Emma Cline's 'The Girls' Explores the Ways that Female Vulnerability Can Be Dangerous and Exploitable

In recent years, I’ve been trying to start out the year with some goals in mind as to what books I want to read.  I don’t know about my fellow readers, but I tend to be into multiple books at once. As I took a step back and looked at what I had been reading recently, I saw a common thread emerging.

The Girls, Penguin Random House, 2017

The Girls, Penguin Random House, 2017

Last year, at the recommendation of one of my best friends, I read a book that shook me to my core: The Girls by Emma Cline.  The story is a fictitious retelling of the Manson murders, told from the point of view of an adult woman, Evie, recalling her experiences as a fourteen-year-old in 1969.  Rather than being a thriller based on gory, the book is an exploration of Evie’s psyche as she falls deeper and deeper into the cult.  Throughout, Cline suggests the reasons a young girl might be attracted to such a disturbing lifestyle: a desperate desire to be loved, and to feel a sense of belonging after it seems like the rest of the world has rejected her.  

The most moving moments were when I as a reader saw her gaining security and validation in such an otherwise dangerous environment—what does this say about girlhood as it exists today?  More importantly, what does it say about how society values girls and women?

I waited to be told what was good about me. [...] All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you- the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.
— The Girls, Emma Cline

While reading it, I had to slow down to take in the dark, poetic language on almost every page, as well as the truth Cline is able to express about what it means to be an adolescent girl.  She has an uncanny ability to make me forget the violence that was an inevitable part of the story, and just take in the thoughts of the complex protagonist.

Evie speaks to the darker side of growing up, and the ways female vulnerability can be dangerous and exploitable.  Before The Girls, I had never read a book where this theme was present; and once I had, I considered it a gaping hole in my literary education.

In addition to The Girls, some of the other books I have opened included The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. What do all of these— and The Girls— have in common?  Besides all being written by incredible women, they all explore the female psyche and a woman’s experience at different points in her life.  Although men are not incapable of writing about women, women writers speaking to women’s experiences can be a source of empowerment.

If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending... But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else. Even when there is no one.
— The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

In one of my Women’s and Gender Studies classes, we read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, a renowned philosophical exploration of women’s history and lived experience.  Beauvoir theorizes that the male is regarded as the standard, and that woman is defined in relation to or subsumed by the man.  Thus, she says, the “human condition” of literature and philosophy is actually the male condition, which women have been compelled to adopt as the standard.  Their stories and history have been erased and hidden from them, subjecting them to the blinders of patriarchy.  In writing their own stories, women have the power to disrupt the status quo and challenge the definition of the “universal” and the “human condition.”

The work of Emma Cline, Margaret Atwood, and every woman writer who writes of the ‘female condition’ is serving an essential feminist imperative: to redefine what the standard is and to demystify the woman’s psyche to others and every woman reader.  Storytelling is one of our most powerful tools.

Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They noticed what we want noticed.
— The Girls, Emma Cline

These kinds of characters- and stories- need to become the norm, rather than the anomaly. Much of women’s experiences remain to be explored in storytelling, as they have been simplified, ignored, and erased for far too long.

So write down your story, and listen to those of others.  Even your diary or journal is more potent than you think—it testifies to the unique way you see the world.  Though I’m a big believer that we can all be writers, even if you write two sentences a day in a notepad, storytelling does not take just one form. Take it down and communicate it however suits you best, but most importantly, never doubt the value of your narrative and what it can accomplish.

Author: Caitlin Panarella

Caitlin Panarella is a writer, reader, and grammar enthusiast. She is currently studying English and Women and Gender Studies at Georgetown University. After watching Miss Representation in high school, she developed a passion for analyzing media and literature portrayals of gender. When she’s not planning out trips around the world, you can find her running her favorite routes all over D.C., sipping tea while reading a book, or (re)watching Stranger Things. She’s thrilled to be a part of the Make Muse team and support women telling their own stories!