After a storytelling show a couple of years ago, years after the Weinstein news was everywhere, I mentioned to a group of women who gathered around me after my performance that I had been sexually assaulted twice in my twenties. My point wasn’t to discuss my harm. My point, I went on to tell the group, was the fact that no women I told about these incidents believed that I was telling the truth. Instead of affirming and supporting, the women I’d told after my assaults had asked questions in order to find a hole in my narrative or had changed the subject to something more polite. At the show, I thought I was in the company of women who understood how often women absorb the lies that keep patriarchal narratives alive. Rather than words of recognition or acknowledgment from the group, I was met with silence. Someone changed the subject. There were other things they wanted to talk about.
I understand why some want to avoid talking about how systems of power stay in place. Everyone, including those harmed by systems of oppression, plays along because they get something in return. The women at my storytelling show were willing to forgo looking at their behavior and how it silenced me and other women who have been sexually assaulted, in favor of belonging to a group identity in which no one is sexually assaulted. I wouldn’t want to be a member of either group, among women who are assaulted or women who are silent, if I had to choose.
Following her memoir Abandon Me, Melissa Febos’s new collection of essays, Girlhood, examines belonging as integral to developing both female personal identity and group identity across several topics, including Febos’s early sexual experiences, her relationship with her mother, and her hatred of her hands, which she weaves into the narrative about her first sexual experience with a girl. The book also includes illustrations of hands and mirrors, among other things, illustrated by Forsyth Harmon.
For Febos, girlhood is a period of learning one’s duty to submit to the rules of a game that no girl has any chance of winning. Her early sexual experiences with boys were in seclusion but were not private. Everyone around her knew. In interviews with young women, she examines how the label “slut” is affixed to girls offline as much as online, used as a weapon to exclude and erase any girl who is deemed unworthy of inclusion. For girls, there is no developing into a woman in secret: everything, whether it happened or not, is on display. So why do we continue to play a game knowing we will lose no matter what we do, and that the penalty could be social isolation, degradation, or rape? Febos layers research from historical, literary, and cultural texts within her personal narratives––a technique familiar to readers of her other books––to deepen and enrich Girlhood’s ambitious aims to define the creation of gender within the patriarchy.
The book opens with this quote from gender theorist, Judith Butler: “Destruction is thus always restoration––that is, the destruction of a set of categories that introduce artificial divisions into an otherwise unified ontology.” Febos’s self-narrative bears witness to her path to wholeness, the promise inherent in womanhood. She arrives at a unified female self by destroying the social attitudes and beliefs she adopted in her girlhood, which Febos contends all girls are exposed to in patriarchal culture. Interlacing Febos’s personal narratives are several theoretical frameworks including Jacque Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage and Thomas Fuchs’s paper on the devaluing of the self that results from witnessing the outsider’s gaze. She interviews young women who experienced shaming online and at school in a section that starts with the short story “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and blissfully unwinds the history of the usage of slut from its roots related to slovenliness.
The rules for restoring the self to a unified whole may lie in the exploration of how each of us perpetuates a lack of self-awareness about our own bodies and the bodies of others. Febos’s humor and tenderness about her female self are showcased in the centerpiece essay, “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself.” On two separate occasions, Febos and her girlfriend use a service called Cuddle Party, a service for lonely urbanites to experience physical touch. Tying these stories to Harry Harlow’s research on what he termed “skin hunger” using touch-deprived rhesus monkeys, Febos reconciles her need to be seen and touched by others with her inability to set healthy, self-protecting boundaries. She concludes, after an awkward encounter in which she later wishes she had refused a stranger’s touch, that there is no autonomy without consent. Both parties must assert their own agency as well as that of each other for consent to apply. At the second Cuddle Party, Febos writes, “If I have learned anything by writing this, it is that consent is a form of communication that happens first within the self.” One necessary element for the development of autonomy is self-trust. Febos has claimed a self, an adult female body, in a way she could not have as a girl, by trusting her power to offer consent. A unified female self, and ultimately the framework that supports her, must assert itself as self-governing. That is, Febos plays her own game with rules that allow her to win.
Reading these lines reminded me of the women at the storytelling show who did not want to publicly acknowledge the reality of consent. Applying Febos’s ontology, a whole female self can be made through self-reflection and writing, tools that destroy the parts of the self that have been adopted to fit in and survive. The false narratives of “slut” and whatever is appropriately desirable must be reclaimed and renamed from the culture that denied the true power of female childhood and womanhood. Perhaps those women in the audience who reinforced the silence around assault had not reflected on the parts of themselves they adopted from others, from the culture in which such things don’t happen, or if they do they don’t happen to “good” girls. They mistrusted the truth because they could not recognize, much less reconcile, their own experiences.
In Girlhood Febos not only offers herself a new playbook, scrutinizing the assumptions she has placed upon herself, she also examines how our culture prizes the narratives of boys over girls, often erasing the girl altogether in favor of a more understandable story. By looking at the social and cultural context in which we become women, this multileveled narrative affirms that our shared attitudes and beliefs about girls and the women we expect them to become are more important than whatever benefits we gain by denying and distorting them. Girlhood offers the plausibility that on the other side of personal and collective awareness lies the choice to play a different game.
Published March 30, 2021
Jeannine Burgdorf is a writer in Chicago. Her fiction has been appeared in Signal House Edition, New Reader Magazine, Orange Quarterly, and the anthology Writer Shed Vol. 2. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Quail Bell Magazine and INELDA.