Skip to content

The Sad Taste of Success

As books like Emma Cline’s The Girls popularize female pain, do they ignore its causes?

“For a while,” the New York Times recently observed, “it seemed as if slapping the word ‘girl’ on a title virtually guaranteed best-seller status.” There were the mass-market paperbacks, like Gone Girl, as well as the more highbrow specimens—like Emma Cline’s The Girls. The latter have been sold to largely female audiences on the basis that readers can feel good about finding special meaning in the sadness of growing up female. According to the jacket copy, The Girls is an “indelible portrait of girls, and the women they become.” Lena Dunham, expert on contemporary female vulnerability, cites the author’s “unparalleled eye for the intricacies of girlhood” in a back cover blurb. The implication: if you’re tired of literature’s Great White Men, buy this.

We’d like to believe that hearing “women and girls . . . is a challenge to the patriarchal culture that can remain in place only through through the continuing eclipsing of women’s experience,” in the words of feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan, and that reading and writing fiction centered on the voices of girls is a feminist action. But I am troubled by the way Cline’s novel, and others like it, blur the line between growing up female and growing up damaged. “Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they needed it, and how little of it most of them will actually get,” Cline’s protagonist Evie reflects as an older woman. Fourteen years old in Northern California in 1969, Evie has intimate knowledge of the ways girls are primed to see love and attention as life’s goals, and how vulnerable that makes them. After all, she joined a Manson family-like cult and only narrowly avoided being involved in a brutal series of murders in revenge for a slight Russell—the Charles Manson equivalent—received.

The Girls gives pleasure with hits of recognition. Though I winced reliving the feeling of being a teenage girl, “first and foremost a thing to be judged,” I was grateful to have been so carefully observed. I recognized in Evie habits of mind that I thought were only mine, like automatically scanning and ranking the girls in my vicinity by prettiness. These moments of recognition are gendered: I found commonalities between Evie’s story of coming of age in a world hostile to young women, and my own. Though few readers will share Evie’s extreme experiences, it’s likely that many have sought escape from the strictures of female adolescence in other forms of self-harm, like anorexia or cutting.

If stagnating wages, student loan debt, and escalating costs of living are the liberation “girls” are supposed to be happy about, it’s no wonder we’ve stayed sad.

Reaching for universal recognition, Cline tends to gloss over the role that class and race play. Might Evie, whose mother fails to notice the fives and tens she steals out of her purse, have a different reason for hanging around Russell than Roos, who’d left behind a policeman husband, and floats around the ranch with “the dreamy solicitude of beaten wives”? It’s a novelist’s prerogative to touch only lightly on the structural factors that make girlhood so hard, but I wish that Cline had spent more time documenting the collisions between girls and the institutions that sustain misogyny. Besides women’s magazines, she seems reluctant to single out any perpetrators. These are flaws Cline’s novel shares with other contemporary explorations of the female condition, like Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, which is also tightly focused on the psychological strictures of femininity. The other factors that routinely inhibit freedom and happiness are ignored.

Cline says that her novel is meant to give voice to teenage girls. They are “so marginalized and objectified and given no agency and subjectivity. . . How do you write about them in a way that takes them seriously? I knew this topic was begging a certain literary type to dismiss it.” Today’s adolescent girls are the beneficiaries of a young adult lit scene in which stories about smart, strong girls are almost as common as stories about boys and their dogs once were. This makes it difficult to take seriously Cline’s claim that, in fiction, teenage girls are given “no agency.” It is still true that more highbrow reviewers and editors are prone to dismissing pretty, young writers like Cline, particularly when they’ve done something as quirky as writing their debut novel in a shed in Brooklyn.

But we’ve seen something of a backlash to this backlash: look at Heroines, or Leslie Jamison’s essay “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” which urge women to write the authentic stories of their lives, without regard for those who might use the accusation of messiness or self-indulgence to discount them. These essays, and Cline’s book, are in part a reaction to the empowerment-heavy girl culture that first flowered in the nineties. Though girls are told that they can do anything the boys can do, experience does not bear this out. If stagnating wages, student loan debt, and escalating costs of living—all exacerbated by the gender wage gap, sexual harassment at work, and the expectation that they will still shoulder much of the unpaid household labor—are the liberation “girls” are supposed to be happy about, it’s no wonder we’ve stayed sad, and gravitated toward stories that reflect our sadness.

The ambient sadness that floats around girlhood seems a less politically productive emotion than anger.

Like Jamison, “I find myself in a bind. I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it. I know the ‘hurting woman’ is a cliché but I also know lots of women still hurt. I don’t like the proposition that female wounds have gotten old; I feel wounded by it.” I am frustrated that the latest female writer to be reified with praise from literary bigwigs and a spot on the New York Times bestseller list is once again the author of a story of hurt and vulnerability. After all, stories that link femininity and pain are as old as Eve, and the ambient sadness that floats around girlhood seems a less politically productive emotion than anger. And yet I was attracted to Cline’s precise examination of Evie’s wounds, the way her writing traced their contours, guessing at the trauma that had caused them.

In a novel, the writer has the opportunity to create new language for the experience of daily life, to make us pay attention to things we might otherwise brush past. What are we brought to see by novels that give us “infinite gradations in the vocabulary of female frustration, like cultures that have a hundred words for snow,” as Laura Kipnis writes? Cline’s novel, and others like it, etches ever deeper a story of female sadness, urging women to add its abuses to their already lengthy lists. I worry that dismissing that pain means dismissing pain that still stings. 

Women writing stories for, by and large, other women, about the experience of womanhood: does this represent a flowering of women’s voices, or a silo of experience? We risk making too sharp a separation between stories of women’s pain and the all-too-human feeling of pain. In doing so, we might reinscribe the binaries between men and women—the same ones that declare “woman” to be something less than a synonym for “human.”