July 15, 2016
With the girls
by Carly Miller
Gone Girl. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Girl Who Played with Fire. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Girl in the Dark. Girl with a Pearl Earring. Girl, Interrupted. The Other Boleyn Girl. Girl on the Train. The TV show Girls, for God’s sake.
Do you see where I’m going here?
Before I jump aboard the feminist train—first stop, Infantilization Station—let’s play devil’s advocate for a second. Let’s say, as crime novelist Megan Abbott recently told NPR, that this really is a marketing technique that helps women find books with “universal themes that… speak to female readers.” As a female crime author, after all, Abbot is writing in a male-dominated field, and she may just have a point that “there’s this sort of shorthand that if it has ‘girl’ in the title, then I know what to expect.” From this perspective, the word “girl” serves a real purpose, subtly helping us to shape our expectations of the book in whose title it appears. The question then is what these universal themes are, or what it is we should know to expect. All too often, it’s a narrator who, being a “girl” instead of a “woman,” is unreliable and weak — but maybe that’s just my opinion.
Why does our society so need to infantilize women, and what effect does this have on the literature we read? According to the latter-day Bible of grammar and diction that is the AP Stylebook, the term “girl” should only be used if the person in question is under eighteen years of age. None of the women in the books above meet that criterion, and yet, these women are still being referred to as girls.
Let’s discuss the implications of the word “girl.” Consider the phrase “you throw like a girl” — which suggests the average “girl” has no power, no strength, and a lack of relevant sporting experience. In America, where “we want our women to be girls and our girls to be sex fairies,” the figure of the girl drives plotlines with her naïveté and inexperience. In The Other Boleyn Girl, the titular girl’s unknowing, demure nature makes her an “unreliable narrator” — the literary cop-out of the century. The female lead of Gone Girl is a girl in her mid-thirties who chooses to fake her own death and frame her husband for murder rather than negotiate her marital problems head-on. What attracts Johannes Vermeer to the girltagonist of Girl With a Pearl Earring is her jejune innocence. That Girl On The Train? Her hysterical — literally, “uterus-derived” — behavior, fueled by gender and alcoholism, makes her unreliable, too, and more likely to get herself in a sticky situation. Lisbeth Salander, the “girl” of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is actually called a “woman” in the book’s original Swedish title — which makes sense, since few tattoo-needle-wielding avenging master hackers are in fact children.
More generally, you can call a woman “girlish” and it’s a compliment to her youthful appearance or sprightly nature — God forbid she actually looks like a woman with laughter lines and skin that isn’t painted onto the bone. Don’t even get me started on body hair and the implications of that.
So why—I can’t believe I’m still asking this question—is there a double standard?
Ah yes, The Patriarchy. Right. Totally forgot about that thing trying to overcome its fear of my ovaries and their terrible power through social control.
Lest you think Melville House mere riders on this same bandwagon, I’d refer you to a recent interview by Kirkus of our co-founder and co-publisher Dennis Loy Johnson. He spoke about the trend of “girly” novels when he fired back at those who compared our book, The Girl In The Red Coat, to Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train:
We recently published a novel that’s been one of our most successful ever—The Girl in the Red Coat, by Kate Hamer—and someone wrote a column about the trend of “Girl” books (The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl) and cited our book. But while those were unusually good books for bestsellers and we’re lucky to be compared to them, I felt like we were actually bucking the trend very specifically—after all, The Girl in the Red Coat is not a murder mystery, for one thing. It’s suspenseful, yes, but it’s mostly an elegiac story about motherhood and religious fanaticism in America. And, for another, unlike the other “Girl” books, The Girl in the Red Coat is actually about a little girl!
Which, right on.
All I’m asking for is a little more of this: books that make the bestseller list without infantilizing women in the title. And that asking is turning to pleading, as I, amongst thousands of other women, grow exasperated to be taken seriously. There’s nothing wrong with being a girl — it’s something a lot of us have been at one time or another. But unhappy marriages, alcoholism, high-security computer networks, and such? These are the concern of women. And it shouldn’t be a revelation to say so.
Carly Miller is an intern at Melville House.