Things in Print Thursday :: monthly big queer book review [Girl Mans Up]

27 Apr

So I think my biggest takeaway from this novel is: wow, man, toxic masculinity is the worst. But there’s a lot more to it, too.

This is a book about Pen, a rather tomboyish, butch enough to be androgynous girl who’s spent her whole life being friends with boys and getting both treated like a boy and asked if she wants to be a boy.  To complicate matters, she comes from a traditional Portuguese family keen on their own idea of respect, which doesn’t include dressing like her brother. And, thank goodness, she’s queer. (There are too many stories, in my opinion, that rely on the “so what if I’m butch, I really do like boys!” trope, I suppose in an attempt not to seem “stereotypical.” I’m sure there are butch girls who like boys. I’m not disputing that. But there are also butch girls who like girls, and that’s what I want to read about.) She doesn’t really stick to one label to describe her own sexuality, but queer is the closest; in any event, she’s interested in dating and having sexual relations with girls. In this way it’s a fairly standard coming-of-age story, but a well-drawn one.

There are also a lot of situations surrounding gender politics, which – okay, well, obviously, but it’s still really interesting. More than once Pen is asked if she’s trans, at least once by someone entirely well-meaning and understanding, but she states repeatedly that she’s a girl. She’s just a girl who likes “boy things,” aesthetically and recreationally. Her sexuality is often interpreted by others as being a part of this – i.e. she dresses like a boy because she wants romance with girls – but she also states that the two things are unrelated. They just are. She also debates with herself about relationship terminology, about how she wants to be her girlfriend’s boyfriend and things like that, which is something I can guarantee you wouldn’t have been reading ten years ago but I’m sure it’s something some people have to think about.  This sort of internal monologue regarding gender fluidity isn’t something you hear in stories very often, but it’s also interesting to me personally because I’m nowhere near butch myself and these are things I never really had to think about in my own coming-of-age. It’s important to have different perspectives than your own, even about something you’re still pretty close to.

I was also sort of delighted that the process of her being interested in and dating a girl was relatively drama-free, or better put the drama involved very decidedly did not involve the girlfriend, Blake, having a crisis of sexuality. Those are legitimate, and it’s good to have them reflected in media, I’m not saying it’s not, but I also really appreciate when the parties in question are both comfortable from the get-go because that happens too. Not every queer story is a coming-out story.

I also appreciated that a lot of the conflicts in the story were resolved but not perfectly, because, again, that’s how life often is. Pen is happy at the end of the story, but it’s not like everything magically resolved.

But, in addition to the family conflicts and gender conflicts mentioned above, the other main source of tension throughout the narrative is Pen’s relationship with her guy friends, primarily the ringleader, Colby. He looks out for her in some ways at the beginning of the book, but not very well, and he honestly struck me as a grade-A douche from the beginning because he makes all of his friends do things for him as a show of “loyalty.” I kept thinking, the way he was talking, that they were going to turn out to be in some kind of gang, but no. He’s just a womanizing douche who basically turns on her the minute she starts to go against his make-believe code.

And this is where the toxic masculinity bit comes in. Because she wants to play with the boys, she has to go by their bro code. She’s constantly framing things in ways that I’d cringe at if she was actually a guy, using terms that often make me uncomfortable. She’s got this programming that being one of the guys involves being, honestly, kind of a jerk, which is in part because of Colby’s bullshit “loyalty” thing and in part because, honestly, a lot of guys are kind of gross. Her older brother isn’t gross, though! He is part of the very positive influence in her life to unlearn bad behavior and he’s very supportive.

All in all, I’m very impressed, and I feel like I learned a thing or two along the way.

–your fangirl heroine.



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