‘Why does literature so often depict the onset of sexuality – or indeed any aspect of girls’ growing up – as a strange, feverish thing?’ writes Lorraine Berry in the Guardian. Hooray, I thought, I absolutely agree – and immediately decided to get my hands on the two novels she praises for contributing ‘to our understanding of what it means to be a teenage girl or young woman’, Emma Cline’s The Girls and Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire. However, having now read the latter, I’m puzzled, to say the least. Wasserman’s novel seems to me to be a perfect distillation of how not to write about female adolescence – and a perfect example of the type of literature Berry is criticising. Furthermore, I’m starting to wonder if Berry’s explanation for these poor portrayals of teenagers – the fact that it’s often male authors who are responsible for these exaggerated teenage girls – is a bit of a red herring. While gender, as always, plays a role, I’ve found that both male and female authors are equally responsible for ‘feverish’ adolescents, and that portrayals of teenage boys are often equally problematic. To me, it seems that the key problem here is that writers aren’t satisfied with writing about adolescents – they want to write about Adolescence, and that’s where they go wrong.
Berry criticises Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides for objectifying teenage girls. Its opening chapter certainly has some objectifying lines: ‘the five glittering daughters in their homemade dresses, all lace and ruffle, bursting with their fructifying flesh’; ‘It was thrilling to know that the Lisbon girls knew our names, that their delicate vocal cords had pronounced their syllables.’ But this novel, of course, is narrated by teenage boys – and part of the point of it is the extraordinary distance between them and these girls they claim to know well, partly because they cannot see them as human beings. And even if we were meant to read Eugenides’s text at face value, the first pages of Girls on Fire could give it a run for its money: ‘See them in their golden hour, a flood of girls high on the ecstasy of the final bell, tumbling onto the city bus, all gawky limbs and Wonderbra’d cleavage, chewed nails picking at eruptive zits… Try not to see them, I dare you. Girls, everywhere.’ Perhaps this description is meant to be undercut by the story that follows; but the trouble is, it isn’t. The two main characters swing between innocence and danger, as the two epigraphs at the beginning of the book signal heavily.
Dex is the familiar teenage outcast, while Lacey is the popular but risqué new girl. They form an intense friendship – although I could never quite believe in their bond – and start to take on the world. But Lacey has a secret, shared with the school’s ‘golden girl’, Nikki, whose boyfriend Craig recently committed suicide. What will happen when Dex finds out? To be honest, it’s pretty easy to guess what happened and what Dex and Lacey do, although I’ll avoid spoilers. Girls on Fire tries to build tension by moving between one episode of ‘shocking’ teenage behaviour to the other, until its final climax, but I felt like I’d read this story many times before. To give this a distasteful twist, one of the ‘shocks’ is a violent and brutal sexual assault, while another is a lesbian relationship. I’ve no doubt that Wasserman didn’t intend the novel to be read this way, but even so, we’re left with yet another story about teenage girls self-destructing; a story that tells us girls are fragile and dangerous, frightening and vulnerable.
Where are the teenage girls I remember from my own adolescence, and the kind of girls that I worked with during my time running groups for teenaged young carers? Where are the girls who are sensible, clever, who are trying to work things out, who are not ‘golden girls’ or despised outcasts, who make mistakes but who also get things right, who – most importantly of all – are living lives in the here and now and trying to make them as good as possible, rather than burning through an adult memory of what ‘adolescence’ was like? Happily, there are novels I can recommend that deal fairly with teenagers. As Berry notes, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep is a classic. More recently, I’ve loved Tara French’s The Secret Place, which occasionally veers close to some of the stereotypes I’ve been dismissing – especially in its portrayal of female sexuality – but, on the whole, evokes the atmosphere of adolescence without resorting to lazy shorthand.
For me, the root of the issue is that we still don’t recognise the ageist assumptions we make about adolescents. Berry rightly notes that when women and people of colour do not get to write about their own experiences, we often get distorted versions of what their lives are like. But she doesn’t go on to question the assumption that adults can write unthinkingly about teenagers, simply because we were all adolescents once. I’m obviously not advocating that only teenagers should write books about teenagers (just as I don’t believe that only women should write about women). What I’m suggesting is that adult authors are more reflective about their own experiences of adolescence, and what it might feel like to be a teenager – and, first and foremost, that they see their characters as people, not as representatives of a lost and vivid youth.