Is there a more complex creature than a young girl?
Desperate to fit in, yet also stand out (only in the right way, of course). Too cool to hold hands with a parent, yet yearning for love in all its forms – familial, platonic, and romantic.
Such a rich confusion of thoughts and emotions.
Such perfect fodder for writers.
Is it too much to say that the ‘young woman’ is having a ‘moment’ in cultural terms? Probably. After all, they’re not exactly a new thing. But neither should we underestimate the power of a TV hit series like Girls to have sparked a renewed interest in this particular life stage. An interest that exposes the shittiness of what are supposedly the best years of one’s life. Lena Dunham’s ‘girls’ are in their twenties, officially adult, but they’re still girls, entirely self-absorbed and paralysed by the concept of the world being at their feet. Girls, not yet women.
It is this kind of no-man’s land state of being that similarly occupies the focus of Hot Little Hands – a collection of nine short stories by Australian writer, Abigal Ulman. Ulman’s girls come from different countries but all seem to speak the language of contradiction. They are teens who engage in porny-sex, but also go on pony camp. They are writers who secure a publishing deal, only to renege on it all by having a baby. They are romantics who treat an abortion like a dental appointment.
‘I want to go a on a date with you. To SFMOMA. Next week.’
‘I can’t next week,’ I say. ‘I’m having an abortion next week.’
‘Shut up,’ he says. ‘You look hot today. Meet me right here on Thursday at five.’
‘I won’t be here,’ I say as he walks away.
‘It’s a date!’
It’s funny, right? But funny in that sad way, because underneath all the jokiness you just know there’s serious hurt, something these girls consistently hide behind their nonchalance and sarcasm.
The same occurs in Bad Behaviour, Rebecca Starford’s harrowing memoir of a year spent at the rural out-post of a Melbourne private school. Out of their parents’ gaze, the girls’ behaviour descends into Lord of the Flies-style bullying.
Caught between a desire to fit-in, and the knowledge that what is happening is completely wrong, Starford falls into the trap of doing and saying nothing. She becomes a master of concealment. Years later, as Starford comes to grips with her homosexuality, she repeats the damaging behaviours that so shamed her during the tumultuous year at Silver Creek, and it is only by confronting the truth of that year that Starford can move forward with her life.
Shame worms its way into my guts. This is where it started. Here-at Silver Creek. This is where the fear began. And it was of my own making. Not anyone elses.
While Starford’s writing doesn’t quite have the punch of Ulman’s, she achieves a gentler, more reflective style of prose, admirable in its honesty; Starford presents herself as much part of the bullying problem as the solution.
In both books, emerging sexuality is a key theme. For Starford, it stimulates shame and confusion, where in Hot Little Hands it ranges from being a source of vulnerability to being a source of empowerment.
‘I was yet to work out exactly what it was that guys found sexy in women, but I knew whatever it was, I had it.’
The saying goes that youth is wasted on the young. But I can’t agree with that, as it implies that youth is some kind of state of blissful happiness.
In fact, as both Hot Little Hands and Bad Behaviour demonstrate, being young is all about self discovery – discovering your identity, your sexuality, your career ambitions, your priorities. As exciting as discovery can be, it’s also tremendously uncertain. No one really knows the end point, nor how to get there. Mistakes and back-tracking are almost guaranteed.
Traditionally, ‘coming of age’ narratives have tended to treat ageing in a lineal fashion – you start young and clueless, you get older, and suddenly you’re less clueless.
But as we know from experience, and are now seeing reflected back at us on our TV screens and in our books, it doesn’t quite work like that…