CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 36. . . .May 20, 2016
Girl Mans Up.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollinsCanada, 2016.
373 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.
Review by Rob Bittner.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
I bet Iíve pictured myself dating every girl at this school at some time or another. Iíve been at St. Peterís Catholic High for two years and three days: thatís a lot of days of staring at the same girls. Lately, Iíve been stuck on this one. Blake has a boyís name, crazy blond hair, and a lot of black makeup. Last week, I heard her talking about signature melee weapons for Rusted, this new Xbox game coming out soon. Every since then, I canít stop staring at her, at the back of her head, at that long hair, imagining what it would be like to have a girl put on shiny lip stuff just for me. And the first words out of her mouth wouldnít be ďAre you a girl or a boy?Ē
Pen is the kind of girl who just doesnít want to be typical. She likes to wear her brotherís clothes and have short hair, she loves video games and hard work, but the one thing she doesnít want is to actually be a guy. This, however, is something her friends donít seem to understand, at least until she starts to make friends outside of her usual group of guy friends. At one time, Colby was her best friend, but after she discovers something strange going on between Colby and a girl in some of her classes at school, she starts to see that maybe her friends arenít who she thought they were. And if that wasnít bad enough, sheís getting totally fed up with her traditional Portuguese parents who just donít seem to understand her and what she wants or needs.
Girl Mans Up is a complex novel that explores baggage associated with gender nonconformity and gender fluidity in a way that many other LGBT books donít. Penís desire to be a more butch girl without actually wanting to become a guy seems to confuse the majority of those around her, including her parents, peers, and ex-friends. She is seen at various times as a traitor to her own gender, a poser, and a disrespectful daughter. There are limitations placed on Penís femaleness due to her desire to wear masculine clothing and act more masculine at times. The pressures of being expected to conform are explored with a great deal of nuance by Girard.
That being said, there are issues with the text that I cannot ignore. The reliance on expectations of being able to ďman upĒ carries a lot of baggage when it comes to what men are also expected to be. Throughout the novel, Penís idea of ďman upĒ includes not showing emotion, being inherently aggressive, and sometimes even relying on violence to solve disputes. All of this is problematic, and while Girard does attempt to address some of this during a few moments of dialogue, there are components of this masculine stereotype that are left untangled.
The other main issue I have with the book is the use of dialect. Penís parents are Portuguese and speak, throughout the novel, in Portuguese (shown in italics) or broken English. Unfortunately, the very choppy dialogue leads to Penís parents becoming caricatures. While I do not believe this was the intent, it is an unfortunate side effect. Also, this style of dialogue caused me to become removed from the flow of the narrative at times.
These qualms aside, Girl Mans Up is an important novel, and one that is well-written overall. The explorations of gender and sexuality are necessary, especially in a book where Penís sexual orientation is actually not the focus. Girl Mans Up deserves to be on public and school library shelves as it will bring up important conversations and questions during a time in which there is simply too much focus on otherness as negative. This book is also a fantastic addition to Canadian fiction about LGBT topics, of which there are few in the existing body of young adult literature.
Rob Bittner is a graduate of the MA in Childrenís Literature program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Gender, Sexuality, and Womenís Studies at Simon Fraser University.
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