not a pretty girl: THE GIRLENING

The response to not a pretty girl has been INCREDIBLE (I had nearly more than 600 visitors and more than 1000 views on October 11, at which point I had to go have a lie down with Elysian Brewery’s imperial stout). People have been bringing up awesome points all over the place that I want to discuss at greater length. But first! I totally forgot in my rush to get that thing finished in the first place that one topic I wanted to talk about was YA media that I think do a good job of dealing with the many different ways of being a teenage girl — the stuff that I would steer a teen toward if she asked me for recommendations. So here are some of those!

You don't always have to be who they want you to be, you know.

I didn’t see this movie until SENIOR YEAR because something was dreadfully wrong with me.

    • 10 Things I Hate About You: although at first glance 10 Things seems to fit into the Me vs. Other Girls dichotomy pretty neatly, with Kat Stratford on the Me side and Bianca and on the Other Girls side, I think the movie ultimately complicates that dichotomy in good ways. Bianca and Kat are both clearly valuable, and worthy of love and attention. It’s not perfect, but both of them disrupt the narrative associated with their characters: Bianca is way smarter than she lets on, as demonstrated by the way she breaks into fluent French to express her frustration with Cameron, and Kat has both a soft side and an attention-seeking side (“You’re not as mean as you think you are, you know that?”) Plus we have Mandella and Chastity as secondary characters to round things out. (Although I wish Chastity had a little more, you know, development, instead of just dropping her best friend like a hot potato out of nowhere. Well, not unrealistic, I guess.)

      gurrrrrl get it. File this one under “jokes I didn’t appreciate until college.”

    • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy taught a generation of girls that kicking ass and being girly were far from mutually exclusive. Moreover, the show includes lots of different teenage girls living femininity in different ways, from enthusiastically geeky Willow to vain Cordelia to somewhat clueless Anya to hard-partying Faith to militant Kendra to quiet Tara. Again, Joss Whedon ain’t perfect when it comes to writing women, but I think he does a remarkably good job of showcasing lots of different types of women, and allowing their choices to have real weight without (always) falling into stereotype. (Hell, before she starts dating girls, geeky and awkward Willow dates the objectively best dude on the show (I will miss you forever, Oz).) And then there’s Cordelia: in early seasons she’s the catty popular rich bitch character we’re all familiar with, and over the course of the series and Angel, we get to see her develop into a canny, shrewd, funny person.
    • Tamora Pierce: I mentioned both Alanna and Keladry before as female characters who eschew femininity and break their in-universe glass ceiling by becoming knights. What’s great about Pierce’s work is that Alanna and Keladry are just two of many well-rounded, diverse, unique female characters. For all my fondness for Alanna and Kel, I always liked Daine of the Immortals Quartet best, with her abilities to talk to animals, heal, and shape-shift. (Also Numaire’s totally dreamy.) And then there’s the Circle of Magic books, notable not only for having three very different girls among its four protagonists, but also for mostly bypassing traditional elemental magical systems (earth, air, fire, water) in favor of awesome stuff like thread magic and smith magic. And then in the later books there are, like, glass mages and carpentry mages and cooking mages. But seriously, thread magic! SO COOL.

      aw yis look at this diverse cast of awesome kids

Thomas Canty’s cover art.

  • Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin: This is quite possibly my favorite book ever; I reread it at least once a year throughout college, especially when I was feeling low. Janet fits very much into the bookworm archetype, but she’s surrounded by a wide variety of characters. She’s got realistic relationships with her two diametrically opposed roommates, Molly and Christina. Molly sleeps with a field hockey stick for a teddy bear, quotes Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and is close with Janet, while both Molly and Janet have a rockier relationship with Tina, who’s decidedly unbookish. (“She may be athletic,” says Nora, the girls’ RA, when calling Janet out on the fact that she and Molly exclude Tina, “but that doesn’t mean she’s stupid.”) But Tina turns out to be impeccably loyal to her friends, even when Janet ends up with Tina’s ex-boyfriend. And then there’s Peg and Sharon and Nora, and the unearthly Anne and Odile, and Melinda Wolfe and the terrifying Medeous, and the Fourth Ericson ghost and gah oh my god guys I can’t even tell you how much I love this book, just go read it immediately, it captures the college experience so vividly and it weaves in a fantastic magical storyline and there are so many literary references and it’s the book that introduced me to The Lady’s Not For Burning and if it had nothing else going for it I would love it forever for that BUT IT HAS SO MUCH GOING FOR IT. (To be fair, I guess some people find it slow, but I was always so busy swooning after Thomas and Robin and envying Janet her reading lists that it never bothered me.)
  • If only Lady Rainicorn were in here too! Oh well.

    Adventure Time: (Come on grab your friends~) For a show focused on two bros — Jake the Dog and Finn the Human — Adventure Time has an AWESOME cast of female characters who run the gamut from Marceline, a punk rock vampire, to Princess Bubblegum, a sweetly terrifying mad scientist ruler, to Lumpy Space Princess, who knows she’s just too lumping good for everyone who can’t handle her lumps. Plus, when character designer and artist Natasha Allegri created genderswapped versions of Finn and Jake (Fionna and Cake) and the fandom fell in love, the showrunners were smart enough to recognize a good thing when they saw it and made several episodes featuring Fionna and Cake and an entirely genderswapped cast of characters.

  • Highly recommended if you enjoyed Harry Potter but felt that it needed significantly more teenaged dwarves.

    Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones: I love basically all of DWJ’s ouevre, and there are actually a ton of her books I could recommend as being stories about young women supporting each other and featuring an interesting, diverse cast (Witch Week comes to mind). But Year of the Griffin is one of my absolute favorites. Like Tam Lin, I think it captures college life in a particularly delightful and true-to-life way — if, in this case, your college experience included assassins and pirates and terrible lecture classes and those magical moments when you made breakthroughs of understanding during discussions with your friends. Elda, Olga, and Claudia are all very different archetypes, and indeed, different species. (The book is technically a sequel to Dark Lord of Derkholm, which is technically a companion to The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, but it can be read without reading either of those; I didn’t even know it was a sequel for years after I first read it.)

This is a fairly limited list — a lot of the stuff on here is really mainstream, and while that’s nice on the one hand because it means it’s easy to find, I’d also like to shine a spotlight on stuff that most people may never have heard of. And, as you can see, I have a particular bent towards fantasy, so there’s probably plenty of literary fiction or sci-fi that I’m missing out on. So what stories would you recommend? Are any of those dystopias that are getting made into movies good?

Super extra bonus points if you have any recommendations that also deal with issues of class, sexuality, race, disability, or any other form of intersectionality!

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8 thoughts on “not a pretty girl: THE GIRLENING

  1. I would add any books by Cinda Williams Chima, her Seven Realms’ fantasy series and Heir books all have diverse characters trying to figure out who they are. She’s an author who’s good at capturing the bumps of being a teenager which isn’t easy.

    In terms of movies, Ever After was a shaping one for me because while its the Cinderella story, its a story where Cinderella does all she can to take charge of her own life. Center Stage and the Princess Diaries also work as they look at what are the costs of choosing what you want over what you are thought to be doing. I appreciate how Center Stage looks at how just within the world of dance there are different ways to be a woman.

    That’s all I have at the moment as my books and DVDs are packed up so I can’t reference them. I love this series.

    1. Ooh, Center Stage! I haven’t seen that in yeeeears so I no longer feel qualified to rec it, but I did wonder about similar kinds of girls’ sports movies, like Bring It On and Bend It Like Beckham. (What was that Indian field hockey one that came out recently? Chak Dr?) That genre is outside my usual consumption, though, so I feel uncertain reccing media in it.

      1. Bring It On and Bend It Like Beckham would both fit in really well. Its one that I haven’t really consumed for a while either but these were the films I remembered loving when they came out.

        Oh and another Diana Wynne Jones’ one that would fit really well, Hexwood where the main character sorts out who she is along with complicated magic issues but fascinating.

  2. I just wanted to add to the bit about adventure time that at this point in the series one of its most prominent awesome female characters is Flame Princess, especially after she overthrew her dad and made honesty the rule of her land. The gender swapped versions haven’t completely won me over ( yet ), it’s been very focused on romance, without building character.

  3. Have you read Untold by Sarah Rees Brennan? There are three awesome girl characters at the center of the story, none of whom can be easily fitted into Short Skirts or Sneakers. A petite, adorable half-Asian investigative journalist with a slightly supernatural relationship and a snark streak wider than she is tall, a sleepy, long-limbed beauty who would sooner kill you than smile at you but would sooner take a nap than do either, and a gorgeous blonde who loves to have fun and is down for anything–including murder investigation. Also, SPOILER ALERT, but not all of these ladies are straight.

    Oh, and it’s the kind of book that makes you laugh out loud and then destroys your soul. Just be forewarned. (I’m thinking pretty seriously about teaching it next trimester. Hahahaha, poor kiddos, you have no idea what you’re in for.)

    Awesome, awesome series of posts, BTW. (I’d like to use them in my next trimester class, actually–is that cool? It’s a HS senior elective on representations of femininity in lit/pop culture.)

    1. I know I’ve heard of Sarah Rees Brennan, but I’ve never read any of her stuff. And funny-right-before-it-destroys-your-soul is basically EXACTLY the kind of book I like, so I’ll have to check it out!

      Oh my gosh, that’s so flattering. I’d love to have it used in a class. Knock yourself out — and please let me know what kind of discussion ensues! (And feel free to keep checking back here; there’s a lot of material I’m planning on delving into more deeply.)

  4. Let’s talk about some anime/manga! Even though I haven’t seen it all the way through, I feel like it’s always good to bring up Sailor Moon for this kind of stuff, as one of those archetypal Girl Team-Up things that really focus on different types of girls being friends and fighting evil. For more obscure stuff, I am always going to rec my favorite 7 Seeds, a shojo manga about teenagers as the only survivors in a post-apocalyptic Japan, which features tons of amazing friendships among women who are all more complicated than they initially seem. Two of my favorite sequences include the part where the tomboy heroine and her best friend come to respect the demure, feminine girl in their group after initially dismissing her as having no backbone and the part where the shy, nerdy girl accidentally slut-shames the boy-crazy cheerleader, and then apologizes to her and they talk through it and become good friends.

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