkins, a tall, handsome, and popular basketball player. She works on the school paper and is a cheerleader—smart and athletic, the perfect combination.
Jessica likes boys and partying. She is charming and enjoys gossip, flirting, and shopping. She loves to borrow Elizabeth’s clothes, and Elizabeth puts up with it because you cannot say no to Jessica Wakefield. She’s a cheerleader too, and although she comes off as a bit of an airhead, Jessica has depth and intelligence. She sometimes says unkind things, but that’s because she is impulsive and has a bit of a temper. She’s all emotion. Jessica is the kind of girl who gives in to her impulses, while Elizabeth controls her urges, at least most of the time.
The Wakefield twins aren’t real; they are the main characters of the Sweet Valley High series. I started reading the Sweet Valley High books when I was eight or nine years old. I was cross-eyed and wore thick bifocals. Other than my younger brother, I was the only black kid in school, so I was going to be noticed even though I wanted very much to go unnoticed. I was shy and awkward and didn’t know how to fix myself. My hair was wild, stood on end, earning me the inexplicable nicknames Hair, Beard, and Mustache even though I had neither a beard nor a mustache. My classmates also called me Don King. I looked nothing like Don King. He’s a man, for one. I was told my parents “talked funny,” which I later realized was a reference to their thick Haitian accents, which I did not hear until they were pointed out to me, and then suddenly those accents were all I heard. I read books while I walked to school. I had the strangest laugh—somewhat halted and tentative—and a bit of a bucktooth situation. I regularly wore overalls by choice and didn’t really know any curse words, so that should give you a sense of where I was on the social ladder—reaching for the bottom rung.
When I first started reading Sweet Valley High books, I wanted girls like the Wakefield twins to love me. I wanted the handsome boys who chased girls like those Wakefield twins to love me. I wanted the popular kids to pull me into the shelter of their golden embrace and make me popular too. Popularity is contagious. Many movies from the 1980s bear this theory out. I had hope, is what I’m saying, though certainly that hope was fragile.
There was one particular group of golden, popular kids at my school. They’re in every school, an interchangeable infestation of good genes and big smiles and perfect hair and Guess or Girbaud jeans. I don’t remember much about grade school, but I remember the first and last names of the popular kids. If I returned to my childhood neighborhood, I could point out their houses and other geographical points of interest. I watched the popular kids all the time, trying to figure out how to breathe the air in their atmosphere. They were so American and, therefore, exotic because they had freedoms I did not. I was a different kind of American. I had conservative Haitian parents who wanted the best for their kids but were also very wary of American permissiveness. I was American at school and Haitian at home. This required negotiating a fine balance, and I am a clumsy person.
There is nothing more desperate and unrequited than the love an unpopular girl nurtures for the cool kids. One day, the kids in the popular clique were teasing me, about what, I do not remember. I got angrier and angrier as they taunted me, not only because they were teasing me but also because I was so painfully aware of the gaping distance between where we were and where I wanted us to be—walking through the mall, arm in arm, or sharing secrets at a slumber party, or gossiping about cute boys. I liked the mall. I had secrets. I liked cute boys.
That day, though, I needed to come up with a snappy retort to show them they couldn’t push me around, to show them I was cool too, to stand my ground. I pointed my fingers at them like Miss Celie laying a curse on Mister in The Color Purple, and I shouted, “One day, just you wait and see. I’m going to become Miss America.” That was my mother’s nickname for me, Miss America. I’m her beloved firstborn, her first child born in these United States. I loved my nickname. Those popular kids laughed and laughed. For the rest of that year and into the next, they teased me mercilessly about being Miss America, asking how my campaign was going, making comments about sashes and crowns, prancing around in front of me doing the Miss America wave. They incorporated props. Those kids made it clear I didn’t have a shot in hell at the crown, but I’m stubborn and Vanessa Williams had won Miss America so I began to sincerely believe I was going to become Miss America. I reminded my classmates of my belief regularly, which only fueled their petty torments. I have no idea where I was going with that strategy.
The Sweet Valley High books were extremely popular when I was young, and most girls immediately identified as an Elizabeth or a Jessica. Most of the people who knew me would assume I was an Elizabeth, minus her popularity, but I wasn’t. In my head and in my heart, I was a bad girl: misunderstood and interesting. I was a Jessica—a girl who was confident and sexy and smart, a girl everyone wanted to be around. I was the future Miss America, ordained by my mother and Vanessa Williams.
I always knew there was something unnatural about Sweet Valley. I did not care. I still don’t. I was well aware not everyone lives in a perfect suburb with perfect parents leading perfect lives. I had been to Haiti, seen incomprehensible poverty with my own eyes, so I knew my relatively good fortune was an accident of birth. I knew there is rarely such a thing as a happy ending. I understood that the Sweet Valley High books espouse an unrealistic, narrow ideal of beauty (blond, white, thin) and that any town where everyone looks and acts the same is not to be trusted. The one time a citizen of Sweet Valley (Steven Wakefield, the twins’ older brother) dated interracially, that relationship lasted for only one book (#94) because the couple decided, in the end, that they were too different. I also knew that verdict was suspect.
Like many writers, I lived inside of books as a child. Inside books I could get away from the impossible things I had to deal with. When I read I was never lonely or tormented or scared. I read everything I could get my hands on, and my parents indulged and encouraged me. They were strict about things like television and grades, but they never censored my reading material or questioned my love of Sweet Valley. We moved around a lot for my father’s job, but Sweet Valley never moved and the people never changed. The kids in Sweet Valley were a constant, and in a small, poignant way, they were my friends.
I waited for new Sweet Valley High books the way other kids waited for new comics or movie releases. Each time my mother took me to the mall, I went straight to Waldenbooks and quickly scanned the shelves in the Young Adult section, wondering what the twins and their friends and enemies would get into next. When the series began churning out thick super editions, I could have died and gone to Sweet Valley heaven. As my collection of Sweet Valley High books grew, I maintained the set meticulously, keeping the books in perfect order and pristine condition. Sometimes my brothers would sneak into my room and reorder the books. Minor skirmishes would erupt between us that often ended with me doing something like burying their favorite toys in the backyard. I was quite serious about my Sweet Valley High books.
Nostalgia is powerful. It is natural, human, to long for the past, particularly when we can remember our histories as better than they were. Life happens faster than I can comprehend. I am nearly forty, but my love of Sweet Valley remains strong and immediate. When I read the books now, I know I’m reading garbage, but I remember what it was like to spend my afternoons in Sweet Valley, hanging out with the Wakefield twins and Enid Rollins and Lila Fowler and Bruce Patman and Todd Wilkins and Winston Egbert. The nostalgia I feel for these books and these people makes my chest ache.
When I learned Francine Pascal was releasing Sweet Valley Confidential, an update to the Sweet Valley High series, set ten years into the future, I basically lost my shit and began obsessing about what was going down in Sweet Valley. I began marking the days until the book’s release.
At 2:30 in the morning, on the day of its release, Sweet Valley Confidential downloaded to my Kindle. I spent the next three hours reading. There wasn’t a page I turned, electronically speaking, where I didn’t think Girrrrrrrrrl, laugh aloud, or mutter “Mmmm.” Reading this book was a vocal and emotional experience. I went to work, and when I got home, I read Sweet Valley Confidential again. The book was, as you might imagine, terrible, an insult to the memory of the original Sweet Valley High series. As I read, I kept thinking, They could have called me. I work cheap. “They,” of course, have no idea who I am, but still, it hurt to know how many fans of Sweet Valley are out there, fans who could have written this book in the manner it deserved.
Sweet Valley Confidential makes you understand why so many people are lamenting the death of publishing. The book is bewildering. On a fundamental level, the writing is extremely bad. The world “appalling” comes to mind. The narrative structure is so deeply flawed it physically pained me. The story jumps from the present told in third person past tense to the past told in first person present tense. Sometimes the narrator changes from one twin to the next, and then other times the narrator is another, lesser character. I have spent more time than I care to admit trying to make sense of these authorial choices. Every so often, some sort of Web 2.0, social media reference is dropped into the narrative as if Pascal is saying, “Look, I’m still relevant! Twitter! Facebook! Oh my!”
The twins and their friends are all a decade older, but there is little evidence of any emotional maturity. You would expect that the twins, as women in their late twenties, would have sex lives, but most of the sex in the book is strangely antiseptic, eroticism from another room, as if the audience is still tween and teen girls. When you do see a bit of Elizabeth’s or Jessica’s sexual personas, it’s written so you can only cringe. Many of the petty grievances from high school linger, and most of the characters come off as the very worst people in the world. The whole enterprise has the feel of caricature. The twins have been written in such a way that makes you think Pascal (who created the series but didn’t write any of the original books) has no idea who the Wakefield twins are. Elizabeth and Jessica display behaviors so uncharacteristic that the simplest explanation is that Elizabeth and Jessica have both been lobotomized. I don’t want to give too much away, but throughout the novel, we’re supposed to feel sorry for Elizabeth. However, she is portrayed as such a self-indulgent, self-pitying sop of a woman you start to feel like she deserves her misery. Jessica, on the other hand, we’re supposed to hate, but she’s professionally successful and in a loving relationship and has a personality. She seems rational and interesting and as vibrant as ever. She makes mistakes but in a really human, endearing way. When you find yourself rooting for the person you’re supposed to hate because of the overall plot of the novel, the narrative has taken a drastically wrong turn. (For the record, TEAM JESSICA 4 EVA!)
One thing remains gloriously the same, though: the gratuitous descriptions of Elizabeth and Jessica’s beauty.
In Sweet Valley High 1: Double Love, the twins are described thusly:
With their shoulder-length blond hair, blue-green eyes, and perfect California tans, Elizabeth and Jessica were exact duplicates of one another, down to the tiny dimples in their left cheeks when they smiled. Each wore a gold lavaliere around her neck—matching presents from their parents on their sixteenth birthday last June.
Twenty-eight years later, in Sweet Valley Confidential, the twins look much the same, though their description has aged finely, like wine:
Like the twins of that poem, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield appeared interchangeable, if you considered only their faces.
And what faces they were.
Gorgeous. Absolutely amazing. The kind you couldn’t stop looking at. Their eyes were shades of aqua that danced in the light like shards of precious stones, oval and fringed with thick, light brown lashes long enough to cast a shadow on their cheeks. Their silky blond hair, the cascading kind, fell just below their shoulders. And to complete the perfection, their rosy lips looked as if they were penciled on. There wasn’t a thing wrong with their figures, either. It was as if billions of possibilities all fell together perfectly.
When I first read the passage from Sweet Valley Confidential, I woke someone up with my laughter. I literally applauded because I was so thrilled by the exquisite badness.
To be fair, Sweet Valley Confidential could never have satisfied the expectations of those of us who fell in love with the original Sweet Valley High series. Like I said, nostalgia is powerful and that power builds with time; it often reshapes our memories. It’s not that the original Sweet Valley High books were the mark of great literature, but that to some preteen and teenage girls, the books were the most familiar and resonant expressions of our angst and our fondest wishes for ourselves, the girls we wanted to become. There is a young girl-heart still throbbing in many of us. Those of us who read Sweet Valley Confidential were looking to recapture some of the Sweet Valley magic from our youth.
Despite the book’s flaws, the magic was very much there for me. I easily embraced the drama, the absurdity, the wild implausibilities. You would not believe what’s going down in Sweet Valley and who has ended up with whom, but let me tell you, it’s all a delicious scandal. Someone’s gay! Someone betrayed her sister. Someone’s living in New York City. Someone got married to a wealthy but controlling man and lived in Europe until she escaped. Someone is engaged to be married and everyone’s talking. A guy we all thought was a prince of a man is really just a man. Someone has turned into a real bitch. Someone uses baking to sublimate her sorrow. Someone had cancer. Someone became a real asshole. Someone hasn’t changed one little bit. Someone got filthy rich. Someone got filthier rich. Someone died. Someone loves someone else in a tragic, unrequited way. Amidst all the drama, some things in Sweet Valley don’t change. There are many happy endings. As mindless, escapist entertainment, Sweet Valley Confidential delivers.
I was never going to become Miss America. I know that now. Vanessa Williams and her glittering teeth could only do so much. Nonetheless, I continue to have a very active fantasy life. In one of my more elaborate, embarrassing flights of fancy, I win an Oscar for writing the Best Adapted Screenplay based on my bestselling novel, which has graced the New York Times bestseller list for at least fifty-seven weeks. At the Oscar ceremony I am wearing something flawless by a designer with a long, exotic name. My hair and face are beat. I don’t trip when I walk up the stairs in my Louboutins to accept my honor. My date is my husband, who is the most handsome, famous movie star in the world. He is madly, uxoriously in love with me, and he beams as I stare into the audience. He will win Best Actor later in the evening because he starred in my movie. That’s how we met. In my acceptance speech, I thank my parents and my agents and my famous movie-star husband and my friends. I thank Francine Pascal for creating the land of Sweet Valley and Vanessa Williams for teaching me I could be beautiful. Then I call out the names of the golden, popular kids who never loved me. I raise my Oscar over my head with one hand, and I point my fingers at a camera with the other, once again like Miss Celie laying a curse on Mister. I say, “I once told you I was going to become Miss America. This isn’t the Miss America crown, but it’s pretty damn close.”
As a black girl, as a Haitian girl, I was not supposed to see myself in the Sweet Valley High books, but I did. Perhaps it was because I too lived in the suburbs, perhaps it was because I was looking for the way toward a perfect life and becoming Miss America, but I felt the Sweet Valley stories deeply. I read and reread the books countless times. The drama, recycled plots, and ludicrous circumstances spoke to me profoundly. This may also explain why in high school I become utterly devoted to Beverly Hills 90210, which took the Sweet Valley High formula and elevated it to high art. Sweet Valley Confidential reminded me of my most awkward years and the silly promise I made to a silly group of kids. The book reminded me of the solace, escape, and quiet joy I found in Sweet Valley. Some experiences are universal. A girl is a girl whether she lives in West Omaha or Sweet Valley. Books are often far more than just books.
Garish, Glorious Spectacles
The green girl likes to watch herself suffer.
—KATE ZAMBRENO, Green Girl
In her groundbreaking book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler asserts that gender is a performance, an unstable identity that forms through how it is performed over and over. She writes,
Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts. The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.
While our conceptions of gender have evolved since the publication of Gender Trouble, there is a lot to be said for Butler’s theory, particularly when it comes to the ways in which women, knowingly or unknowingly, perform femininity and the ways in which women are sometimes trapped by how they are expected to perform their gender.
In popular culture, the world often feels like a stage on which women perform, and no novel in recent memory has captured this performance and how fraught it can be better than Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl.
The best word to describe Green Girl is “searing.” The novel is at once a compelling narrative about a young American woman living in London and an indictment of what ails our culture—rampant consumerism, shallow human connection, and, most of all, the cult of beauty and the unbearable and impossible constraints of gender—a culture where women wear their faces as masks, their bodies as shields. Throughout the novel, the green girl is as foolishly bold as she is vulnerable. She inhabits her contradictions in deeply seductive ways.
If, as Butler believes, gender is a performance, Green Girl is a novel about a young woman who is learning how to perform her femininity, who is learning the power of it, the fragility. Her education is, at times, painful. The green girl is as vicious as she is vulnerable, and Zambreno deftly exposes both this viciousness and vulnerability in her protagonist. Green Girl reveals the intimate awareness many women have about the ways they are on display when they move in public, about the ways they perform their roles as women: “The awareness on the train, the fashion show. The men are always looking, always looking with their flirty eyes. One can shop but does not have to buy. But sometimes life in the spotlight can be difficult. Sometimes she wants to be invisible.”
In Green Girl, Ruth is playing the part of girl. Her performance, at times, stands in place of her identity. As Ruth realizes, “Sometimes she is struck by the sense that she is someone else’s character, that she is saying someone else’s lines.” The green girl also does one thing and feels another because “the passivity of the green girl masquerades as politeness.” She wants to put her fist through a window but doesn’t because she knows that’s not what is expected of a green girl. She knows she is beautiful but does not necessarily feel her beauty inside. Throughout the novel, these tensions are brightly exposed over and over. At times, the novel makes it seem that to be a green girl is to be in a rather hopeless predicament.
Ruth is a shopgirl responsible for selling a perfume, Desire. She is always on display at work while also part of the scenery. One morning at work, she observes a group of teenage girls: “The girls slinking up the aisles have a rehearsed quality to them, their purses positioned just so on their shoulders, their eyes downcast yet somehow watchful. They cannot escape this self-awareness. They are playing the role of young girls, girls younger than Ruth.” There is an irony in Ruth’s observations. Throughout the novel, she plays the role of the young woman and her self-awareness (and, at times, self-loathing) is palpable and as inescapable as the self-awareness she sees in those teenage girls.
Zambreno demonstrates the self-absorption and vanity of the green girl, her insecurities, the mask(s) she wears, her conflicting desires. At times, Ruth wants to shield herself from the gaze of strangers. She closes in on herself, tries to occupy as little space as possible whether walking down the street or taking the tube. At other times, she wants to be seen, desired, loved. She is, at one point, willing to exploit herself to an unnamed former lover: “She prays to be preyed upon. She is a deer standing in the middle of the forest road, knees buckling, begging for a predator.” Ruth, like so many of us, wants everything, all at once.
Though this is a novel about women, there are, indeed, men in Green Girl: the man at work Ruth longs for, the brutal former lover she longs for, the seemingly platonic lover she yearns for until they consummate their relationship at which point she longs for something else. Ruth has desires, but those desires seem largely removed, lacking in immediacy, and rarely do those desires come into sharp relief. When Ruth has sex, it is often in a detached manner, her partners rather incidental to the act, Ruth herself incidental to the act. Ruth has an assignation with a bartender in the supply room of the bar, her detachment finely honed. “She is the voyeur of herself,” Ruth observes. And later, when Ruth and the bartender are fucking, “she has seen it all before, as if in a dream. But she is not really there. Not really.”
In “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Hélène Cixous states, “Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.” Green Girl is fascinating for the ways Zambreno puts woman into the text, physically and emotionally:
Ruth wants to escape. She wants to escape outside of herself. Everywhere she goes she wants to confide: Do you know what it’s like not to be able to shake your own quality? She doesn’t want to be. She doesn’t want to live. She wants to lose herself, lose herself in the crowd. She is somehow numbed to the horrors of everyday. Images, other images haunt her brain. The violence of life, she observes blankly.
More than anything, Green Girl is relentless in what it reveals about the green girl and her inner life, the emptiness and loneliness, the naked violence of it, how she must swallow it “deep deep inside.” The novel makes it seem like there is a green girl inside all of us, as desperately fragile as she is resilient. The green girl is able to understand the damage she does to herself even if she does nothing to prevent it.
If Ruth is woman as green girl rising, Maria Wyeth in Joan Didion’s equally scorching Play It as It Lays is the green girl as she falls, the green girl as she tires of playing the part of girl, the green girl as she decides to stop playing the part of girl because she no longer has any need (or, perhaps, desire) to do it. Even though Play It as It Lays was published in 1970, little has changed when it comes to woman as spectacle. Maria Wyeth is tormented and a bit tragic, but there is tenacity about her. The novel chronicles Maria’s descent into madness after having an abortion at the bidding of her estranged husband; her descent is more controlled than you might imagine.
Play It as It Lays reveals a complex web of relationships among Maria and her husband, Carter; their friends Helene and BZ; her lover, Les Goodwin; and her former lover, Ivan Costello, and it also discloses how these people break themselves against one another in rather terrible ways. There is also a young daughter, Kate, suffering from an unspecified condition and living at a facility away from home, a daughter Maria openly yearns for and who is the one person in the novel for whom she demonstrates genuine affection.
Like Ruth, the green girl, Maria, as a never-quite-model-and-actress, is always on display and aware of it, craving the attention as much as she despises it. Living in Hollywood, she is, like Ruth in the store where she works, just another part of the scenery of desperate and drugged women who, as Maria refers to her own beauty, “looked all right” and move through their lives playing the proper parts. Like Ruth, Maria is self-absorbed and selfish, but she has a stronger awareness of these flaws. She enjoys watching a movie she starred in because “the girl on the screen seemed to have a definite knack for controlling her own destiny.” Just as Ruth often feels like she is someone else’s character, Maria, as an actress, has had opportunities to become someone else’s character to similar effect.
As a fading green girl, Maria remains detached. She loves her daughter and mourns her mother, but like with Ruth in Green Girl, she approaches most of her relationships clinically, with a bemused detachment. She rarely indicates a genuine interest in preserving her marriage and has little tolerance for the men in her life. When her lover, Les, leaves three messages, she asks her answering service to tell him she hasn’t picked up her messages because “she had nothing to say to any of them.” After she has an abortion, she meets Les Goodwin and he asks what’s wrong with her. She says, “I am just very very very tired of listening to you all.” What the people in her life label, throughout the novel, as insanity or selfishness reads quite clearly as weariness—a weariness of playing her part properly, of being on display, of being the ingenue and good green girl.
The literature of abortion is complex. Certainly, there are novels like Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion and John Irving’s Cider House Rules, among others. These literary treatments of abortion often struggle to strike the proper balance between narrative and political message. Didion’s treatment of the subject is far more nuanced—the message does not subsume the story. This is a story about abortion, but it is also a story about what happens to the green girl who changes but does not necessarily become any less powerless, empty, filled with longing.
During the procedure, Maria is dispassionate: “No moment more or less important than any other moment, all the same: the pain as the doctor scraped signified nothing beyond itself, no more constituted the pattern of her life than did the movie on television in the living room of this house in Encino.” It is only after, when she realizes she has, perhaps, done something she would rather not have, that the emotional significance begins to affect her, and even then, she does not seem to know what to do with those emotions so she dulls them through the liberal use of barbiturates.
Even though her desires are often muted, Ruth has them. She longs for things even if she does nothing to reach for her desires. Maria Wyeth longs for things she could not possibly reach for—a dead mother, a sick daughter, an aborted fetus.
Like Ruth, Maria is willing to make herself prey, willing to be woman as victim. In a parking lot where several boys are vandalizing cars, Maria walks right toward them:
She kept her eyes steady, her pace even, and when she found herself unlocking the car under their blank gaze it was with extreme deliberation. As she slid into the driver’s seat she stared directly at each of them, one by one, and in that instant of total complicity one of them leaned across the hood and raised a hand in recognition of what had passed between them, his palm out, inscribing an arc in the still air.
When Maria emerges from such situations unscathed, there is a sense of disappointment, that she cannot be freed from her weariness.
Toward the end of Play It as It Lays, Maria has a one-night stand with an actor she doesn’t even like. As dispassionate as Ruth fucking the bartender, Maria lies still beneath the actor. When he falls asleep, Maria takes his Ferrari and drives to Vegas, near where she is pulled over by a highway patrolman for speeding. The agent she shares with her husband, Freddy, comes to rescue her and finds Maria is “still wearing the silver dress and she was still barefoot and her face was streaked with dust.” On the flight back to Los Angeles, Freddy says he doesn’t understand girls like Maria. He says, “I mean there’s something in your behavior, Maria, I would almost go so far as to call it … Almost go so far as to call it a very self-destructive personality structure.” Maria doesn’t bother to respond, and why should she? Freddy only has one idea about girls like Maria. He’s not interested in trying to understand her as an actual person.
We are left with Maria Wyeth in a psychiatric facility. She has committed a terrible crime. The people in her life think she is crazy, selfish, self-destructive. Maria is probably the sanest person in her sad group of lovers and friends. She wants nothing more than to get out and take her daughter and raise her. As the fallen green girl, Maria knows something Ruth could never know. In trying to explain herself, Maria says, “I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing.”
If Ruth is woman as green girl rising, and Maria Wyeth is the green girl in fall, the women of reality television are the green girls interrupted, green girls at their most garishly exposed, cut open for the cameras, performing the best and worst parts of themselves for attention, to be seen, for love, to be adored, for fame, to be wanted.
Reality television often gives the impression that, like gender, the whole of life is a performance. I love watching that performance—one where people reveal how we are willing to compromise ourselves for something as fleeting as fame. The Los Angeles mansion or the tropical jungle or the fading rock star’s tour bus is the stage, and what a stage it is—brightly lit, lurid, encouraging us to see the garish spectacle of life at its most artificially real. I watch it all—the faux highbrow fare of Bravo, the booze-soaked MTV programming, the glossy competition shows on CBS, the sleazy exploitative fare of VH1, and even the off-brand shows on lesser cable networks, like Bad Girls Club and Sister Wives.
No one shines more luridly on this faux-real stage than a woman. Whether it’s a modeling competition, a chance to compete for love, a weight-loss challenge, or a look into the lives of an aging magazine publisher’s harem, women are often the brightly polished trophies in the display case of reality television. The genre has developed a very successful formula for reducing women to an awkward series of stereotypes about low self-esteem, marital desperation, the inability to develop meaningful relationships with other women, and an obsession with an almost pornographic standard of beauty. When it comes to reality television, women, more often than not, work very hard at performing the part of woman, though their scripts are shamefully, shamefully warped.
Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV, by Jennifer Pozner, skewers reality television for its sexist, racist, and dehumanizing tactics in nearly every genre of reality television. While I think of myself as media literate and a feminist, I don’t know that any book I’ve read this year has made me as uncomfortable as Reality Bites Back for its incisive examination of what I have often thought of as harmless entertainment programming. I had to question what it says about me that I take so much pleasure in the drama of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or the drunken, weave-snatching antics of Rock of Love or Flavor of Love. I, like many others, take pleasure in what Pozner brands “the cathartic display of other people’s humiliations.” These shows exist because audiences need reminders of the wrong turns our lives might take.
In her analysis, Pozner reveals the many tropes reality television exploits—women as “catty, bitchy, manipulative, and not to be trusted,” for example—and how these tropes are coded into every aspect of these shows, from marketing to how the shows are scripted. The green girls interrupted are manipulated into becoming the worst versions of themselves, and while certainly anyone who goes on a reality television show in this day and age has a certain level of reality sophistication, one gets the impression, from Pozner’s critique, that these green girls do not have the intimate self-awareness of a Ruth or a Maria Wyeth. They don’t have an opportunity to develop this self-awareness because the “reality” of reality television is so heavily constructed these women can only be aware of the artifice surrounding them and the parts they are scripted to play within that artifice.
Perhaps no reality television better exemplifies the green girl interrupted, the green girl wholly aware of the artifice surrounding her and somewhat complicit in maintaining that artifice, than VH1’s now defunct “Celebreality” shows Rock of Love and Flavor of Love. In Rock of Love, women vied for the affections of fading rock star Bret Michaels, while in Flavor of Love, the women vied for the affections of has-been hype man Flavor Flav of Public Enemy. In each of these shows, the women deftly play the part of bad (green) girl or good (green) girl or good (green) girl gone bad—each pretending the former star is the center of the romantic universe amid freely flowing alcohol, forced interactions designed to create artificial but vicious conflict, writhing on stripper poles, and other luridly spectacular scenes. In Flavor of Love, the women don’t even keep their real names. Instead, Flav, as the women call him, assigns each woman a new name of his choosing because he cannot be bothered to see the green girl interrupted for who she really is. The names range from the silly (Smiley) to the degrading (Thing 1 and Thing 2). The show’s artifice allows these women to easily step into constructed identities through this renaming. The women are undoubtedly exploited, but they often seem resigned to it and willing to revel in that exploitation rather than challenge it.
In both shows, across multiple seasons, these green girls interrupted go through the motions of looking for true love with men who are contributing to the artifice by spouting hollow sentiments and platitudes as a means of seduction while metaphorically winking at the camera to let us know they know how unreal their reality is—usually during the unscripted confessionals. The exploitation, and these women’s participation in it, continued when many of the women from both shows went on to appear on spin-offs with equally artificial premises like Rock of Love: Charm School, Charm School with Ricki Lake, I Love Money, several shows for former Flavor of Love contestant New York (a.k.a. Tiffany Pollard), and on and on. During each of these shows, these women rarely demonstrate any self-awareness. Instead, they reveal how intimately aware they are of the artifice around them and what that artifice will bring them (attention, a modicum of fame, money). These green girls interrupted are the parts they must play, and within the context of these shows, they do not evolve beyond those roles. They remain interrupted.
If reality television has any connection to reality, it is that women are often called upon to perform their gender, whether through how they present themselves and their sexuality, how they behave, and how they conform (or don’t) to society’s expectations for women. The repetition of gender acts in reality television becomes grossly stylized through artificially tanned skin, elaborate hair extensions, dramatic makeup, surgically enhanced bodies, and chemically injected faces. The acts become grossly stylized through bad behavior, often carefully orchestrated by producers. Under the persistent glare of the camera, these women have little choice but to sacrifice themselves for our entertainment. The women of reality television are, perhaps, the greenest of girls, women who revel in watching themselves suffer because they have been so irrevocably interrupted they do not know what else they should do. We can’t look away. These women—these interrupted Ruths and Marias—look at their ruin. They are such garish, glorious spectacles.
At the end of Green Girl, Ruth wants some kind of rebirth, some way of making herself clean. She wants to “smash that thing that houses me inside of myself.” She decides, “I want to go to a church and direct my eyes up high and open my arms open my arms up to the ceiling. And scream. And scream. And scream.” She wants to scream in both agony and ecstasy. She wants to lose herself as much as she wants to find herself. The same thing could be said for Maria Wyeth. And, perhaps, the same thing could be said for the women of reality television as they break themselves against one another, against the camera, against the ways they are expected to perform their gender.
What may be most terrifying is just how real reality television is, after all. We say we watch these shows to feel better about ourselves, to have that reassurance that we are not that desperate. We are not that green. But perhaps we watch these shows because in the green girls interrupted, we see, more than anything, the plainest reflections of ourselves, garishly exposed but unfettered.
Not Here to Make Friends
My memory of men is never lit up and illuminated like my memory of women.
—MARGUERITE DURAS, The Lover
In my high school yearbook there is a note from a girl who wrote, “I like you even though you are very mean.” I do not remember the girl who wrote this note. I do not remember being mean to her, or to anyone, for that matter. I do remember that I was feral in high school, socially awkward, emotionally closed off, completely lost.
Or maybe I don’t want to remember being mean because I’ve changed in the twenty years between then and now. Around my junior year, I went from being quiet and withdrawn to being mean, where mean was saying exactly what I thought and making sarcastic comments relentlessly. Sincerity was dead to me.
I had so few friends it didn’t really matter how I behaved. I had nothing to lose. I had no idea what it meant to be likable, though I was surrounded by generally likable people—or, I suppose, I was surrounded by people who were very invested in projecting a likable facade, people who were willing to play by the rules. I had likable parents and brothers. I was the anomaly as a social outcast. Even from a young age I understood that when a girl is unlikable, a girl is a problem. I also understood that I wasn’t being intentionally mean. I was being honest (admittedly, without tact), and I was being human. It is either a blessing or a curse that those are rarely likable qualities in a woman.
Inevitably on every reality television program, someone will boldly declare, “I’m not here to make friends.” These people do so to establish that they are on a given program to win the nebulous prize or the bachelor’s heart or to get the exposure they need to begin their unsteady rise to a modicum of fame. They make this declaration by way of explaining their unlikability or the inevitably unkind edit they’re going to receive from the show’s producers. It isn’t that they are terrible, you see. It’s simply that they are not participating in the show to make friends. They are freeing themselves from the burden of likability, or they are, perhaps, freeing us from the burden of guilt for the dislike and eventual contempt we might hold for them.
In the movie Young Adult, Charlize Theron stars as Mavis Gary. Nearly every review of the movie raises her character’s unlikability, painting her with a bright scarlet U. Based on this character’s critical reception, an unlikable woman embodies any number of unpleasing but entirely human characteristics. Mavis is beautiful, cold, calculating, self-absorbed, full of odd tics, insensitive, and largely dysfunctional in nearly every aspect of her life. These are, apparently, unacceptable traits for a woman, particularly given the sheer number working in concert. Some reviews go so far as to suggest that Mavis is mentally ill, because there’s nothing more reliable than armchair diagnosis by disapproving critics. In his review, Roger Ebert lauds Young Adult screenwriter Diablo Cody for making Mavis an alcoholic because “without such a context, Mavis would simply be insane.” Ebert and many others require an explanation for Mavis’s behavior. They require a diagnosis for her unlikability in order to tolerate her. The simplest explanation, of Mavis as human, will not suffice.
In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be. Characters who don’t follow this code become unlikable. Critics who criticize a character’s unlikability cannot necessarily be faulted. They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptability.
Why is likability even a question? Why are we so concerned with whether, in fact or fiction, someone is likable? Unlikable is a fluid designation that can be applied to any character who doesn’t behave in a way the reader finds palatable. Lionel Shriver notes, in an essay for the Financial Times, that “this ‘liking’ business has two components: moral approval and affection.” We need characters to be lovable while they do right.
Some might suggest that this likability question is a by-product of an online culture in which we reflexively click “Like” or “Favorite” on every status update and bit of personal trivia shared on social networks. Certainly there is a culture of relentless affirmation online, but it would be shortsighted to believe that this desire to be liked, this desire to express what or whom we like, begins or ends with the Internet. I have no doubt that Abraham Maslow has some ideas about this persistent desire, in so many of us, to be liked and, in turn, to belong, to have our deftness at following the proper code of conduct affirmed.
As a writer and a person who has struggled with likability—being likable, wanting to be liked, wanting to belong—I have spent a great deal of time thinking about likability in the stories I read and those I write. I am often drawn to unlikable characters, to those who behave in socially unacceptable ways, say whatever is on their mind, and do what they want with varying levels of regard for the consequences. I want characters to do bad things and get away with their misdeeds. I want characters to think ugly thoughts and make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without apologizing for it.
I don’t even mind unlikable characters whose behavior is psychopathic or sociopathic. This is not to say I condone, for example, murder, but Patrick Bateman, in American Psycho, is a very interesting man. There is a psychiatric diagnosis for his unlikability, a deviant pathology, but he has his charms, particularly in his scathing self-awareness. Serial killers are people too, and sometimes they are funny. “My conscience,” Bateman thinks in the novel, “my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist.”
I want characters to do the things I am afraid to do for fear of making myself more unlikable than I may already be. I want characters to be the most honest of all things—human.
That the question of likability even exists in literary conversations is odd. It implies that we are engaging in a courtship. When characters are unlikable, they don’t meet our mutable, varying standards. Certainly we can find kinship in fiction, but literary merit shouldn’t be dictated by whether we want to be friends or lovers with those about whom we read.
Frankly, I find “good,” purportedly likable characters rather unbearable. Take May Welland in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. May’s likability is, to be fair, deliberate, a choice Wharton has made so Newland Archer’s passion for Countess Olenska is ever more fraught and bittersweet. Still, May is the kind of woman who always does everything right, everything that is expected of her. She is a perfect society lady. She knows how to keep up appearances. Meanwhile, everyone looks down on May’s unspoken rival and cousin, the Countess Olenska, a woman who dares to defy social conventions, who dares to not tolerate a terrible marriage, who dares to want real passion in her life even if that passion is found with an unsuitable man.
We’re not supposed to like her, but Countess Olenska intrigues me because she is interesting. She stands apart from the blur of social conformity. We’re supposed to like, or at least respect, May for being the proper and sweet innocent she carries herself as; but in Wharton’s skilled hands, we eventually see that May Welland is as human, and therefore as unlikable, as anyone else. This question of likability would be far more tolerable if all writers were as talented as Edith Wharton, but alas.
Far more pernicious than the characters whose likability serves a greater purpose within a narrative are the characters who are flatly likable. It’s a bit silly, but I spend a great deal of time, even now, lamenting the perfection of one Elizabeth Wakefield, one of the two golden twins prominently featured in the popular Sweet Valley High young adult series. Elizabeth is the good girl who always makes the right choices, even when she has to sacrifice her own happiness. She gets good grades. She’s a good daughter, sister, and girlfriend. It’s boring. Elizabeth’s likability is downright loathsome. I am Team Jessica. I prefer Nellie Olesen over Laura Ingalls Wilder.
This matter of likability is largely a futile one. Oftentimes, a likable character is simply designed as such to show that he or she is one who knows how to play by the rules and cares to be seen as playing by the rules. The likable character, like the unlikable character, is generally used to make some greater narrative point.
Often in literary criticism, writers are told that a character isn’t likable, as if a character’s likability is directly proportional to the quality of a novel’s writing. This is particularly true for women in fiction. In literature, as in life, the rules are all too often different for girls. There are many instances in which an unlikable man is billed as an antihero, earning a special term to explain those ways in which he deviates from the norm, the traditionally likable. The list, beginning with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, is long. An unlikable man is inscrutably interesting, dark, or tormented, but ultimately compelling, even when he might behave in distasteful ways. This is the only explanation I can come up with for the popularity of, say, the novels of Philip Roth, who is one hell of a writer but who also practically revels in the unlikability of his men, with their neuroses and self-loathing (and, of course, humanity) boldly on display from one page to the next.
When women are unlikable, it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations by professional and amateur critics alike. Why are these women daring to flaunt convention? Why aren’t they making themselves likable (and therefore acceptable) to polite society? In a Publishers Weekly interview with Claire Messud about her novel The Woman Upstairs, which features a rather “unlikable” protagonist, Nora, who is bitter, bereft, and downright angry about what her life has become, the interviewer said, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” And there we have it. A reader was here to make friends with the characters in a book and she didn’t like what she found.
Messud, for her part, had a sharp response for her interviewer.
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “Is this a potential friend for me?” but “Is this character alive?”
Perhaps, then, unlikable characters, the ones who are the most human, are also the ones who are the most alive. Perhaps this intimacy makes us uncomfortable because we don’t dare be so alive.
In How Fiction Works, James Wood says,
A great deal of nonsense is written every day about characters in fiction—from the side of those who believe too much in character and from the side of those who believe too little. Those who believe too much have an iron set of prejudices about what characters are: we should get to “know” them; … they should “grow” and “develop”; and they should be nice. So they should be pretty much like us.
Wood is correct, in part, but the ongoing question of character likability leaves the impression that what we’re looking for in fiction is an ideal world where people behave in ideal ways. The question suggests that characters should be reflections not of us, but of our better selves.
Wood also says, “There is nothing harder than the creation of fictional character.” I can attest to this difficulty, though with perhaps less hyperbole. I have, indeed, found several other tasks harder over the years. Regardless, characters are hard to create because we need to develop people who are interesting enough to hold a reader’s attention. We need to ensure that they are some measure of credible. We need to make them distinct from ourselves (and, in the best of all words, from those in our lives, unless of course there is a need to settle scores). Somehow they need to be well developed enough to carry a plot, or carry a narrative without a plot, or endure the tribulations we writers tend to throw at them with alacrity. It’s no wonder so many characters are unlikable, given what they have to put up with.
It is a seductive position writers put the reader in when they create an interesting, unlikable character—they make the reader complicit, in ways that are both uncomfortable and intriguing.
If people with messy lives are the point of certain narratives, if unlikable women are the point of certain narratives, novels like Battleborn, Treasure Island!!!, Dare Me, Magnificence, and many others exhibit a delightful excess of purpose, with stories filled with women who are deemed unlikable because they make so-called bad choices, describe the world exactly as they see it, and are, ultimately, honest and breathtakingly alive.
These novels depict women who are clearly not participating in their narratives to make friends and whose characters are the better for it. Freed from the constraints of likability, they are able to exist on and beyond the page as fully realized, interesting, and realistic characters. Perhaps the saying “the truth hurts” is what lies at the heart of worrying over likability or the lack thereof—how much of the truth we’re willing to subject ourselves to, how much we are willing to hurt, when we immerse ourselves in the safety of a fictional world.
Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! features a narrator who is unlikable in curious ways. She is utterly self-obsessed, acts without considering consequences, and always makes choices that will benefit herself over others. She is intensely preoccupied with the book Treasure Island and sets out to live her life by the book’s core values: BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE, and HORN-BLOWING. As the narrator careens from one self-created disaster to another, she is unrepentant. There is no redemption or lesson learned from misdeeds. There is no apology or moral to the story, and that makes an already incisive and intelligent novel even more compelling.
When you think about it, these core values the narrator in Treasure Island!!! seeks to live by—BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE, and HORN-BLOWING—are characteristics that define how supposedly unlikable women lead their fictional lives.
In Pamela Ribon’s You Take It from Here, a woman, Smidge, is dying of lung cancer and wants her best friend, Danielle, to essentially finish the job of raising her daughter and being her husband’s companion in grief. The book’s premise is an interesting one, but what really stands apart is how deeply unlikable Smidge is. She is the kind of person who, it might seem, shouldn’t have any friends—bossy, intense, controlling, unrepentant, and manipulative. And yet. She has a best friend, a daughter, a husband, and a community of people who will deeply mourn her when she is gone. Ribon’s steadfastness in this character’s lack of likability is admirable. She never panders by making Smidge somehow have some kind of epiphany of character simply because she is dying. Ribon is unwavering in what she shows us of Smidge, and the novel is the better for it.
A customer review of You Take It from Here on Amazon.com from Danae Savitri states, “I never warmed up to Smidge as a character, thought she suffered from borderline personality disorder, common among people who are charismatic narcissistics, who alternately bully, manipulate, and charm others around them.” Instead of judging the book, she calls into question a woman’s likability. Again, there is an armchair diagnosis of mental disease. Pathologizing the unlikable in fictional characters is an almost Pavlovian response.
Dare Me, by Megan Abbott, is a book about high school cheerleaders, but it is nothing like what you might expect. Populated by women who act with boldness, resolve, independence, and a prioritizing of the self, these mighty principles from Treasure Island!!!, Dare Me is both engaging and terrifying because it reveals the fraught intimacy between girls. It’s a novel about bodies and striving for perfection and ambition and desire so naked, so palpable, you cannot help but want the deeply flawed women in the book to get what they want, no matter how terribly they go about getting it. The young women at the center of the novel, Beth and Addy, are friends as much as they are enemies. They betray each other and they betray themselves. They commit wrongs, and still they are each other’s gravitational center. On the phone, after a drunken night, Beth asks Addy if she remembers
how we used to hang on the monkey bars, hooking our legs around each other, and how strong we got and how no one could ever beat us, and we could never beat each other, but we’d agree to each release our hands at the count of three, and that she always cheated, and I always let her, standing beneath, looking up at her and grinning my gap-toothed, pre-orthodontic grin.
It is a moment that shows us how Addy has always seen Beth plainly, and understood her and loved her nonetheless. Throughout the novel Beth, and Addy to an extent, remains unlikable, remains flawed, but there is no explanation for it, no clear trajectory between cause and effect. Traditional parameters of likability are deftly avoided throughout the novel in moments as honest and no less poignant as these.
Susan Lindley, a widow, has to move on after her husband’s tragic death in Lydia Millet’s Magnificence. From the outset, we know she was unfaithful to her husband. She inherits her uncle’s mansion, filled with a rotting taxidermy collection, and sets about making some kind of order, both in the mansion and in her own life. She has a daughter who is involved with her boss and a boyfriend who is married to another woman. She feels responsible for her husband’s death but is matter-of-fact in reconciling herself to this. “Was she relieved, slut that she was?” Susan thinks. “Was there something in her that was relieved by any of this? If anyone could admit such a thing, she should be able to. She was not only a slut but a killer.” Susan does go on to acknowledge that she feels a profound absence in the loss of her husband, a “freedom of nothing,” and throughout the novel she indulges in this freedom; she embraces it.
So much of Magnificence is grounded solely in Susan’s experiences, her awkward perceptions of the world she has created and continues to create for herself. We also have the pleasure of seeing a woman in her late forties as a deeply sexual being who is equally unashamed in her want for material things as she becomes more and more attached to the mansion she has inherited. Though the prose often gives over to lush excess and meditation, what remains compelling is this woman who reveals little remorse for her infidelities and the ways she tends to fail the people in her life. In a lesser novel, such remorse would be the primary narrative thrust, but in Magnificence we see how a woman, one deemed unlikable by many, is able to exist and be part of a story that expands far beyond remorse and the kinds of entrapments that could hold likable characters back. We are able to see just what the freedom of nothing looks like.
The short story collection Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins, contains many stories with seemingly unlikable women. As much as the stories are about place, all set, in some form, in the desert of the American West, several stories are about women and their strength, where their strength comes from, and how that strength can fail in unbearably human ways. The phrase “battle born” is, in fact, Nevada’s state motto—meant to represent the state’s strength, forged from struggle. In perhaps the most powerful story, “Rondine al Nido,” there is an epigraph at the beginning. Normally, I do not care for epigraphs. I don’t want my reading of a story to be framed by the writer in such an overt way. This story’s epigraph, though, is from the Bhagavad Gita, and reads, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” From the outset we know that only ruin lies ahead, and the story becomes a matter of learning just how that ruin comes about. We learn of a woman who “walks out on a man who in the end, she’ll decide, didn’t love her enough, though he in fact did love her, but his love wrenched something inside him, and this caused him to hurt her.” Really, though, this is a story about when the woman was a girl, sixteen, with a friend, Lena, the kind who would follow the narrator, “our girl,” wherever she went. There is an evening in Las Vegas, and an incident in a hotel room with some boys the girls meet, one that will irrevocably change the friendship, one that could have been avoided if a flawed young woman didn’t make the wrong choice, the choice that makes the story everything.
Perhaps the most unlikable woman in recent fictional memory is Amy in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a woman who goes to extraordinary lengths—faking her own murder and framing her husband, Nick—to punish his infidelity and keep him within her grasp. Amy was so excessively unlikable, so unrepentant, so shameless, that at times this book is intensely uncomfortable. Flynn engages in a clever manipulation in which we learn more and more about both Nick and Amy in small moments, so that we never quite know how to feel about them. We never quite know if they are likable or unlikable, and then we do know that they are both flawed, both terrible, and stuck together in many ways, and it is exhilarating to see a writer who doesn’t blink, who doesn’t pull back.
There is a line of anger that runs throughout Gone Girl, and for Amy, that anger is born of the unreasonable burdens women are so often forced to bear. The novel is a psychological thriller, but it is also an exquisite character study. Amy is, by all accounts, a woman people should like. She’s “a smart, pretty, nice girl … with so many interests and enthusiasms, a cool job, a loving family. And let’s say it: money.” Even with all these assets, Amy finds herself single at thirty-two, and then she finds Nick.
The most uncomfortable aspect of Gone Girl is the book’s honesty and how desperately similar many of us likely are to Nick and Amy in the ways they love and hate each other. The truth hurts. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts. When we finally begin to see the truth of Amy, she says of the night she met Nick,
That night at the Brooklyn party, I was playing the girl who was in style, the girl a man like Nick wants: the Cool Girl. Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding … Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl.
This is what is so rarely said about unlikable women in fiction—that they aren’t pretending, that they won’t or can’t pretend to be someone they are not. They have neither the energy for it nor the desire. They don’t have the willingness of a May Welland to play the part demanded of her. In Gone Girl, Amy talks about the temptation of being the woman a man wants, but ultimately she doesn’t give in to the temptation to be “the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.” Unlikable women refuse to give in to that temptation. They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices, and those consequences become stories worth reading.