Queer Book Club: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

girl-mans-up-cover

YA coming of age novel about Pen, a Portuguese-American girl who is struggling for a place to fit, being a masculine girl and a lesbian. She hangs out with Colby and some other boys, but Colby’s brand of macho bullshit starts to grate when Pen talks to Olivia, and gets an insight into the harm he does to the girls he picks up and throws aside. Then, when Pen finds Blake, a girl she really likes, she has to define her own way of loving girls and negotiate her own sense of masculinity. In the background, her traditional Portuguese family are making life hard for her and her brother, Johnny, and nothing they do is good enough.

This is a quick read, and pulled me in from the start, especially the creepy friendship with Colby. Girard does a good job of portraying a really messed up power dynamic there. I could relate to tolerating misogyny as a teen, in some mistaken attempt to compensate for gender issues. Pen’s unreconstructed approach to her gender and sexuality stuff felt realistic and believable, and Girard highlights, through the action of the story, a lot of problems with traditional messed up gender roles and relations. Colby is on a massive power trip, and uses women like objects. Olivia ends up pregnant, with no support. Pen’s parents want her to fit in and not attract trouble—to act like a “nice girl”. Throughout, Girard plays with the different ideas of what it means to “man-up”. Even Johnny, Pen’s supportive older brother, still has some stuff to work through around solving problems with violence.

I had a small misgiving that a lot of the issues raised stay implicit, bubbling below the surface of the action, whereas by the end, I wanted some of the characters to be having a more explicit dialogue. I don’t expect a 16 year old character to have everything sussed, but given she goes looking for info online at one point in the story, I would have thought Pen might trip over some gender or feminist theory along the way. I guess, I felt like a bunch of problems were thrown up in the story, but only the most tentative road-map is offered out of them. At one point, Colby sexually assaults Pen, and that’s brushed over and never really named for what it is, even though it’s not shown to be okay. I think there’s a danger in being too subtle about some of this stuff.

My only other misgiving was, the students all attend a Catholic school, and I would have expected at least some of them to have internalised more guilt (about gender, sexuality and abortion). Those internal obstacles are not so easily jumped or reconciled, particularly at 16 when school and family are your whole world. Don’t get me wrong—the characters do have plenty of internalised prejudices, but the religious side is given a very light touch. Maybe there wasn’t space to fully explore those aspects. It was a niggle, rather than a deal breaker.

Overall, I think this book is on point flagging up problems, showing how misogyny and toxic masculinity function in practice, but doesn’t completely follow through with pointing the way to solutions. The characters are well realised, and it’s an enjoyable and compelling read. The relationship between Blake and Pen is sweet and healthy, and there’s no contrived narrative drama thrown in the way to create tension, which I liked. Blake is comfortable with being bi, which is also cool. It’s interesting that Pen never gives herself a gender label, other than girl. I’ve seen a few reviews stick different gender label on her, but it’s not there in the text, so I’m not going to. It’s testament to the complexity of this book that it’s been an absolute pain to review, and I’ve ended up saying so much.

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4 thoughts on “Queer Book Club: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

  1. I love the cover and the premise. It’s a difficult balance to decide how much to wrap things up with a bow vs leave them under the surface but I think especially in a YA book it’s important to sometimes confront things explicitly. Anyway I love your review and I’m going to put it on my TBR.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The cover is gorgeous. Yeah, it’s tricky, definitely. I did appreciate the way problematic stuff is shown in action, and that everyone isn’t really clued up about everything from the start. I think that’s definitely a more accessible way into these issues than a bunch of people propounding on theory. But then, I dunno, it’s kind of an issues book, so I wanted slightly more sign-posting for the target audience, particularly about some of the anti-femme stuff (as well as the abuse incident I mentioned). Let me know what you think, if you read it.

      I’ve been pondering whether I’m a hypocrite, because I tend to throw in a whole problematic mess of stuff into my writing, and leave readers to figure it out. But then, I’m writing gothic fiction for adults, so it’s slightly different. I think there probably is a sort of YA fiction where you can leave more of a mess, but it needs more of a metaphorical/subconscious element to do the heavy lifting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I always wonder about this when people talk about writing for kids. On the one hand, I like to think that kids are smarter than we give them credit for, and they are definitely capable of critical thinking. On the other hand, I think back to the books I was reading about gender and sexuality when I was a kid and (well, first of all, there wasn’t much that I could get my hands on) but secondly, I would have liked some things explained to me a little more explicitly. Would have made life a little easier. Maybe the answer is that we need both types of books.

        Your books are definitely a different beast entirely. I think that your gothic setting practically begs for issues to be left simmering beneath the surface rather than pulled into the light and explicitly examined and theorized. And of course, they are for grown ups.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder how much of a difference access to the internet makes to how quickly young adults get their heads round things. I can cite books that have been a huge influence on my outlook on gender and sexuality. I don’t know how things would have gone if I’d had access to the internet in my teens. But it was the 90s, and I didn’t. Then again, I’ve gone through loads of different phases in my life, thinking I had everything sussed, and now, nearing 40, I don’t feel like a know anything. 😉 I think teenage me was smarter, in a lot of ways.

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