September Girls by Bennett Madison (Harper Teen, May 21st 2013, 342 pages)
September Girls flew completely under my radar – not much of a mermaid fan here – until the reviews started rolling. And that was when I became REALLY interested in the book because the reactions to the book are so divisive. I first heard the negative: from fellow bloggers at Cuddlebuggery who thought the book was terribly sexist and anti-feminist and then lots of others Goodreaders followed suit with the same reaction. Then I noticed it got starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. It got blurbs from E. Lockhart, Sara Zarr and Nova Ren Suma – all writers who write awesome books with awesome girls in them. Heck, E.Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is the apex of feminist YA. Forever YA loved it and Kelly Jensen from Stacked called it a feminist read.
Needless to say, I had to see for myself.
And I am SO glad I did. My own take? I love it. I agree with those who say this is a feminist book. I think September Girls is not only NOT sexist, but also quite the opposite: I think it challenges sexism directly in a myriad of ways but also does so metaphorically. It questions patriarchy, the idea of “manhood” very explicitly and it does so in a beautifully written, languid, thought-provoking story. It’s absolutely one of my favourite reads this year.
Allow me to expound on why. Please note: I am hoping it is clear that I am not attacking different readings of September Girls but I feel I need to interact directly with some of the sexism claims because to me it is important to offer a different take. So here is my deconstruction of the novel and most importantly, of the claims of sexism levelled at it.
WARNING: ALL THE SPOILERS.
The story is mostly narrated by Sam, a young 17-year-old boy who is spending his summer with his father and brother Jeff at a remote beach house in a sleepy location full of strange, beautiful Girls. Sam addresses them with the capital G because they are so other: all equally blond, all equally weird, all beautiful, extremely sexy and – unexpectedly – coming on to him. When he meets DeeDee, one of the Girls, they start to fall for each other. Then he learns what the Girls really are.
September Girls is a dark, twisted, fucked-up fairytale in which mermaids (or beings that are very similar to mermaids) have been cursed by their Father . Sam shares the narrative with one of the Girls who is telling him – us – everything about them in this eerie, amazing tale. It’s almost like a siren song.
We are told that: their father curses them because he hated their Mother, who is called a Whore:
“We have been told that she was a whore, although we can’t remember who told us that, and we often find ourselves arguing over the true definition of whore.”
We are told that: the curse entails being sent away from home abruptly and with very vague memories of why and how. They show up at the shore one day, naked and barely formed. They can’t swim. Their feet hurt with every step. They don’t know how to speak, what to think and they don’t even remember their names:
“We come here without names. There are the names they call us. But those aren’t our names.
The names they call us are not hard to guess. Comehere, Wheresmyfood, Trysmilingsometime, and Suckonthis are four common ones, but the list goes predictably on from there and only gets uglier.
Those are the names they call us. Those are not our names. We choose our own names.”
We are told that: they have no identity or memory but they know that to break the curse they need to find a good, virgin boy to have sex with and so they must forge their identify in the way that will work best for them in attracting those boys. They forge it by the most immediate things they see in front of them: fashion magazines and TV shows and thus they realise that becoming sexy, blond girls will give them the best chance to break the curse:
“We crawl onto land naked. We learn which clothes to wear. We learn how to do our makeup, how to style our hair. How to toss it with sexiness that appears unconsidered. The women think we’re tacky, but we’re not interested in the opinions of women anymore. We learned long ago how unimportant the opinions of women are. We are here because our mother could not protect us. We are here because our father had an ‘opinion’ “.
We are told that: when they finally find a Virgin boy, their curse does not allow them to act – they must always wait for the guy to notice them. Only when the curse is broken can they return to their elusive home. They are all sisters but sisterhood is dangerous.
And it’s all horrible and unfair and just like Sam says at one point: these Girls’ parents are real fucking assholes.
A possible reading is to take those quotes and the curse itself at face value – they do sound incredibly misogynistic. That’s because they are. That is in fact, the point. If that curse and those quotes I chose are not a brilliant, REALLY OBVIOUS metaphor for how girls experience sexism in our society as well as an example of the weight of unfair expectations bearing on them, I don’t know anything anymore.
In a way I think the best criticism that could be levelled at the book is that at the end of the day, this could still be construed as a book that shows female suffering as a means to talk about feminism. And given that the way to break a curse is to have sex with a virgin boy, this could still be construed as a book that puts a lot of power on the hands of the male. That said, with regards to the former, ours is a world in which women do experience sexism every single day and even though I love to see diverse stories where those are not perpetuated, I also want to see stories that do acknowledge that, that do acknowledge the wtfuckery of fairytales and of ridiculous curses and above all, I want to read stories like this one which does exactly that in the way that it so cleverly addresses sexism and patriarchy.
My reading is that this curse is a mirror. It is a mirror reflecting our world – but in many ways it is also a broken mirror because the questioning is always there. It’s in the way that the Girls DO form friendships with each other. In the way that the Girls DO try to break the curse in a myriad of ways by attempting to leave the beach and the town: Girls have almost died trying. There are those who challenge the rules and those who simply accept their deaths without breaking the curse. And it’s not even a heteronormative story either: girls have fallen in love with other girls as well. This book would be a bad, sexist idea if the sexism wasn’t challenged at every step of the way, if their Father wasn’t presented as a raging misogynist who is worthy of contempt.
Reading is such an awesome thing and as I said, my aim is not to discredit other people’s readings of the book. I truly find fascinating the ways that readers have interacted with September Girls. There is for example, a passage that has been quoted in several reviews and used to support the claims of misogyny and sexism and slut shaming. I wanted to quote it here to as support exactly the opposite. In it DeeDee and Sam are chatting after her reading of the Bible:
“I like the parts about hos, even if they always come to a bad end. Eat a fucking apple, you’re a ho. Open a box, you’re a ho. Some guy looks at you: turn to stone, ho. See you later, ho. It’s always the same. The best one is Lilith–also a ho, but a different kind of ho. She went and got her own little thing going, and for that she gets to be an eternal demon queen, lucky her. No one likes a ho. Except when they do, which, obviously, is most of the time. Doesn’t make a difference; she always gets hers eventually.”
To me this passage is incredibly subversive and sarcastic. It shows that DeeDee is fully aware. To support my claim of awareness, she even says a bit later on: “I actually like hos myself. Maybe I am one – I barely know what counts anymore”. She has read feminist tracts and understands how society works: “I love how when boys have a completely unacceptable habit like peeing in the sink, science actually goes to all the trouble to come up with a justification for it.” Or when Sam “congratulates” her for having opinions, she says: “Oh, thank you, I’m so glad you approve of me having a thought in my brain.”
So to me? DeeDee = fucking awesome.
BUT even if taken at face value, even if we want to believe that DeeDee IS slut shaming in the Bible quote, it would also be ok in the context of this novel. Because there are Girls who do not question. There are Girls who simply go about doing what they are supposed to do. And that is also a significant way to portray internalized, unquestioned sexism – we are all part of this world after all and are all subject to sexist messages all the time. This is all the more clear in the book with regards to the Girls.
So I have written all of that and so far haven’t even touched on the subject of Sam and his dick or Sam and his raging sexism and how those connect to some of the criticism I have seen with regards to the book: the language used, the continuous swearing as well as references to sex and to private parts. To wit: I understand that each reader has different thresholds for what they like to read and how much cursing they can take and September Girls can be seen as extremely crass in parts.
But to me, it was not really crass as much as it is straightforward and bullshit-less. To me, Sam has a healthy relationship with his dick – he calls it a dick, he likes to masturbate and gets boners. There is this one time, he thinks to himself that all he wanted to do was to go home, relax and masturbate and go to sleep and – this is probably Too Much Information but at this point, I don’t really care anymore – I TOTALLY GET THIS, BRO.
There is also this one scene in particular that a lot of readers see problems with in which he is staring at this beautiful beach, he is feeling the sun on his back, it’s the first day of his summer holidays and he says something like “I felt a heaviness in my dick”. I totally get how sensual moments like these are, you know? But also, this is not all that moment entails: the heaviness in his dick is because:
“I felt strong and solid, more myself – the best version of myself, I mean – than I had in a while.”
The contextual meanings of all of this is that Sam is learning who he is, he is searching for an identity and to an understanding of what it means to be a “man”. This is a recurrent theme in the novel. This is the main point of the novel. As early as page ONE Sam talks about his father and brother thusly:
“The most obnoxious thing about them was their tendency to land on the topic of my supposedly impeding manhood: that it was time to be a man, or man up, or act like a man, et cetera, et cetera. The whole subject was creepy – which vague implications of unmentionable things involving body hair – but the most embarrassing part was basically just how meaningless it all was. As if one day you’re just a normal person, and then the next – ta-da! – a man, as if someone would even notice the difference.”
So for the entire book Sam is struggling with the idea of “manhood”. He is directly and explicitly struggling to understand what is it that makes a boy a man. His brother Jeff and his best friend Sebastian constantly sprout deeply offensive and sexist language when talking about girls. They use gendered insults all the time: “don’t be a pussy Sam”. And Sam – even though he feels uncomfortable hearing those messages – to start with, also uses that language, also refers to girls in a demeaning way. But the more his arc progresses, the more he changes.
He is not completely clueless because the questioning is there from the start as evidenced by the quote above but he is not quite there yet so throughout the book he says horrible things, he thinks sexist thoughts. And this just brings me back to how the narrative does not condone this, because it constantly puts Sam’s – and Jeff’s – ideas in check. And I like how the narrative does allow for sympathy for Sam (as well as for douchebag Jeff) as another boy struggling to break free of internalized sexism. But the point is: he grows out of it. He grows out of it beautifully by learning to respect and love the women in his life. And we are not talking about simply romantic love either although there is some of it. He learns to understand and sympathise with his mother, he forges friendships with other Girls and he falls in love with DeeDee. And love is a HUGE catalyst for change in this book but I really appreciated the way that love is not the end-all/be-all that will solve everybody’s problems. Quite the opposite in fact.
Speaking of Sam’s mom: this is another brilliant aspect of the book for me. Her arc to me, reads as an incredibly feminist arc. To begin with, Sam is the one to describe what happened to his mother and he does so by being completely oblivious: he talks about how his mom one day started going online, becoming addicted to Facebook, then reading the SCUM Manifesto and deciding to take off to Women’s Land to find herself. HE doesn’t understand anything about it. HE thinks his mom is crazy and has destroyed his family. THEN his mother comes back and that’s when his understanding of her takes place and it is beautiful: then we learn that his mother was struggling to understand her own life choices:
“I thought of what my father had said: about the choices she had made and the ones she was still making. She had decided to take action. Even if it had been pointless, even if it had been the wrong thing, even if it had just only led her back to us eventually, it was still action and that counted for something.”
And here is the gist of this book: it’s about choices and identity in a world that often tries to take those away from both women and men. I loved DeeDee and Sam because both are trying so hard to understand themselves and the world they live in. September Girls offers a deeper understanding of love, identity and a constant, non-stop challenge of ideas regarding “masculinity” and “femininity”.
The ending of September Girls is fucking brilliant. It’s bittersweet and fantastic as it brings the curse to its head with a twist about choices and moving on and love. The curse does not work in the way one expects it to work and the ending is so satisfying in the way that it doesn’t play into romantic expectations: love does not save anyone. This is a fairytale but not of the Disney variety (if there was any doubt). The plot itself is a languid, slow-moving summer-like story and I loved it. And now I also want to read everything Bennett Madison has ever written.
It’s a 9 from me and it will definitely be on my top 10 books of 2013.
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