When The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo first came out I remember feeling oddly seduced by the title. The word girl seemed to offer a subversive wink. It veiled a bad ass female in in the name of something naïve and innocent – a child – and ‘girl’ suddenly forged a new, elusive meaning for me. ‘Girl’ unhinged itself from what I’d always associated with my own girlhood – pig tails, eye rolling, selling girl scout cookies to the neighbors. ‘Girl’ no longer even fit the age group I had once supposed it did. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was about a woman not a child, and as more ‘girl’ titles about women began to roll in one after another, the feminist inside me started to boil up. What was all this hype about ‘girls’, and what happened to all the women?
If you haven’t read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you’ve probably read Gone Girl. If you haven’t read either, you’ve probably seen one or the other’s film adaption. Maybe you picked up The Girl on the Train recently, and if nothing else you’ve definitely scanned over a ‘girl’ title in your perusing through the daily news. ‘Girl’ has gained stature as the emblem of catchy titles and, in a wave of fame over the years, has dotted the covers of some 90 popular novels since 2010.
Earlier this month Literary Hub published a feature by Robin Wasserman on the trend, looking at what it means when we call women ‘girls’ and the varying ways different authors of ‘girl’ books toy with its meaning. The article incentivized much of my poking and prodding around the issue, and it’s definitely worth a read.
Including Wasserman’s article, there’s been quite a deal of hashing and conjecturing on the trend, so much so that it’s become a sort of trend in itself. But before it can be taken as commentary on a cultural perception of women, it has to be taken for what it is beneath layers of the critique and analysis that every reader (and feminist) is eager to lacquer it with: a title trend, pure and simple.
They say imitation is the highest form of flattery but it’s also the highest form of revenue. Emulating a catchy title like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Gone Girl is a sure fire way for a book to slip into the mainstream market, either by way of association or slip of the tongue. A crime book starring a female protagonist and written by a female author can’t escape a comparison to either of these two popular novels, and that likelihood skyrockets when the titles are similar. Publishers have caught onto this.
“I have talked to other crime writers that have been urged by various professional people in their life to put the word girl in their title,” crime novelist Megan Abbott told NPR earlier this year. “It’s not necessarily an issue with the content of the book itself, but there’s this sort of shorthand that if it has girl in the title, then I know what to expect.”
Image courtesy of EW
Beyond a marketing trend, as Abbott later discusses, there seems to be thematic parallels between the ‘girl’ books. Despite being radically different texts, a common thread about womanhood connects them all. For Abbott, the commonality is “dealing with the sort of perils of being a woman today, of marriages falling apart, of ambivalence with motherhood, the complexities of relationships among women — all this stuff that in some ways isn’t taken very seriously by the culture at large, is considered — and I’m quoting here — ‘women’s magazine fodder,’ but it’s actually very real to readers.” Much like the ‘girl’ eludes the woman, the crime narrative eludes the difficulties of womanhood that rest just under the veneer of the genre, the same difficulties that Abbott suggests are dismissed as ‘magazine fodder’. Both drift above the more pressing layer of meaning below, and both operate in a way that critiques and subverts surface presentations. Wasserman urges us to go even deeper.
“Their protagonists lead double lives, an ever-widening gap between the woman they present to the world and the girl hiding within. Despite being domestic thrillers about marriage and motherhood, the ‘girl’ books tend not to actually depict domestic life—instead, they track various escapes from it. These are women in flight or exile from the trappings of womanhood.”
The surface level of ‘girl’ and crime and the deeper levels of identity mirror the “double lives” of the characters: they have life they present and the life boiling below. Unlike Abbott’s outline of the trend — rather than lumping all the ‘girl’ books together — Wasserman creates a case study for each popular title and even traces the trend back to Riot Grrrl, what she sees as the root of appropriation. Wasserman’s interpretation winds through literature and barrels out and beyond into popular TV and further iterations of appropriation – like Amy Schumer’s poke at the trend with her new book, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo. Through the twists and turns of the ‘girl’ trend, the phenomenon boils down to a question of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a girl, and whether the two are part of a singular evolution or two mutually exclusive forms of self.
Wasserman ends her article by instilling an image or how the girl-woman dynamic is resolved on a show she grew up with and perhaps an unknowing forger or the trend: the Golden Girls. Wasserman recalls the women of the cast, all habitually met with ghosts of their marital and motherly selves – ex-husbands, children, etc. – but despite the interruptions, all remaining characters buoyed between girls and women without the “erasure of self” (or the denying of one in adoption for another) that Wasserman argues against.
She suggests that the meaning of the ‘girl’ trend is the same meaning Golden Girls focuses on. It embraces the constant process of female growth and evolution. When ‘girl’ is not taken to mean naïve or innocent, but instead flexible and susceptible to change, the term can be a highly empowering label that neither whittles the protagonist down to a shell of a woman stripped of motherhood, nor demotes her to a naive youth. Within this terminology, woman’s wisdom and awareness is retained, while girl’s ingenuity and creativity can resurface. The literary use of the term balances the two archetypes and makes them compatible in a single world.
Rather than looking at the trend cynically (like the feminist in me initially did), Wasserman endorses the word for the opportunity it’s historically held: the power to appropriate its own meaning and adhere to a flexible notion of femininity. Much like Amy Schumer’s book makes room for intellectual play, Wasserman’s approach opens the term to a variety of uses, liberating protagonist identities and the literary world of female protagonists more generally.
Although it’s not the only interpretation of the trend, it’s one I can definitely get on board with. What are your thoughts? Share with us in the comments!