The Rise of the Restless Girl

One of my favorite authors is Megan Abbott, whose praises I sing daily and loudly. She wrote Dare Me, a noir-ish novel set on a high school cheerleading squad. The standout line from this novel is so delicious – “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”

I’m very drawn to female coming of age stories, probably because I am a female still coming of age in a lot of ways. But also because I think coming of an age as a girl is a tangly process that produces all sorts of interesting stories. It’s a time of great restlessness, and often restlessness leads to trouble. And trouble usually leads to a good story.

I’m a sucker for fiction supposedly about that restlessness, when you’re just on the brink of becoming a person and it feels like the world isn’t expanding with you. I have a whole Goodreads shelf called “aimless, dangerous girls” just because I like reading about what happens to young women who tangle with those feelings. The stories I always find most interesting aren’t necessarily when something bad happens to them, or their world pushes against them with restrictions, etc. The ones that I think work the best – and are the most true to life – are when these young women create trouble all on their own. They don’t need to the world to push against them to feel trapped and pushed back; they’ll push back just because.

“Growing up” is a specifically internal experience for women. Women spend a lot more time contemplating themselves – second guessing themselves, gauging their own reactions – was that the right thing to say? Did that sound bitchy? Even dressing yourself is a message that needs to be properly transmitted – is this too flirty? Does this look like I’m trying too hard? Along with this young women also learn to read the reactions of others with alarming sensitivity. Gestures – an arm around the waist vs. shoulder, the narrowing of a brow – and even digital communication – a like on a photo, a period at the end of a text message – are all signs we spent time decoding. Of course, boys wonder about these things, too. But I would argue it’s not with the same intensity as young ladies, whose ears have been taught to perk up for them. Perhaps this is why this time in a girl’s life is such juicy fare for writers – it’s already wrought with hidden meaning and symbolism.

As you go from girl to woman, you become much more aware of yourself. Not just in the way of figuring out who you are (but hopefully that too), but in the way that you’re constantly aware of how the world reacts to you. You sense it intuitively and adjust accordingly. It’s a language we learn subtly, over years and years of girlhood and adolescence. Most women speak this language with such great fluency they don’t even realize they’ve learned it. But there it is, in every step out of the way – every “sorry”, every hesitation to press “send”, every feeling of a lingering eye.

One of the reasons that stories about women who have been socialized to speak this language are so interesting is that they operate within it without really even trying. It’s especially elevated in stories about female friendships or relationships, adding another level on which the characters interact. The result is often distinctly subtle, cerebral stories that feel like they’re brimming with emotion and violence, even in the most mundane situations. A backyard party, a ride in a car, a summer day laying by the pool, track practice. Everything seems sharper and important, just as it did to us then. The code of young women – that hyper-awareness – is there, going unspoken but running deep. And you’ll see time and again characters using that language, flexing it, threatening with it. It’s fascinating.

Maybe this all sounds really abstract. But I remember being a teenage girl and running these calculations in my brain in nearly every interaction – with a boy, with a teacher, with other girls. And I think good writers who write stories about girls on the brink of womanhood (perhaps I’m referring here darker stories on the more mature side, rather than a light YA) understand how those calculations work and use them to create another level of the story, simmering just beneath the surface. And when that simmer rises up, the fun begins.

As I said I have a special place in my heart for characters who eventually give in – to their frustration, to their boredom. I’m thinking of books like Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter or Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman. There’s even Alison DiLaurentis from Pretty Little Liars. Why do I love these girls – girls who lie freely, who provoke, who seek out danger, who don’t listen, who lorde over others, who feel too much, who stay hidden, who never reveal themselves? I’m not the only one – there’s been a rush of such stories either recently or coming soon, much to my delight. The Girls by Emma Cline, How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz, Me and Mr. Booker by Cory Taylor, Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell.

If you take a look at contemporary fiction, seem at the moment to be fascinated by these ladies on the brink of adulthood and destruction. Perhaps it’s because there’s a much-welcome call these days to see more female characters with their own motivations – starting their own fights and causing their own trouble rather than being plucked out of it by a hero. Maybe we’re even starting to be open to female characters who don’t want to be plucked out of trouble, because they’re playing a game that’s about something deep inside themselves, something more. Perhaps because many real now-grown women who are writing and reading felt all these same pressures as a teenager, but never quite broke out beneath them in the way these fictional girls do. Perhaps by reading about them now we’re reclaiming a bit of that youthful rage, going off the deep end, back to that time when everything was white-hot intense and the end of the world in our brains, now from the the safety of the other side. And there’s something all of us – not just girls – can relate to in that, or at least yearn for.

Of course, the great thing is that these restless girls with their “dangerous” boredom are only part of the breadth of what a female character can be. But the fact that they’re getting page time is exciting – whether they grow up to leave all that restlessness behind for a calm, contented life or to become Amy Dunne. Perhaps the most exciting part about reading these coming of age stories about restless girls is that, in these stories, both are still a possibility. Or is that we aren’t quite sure what outcome we’re really wishing for?