What It’s Like for a Girl: How Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama made me think about the politics of sexuality in the life of girls
Monstrous Beauty is the story of an older teen named Hester. Hester lives in Massachusetts, a place still rich with history and legend and some believe, magic. Hester is a lover of history with a scientific bent, she does not believe in magic. A few days after Hester was born, her mother died. The same thing has happened to every woman in her lineage as far back as they can tell. This knowledge has made Hester take a vow that she will not allow herself to fall in love so that she is not tempted to marry, bear a child and suffer the same fate as her ancestors. In an alternating storyline, we hear the story of passionate lovers Syrenka and Ezra. With each turning page it is clear that their stories intersect in ways that Hester could never have imagined.
While reading Monstrous Beauty, I had a variety of reactions and immediately closed the book upon finishing to write a post about an aspect that I found both true and troubling. Monstrous Beauty is many things: it is a richly dark gothic tale that slowly peels back the layers of a centuries old mystery and helps our young heroine, Hester, break a family curse. The building blocks of the story are put together so incredibly well, almost flawlessly. It is a mastercraft lesson in storytelling. I give it a 4.5 out of 5 stars.
But there is one aspect of the story that I found deeply troubling: there is some incredibly disturbing sexual brutality, both outright and implied. In fact, in the first 100 pages Hester is approached and put in sexually threatening situations twice. Syrenka herself is raped in a moment that becomes the catalyst for our story. I found this unnerving. And then I spent some time really thinking about the implications of what life is like for a girl and how it is depicted in Monstrous Beauty. So let’s take a quick journey through my life, shall we . . .
As a Middle School and High School student, I can vividly recall three separate instances when a fellow male student – whom I did not even know – purposely reached out and grabbed my breast while walking the hallway and changing classes. I can also recall my best friend’s father once doing the same (and now you know why we were no longer friends – it wasn’t you, it was your dad.)
Twice in high school I went out with friends, with the clear knowledge that we were indeed nothing but friends, and at some point in the evening the drove me to the place called “lover’s lane” where people went to make out. Nothing happened, but I had found myself in a very unsafe position with someone who was supposed to be my friend. Because we were alone in the car, I realized that they were in fact in a position of power.
In college, I went with a group of students to a local cafe to study. A male friend from the group was driving me when he went past the cafe and drove me down an empty street in the middle of the desert. This was definitely one of the most terrifying times of my life. In the end nothing happened, but he had all the power and control in this moment and I had never been so unsafe. The conversation clearly indicated what his intentions were and I was just lucky that he didn’t have a weapon or chose not to use it.
Then there are all the times when you are simply walking from point A to point B, often in broad daylight, and men say filthy, lecherous things to you. A couple of months ago a car of men drove by and screamed what they wanted to do to me as I played outside WITH MY CHILDREN.
Just last month I was visiting my dad when I went for a walk. As I walked I passed a young man waiting at the bus stop, he got up and started to follow me. At this point in my life I have learned what this life is like for a girl and I had my phone so I called and my people came out of the house to make sure I was safe. As my family called me back to the house, the man waited a beat and then went back and waited for the bus. Thankfully, my family was there to keep me safe. And it was obvious that he was willing to forgo his bus ride for whatever nefarious plans he had upon seeing me. This is another instance that could have gone much differently then it did, and I was terrified.
I have shared before, but there was even a time when I was continually sexually harassed by a teenage boy that was coming to my programs. When we met with the boy and his father, the father said I should take it as a compliment. There was never any acknowldgement of the innapropriateness of his behavior or how he failed to stop after having been told several times to stop. These are the types of messages that our boys are being given – women should learn to take a compliment and they are ungrateful bitches when they don’t.
Statistics indicate that 1 out of 3 girls/women will be the subject of some type of sexual abuse/victimization – often before they even reach the age of 18. If you include catcalls, unwanted sexual advances and off color remarks – all girls will. Unfortunately, I fear that for a lot of teenage girls, Hester’s experience is in fact way too common.
Earlier this week, a Fox News correspondent made the comment on air that women who find themselves the victims of violence “should make better decisions.” We continue to shift the blame onto women instead of shouting from the rooftops, Hey guys – it’s not okay to 1) touch a woman (another person really) without their explicit consent, 2) there are in fact situations in which a person can not realistically give consent and they include being under the influence and when there is an imbalance of power, to name just a few and 3) you – the aggressor – are ultimately responsible for your actions. I can’t make you rape me. Not by wearing the wrong clothes. Not by walking in the wrong place. Not by saying the wrong things. Not by being in a night club. Not by being your friend, or your girlfriend, or even your wife. You and you alone make those choices and they are your responsibility to bear.
On Twitter, I follow several people who are very active in a campaign to stop Street Harassment. Street Harassment occurs when men yell out or whistle to women who are simply walking by. Often, it is a group of men and these are terrifying situations that can easily escalate. Again, there is an imbalance of power. More importantly, women ARE in fact people and they deserve the courtesy and respect of being able to walk down the street without being harrassed, objectified, and intimidated. (Side note: the objectification of women would constitute a whole other group of posts.)
As I continued reading Monstrous Beauty, I came to appreciate it for the rich story that it presented, the quality of the writing, and the way that Fama was able to juggle two story lines and weave them together in a way that followed through. But I also thought, I want people to be reading and discussing this book because we should be talking about the sexual politics of our world and what it is like for a girl. What happens in the book is unnerving and off putting – and it should be. That is the power of story, sometimes it holds a mirror up to truth and makes us think about things we prefer to sweep under the rug. I don’t know of a single female in my life who hasn’t in some way been the victim – multiple times – of some type of sexual harassment, intimidation or abuse. We can’t still be thinking that is okay in the 21st century. Thank you Elizabeth Fama for highlighting how little some of the politics of sex have changed since the time when Syrenka lived.
One final note: In the scene I opened this post with Hester is working her job at a Colonial America tourist resort. Her job is to play a very specific role and remain in character at all times. When approached by the group of boys in threatening ways, Hester stays in character and takes the opportunity to leave the cottage immediately under the pretense that a neighbor is expecting her to bring eggs. She gets herself out of Dodge. I thought this was an incredibly smart way for Hester to handle the situation because had she responded by verbally attacking the group, they more often than not will respond in anger and use it as an excuse to follow through on their threats – and then they will claim that bitch deserved it because she was disrespecting them. Because somehow they can disrespect and threaten her, but she doesn’t have the right to defend herself. I believe that this was a very realistic way for Hester to handle the situation and I applaud her intelligence.
Last night on Twitter I asked for help putting together a reading list of YA Titles that discuss sexual intimidation, violence and abuse. These are some of the titles that were recommended:
What Happens Next by Colleen Clayton
Live Through This by Mindi Scott
Identical by Ellen Hopkins
Pieces of Us by Margie Gelbwasser
The Mockinbirds by Daisy Whitney
Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Schedit
Flawed by Kate Avelynn
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
But I Love Hime by Amanda Grace
Stay by Deb Caletti
Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers
Boy Toy by Barry Lyga
Something Happened by Joseph Heller
Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen
Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Such a Pretty Girl by Laura Weiss
Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian
The List by Siobhan Vivian
Bitter End by Jennifer Brown
Empty by K M Walton
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott
Exposed by Susan Vaught
I also asked for titles where a girl was put in a compromising sexual position, stood up for herself and the situation was resolved without harm coming to the girl. The Twitterverse could not come up with very many titles. This is what they came up with:
Knee Deep by Jolene Perry
Easy by Tammar Webber
Raw Blue by Kristy Eager
13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
A note about boys: obviously sexual violence can and does happen to boys and it is just as horrific of a crime.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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