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Girl Fight

Coming of age in the boxing ring
Two girls boxing in a ring.

Headshot by Rita Bullwinkel. Viking, 224 pages. 2024.

Much digital ink has been spilled as of late over the allure of a certain kind of girlhood, one bathed in pink and done up in bows. The conversation started last summer, as Barbie hit theaters and Taylor Swift was traveling the United States on a stadium tour that doubled as a mega friendship-bracelet swap. “We’ve Reached Peak Girl,” Delia Cai declared in a July essay for Vanity Fair that examined the hunger for an “exuberant and hyperfeminine, playful and innocent” girlhood apparently gripping the nation.

Women everywhere were buying into this brand of being a girl again, not only through curating pink outfits for Barbie viewings and nabbing thousand-dollar tickets to watch a woman in her mid-thirties reenact her teens and early twenties, but through adopting the aesthetic trappings of idealized schoolgirls: Mary Janes, frills, and, of course, bows. Enthusiasm for the coquette look quickly spread from runways to TikTok, and from Gen Z to the upper reaches of Gen X. In December, then fifty-eight-year-old Sarah Jessica Parker launched her own collection of “Gala Bows,” for which she hand-picked vintage ribbons. Those who eschewed the pink and the beribboned could still embrace their inner girlhood by claiming just about everything as being “for the girls”—a lexicon so ubiquitous that even the New York Times Styles section felt it necessary to weigh in.

Girlhood appeals to women precisely because it is regressive, concluded the think pieces. As Marie Solis put it for the Styles section, “The word ‘girl’ is in diametrical opposition not to ‘boy’ but to ‘woman,’ allowing women to enjoy simple feminine pleasures without the complications that some associate with womanhood.” Isabel Cristo took this line of thinking one step further in The Cut, writing that when we long for girlhood, we yearn not just to be relieved of agency and responsibility but to inhabit a void-like existence: “The thing about girlhood is that it’s a before time: before puberty, before life, and, importantly, before feminism. . . . In girlhood, we’re not yet even ourselves.”

Bullwinkel tosses aside the typical beats of a girlhood narrative in favor of a taut and visceral look at what drives girls to fight.

Of course, girlhood is not devoid of complications or consequences, and it never was untainted by the pressures and antagonisms of the larger world. To claim that an uncritical yearning for blissful ignorance is the primary allure falls apart when we look beyond the surface of doll movies and stadium tours and fashion trends to remind ourselves of the girlhood narratives we have long had an appetite for: coming-of-age stories.

Swift’s journey through her “eras” is its own coming-of-age narrative, but I’m talking here about novels. Adult fiction may have moved beyond the 2016 peak of girls in book titles, but readers have not lost their appreciation for a not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman protagonist who fumbles around in search of a sense of self. Look no further than Sally Rooney and all the so-called millennial novelists in her cast. The beats and concerns of a feminine bildungsroman—bad boyfriends, strained or electric female friendships, media-induced body image woes, a struggle against patriarchal limitations—turn precisely on the agony and ecstasy of girlhood. This mainstream approach to coming-of-age romanticizes girlhood in its own way by valorizing a sentimental intensity of feeling that heightens the stakes of the quest for self-identity.

Rita Bullwinkel’s Headshot might seem at first to be such a novel, given that its protagonists are eight teenage girls, and that it revolves around the drama of a boxing tournament. One might imagine that Headshot is GLOW—the television series about the real-life 1980s Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling promotion—transported to the less glamorous world of the Women’s Youth Boxing Association and starring younger women equally concerned with fighting for recognition in an arena built for men. But Bullwinkel tosses aside the typical beats of a girlhood narrative in favor of a taut and visceral look at what drives girls to fight—and, crucially, who they will become long after they have stepped out of the ring.

Headshot takes place over the course of the Daughters of America Cup, a two-day boxing tournament at Bob’s Boxing Palace in Reno, Nevada. Each of its chapters follows a bout between competitors vying to be crowned the best female boxer under eighteen in the country. While Bullwinkel does comment on the ghettoization of girls’ sports, and while some of the girls position themselves within or against feminine expectations, these boxers are not merely fighting one another to be recognized by society at large, or by boys or men. Their motivations—the pursuit of disembodiment, of perfectionism, of controlling time—initially appear to be rooted in the individual, and as they spar, they reevaluate the meaning boxing holds in their lives and to their identities.

In this, Bullwinkel delivers a coming-of-age narrative unlike any other I’ve ever read, one that uses the boxing match as a moment of distillation that reminds us of how labile and fleeting girlhood really is. In the space of the eight two-minute rounds that make up each match—“barely enough time for anything at all to happen”—the girls swing from wild self-confidence to “puffy-eyed” despair, from striving to be “the best in the world at boxing” to convincing themselves that they had never, in fact, wanted such a thing. With each potentially deadly punch the boxers land on one another, Headshot puts girlhood in its rightful place, reminding us that for all its intensity, it comprises just one life stage.

This is not to say that Bullwinkel diminishes her characters and their desires. On the contrary, she takes them far more seriously than the male coaches and judges and referees who profit off of the Daughters of America Cup enterprise. “The language of the coaches inside Bob’s Boxing Palace is like the sound of a large overhead fan,” Bullwinkel writes as she narrates the first match between Artemis Victor and Andi Taylor. “Artemis and Andi wish they could fight with less sound pollution. Every sound other than the smack of a hit is only a distraction.” The competitors, whom Bullwinkel variously calls “girl boxers,” “women,” “young women,” “young girls,” “technically children,” and “young humans,” are possessed of immense power and control—in the ring, that is.

In a more conventional coming-of-age narrative, winning or losing the Daughters of America Cup would be life-changing, the sort of plot hinge that catapults a girl into a newly defined future. But Bullwinkel’s style of fiction shirks convention. Her debut, the 2018 short story collection Belly Up, in which girls dream of becoming plants and Florida is full of ghosts, introduced her as a “weird fiction” writer attuned to body horror and the absurd. Headshot is rooted in the real—there are no ghosts here—but is no less imaginative. While the novel’s framing around a tournament bracket provides a plot with built-in momentum, the real action is happening in the girls’ heads.

Indeed, what ultimately drives Headshot is Bullwinkel’s use of omniscient narration. As the girls fight, Bullwinkel flits among their minds and illuminates their pasts and futures, allowing for a philosophical and psychological examination of what drives them to compete. In the ring, the girls’ bodies sweat and bruise and swell and bleed, and as they attempt to focus on reading one another’s stances and searching for an opening through which to jab their fists, their minds roam. By allowing us to enter into the streams of the girls’ thoughts—and by zooming ahead to futures they cannot yet see—Bullwinkel explores the role this seemingly pivotal tournament plays in who the girls are, and who they are becoming.  

Artemis and Andi, who comprise the first bout of the tournament’s bracket, are fighting for the power to be seen as individuals, even if they are not yet sure how they see themselves. Artemis comes from a family of girl boxers—her older sisters are champions—and believes that if she wins, “a secret door will open for her out into the world, away from her family, away from her mother, where Artemis has agency without her family that is greater than all the other types of agency she has previously known.” She resents the identity she was born with in her family, and fights within the structure her family has assigned her to somehow surpass it—an ultimately futile task.

Even as these girls step outside of the usual script of femininity by boxing, they are ultimately hemmed in by the constraints of their respective milieus.

Andi, meanwhile, has a mother who “barely looks” at her and didn’t even know what the tournament was—Andi drove alone in her “jalopy of a car” from Florida to compete. And yet she is fighting desperately for her mother’s recognition. It is one aspect of what drives her to the ring: “Andi wants another fight, needs another fight, so she can envision her little brother and mother watching her longer. Andi needs that imagined praise from them. She wants to watch her visions.” Yet underneath these surface-level motivations lurk the spurs of the girls’ pasts. Headshot opens with Andi trying not to think about it: “Andi Taylor is pumping her hands together, hitting her own flat stomach, thinking not . . . of her summer job, her lifeguarding at the overcrowded community pool, not of the four-year-old she watched die, the four-year-old she practically killed, and his blue cheeks.” For Andi, boxing is, in part, an attempt to get out of her head by getting into her body.

Of course, neither Artemis nor Andi will get what she purportedly wants out of the tournament, win or lose. Bullwinkel constantly reminds us of this fact. “Their desired audiences will never see them win,” she writes. Even if they became professionals, “they wouldn’t impress the people who they encounter in their lives outside of boxing. They would only impress each other: other women who are trying to touch someone with their fists.”

Adding to this deflation of the significance of the Daughters of America Cup are fast-forwards to the future, where most of the boxers don’t even remember the tournament, have ultimately discarded their identities as boxers as easily as they tore off their taped-on gloves at the end of a match. Artemis becomes a wine distributor, and late in life, no one “including her daughter, will have any remembrance of the meaning attached to what it means to be a boxer.” Bullwinkel thus breaks a spell key to most coming-of-age narratives by reminding us of the fact that the things that matter to us in adolescence scarcely ever define our lives in the long-term.

In the midst of the last bout of the initial bracket, between Tanya Maw and Rose Mueller, we find the heart of Headshot: “Here, at the Daughters of America tournament, Tanya Maw is a fighter. But she is also just a child—just a girl waiting to see what her life will be like compared to the lives of the other people she knows.” These lines appear in a match that doubles as an extended metaphor. The chapter begins not with sparring but with another endurance test where girls touch one another: hand-clapping games. “In girls’ hand-clapping games there are no winners,” Bullwinkel writes. “However, they are not free of competitiveness. There is a pressure exerted by young girls upon one another to continue to clap, to chant the tongue-tied lewd nursery rhymes for as long as possible.” A hand-clapping game is potentially endless because its lyrics loop.

In the next paragraph—which, like all of the paragraphs that have come before it and nearly all the paragraphs that come after it, is set off with a section break—Bullwinkel writes that the tournament has taken on the looping quality of a hand-clapping game. “As the referees begin this fourth bout, the last bout of the day, in this darkened warehouse where only nine onlookers remain, there is the implication of a loop, or the suggestion of a repetition, a circular groove within which the tournament has fit its narrative,” she writes. Headshot itself has this looping quality, full of repetition, rhythmic pacing, and mesmerizing, muscled sentences.

The form serves as a reminder that the girl boxers are in a long lineage of female athletes (“Like looking at one’s reflection in two facing mirrors, it is impossible to say where the first female athlete began and where they will end,” Bullwinkel writes later)—and that girls exist within a framework set by what is passed down to them. Tanya Maw, after all, can only imagine a figure “compared to the lives of the other people she knows.” Even as these girls step outside of the usual script of femininity by boxing, they are ultimately hemmed in by the constraints of their respective milieus, which are mostly working and lower-middle-class. Still, Bullwinkel is not defeatist as she assigns the girls futures. Andi Taylor, for instance, “will find a person who makes her relieved to be alive after she becomes a pharmacist. Even though Andi Taylor’s life will be quiet, it will not lack for luminescence.”

Perhaps we are drawn to mythical versions of girlhood—of innocence without consequences, of a singular and meteoric coming-of-age—because they allow us to imagine that we have stepped outside of the loop of life and its political and societal realities. But Headshot reminds us that we are always beholden to the larger world, even in the most fundamental sense. “Girls are born with all of the eggs they will ever make. Tiny future fighters are nested inside infant bodies of baby girls,” she writes. “Men are dead ends, but girls are infinite backwards and forwards.” That Bullwinkel’s novel is no less gripping for this acknowledgement makes it all the more of a knockout.