Despite the plethora of queer YA these days, there was something that I didn’t even quite realize that was mostly missing in contemporary LGBTQ+ YA, let alone Canadian LGBTQ+ YA: stories about butch/genderqueer lesbians and their gender journeys. Girl Mans Up, by M-E Girard, delivers exactly that. In that way, it’s a new and necessary story, especially for a big publisher (HarperCollins) to be putting out in the height of fall book publishing frenzy. (The book officially came out September 6th). It’s exciting to see one of the big five publish this book—and by a Canadian author and set in Canada no less!
Girl Mans Up is nothing but very real. Carefully and authentically, Girard is completely honest about all her characters’ ugly messiness and the intricacies of the sometimes shitty, dog-eat-dog world of high school. Girard nails the teenage perspective of main character Pen, even all of her flaws, limited knowledge, and bad decisions. This book really feels like it’s written by someone who intimately knows today’s teens. If you’re looking for a superheroine who always does the right thing and astutely assesses everything around her, Pen is not your protagonist. But if you’re looking for an achingly real young queer person trying to figure out how to be herself and interact meaningfully and respectfully with those around her—with plenty of mishaps on the way— Girl Mans Up is for you.
Pen—short for Penelope—is a 16-year-old second-generation Portuguese teen living in Toronto (or maybe outside of Toronto? I can’t remember exactly) and going to St. Peter’s Catholic High. Here’s how she introduces herself in the opening of the novel: “There are four of us dudes sitting here right now, and I kick all of their butts when it comes to video games—and I’m not even a dude in the first place.” That’s Pen, just being the video-game-loving, one-of-the-guys-but-not, easy-going person that she is. Her problem, as she sees it, is that people are always making such a big deal about her being “different”—i.e., wearing her older brother’s clothes, wanting her hair short, and having known forever that she likes girls. As she puts it:
I don’t feel wrong inside myself. I don’t feel like I’m someone I shouldn’t be. Only other people make me feel like there’s something wrong with me.
That’s the interesting journey of the novel: it’s not that Pen doesn’t know who she is at the beginning. She does. What she works toward over the course of the book is demanding recognition and respect from everyone else around her for who she is, cutting out people who won’t, and making new connections with people who will. It’s a quiet journey, without the fanfare of other YA. It was really cool to see Pen develop a healthy romantic and sexual relationship with a kick-ass girl named Blake but for relationship drama to be notably absent. Here’s Pen trying to figure out how to communicate who she is to Blake:
I don’t want to be her girlfriend, though. But there’s this part of me that totally knows I could be her boyfriend. I don’t want her to think of me as a boy, or a boy substitute, though. I want to be a boyfriend who is a girl. I have no idea how to explain that stuff to anyone, let alone a girl I like. I just wish it was already understood.
Given the quiet, internal nature of the storyline, characterization is important; luckily, Girard does a great job for the most part, especially with Pen. Unfortunately even in 2016 it feels revolutionary to have a protagonist who is a sometimes unlikable teen girl who fucks up multiple times and is not always nice. Olivia, a new friend Pen makes, is also a smartly done, real, fleshed out character going through an accidental pregnancy and abortion. Pen’s brother Johnny, too, is a stand-out character who isn’t perfect, but is always there to support his sister; he’s the only person who really sees Pen for who she is from the very beginning of the book. Then of course there’s Blake, who’s perhaps a little too perfect, with her smart-ass comments, sexy black eye make-up, and video game prowess. But the book is from Pen’s perspective, so it makes sense that Blake is painted from the rose-coloured view of first love.
In contrast, Pen’s parents are depicted as pretty one-dimensionally terrible: they literally begin to sound like a broken record as the book goes on, repeating the exact same comments about Pen’s clothes making her look like a “druggy punk” nearly every time they interact with her. They’re like a brick wall in every conversation with Pen, insisting she’s never going to get a husband and a nursing job if she keeps acting and dressing the way she is; it’s like nothing she communicates even registers. They’re very stereotypical traditional first generation immigrants. Like the rosy portrayal of Blake, this cartoony villain picture kind of makes sense since it’s only Pen’s perspective that we have. But I did feel like it would have made the book stronger if her parents, especially her mom, had been more humanized.
Oddly enough, the character I hated more than Pen’s parents—her best friend Colby—is actually more three-dimensional, which isn’t to say he isn’t a total dickwad. He’s like the embodiment of toxic masculinity that Pen, unfortunately, sometimes emulates. He’s the kind of dude who manipulates Pen into helping him get girls to go out with so he can treat them like crap—including things like not supporting girls who get pregnant after sleeping with him—and dump them when he quickly loses interest. Also, trigger warning for sexual assault perpetrated by Colby against Pen—even though she doesn’t have the tools to interpret it that way and continues her friendship with him for a while afterwards.
Girl Mans Up is a subtle book that resists flashy portrayals of instant change brought on by dramatic events and instead focuses on how Pen slowly but surely asserts her place in the world and her right to respect. I think given the speed and the lack of so-called action in the novel, it could have been trimmed down a bit—it does run 375 pages; I’m surprised editors didn’t cull it more, but I also read an ARC, so that may have changed before the final edition. For me, the narrative dragged a bit about three-quarters of the way through and began to feel repetitive, even to the level of characters’ dialogue: Pen used “douche” and “pussy” as insults more times than I could count, Blake constantly expressed her enthusiasm by saying “that wins everything,” and Pen’s mom accused her of looking like a “druggy punk” over and over.
My perspective is, of course, that of an adult, and I feel like even if I didn’t viscerally love Girl Mans Up like I have other queer YA, I think its appeal to teens is really high. Likely the things that bothered me wouldn’t nag teens much. I’m very happy Girl Mans Up is in the world and I’m excited to see what future stuff M-E Girard writes!