Girls, Girls, Girls: Rosalind Jana recommends the Best Fiction About Young Women
8th Aug 2016
Here, Rosalind Jana - author of Notes on Being Teenage - explores the literary landscape's obsession with girls, gives us the lowdown on highlights past and presents, and looks into what we need next...
I want to talk about actual girls though. Or, at least, young women. I want to talk about how they’re represented in books: for better, and for worse. There are some very big, necessary conversations currently happening about what kinds of characters we see, and what narratives could be better represented.
While working on my book, Notes on Being Teenage, I spent a lot of time thinking about all the versions of girls we see on the page, on screen, in newspaper headlines. To explore them all would take up an entire book, so I’m going to stick with fiction.
What Went Before
I grew up reading complex, nuanced depictions of girls and teenagers. People like Lyra Belacqua in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy; Sephy Hadley in Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses; Hester Shaw in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines; Cassandra Mortmain in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle; any of the characters written by Geraldine McCaughrean, Celia Rees, David Almond, Jamila Gavin, Tim Bowler or Alan Garner.
There were Louise Rennison and Meg Cabot, often hilariously capturing the ins and outs of being teenage. A set of protagonists that ranged from smart to ferocious to quietly observant. I lived in a literary world populated with possibility: with girls who were resourceful, capable, honest, entertaining.
I lived in a literary world populated with possibility: with girls who were resourceful, capable, honest, entertaining.I also read my fair share of dodgy books . Ones in which young women were less flesh-blood-and-breath, more two-dimensional trope. Ones where they were just love interests, or obsessed with boys and little else; where losing their virginity (always framed as a loss, not a gain) was the most important thing ever; where mental health was reduced to a ‘quirky’ personality facet, or treated in ways verging on sensationalist; where what the main character really needed was some lovely young man to come along and ‘fix’ them (with little in the way of LGBT relationships).
All of those areas are worthy of writing about. In fact, they need to be written about, but with research and understanding and reflection, not flimsy cardboard stereotypes.
Those novels formed and informed my thinking. The best of them gave me a way to contextualize or work out things. Others offered a sense of possibility. Plenty allowed me to slip into worlds beyond my own, to escape the confines of my own life for an hour or two. They were the important ones. The ones I’m grateful for.
What’s Happening Now?
Now, there are many people offering up even more marvellous narratives in YA. Plenty that I wish had been around when I was a teenager. People like Holly Bourne: her Spinster series sparkling with fabulous feminist sentiment.
There’s Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree: a romp of a read that also explores profound gender inequality in the 1890s. There’s Louise Gornall’s Under Rose-Tainted Skies with its tender, honest exploration of agoraphobia and OCD.
There are authors like Tanya Byrne, Non Pratt, Juno Dawson, Jenny Han, Sarah Crossan, Julie Kagawa, Lisa Williamson, Nicola Yoon, Rainbow Rowell, Zana Fraillon, Natasha Ngan, and a myriad of others doing brilliant things.
When it comes to graphic novels, there’s the often-complicated exploration of desire in Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl; the entertaining and unflinching exploration of girlhood in Iran in Marjane Satrapi’s autobiography Persepolis; the forceful trio of young punks who want to do their own thing in Coco Moodyssen’s Never Goodnight.
When I asked on Twitter for people’s favourite representation of a girl/ teenager/ young woman in a book, I got a staggering number of responses. Someone told me how important it was to see a character like Willowdean in Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ because it offered her “one of the first fat teen characters that nails my experience as a plus-size teenager”.
Others stressed the brilliance of characters ranging from Garth Nix’s Sabriel to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Shirley. The general consensus was that these characters had affected them deeply. Some showed them they weren’t alone. Others opened up vistas into experiences they’d never considered.
It’s important to celebrate the good, whilst also working out what should lie ahead. We need more stories about teenagers of all sizes, all sexualities, all skin colours, all family scenarios, all classes. More narratives about disability. About a full range of mental health problems. About what it means to negotiate gender. Although it might be easy to just lapse into listing here, it’s important to pinpoint every single one of these areas. Each signals a multitude of tales. Each is about the complexity and honesty of being human.
The Geena Davis Institute, set up to tackle representation in film, has a slogan: “if she can see it, she can be it.” Perhaps the same can be said of fiction: “if she can read it, she can be it.”
Now I’m not suggesting that we all move into crumbling castles a la Cassandra Mortmain, or find ourselves catapulted into some fantastical realm where we have a limited amount of time to save the world.
Instead it’s about the depths and possibilities of experience that these characters offer. Real, recognizable traits: courage, fragility, not fitting in, you name it….
It’s about the breadth of possibility, of being able to pick up a book and recognize something in the protagonist, or find some kind of spark of inspiration, or move beyond the confines of your own life. It’s about storytelling. And oh, are there are lot of girls’ stories left to be told.
Rosalind Jana is 21-year-old student and writer from a tiny UK village. Her debut non-fiction book ‘Notes on Being Teenage‘ is out now. She has written for British Vogue, Broadly, BBC Radio 4, The Debrief, The Guardian, Oxfam and Teen Tatler, and is Junior editor on Violet Magazine.