February 12, 2015
With 50 Shades of Grey thrust in our faces this Valentine’s season I’m reminded of when the Twilight phenomenon was newly underway, about eight years ago. If you didn’t know, or couldn’t tell by the myriad parallels, 50 Shades, by E.L. James, was written as fan fiction of Stephanie Myers’s sparkly vampire series, minus the vampires. At the time, I worked in a local independent bookstore that caters largely to teachers and parents in my suburban community. I had no idea what I’d find inside the glossy pages of Twilight, with its mysterious cover—a girl’s hands cupping an apple—only that girls as young as 11 were turning up with cash crushed in their sweaty fists, dying to buy the sequel (this one, a sultry red ribbon).
I read the first two Twilight books on a long plane ride shortly thereafter, and while I wasn’t yet one of the series' most vehement haters, I found it lackluster in so many ways that have since been skewered hilariously in just about every form of media. What bothered me most of all was its milquetoast protagonist, Bella, who was prone to curling up in a fetal ball when her vampire-love goes missing, waiting around for his visits, and desiring nothing more than to change herself to be with him. And as 50 Shades of Grey has demonstrated, a girl like Bella will become an insipid, meek young woman like Anastasia, who lacks the ability to stand up for herself or make her own sexual demands.
Perhaps I found Bella’s behavior so egregious because the books I cut my teeth on as a young girl involved awkward female heroines, but not of the lovesick and forlorn variety. My heroines had aspirations beyond their bodies and male fantasies of them. They are stories of rescue and ambition, of overcoming differences, and learning respect. From irascible Mary in Frances Hodges Burnett’s The Secret Garden, to scrappy, orphaned Lyra in Phillip Pullman’s fantasy saga His Dark Materials, and of course, the one who laid the mold for the writer I wanted to be, Jo, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, these awkward female characters had a profound effect on me. They are even more crucial protagonists today, not preoccupied like Anastasia, and so many modern tweens and teens, with their temporal beauty. Though Anastasia is accused of being awkward, I see her as someone who just suffers low self-esteem.
I was on a car trip, recently, and I was reflecting on the kind of awkward girl heroines who inspired me while listening to the audio version of A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. I hadn’t read the novel in over 20 years, and I was overcome with the same visceral astonishment and feeling of homecoming inside a book as the first time I’d read it, transported back into my tween body, as I related to Wrinkle’s protagonist Meg Murray with her “mouthful of teeth covered with braces,” glasses, and “mouse-brown hair” that stands “wildly on end.” She does not believe herself to be as smart as her brilliant younger brother, nor smart and beautiful like her scientist mother because she hasn’t yet found the situation that will test her mettle. She constantly strains against expectations laid for her—male teachers don’t understand her willfulness; boys don’t express romantic interest.
Mary from The Secret Garden is “the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen” and has a temperament to match, raised by a nanny and orphaned by a cholera epidemic in India, where she is a white child of wealthy parents. Lyra from The Golden Compass (also an orphan) climbs gutters and roofs and tells lies if it suits her goal to bathe less and play more, constantly scolded for dirty knees and willfulness. She resists authority and fights for the underdog. Jo March of Little Women was my most significant role model, of course; her sisters accuse her of being “mannish” and her ambition to be a writer is considered unfeminine at a time when both things were thought to cost a woman a husband.
These young women felt like mirrors to my own awkwardness, and I found solace in them as I shuttled back and forth between my divorced parents’ homes, each steeped in its own form of secrecy: my father selling drugs, my mother addicted to them. I could never keep track of my clothing, cheaply made knockoffs of the pricey Esprit and Polo I yearned to wear so I could blend in with my peers. On the weeks at my father’s house, my hair was often plaited in an uneven braid weaved by his fumbling hands or simply wetted down to try and rake out the rat’s nest of knots.
I was more interested in books than boys or clothes because these heroines gave me hope that I could make it out of the hell in which we were living—a hell, I feared, my addicted mother might be unable to emerge from because she was in so deep; and my father, because the specter of legal intervention loomed over him. I was constantly terrified I would lose them both. I was certain that my wealthy peers could glean my secrets just by looking at me; their disgusted gazes suggested that I might be to blame.
No wonder I fell into the worlds of Jo, Mary, Meg, and Lyra, who all go on to succeed, in one way or another, at fighting evil, discovering truths, and realizing their lifelong dreams through great trials and acts of strength. These heroines of my reading life promised what neither peer nor adult could ever reassure me: that being awkward is not a permanent state of discontent, but one of transition between struggling to conform and becoming one’s own person.
Let us take a moment to consider the wondrousness that is awkwardness. It is the opposite of the catwalk—it’s all knees and pigeon toes and tripping over cracks in the cement, constantly smoothing down one’s unruly skirt or shirt. It’s gawky limbs, or pudgy ones. Hair that kinks out at angles, unable to be reformed, if you bothered to worry about it at all. It’s when your mom buys you overalls from the cheap clothing store because it’s all she can afford and the buttons fail and all day you fight to keep from becoming nude before second period. Awkwardness is authentic because the gawky person isn’t trying too hard; she hasn’t yet settled on becoming something. There is no pose or primp to it.
Moreover, awkwardness is a state of mind: It’s not quite fitting in, and not always wanting to, struggling with social norms, and standing out when you try to blend in. It’s staying up way past bedtime with a flashlight reading literature when other girls are reading Sweet Valley High, (yeah, yeah, I read them, too, eventually).
The fiercely awkward heroines of my reading life were also the gateway books to more adult literature with strong women. In third grade, I read The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley—the Arthurian legends narrated by the often disregarded or vilified women—my teacher accused me of lying on my book report. My mother made an uncharacteristic (and sober) visit to class, eyes narrowed in rare ferocity. “She read that book, Mrs. Tucker. Every night, for hours, I had to force her to bed, and field her questions. She read the damn book.”
Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison novels soon followed, as did a slow and steady movement toward accepting myself as I was: not the pretty one, not the popular one, but someone who could think for herself.
My heroines weren’t perfect, in fact, mightily flawed—acting impulsively and often without thought for consequences—but they wanted to be better, smarter, deeper human beings. They wanted to do things in the world, make an impact. I wanted that, too.
As a young writer these bookish, gawky, scrappy, ambitious young women, deeply principled and determined not to be stuck in the limits of their gender, offered me a vision for myself that I didn't find anywhere else, and which shaped the woman and reader I am today.
These girls are still very relevant today, and in some ways more so in light of the constant barrage of media messages so narrowly focused on visions of girls being beautiful, popular, wealthy or famous, rather than intelligent, innovative, and creative. Anastasia from 50 Shades should be a cautionary tale, not a role model for young women. While there have been some answers—most notably arrow-slinging, justice-seeking Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games trilogy, physically courageous Tris of the Divergent series, and of course brilliant Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series who constantly rescues bumbling, stubborn boys from danger with her wits—we could benefit more from showing girls what it means to rely upon their inner strengths as they transition into adulthood.
What better medium than books, which remove the gaze, and drive the reader inward, after all? And I can think of no better model for young girls coming of age than awkwardness, that raw state of being, which promises transformation to come, not perfection.