- A Way Out of the Female Complaint?Rethinking the Crisis of Contemporary Femininity in Emma Cline's The Girls
1. The Woman Who Was Called a Girl
In the last decade, there has been a noticeable rise of books published with titles containing the word "girl." It began with Stieg Larsson's bestselling phenomenon The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2008, followed by novels such as Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, Eimear McBride's A Girl's a Half-Formed Thing, Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train, and the summer 2016 bestseller, Emma Cline's The Girls, which will be the center of my analysis. Several authors, journalists, and critics have analyzed why the "girl" books are so successful.1 Emily St. John Mandel's study is particularly illuminating; after filtering out books for children and young adults, St. John Mandel reaches two conclusions:
1. The girl in the title is more likely to be a woman.
2. Especially if written by a man, the "girl" is more likely to end up dead.
Why then do we call women girls? Fellow authors and agents have provided several plausible reasons, such as the fact that it signals the main character's growing up, which raises interest in the plot, or that the word "girl" implies a vulnerability that "woman" does not. The latter puts at stake shifting cultural ideas, as well as fears and crises, about gender identity and femininity in particular. In fact, some of these women/girls, like Amy in Gone Girl or Rachel in The Girl on the Train, are actually women who do not exactly comply with the category of woman: the suspense in these domestic thrillers lies in the fact that these are women gone wrong: former wives or mothers who are not so any more, or who wish to stop being so. As author Megan Abbott comments in an interview, many of the girl books, especially those marketed as thriller or suspense, actually deal with "the sort of perils of being a woman today, of marriages falling apart, [End Page 71] of ambivalence with motherhood, the complexities of relationships among women" (Abbott). In other words, to be a girl past a certain age means to be a troublesome woman, or to stretch the boundaries that give meaning to being an adult woman in contemporary society—whereby femininity as it was traditionally understood is in crisis. My analysis of The Girls will show how Cline's re-appropriation of the term "girl" allows main character Evie to further the limits of what it means to be a twenty-first-century woman, while strategies to bring her action into the public arena, such as inter-generational female bonding with teenage character Sasha, are bound to fail in a neoliberal, postfeminist, twenty-first-century context.2
Furthermore, as author and critic Robin Wasserman3 signals in her article "What Does It Mean that We Call Women 'Girls'?," reclaiming the word girl can also make space for departure from conventional ideas about adult femininity, which can indeed be liberating:
If there is a thematic message encoded in the "girl" narratives, I think this is its key: the transition from girlhood to womanhood, from being someone to being someone's wife, someone's mother. Girl attunes us to what might be gained and lost in the transformation, and raises a possibility of reversion. To be called "just a girl" may be diminishment, but to call yourself "still a girl," can be empowerment, laying claim to the unencumbered liberties of youth.
Thus, what Wasserman terms "girlhood as a state of mind" can be linked to what Teresa de Lauretis called "consent to femininity"—namely, the realization that adult womanhood means "a passive subordination to male superiority," in Marianne Hirsch's words (Wasserman; de Lauretis 133; Hirsch 99). Consenting to femininity means having an extremely limited framework of what one's life can and must be if one is born a woman. According to Hirsch, the only moment when a woman gains a certain social status is the moment that she fulfils her role of reproducing...