Chérie turned thirty a few months ago. I celebrated with great enthusiasm, which means I got drunk for four days and purchased everything I set my eyes on that I wanted. Over 96 hours this included an enormous amount of cheese and whiskey, two pairs of vintage gloves, several hundred dollars of imported lingerie and an electric guitar. It was pretty awesome. As I preened over these items in my abode, I congratulated myself on reaching adulthood at last. This, I thought, is really not so bad. Then last week I was perusing the menu of my local diner, trying to convince myself that jalapeno poppers, a grilled cheese sandwich, and a bottle of Kolsch do not a healthy dinner make, when I realized I could not remember the last time I had actually eaten a vegetable, and I was terrified. What idiot, I wondered, put me in charge. I more or less run my life like I’m still a fifteen year old girl, and I’m not entirely sure how I manage to keep myself alive (I suspect Le R plays a large role in ensuring that I continue to function).
I have it on good authority that I’m not the only woman my age to still feel a strong connection to the outsized emotions, identity issues and uncontrollable impulses so commonly associated with adolescent girls, which is why I’m consistently stunned by how rarely their stories make it onto bookstore shelves beyond the YA section. Teenage boys are well represented in this arena, and whether we’re talking about recent additions--Skippy Dies, Lowboy--or classics--Catcher in the Rye, Rule of the Bone--it’s clear that the story of the male adolescent has its place in the canon. Teenage girls, on the other hand, are for the most part relegated to the YA section. The intimation, of course, is that there are aspects of the teenage boy experience that can resonate with everyone, but the stories of teenage girls will be of interest only to other teenage girls.
There are exceptions, but a great number of these are memoirs or novels that serve as cautionary tales, where the protagonist suffers from some ailment that can range from promiscuity to a drinking problem to cutting to an eating disorder. In terms of the narrative, however, they serve the same purpose: the all-consuming, about-to-explode feelings of that time in a girl’s life blown up so large they threaten her existence and need to be reined in before they literally kill her. I am weirdly fascinated by these books, and individually each one reads like a healthy catharsis for the author or an honest portrayal of a fucked-up kid. When you look at the whole genre lined up on a shelf, though, the message seems to be clear: anyone who manages to negotiate her own girlhood without ending up in a hospital has somehow dodged a bullet.
Being a teenage girl is not all about your fucked-up relationship with food or losing your virginity to the wrong boy. The strange and romantic world of female friendships, falling in love with science or art or music, the slow discovery of the things you’ll be passionate about for your whole life--these are the stories that are woefully absent from those shelves. I remember the first time I heard the Pixies, and Hüsker Dü, and Team Dresch, and the world split open and revealed itself to me. The first rock shows I ever went to--I think I still have the ticket stubs somewhere, that’s how momentous those occasions were. Or the first time I saw a Hal Hartley movie (Amateur, it was playing at MOMA, a glorious 35mm print) and I felt like suddenly I understood what a movie was, and what a movie could do. I spent my adolescence making things, zines and t-shirts and mix tapes and paintings, I was constantly covered in glitter and glue, always writing in my journal or sending someone a letter. And the terrible understanding that eventually I was going to be in charge of the whole operation--nutrition, bank accounts, my temper, my clothes. All of that is still imprinted on me somewhere--some of it is still happening--and it’s as important as any of the heartbreak and self-loathing and insecurity considered so typical of those years. And it would be nice if literature could recognize that the first two-thirds of my life were as valid an experience as, say, Holden Caulfield’s.
It’s easy for me to understand that guys of all ages can still read and relate to the stories of their adolescent counterparts. The majority of my friends could be classified as thirty year old boys, and the cultural joke that men never really grow up (witness every comedy movie made, like, ever) has been worn extremely thin by now (thanks Judd Apatow!). Maybe admitting that there isn’t a whole lot separating grown women from their adolescent selves either is just too frightening, since it appears that we’re the ones who are supposed to manage not just our own impulses but the impulses of an entire gender that has given itself permission to remain permanently immature. How are we supposed to push the guys to grow up if we come clean about having never really done it ourselves? Well, tough shit, I don’t see why they should get to have all the extended post-adolescence fun. Why do you think I just bought myself an electric guitar?