I read Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight the other day and didn’t much like it. You can read my review of it at GoodReads if you’d like to know the full reason why. I ended the review with a note that I actually found Amelia’s friend Sylvia rather intriguing, and I would totally be willing to read a book about her (though probably only if someone other than McCreight wrote it; see GR).
It seems perfect timing to talk about why Sylvia is neat, given that Kelly and Kimberly at STACKED have been doing a week dedicated to feminisms and books anyway, and since the Andrew Smith thing, and since in general, women get the short end of the stick on most things. You need to get over there and read those posts, posthaste.
So Sylvia. She’s Amelia’s “slutty friend,” and the school’s Gossip Girl blog writes about her a lot. It’s funny – while I think McCreight wanted her to be one-dimensional and bitchy and oversexed, she actually comes across as the most realistic, complex, and interesting character in the book. Sylvia clearly likes sex and feels safe doing it. Awesome! She also gets with lots of different guys and doesn’t feel bad about it. Good for her! She gets ragged on by everyone for this. Terrible, but verisimilitude! She suffers from depression, clearly, and probably makes some bad decisions because of that, but it’s not a direct depression–>slut equation. It’s more like empowered sex+name calling=frustration AND self esteem issues+depression=bad coping mechanisms happening at the same time, so I can totally see how it is easy to get reductive and see the more tired, common narrative of depression–>sexual deviance.
But I like Sylvia. I mean, I don’t like her, because she’s a bratty, obnoxious bitch sometimes, but I don’t like her in the way that I don’t like any of my friends when they’re being annoying. That is, if Sylvia were a real person, she would be a friend who sometimes drove me crazy, not someone I saw as some horrible slutty mess and didn’t respect. She’s totally respectable. The problem is that the world tells us not to respect an adolescent girl who already knows who she is and doesn’t care about hiding it to fit in (most adults are very, very scared of that kind of teenager; I am in awe and sometimes resentful/jealous of how ahead of the game they are). She talks incessantly about guys and worries a lot that she’s not good enough and that she’s being cheated on, but I really don’t think it’s because she’s vapid. It’s that she’s ever ready to believe that the world may stop seeing her as a slut and realize that she wants what everyone else wants – to be wanted and to belong – but she’s also not going to stop being herself (that is, vivacious in personality and sexually active, thereby not hiding the latter because of the former).
I think that’s all very interesting. I’m not doing the best job of unpacking it right now and I’m sorry, but there you have it. What I want in YA (and in all my books), and this is probably the millionth time I’m saying it, is realistically portrayed girls who have sex (or almost-sex) for reasons other than I’ve Been Dating My Perfect, Respectful Boyfriend for an Appropriate Amount of Time and He Wants To and It’s Prom. Girls who don’t need a relationship to do it and don’t regret it. Girls who want to have sex and are ready to have sex but don’t get asked out on dates or to dances because let’s be honest – the guy just doesn’t see her that way (bear with me; this post and issue is heteronormative and I’m sorry). It’s not okay to be treated like you’re wrong for being sexually active without playing the demure girl first in order to get a date, but that is real life for some of us, and I want to see that in a book. Girls who are deeply hurt by the fact that a guy who will let her give him a blow job won’t ask her to prom but who know that that’s a shortcoming on the guy’s part, not hers, and who don’t regret, moralize, or stop their sex lives because of it. Girls forced into playing up the slutty personality and pretending they don’t mind the label, because at least it means they’re Someone in high school instead of No One. I needed the hell out of books starring these girls when I was in in high school. I still need them now.
NOT the girl who at 15 somehow knows enough about love to know she doesn’t believe in it and yet somehow meets just the right person to change her mind. I’ve never met her and there are too many of her in books anyway. NOT another smug girl with a date to everything who says that this is her “first real relationship” to the friend who never even had a kindergarten “boyfriend,” let alone whatever an “unreal relationship” is. NOT a girl who just totally doesn’t care about dating at all because she’s so focused on her schoolwork and that draws all the boys to her with that irreverent charm. NOT a girl who has no sexual desires of her own but has sex on prom night because that’s just what you do when you’ve been dating the perfect guy all of senior year. NOT a girl labeled a slut until you learn that it’s not her fault, that she was molested when she was young and of course all of that sex she’s been having is just acting out and a symptom of mental illness so totally out of control that she will realize she hates about herself once she gets a good therapist. NOT a girl who thought she was sexually empowered and has only a so-so time in bed and realizes it’s because she should have waited until it was True Love, because that equals orgasm and happily ever after. I am so tired of those stories and those girls.
More Sylvias, please.