Book Review: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
All Pen wants is to be the kind of girl she’s always been. So why does everyone have a problem with it? They think the way she looks and acts means she’s trying to be a boy—that she should quit trying to be something she’s not. If she dresses like a girl, and does what her folks want, it will show respect. If she takes orders and does what her friend Colby wants, it will show her loyalty.
But respect and loyalty, Pen discovers, are empty words. Old-world parents, disintegrating friendships, and strong feelings for other girls drive Pen to see the truth—that in order to be who she truly wants to be, she’ll have to man up.
It’s no secret I was in a big-time reading slump this summer. I probably started and abandoned 30 YA books. Nothing was grabbing my interest. This roughly coincided with an extreme bout of insomnia. Instead of burning through my TBR pile, which mostly consists of YA books I’d like to review or use for other professional projects, I read a bunch of grown-up books (something I rarely do). I let myself off the hook with books I thought I “should” read. I started to assume that even things I had been excited to read would end up getting tossed aside. Thankfully, I was wrong. I got far enough into my pile to start finding things that really held my attention. And with this book, I couldn’t put it down. Part of my problem this summer with what I was reading was nothing felt NEW. Something would only hold my interest if it felt “fresh,” whatever that even means. Unique. New. Untold. New angle. Whatever. And this book? Was fresh. Even now that I’m done with it, I’m not sure I can come up with anything to rightfully compare it to.
Sometimes I don’t think about what’s missing from YA until I read a book that includes whatever that thing is and think, Oh! Hello there! YA desperately needs you! In this case, the “you” is Pen, a butch Portuguese lesbian who’s committed to being herself even though most people around her don’t understand—and don’t want her to have—her identity. Pen has a small group of friends—though “friends” is not really the right word because 2/3 of her group are utter jerks. Her supposed best friend is Colby, a neighbor boy who accepts her for who she is and protects her… but who also is incredibly mean, abusive, manipulative, and threatening. Pen begins to pull away from him when she becomes friends with Blake (her soon-to-be girlfriend) and Olivia (one of Colby’s recently-cast-aside conquests). As far as Colby is concerned, Pen exists to help him get girls and to remain “loyal” to him. Her pursuit of other relationships, especially one of friendship with Colby’s ex, is a betrayal to him. I probably hate Colby more than I’ve hated any other character I’ve read this year. He’s an awful human being.
Thankfully, in addition to her new friends, Pen also has her brother in her corner. Johnny has always stood up for Pen, who has a long history of suffering slurs and being shamed for who she is. Her parents don’t understand her at all. They feel she isn’t respecting them, that she isn’t being a “good girl.” Her mother would like her to look like a “princess,” horrified at Pen dressing in Johnny’s old clothes and shaving her head. Pen talks about having always been a tomboy. She’s often mistaken for a boy. She repeatedly says she doesn’t want to be a boy—she’s not transgender—but she’s not entirely comfortable being thought of as a girl (or at least as a stereotypical girl). She never uses words like genderqueer or nonbinary, or butch, for that matter—that word is mine. Pen comments often on what words like “boy” or “girl” mean to her, in regards to how she thinks of herself. She also thinks, “But I don’t think of myself as being gay, because that word sounds like it belongs to some guy. Lesbian makes me think of some forty-year-old woman. And queer feels like it can mean anything, but like—am I queer because I like girls, or because I look the way I do? Maybe I don’t know enough words.” She also just really doesn’t get why people care so much and need to label her. As she tells Olivia, during a conversation about if Pen could be trans, “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.”
She puts up with a lot of garbage regarding her presentation, what she “should” be doing, what her role is as a good Portuguese daughter, and so on. Rarely does she get to go through her day without someone from the outside commenting on her appearance, or asking her if she wants to be a boy, or calling her some gross name. It bothers her, but not a ton—Pen knows who she is and is fairly comfortable in her own skin, some body issues aside. At one point, she thinks, “Everyone wants something different from me. It’s like one second, I should be a better dude. I should stop being such a girly douche, and I should just man up. Then, it’s the opposite: I’m too much of a guy, and it’s not right. I should be a girl, because that’s what I’m supposed to be.” There are expectations and rules and confusion everywhere—within her family, with her old “friends,” with Blake, at school, EVERYWHERE. And though all of that is mega cruddy, Pen has lots of good things going on. Her brother Johnny unfailingly supports and protects her. She gets together with Blake, who is bold and funny and into gaming like Pen is. And their relationship is awesome—full of sneaking out and sexual tension and honesty and new experiences. One of my favorite f/f romances in a long time. She forms a legit friendship with Olivia, eventually accompanying her to an abortion and always having her back whenever it seems like things are about to heat up with Colby (who—have I mentioned? is a total ass).
She eventually has a pretty big blowout with her parents, as well as an impressive physical fight with Colby. She learns how to stand up more for herself and for her friends. There is so much wonderful stuff happening in this book. Pen is a great, complex character who’s not easily labeled. So much of her story is about identity, but none of it is because she feels bad about who she is. While she faces lots of haters, she has lots of people in her life who accept, love, and support her. I’m not sure I’ve read a book with a Portuguese main character (which may say more about me as a reader than about YA books) and the fact that she’s Portuguese is an important part of the story (her relationship with her parents, their expectations, etc). This is an interesting, well-done, and nuanced look at gender, identity, expectations, and what it means to really have someone’s back. I won’t soon forget Pen.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss
Publishers Publication date: 09/06/2016
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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