My daughter really-really-really-really wanted me to read Jay Asher’s Th1rteen R3asons Why. The library copy is due today, and I started last night, so if I’m going to fulfill her wish that “we can discuss it, like a book club!,” I have to read fast.

I’m halfway through, and I hate it. I get what Asher is trying to do: convince his YA audience that bullying is bad, slut-shaming is bad, lies and rumors are bad, and suicide is bad (duh). But for all that Asher does to make Hannah Baker into someone who “never claimed to be a Goody Two-Shoes”—she has a beer at a party, she breaks her parents’ rules by going on a date with a boy while they’re out of town—instead of grappling with the difficult task of being a male writer trying to get adolescent female sexuality right, he dodges. It’s easier to make the reader feel something for a female victim who is “pure,” I suppose, and so Hannah is essentially sexless: Asher makes her keen yearning for her first kiss romantic, not sexual, and the boy Hannah saucily breaks the rules to go out with walks her to the door and then leaves. Apparently not even a handshake or a chaste hug, let alone a kiss good-night.

I’m sure plenty of others have written about what the novel (and now Netflix series) gets wrong about depression and suicide—the mere premise sounded wildly implausible to me from the beginning, more “Huck and Tom at their own funeral” than anything that rang true from my experience as a depressed teenager. But I want to write about sex, because can someone please write a book for our teenage girls about a mildly sex-obsessed teenage girl who is also interested in other things and doesn’t die at the end?! So far, we’ve got Tina Belcher, from the animated TV show Bob’s Burgers, who likes to gaze at boys’ butts and spends a lot of time thinking about kissing—is there another one I don’t know about? In the 1980s, I was a mildly sex-obsessed teenage girl who was also interested in other things, but full of self-loathing in part because I thought I was “slutty,” and in danger of dying before the end. And no Tina Belcher.

Tina.Belcher.Butt

Can we do better for today’s teen-girls?

The buzz about the book is that it’s anti-bullying, but while pointing the finger at bullying, it doesn’t (so far) interrogate the culture around female sexuality that animates the whole plot. It’s so unfair what’s happening to Hannah because she’s not really a slut!

But what if she were? We are probably still generations away from having a teenage pop-culture version of Samantha Jones, the sex-obsessed woman from Sex and the City who is also interested in other things and doesn’t die at the end. Even she, though, endured some social punishment for her slutty ways, as I recall—I have a memory of a single scene, where Samantha is with a group of women who are behaving very coldly to her. All I remember of the scene is her sudden realization of why they are snubbing her followed by an effort to keep her dignity, even though her feelings are hurt. Other than this one scene, Samantha lives as a sexual adventurer in a world that no actual woman really inhabits—in other words, she is a caricature. But still, for the year or two after my divorce, when everyone in my world was judging me, hard, for not having good enough reasons to leave my marriage (I left because I wanted to), the unreal freedom that the character enjoyed inspired me . . . as fictional characters who live in unreal worlds sometimes do (Princess Leia, I’m lookin’ at *you*).

Samantha.Jones

Can we please, please, please stop treating teenage girls’ sexuality as either non-existent or as A Problem? Can we stop measuring their shorts and requiring them to get advance permission to wear prom dresses? Can we stop promising them princes if they promise purity to their fathers? Can we stop teaching them (and the boys, too!) lies in sex ed class, stop trying to scare them out of their desires? And can someone please serve up a fictional teen-girl character whose sexuality is a non-problematic but vital part of an awesome life with some other fictional problem to move the plot?

Rachel E. Hile

4 thoughts on “The Slut-Shamer Within: Th1rteen R3asons Why and the Panopticon of Teen-Girls’ Sexuality

  1. Rachel, have a look at my just-published book, WHEN MY SISTER STARTED KISSING. On the surface, it may not seem to be what you’re looking for (the kissing doesn’t lead to sex, for example)–but the things you write about here were much in my awareness as I went through several versions of this book. With each re-write, the characters became nicer (boys not aggressive, not the enemy; girls basically decent to each other–no “mean girls”; sisters squabbling, but esentially loving; parents also not the enemy, although sometimes a bit clueless). No one dies. It was surprisingly hard to avoid all those common tropes, though there are other YA books, of course, that do.

    When girls (or boys) start thinking about sex, it’s so much more than sex–all the relationships shift, there are moral and ethical concerns, and it can be hard. But it’s fun and exciting too. And it doesn’t have to overshadow all your other interests.

    Here’s a review from VOYA that just came in (not using your blog for self-promotion, just sharing this with you and your readers who may be interested):

    Eleven-year-old Claire and her older sister, Abigail, always look forward to visiting their summer cabin at Heartstone Lake. Spending time there is bittersweet for the girls, however, as it is where their mother died, but it is also the place that they feel most connected to her. This summer is full of changes for both girls. Claire is struggling to accept her stepmother, whom she feels is worming her way in, trying to replace her mother, and her imminent baby stepbrother. Abigail is transforming into “Abi” and now spends most of her time talking to boys on the beach instead of paying attention to her little sister.

    The story unfolds in a series of quatrain, free verse, and acrostic poems that present the perspectives of Claire, Abi, and the omniscient lake. Through these multiple perspectives and a variety of poems, Frost deftly explores the various dynamics of familial relationships. The poems mimic the character’s personalities and actions (Claire’s quatrains are thoughtful and observant, whereas Abi’s are impulsive and quick). Frost uses her poems effectively as each builds upon the other, allowing the characters to grow and open up. Fans of poetry will notice the occasional embedding of well-known lines from famous poems into Frost’s writing, which are included in the author’s notes in the back of the book. When My Sister Started Kissing is an insightful, quiet portrayal of a family in transition and recommended for readers who enjoy coming-of-age stories and novels in verse.—Rummanah Aasi.

    Like

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