By Angelina Eimannsberger
Emma Cline’s 2016 debut The Girls is set in 1960s California. The novel tells the story of 14 year old Evie drifting in and out of a cult, of her fascination for the girls in it, especially Suzanne, and Evie’s shock at the violence its members commit. A confused, lonely teenager with divorced and clueless parents, Evie’s sexuality is a mystery even to herself. The novel does not report on a girl in a crisis of awakening, but rather on a girl in perpetual anguish, ducking away from the world and the people in it; she’s no classic heroine, not even an anti-heroine, because she just doesn’t develop much. And yet, Emma Cline has made this girl the main character of her novel.
Evie, with her interiority fully exposed, is presented as the subject of our interest even though we can’t help but see her as a spoiled brat, an affluent white girl with privilege, but who can’t seem to figure things out. The reader has to see Evie at the very least as clueless and probably we will also find her disinterested in progression and purpose for her own life. In the framing narrative we encounter Evie as a middle aged woman, still lonely, still socially awkward, but also still there in spite of her reluctance to develop.
Thus, our perception of women is challenged in this novel: we don’t get a “boss babe” or “wonder woman” or even a “slut.” Instead, we find ourselves watching a woman character who does not allow us to even expect greatness.
Evie is the woman without qualities who usually stays hidden. Women in movies, novels, or in the news tend to be forced to take particular shapes of performance, covering over the experience of women who are other shapes. Mindy Kaling’s storytelling is an exception here, superhero movie Wonder Woman and television series Girls confirm the stereotype in spite of their feminist accomplishments.
Even though The Girls is set during the time of 1960s students’ and feminists revolts, the only student we meet is pre-med boy at Berkeley, enrolled in summer classes, eager to please, and just a nice guy who tries to help Evie escape the cult. He is not the rebel, the intellectual, or the activist we might expect. He’s the man without qualities, but Cline does not give Evie the false security of an ‘escape’ into blissful marriage. Evie and the Berkley Boy–though he might promise redemption or at the very least progression–only spend one awkward afternoon together before he returns to campus, his own mediocrity bouncing back from Evie’s fruitless dedication to the women of the cult she haphazardly joined.
A blurb on the cover of The Girls by Lena Dunham says, “behind so many of our culture’s fables exists a girl: unseen, unheard, angry.” This is certainly true. And it is an interesting experience for the reader that Cline performs the showing of the unseen, unheard, angry girl, a girl who can’t stay in the center or in focus, a background girl. The background girl’s anger is fueled by systemic heterosexism which keeps her in the background and in inferiority, denies her existence, and pollutes her activity. Yet, it is frustrating to be focused on an uninspired, upset, purposeless character who is unhappy and never escapes the narrative of constant failure. Women can step up against sexism but instead Evie gets drowned in it and her lack of vision. Cline’s prose and the plot carry the reader along well enough, but what I really got from the book were questions: Why are there so many background girls like this? And why should we care for Evie, a girl who appears to be picked at random but for her exemplary backgroundness?
I think there are two things that can help account for those dilemmas: media is so focused on men that any of the few women with high visibility will always have had something extra just to get to the forefront. We’re simply not used to being bored by women. The other cognitive track Cline leads us along is darker, and more crucial: why does Evie lack the nurture she needs to escape the background? Why is Evie so utterly helpless, abandoned by her mother and Suzanne, the girl in the cult she adores, and incapable of creating her own energy, her own drive, her own happiness? Why is it that, though she has a solid foundation to her life and many advantages, she can’t create a vision for herself?
Evie joins the cult because, when she meets Suzanne, she is fascinated by this beautiful and nonconventional girl, and the community surrounding her. However, the two women never get close, much of the novel is dedicated to Evie’s longing for Suzanne and sisterhood rather than the few scenes of actual intimacy. Seeing Suzanne for the second time,
Evie “was trying to imagine what I would say to her. Her sudden appearance made the day seem tightly wound with synchronicity, the angle of sunlight newly weighted” (68).
It is Suzanne herself but also the community she has at the ranch that Evie is drawn to:
“We. The girl was part of a we, and I envied her ease, her surety of where she was aimed” (73).
Evie will never be a part of them. She is only allowed to float around for some time. As soon as she asks for too much affection, Suzanne literally puts her out on the street:
“When I finally shuffled along the seat and got out, Suzanne didn’t even hesitate. Ducking back inside the car and closing the door, the dome light snapping off and returning them to darkness. And then they drove away. I was alone, I understood, and even as I tended some naïve wish […] I knew I had been tossed aside.”
Evie finds herself abandoned. She’ll learn about the violence the cult committed by the next day, but she won’t feel relief at having not participated in that darker side. Her life simply continues as before, empty, lonely, and without direction.
The lack of female, or any, friendship and community for Evie seems to be the heart of her problems. Cline attends to female friendship but without giving it space to grow the way Elena Ferrante does in her novels about Elena and Lila. Instead, Cline perpetually keeps Evie from actual friendship, and we see the consequences of that lack. Moreover, when Evie begins her fascination with Suzanne, the novel never goes to the trouble of stepping outside of heteronormativity: the women are attracted to each other, but there is no inkling of a lesbian narrative. Women drift into and out of her life and Evie would like to bond with them–not only with Suzanne but also her step mother Tamar, the random girl Sasha who Evie meets as a middle aged woman in the framing narrative, or Connie, her girlhood friend–but she is never able to develop stable relationships with any of them. She remains in the background of the other women’s lives, never able to form a real, nurturing connection. The spaces of the hetero-patriarchal family and her unhappy mother, the cult and its male, sexually abusive leader, and even her friendship with Connie that feeds on jealous teenage crushes and body policing can’t nurture real, supportive friendship.
The Girls prioritizes critiquing and depicting culture above inspiration for other ways of life. This, again, leaves the reader frustrated, but it does create clarity. We need literature as nurture, and we need empowerment. Paradoxically, The Girls shows this without making itself part of the solution. The novel (just like its protagonist) is a spoiled brat that can’t seem to escape the unhappiness and uselessness of a white middle class girl. Yet the book has fascinated some readers, often also white girls. Contemporary women’s literature can do so much better than this. Cline’s background girl is a thought provoking protagonist, but nurture and empowerment are so much more interesting, and more impactful. As women who write and read we owe it to ourselves and others to be part of the solution. We need to engage in a more generative, a more generous, a more wise kind of storytelling that doesn’t rely on plot and prose to pull the reader in but instead in a storytelling that is strong because of its contributions to a better world.