The Girls by Emma Cline or, Adolescence is the Worst?

As an 8th grade teacher, I get a front row seat to what most people remember as their most awkward/hated/embarrassing stage of life. I do a lot of thinking about girls and self esteem (and gender expectations/identity in general for all adolescents).

When I think back to middle school, I remember feeling relieved to purchase the hunter green GAP sweatshirt that everyone else seemed to have, and feeling grateful to have a lunch table to sit at, and being a part of a big group of girls who all dressed as Dalmatians for Halloween. I wasn’t the prettiest or the most popular in the group, I still had the layers of insecurities, and there was plenty of drama, but having a space and a group to figure all this out in made a difference. (I’m most grateful that none of this played out on social media).

The book The Girls by Emma Cline is set in 1970s California, and loosely based on Manson family lore. The protagonist is an 8th grade girl who is lonely, insecure, and looking for more. She ends up spending most of her summer before high school at a ranch where some girls she met live, very similar to the Manson ranch. The historical perspective, the suspense of the story and wondering if she would get caught up in the violence of the group kept me turning pages, but it was actually Emma Cline’s writing about adolescent girlhood that kept me underlining parts of this book that I initially thought would be escapist entertainment:

I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you–the boys had spent that time becoming themselves. (28)

How desperately Connie and I thought that if we performed these rituals–washed our faces with cold water, brushed our hair into a static frenzy with a boar-bristly brush before bed–some proof would solve itself and a new life would spread out before us. (42)

That was part of being a girl–you were resigned to whatever feedback you’d get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if . you didn’t react, you were a bitch. The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into. Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you. (56)

That was our mistake, I think. One of many mistakes. To believe that boys were acting with a logic that somebody could understand. To believe that their actions had any meaning beyond thoughtless impulse. We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intentions in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to be the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything. (56)

Connie studied me with cold wonder, like I’d betrayed her, and maybe I had. I’d done what we were not supposed to do. Illuminated a slice of private weakness, exposed the twitchy rabbit heart. (61)

I was stunned as I read these, and despite my relatively happy teenage years, by how much I could relate. And, I was shocked by how far into my twenties I still carried some of them–that was the shocking part. What I couldn’t stop thinking about (and talking about to anyone who would listen) was the notion that while girls spent time readying themselves for boys, boys spent that time just becoming themselves. And of course, some of this is part of growing up and learning–thank God for that–but there is a part of me that is jealous for that time; there’s a part of me who is still trying to figure out why I spent time trying to figure out what girls did that annoyed guys so I would never become “that” girl.

And so. Reflecting on my own journey of adolescence has made me really think about the girls I interact with each day, about my nieces, about my friends’ daughters. How are we, as adults, men and women alike, creating a world where girls get to just become themselves without fear of illuminating a slice of private weakness?

(As a side note, after processing this book, I also just finished My Sunshine Away, another mystery and coming of age novel told from the perspective of a grown man about a crime that was committed in his neighborhood in his adolescence. The same questions could actually be asked in regard to him–so the issue isn’t a gender one, necessarily, but one about adolescence and its echoes beyond. I responded to The Girls in regards to my own experience as a young woman.)

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