“You know, if you had told me two weeks ago that I’d be involved in a rally and have a whole new group of girl friends, I never would have believed it…I don’t know whether it’s the rally that’s making me feel so good, or the girls…It’s…I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Yeah, but that’s not really strong enough,” Stephanie said. “It’s just…the best.”
Last month I said I was rereading the first book in one of my favorite series, Girl Friends, and I finally finished. This is a book I’ve read lots and lots of times, and what I find most interesting is that, of course, as I reread, I notice different things that I hadn’t before.
When I first read the series back in 1993, I related most readily to Natalie and Cassandra, since they’re black cousins. Natalie is a lot like girls I knew in school and her situation with a deadbeat dad and knowing pregnant teens is something I could easily grab on to. Cassandra is a ballet dancer, and since I took dance, though not as intensely, I totally got that part of her.
I also related a lot to Janis who has a big mouth. There’s a part in one of the later books (book 3 maybe?) where Cassandra laments that Natalie and Janis have found each other since they’re the two biggest antagonists she knows. It’s a small detail that I’ve always loved because, yes, Janis and Natalie would have been my friends. And me and my friends were totally obnoxious and loud in high school.
I had a huge crush on a guy who got high all the time, so I got Stephanie and her relationship with Phillip (although, my pothead was not in love with me, sadly). I was also writing an epic novel/series of my own, so I loved that Stephanie always referred to Frances, the heroine of all her stories. Stephanie frequently rewrites scenes she’s living in her head or on paper, and that still is awesome.
I never much related to Maria. I mean, yes, I was on the pom squad in high school, but she’s pretty and popular and her family has money. However, on reread, I find her story the most fascinating. I remember most of the details of her story, of course: she bucks the popular crowd to hang out with the girl friend; her brother is the front man of a local band; her boyfriend assaults her and then brands her a slut.
What Grey does with Maria that I didn’t catch back then or even five or six years ago is pretty thoroughly deconstructs societal pressures on girls. Maria stays with her boyfriend that she hates because she is terrified of what will happen in her circle of cheerleading friends if she chooses to break up with him.
This is how she describes Leif:
He was in her way, like a thick, brick wall, preventing her from escaping, making her feel trapped and anxious and she wouldn’t be sorry if she never saw him again.
This comes on page 52, which is pretty early in the book, and is the beginning of an exchange when she realizes she should break up with him because she doesn’t really like him, but it’s nice to have someone to date who is in her circle. Right as she’s about to tell him she doesn’t want to date him anymore, this happens:
“Leif,” she began, then stopped as an image of Vanessa rose in her mind. ‘You what?’ the image shrieked, clutching its chest in horror. ‘You broke up with your only squeeze less than a month before Homecoming because he tried for serious sugar? What’re you, nuts?’
Maria then “surrenders to the familiar logic” and instead of breaking up with Leif, politely says good-bye. And the thing is Maria HATES Leif. He completely disgusts her. When they go on dates, she dresses in what is essentially armor because he has grabby hands, and if he can’t get his hands inside her clothes, she ends her dates with a sense of triumph because she’s bested him. It is pretty thoroughly disgusting, but Maria is all about appearances. And not only appearances but maintaining the status quo, keeping things on an even keel. She would rather go out with Leif who is disgusting and who makes her feel anxious than risk not having a date for the dance or having to explain herself to her cheerleading friends. It’s just easier for her, socially, to go along with it all than to dump him. Because if she breaks up with him, she’ll be bucking expectation, and worse, she’ll have to explain. Which she says!
Leif would be showing up anytime now and she hated the thought of dealing with him in front of everybody. Driving home with him after the game on Friday had been a bad move but everyone had expected it, so what was she supposed to do? They were, in a way, a couple and blowing him off now, for no good reason, would be social suicide.
Everyone had expected it! She knew it was a bad move, but she knew what was expected of her, so she did it. Way better to deal with Leif and how gross he makes her feel than to commit social suicide.
Then there are Maria’s parents and brother.
Her parents had always taken great pains to protect her. They had rules regarding what was acceptable and if her rules were stricter than Jesse’s had been, it was, her parents explained, because more harm could befall a girl. Having fun was one thing, but once a girl got herself in trouble, it would follow her forever.
Jesse, by the way, is a huge slut. And that’s what the books call him with no qualifiers (i.e, he is not a “male” slut, just a good old slut) who sleeps with groupies who he describes as a “nameless, faceless way to work off energy.” He also tells his sister not to be like the girls he has sex with. And Maria knows and understands it’s a double standard, but she can’t help living it. Her reputation IS everything to her. And not just sexually, because she knows the boys lie and say they have gotten something from her, but socially.
So Maria plays by the rules. She doesn’t break up with Leif. She tries to maintain appearances. And in the second book, Leif assaults her.
SHE DOES EVERYTHING RIGHT. She tries to please everybody. And it fails. And what I think is brilliant is that Grey clearly shows WHY a girl would stay in a relationship with someone who makes her anxious and suffocates her and who she hates kissing and doesn’t want to touch. I mean, no, Janis or Natalie wouldn’t do that, and even Stephanie has Phillip who loves her, but Maria wants to fit in and wants to belong and wants to not rock the boat. And she knows she should like Leif, on paper at least, and she doesn’t really have anybody else right now, and isn’t it better to have someone to go to the dance with than not? ISN’T IT?
And if Maria is doing all of this with a boy she doesn’t even like, what about the girls who love their abusive boyfriends? (And let’s be clear here: even if Maria doesn’t think of his relentless pawing of her as assault, there is clearly something about him that threatens her and makes her feel panicked and anxious around him–basically fear.) Taking out the question of love, erasing whether or not she likes him, makes it even clearer how sometimes there are these unspoken expectations for girls. It’s better to have a boyfriend than not. It’s better to have a date than not. It’s different for boys. Boys want it, girls don’t. Etc. Of COURSE Maria would put up with Leif then. Of course.
Anyway, that makes the books sound super heavy, and they do deal with some pretty serious topics (like racism, school shootings, HIV/AIDS, homelessness, death, bulimia, drugs), but oh my word, they are delicious to read. Here it is sixteen years later, and I’m just now getting how freaking brilliantly a lot of these topics are handled.
Another thing I like is that these girls are isolated or loners and it makes perfect sense, but they all have someone to talk to so that they’re not friendless. Janis is all about her causes, but she has her friend Simon. Cassandra is all about dancing, so doesn’t really interact with anyone at school…except Natalie. Natalie is new to the school, but she has befriended Gus. Stephanie works to take care of her family and maintain straight A’s so she can get a scholarship, but she has Phillip. And Maria, while a cheerleader, doesn’t really feel comfortable with them or count them as her actual friends.
So, yes, they have these relationships, but none of that compares to the five of them coming together. Empowerment through female friendships. I’d be lying if I said that this series hasn’t inspired my dissertation topic focusing on female friendship. If I didn’t love these books with all of my heart, I doubt very seriously that I would even think about or consider friendships between girls as much as I do.
I am so sad they are out of print. Because I want to make other people read them.