Written by Kylie Warkentin
As any young, voracious reader can attest, I used the worlds novels offered as benchmarks in which to measure the unruliness of the world around me. As a teenage girl trying her hardest to scrape together any sort of sense of self, books seemed like they held, if not the answers, then at least some choices for me to answer my worries. It was through this process that I began to notice a sort of benign self-consciousness in the female characters I was reading. It seemed like if you wanted a story, you either got James Patterson’s Man With A Gun, Nicholas Sparks’ Woman And Man And Sniffly Love, or Dan Brown’s Art But Not. That is to say, there weren’t very many popular, gripping female characters—they were all either sad printouts of what men thought women were, or women treated with kids’ gloves so as not to offend the legions of women they were accidentally embodying. Not to make sweeping generalizations though—I am one girl in one town who visited one library. But just taking a look at the bestsellers lists from the 2000s to the 2010s, my point rings true. And then in 2012 on the shelves enters Gone Girl.
With Gone Girl’s critical success, female characters in literature and across all forms of media were no longer burdened with being Woman—there was a fresh desire for women characters to be women in more interesting (dare I say, realistic?) ways in place of generic feminine archetypes or sloppy bad vixens. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train climbed the bestsellers lists and received a lucrative movie deal; Tana French developed traction in international markets; Megan Abbott’s Dare Me grew popular in reading circles. Perhaps most recently, Emma Cline’s The Girls was released to rave reviews. It is concerned with the mythos of the teenage girl, merely utilizing the lazily-innovated Manson story as a poorly constructed rabbit hole for Evie to narrowly avoid falling down.
It is concerned with the mythos of the teenage girl, merely utilizing the lazily-innovated Manson story as a poorly constructed rabbit hole for Evie to narrowly avoid falling down.
Before I read The Girls by Emma Cline, I was only vaguely aware of the thrumming expectations surrounding its release. I knew that NPR had favorably reviewed it, that it was a fictional depiction of the girls who led the murders committed by the Manson Family cult, and that Random House Publishing valued it at two million dollars. I got the gist of its appeal—according to The New York Times Book Review: a “seductive and arresting coming-of-age story hinged on Charles Manson, told in sentences at times so finely wrought they could almost be worn as jewelry.” The Boston Globe labels it “remarkably atmospheric, preternaturally intelligent, and brutally feminist.” The byline of the novel itself boasts “an indelible portrait of girls, the women they become, and that moment in life when everything can go horribly wrong.”
“Seductive,” “brutally feminist,” “an indelible portrait of girls,” and “the women they become.”
It’s a tempting combination of descriptors, promising a glance at the violent underbelly teen girls attempt to hide and all this to be accomplished in a, somehow, feminist way. The Girls’ first problem is that this is nowhere near what the book delivers.
Cline focuses on the experiences of fourteen-year-old Evie as she—left to her teenage ennui—catches sight of the eponymous girls and is immediately drawn to their careless abandon and dangerous aura. Mesmerized by the illegible Suzanne, an older girl in the group, Evie grows desperate to be accepted into the cult and its hippie existence out on a decrepit ranch with Russell, the group’s leader and Manson stand-in. Russell begins to test her subservience, as he expects the same sexual submission and ecstatic fawning from Evie as from the other girls. Evie is pulled deeper and deeper under the group’s thrall, until she’s sitting in the back of the car with Suzanne and other members of the cult on their way to a record producer’s house to do something in retribution for his perceived maltreatment of Russell—you know where this is going.
Evie, however, does not, as Suzanne kicks her out of the car. The actual events of the murders are not described, with Cline instead choosing to focus on the after-moments of tension with Evie—would she have taken a knife from Suzanne? Could she have put it in a five-year-old child? Is she a bad person? Would staying in the car have made her one?
The Girls, then, is not actually concerned with the Manson Family or cult mentality or the realization of an acute moment of violence.
It is concerned with the mythos of the teenage girl, merely utilizing the lazily-innovated Manson story as a poorly constructed rabbit hole for Evie to narrowly avoid falling down. Why is the Manson Family involved in this narrative at all? The inclusion, as crass as it sounds, seems gratuitously violent in a story that will not even describe the actual event that it has spent the whole novel teasing the reader with; it does nothing beyond changing details as inconsequential as the names of the killers involved. Alexandra Molotkow of The Cut sums up my frustrations well:
“As with many tales of teenage drama, the high-stakes trappings serve primarily to validate low-stakes teenage suffering: to scale up growing pains to mythic proportions or make them look as gruesome as they feel. The book’s biggest problem is that (to repurpose a phrase from Camille Paglia) it “lacks a profound sense of evil.”
As to its oddly rabid reviews and two-million-dollar price tag, I wish I were at a loss. Had The Girls been dropped in a vacuum bereft of marketing strategies and popular trends, I think I would have enjoyed the story. However, The Girls enters a literary scene changed by the success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Eight weeks on top of The New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller week, twenty-six weeks on NPR’s list of the same name, made into an financially successful and Oscar-nominated movie, Gone Girl demonstrated that novels written by women about violent women with inhumane psyches would be quickly snatched off the shelves and devoured by readers. In a weird snarl of fate, Margaret Atwood’s much-lauded novels began to enjoy their own sort of renaissance at the same moment. The Handmaid’s Tale was hailed as the feminist critique we needed to hear in our increasingly-dark times and turned into a successful Hulu show; Alias Grace was made into a Netflix original series for similar reasons; and the “Male Fantasies” quote from The Robber Bride continued to make its rounds on social media.
It seems like The Girls is yet another novel in a series of novels in this new literary and social scene that have tried to package and profit off of narratives that promise unruly female protagonists, violence, and witty feminist sound bites, but have missed the point by a spectacular degree. More often than not, stories like The Girls attempt to justify smaller (but still necessary) stories that this new scene has deemed not exciting enough for consumption through unnecessary violence and exploitative sexual behavior committed by men (You All Grow Up and Leave Me is another that comes to mind). In place of the coyly implied aim of fixing these societal ills with a sexy knife thrust or two, this new brand of books ultimately harms the very audience it has set out to vindicate. Gone Girl didn’t resonate with audiences because Amy Dunne popped gum and cracked the Cool Girl monologue while slicing Neil Patrick Harris’ throat open. It was because she was finally a woman who wasn’t saddled with the exhausting weight of being the standard-bearer for all women. She was just individually, unrepentantly nasty.