“The fact is,” writes Kate Bornstein, “that for many of us, it doesn’t matter what the latest theorist or social politician has to say about gender, we simply feel ours is either right and complete or it isn’t.” Bornstein calls our ineffable feelings about our gender “spiritual,” insisting, “We need a language to talk about those feelings.”
M-E Girard’s debut novel Girl Mans Up, out this September, is written in this much-needed language. Its’ protagonist, Pen — short for Penelope — loves button up shirts, ripped jeans, muscle tees, and nerding out about vintage video games. She has friends who are girls and friends who are boys. She helps her Portuguese immigrant mother out around the house, but prefers to dig ditches in the yard. Her brother is her most intimate confidant but she also develops a deep and unlikely bond with her best friend’s pregnant ex-girlfriend, Olivia. She feels solidly that she is a girl; Girl Mans Up is not a transition story.
“’How do you know you’re not a boy?’” Olivia asks Pen about halfway through the book.
“It’s hard to come up with an answer to her question,” Pen reflects, but ultimately replies, “’I don’t feel wrong inside myself. I don’t feel like I’m someone I shouldn’t be. Only other people make me feel like there’s something wrong with me.’”
In many ways, this novel is a story of gender — Pen cuts her hair, asks out her girl crush, and begins to stand inside the kind of masculinity she has always wanted to occupy. Girard’s writing is special in the way it speaks the language of our lived experience of moving through and within gender — inching, painfully slow, changeable, delightful, sexy, and made manifest in a thousand tiny ways, often between people and between words, unspoken. The writing also manages to hold at the same time powerful contradictions about the way spiritual gender feelings feel inside our bodies versus the way our bodies and selves are perceived and categorized by others. “There are four of us dudes sitting here” begins the book, “and I’m not even a dude in the first place.”
Readers will delight in every character, each more complex and never before seen on the page than the last. There’s Blake, the zaftig blond gamer love interest, with whom Pen shares some seriously hot scenes. Girard is to be commended for a difficult feat — in expanding what it means to be masculine, she doesn’t shrink or flatten what it is to be feminine. “I don’t think she’d be a princess, actually,” Pen says, when asked to describe her dream girl. “She’d be a badass vigilante bounty hunter with a unique ability. And we’d be on the same team.” There are Pen’s parents — Portuguese immigrants who can only read Pen’s clothing choices as “punky druggy” and who fear for her future and safety, hoping, in the spirit of the American dream, she’ll marry a nice man and become a nurse. And most compellingly, there’s Pen’s brother Johnny, a deeply nuanced and contradictory character. On the one hand, he’s a tough guy, a construction contractor who seeks out bar fights. He’s also a loving sibling, advocating for Pen’s right to be masculine when no one else does, even lending Pen his hair clippers. “Screw ‘em. Even if it’s your own mom giving you hell for it. You don’t have to change unless you want to,” he tells Pen. “But for real, man, you gotta stop stealing my stuff.”
One of the most intriguing relationships in the novel is also perhaps its least satisfying. When we meet Pen, her best friend is a popular straight boy named Colby — a bully who uses Pen to help him pick up and then discard girl after girl. Over the course of the novel, Pen grapples with the value and ethics of this relationship, which is perhaps meant to show us how she is both attracted to and repulsed by mainstream masculinity. But while all the points in the book where the volume feels cranked to maximum volume include Colby — a sexual encounter between them, a fist fight between them — raise interesting questions about violence and sex between a boy and a masculine girl, they also feel somewhat forced. Colby’s experience does not get explored with as much complexity as the rest of the characters; he, and by proxy, standard masculinity get vilified in the book as toxic and doomed. Pen seems to outright reject Colby and his way of being, rather than grappling openly with the fact that the Colbys of the world will be with her, and perhaps attracted to her, for all of time.
The book also imparts a sad jewel of wisdom that many young queer narratives evade: not everyone we love will love us the way we need or deserve. Pen’s parents are too rooted in a culture that does not accept her, and they hurt and demean her. Pen can no longer tolerate it, and moves in with her brother instead. As we become more ourselves, not all our relationships are salvageable.
But more than anything, this novel is a story of a person moving through the world, navigating the painful and joyful and difficult choices of constructing a self with integrity, as we all do. Navigating a gender minefield may be more complicated and painful for Pen than for some because her gender presentation bucks expectations of femininity, but what Girard explores powerfully is that gender is a minefield that holds and empowers us all — all of us humans, every day.