September Girls - Bennett Madison image
Cast your pitchforks aside, I'm going to try and explain. Explain why this book which is lauded by critics but generally hated by goodreads (and many of my friends on the site), criticised as being misogynistic and disgusting and appalling and many other colourfully negative words... was a completely different experience for me. I'm sick of hearing the word but, in the end, it all comes down to interpretation. And I think this book more than most I've read depends on that interpretation. I'm not here to say anyone's wrong, some of my closest GR friends despised this book (you know I love you, Blythe) and hell, I'm the queen of seeing a book in strange ways (remember that awkward time I thought Lolita was a love story) but, for me, this book wasn't sexist at all. For me, it was the very opposite.

For one thing, I don't believe that showing something in a book or showing characters behaving in a certain way makes the book a positive message for such behaviour. I was one of the few who disagreed about [b:League of Strays|10194623|League of Strays|L.B. Schulman||15093799] being homophobic just because some of the characters happened to be. There are people who are homophobic or racist or sexist and I think a book can show that without being a representation of the author's views. I certainly don't think [a:Margaret Atwood|3472|Margaret Atwood|] believed that women should be treated the way they were in [b:The Handmaid's Tale|38447|The Handmaid's Tale|Margaret Atwood||1119185] - in fact, that was the point, right? She was showing the consequences of radical Christianity and feminism in order to criticise it. Characters are not always their authors. Unless, of course, you're reading a [a:John Green|1406384|John Green|] book.

Mr Madison seems to be of the exact same opinion as me in this case. His previous book - [b:The Blonde of the Joke|3264912|The Blonde of the Joke|Bennett Madison||3300226] - was criticised for having homophobic characters and the author replied:

A writer’s job isn’t to create saintly characters as models of good behavior for readers. Characters without flaws– even, at times, ugly and discomfiting flaws– are bad characters, and bad characters make bad literature. In order to be interesting, characters must sometimes behave in ways we don’t approve of. (The ill-tempered murderer Raskolnikov, racist-mouthed Huck Finn and pill-addled/ego-crazed Neely O’Hara all spring instantly to mind.)

To which I find myself nodding my head. If you're curious about his full response, click the spoiler.

Hi there!

I’m the author of The Blonde of the Joke, and although I usually try to let reviews lie, I surely don’t want anyone getting the impression that I intended this book to be homophobic. In fact, I am an open and enthusiastic gay myself!

And although it’s certainly possible to be both gay and homophobic– just as it is of course possible for a novel to carry meaning outside and beyond the intentions of its author– I do think it’s a little unfair to label a book as homophobic simply because the characters use slurs. Characters are characters.

I’d rather not get into a discussion of why the Francie and Val behave the way they do and use the words they do, because I think that those deliberations should be left to the reader. It’s part of the process of reading the book.

But a few questions that I hope readers consider: Why are the girls using these words? What does it say about them and their own relative positions of power that they speak this way? Are Francie and Val homophobes? (Hint: the answers to these questions may be different for each girl!)

When Val reassures herself that her bathroom makeout with Francie is “not a lesbo thing,” what are the implications? Is it realistic that she would think this way?

When Francie dresses as a ho for the supposed benefit of Val’s gay brother, is it because she really thinks she can “turn” him? Either way, what does it say about Francie that she says this?

And let’s say that Francie and Val are indeed at least a little homophobic. Does this mean that they’re not suitable characters for fiction?

The last question is the one I can answer easily: no, it doesn’t. A writer’s job isn’t to create saintly characters as models of good behavior for readers. Characters without flaws– even, at times, ugly and discomfiting flaws– are bad characters, and bad characters make bad literature. In order to be interesting, characters must sometimes behave in ways we don’t approve of. (The ill-tempered murderer Raskolnikov, racist-mouthed Huck Finn and pill-addled/ego-crazed Neely O’Hara all spring instantly to mind.)

Many have suggested to me that a writer of books for young people bears an added responsibility when it comes to matters such as these. After
all, mightn’t some impressionable youngster read my book and come away with the notion that it’s okay to go around calling people “fag”?

I mean, possibly, sure. But I give my audience more credit than that, even if it’s largely underage. I have no choice as a writer but to trust that my readers understand that I’m not endorsing any of the questionable behavior that the characters in my book engage in. There’s a lot of it. Besides the occasional homophobic slur, Val and Francie also perpetrate countless feats of extreme shoplifting,
indulge in outrageously profligate cigarette-smoking, drink while underage, smoke a little weed, skip class and curse without remorse, and– worst of all in my mind– inflict several cruel and petty betrayals upon each other.

So am I telling teenagers to go out and act this way? Of course not. Am I telling teenagers not to? No, not that either. It’s not my intention as a writer to tell anyone what to do. Everyone can do as he or she pleases. All I ask of anyone who reads my work– teen or otherwise– is to think about it carefully and questions.

Anyway, back to this book. I truly find myself seeing it as the very opposite of sexist/misogynistic. What I saw here was actually a challenge to the way society and other people teach boys to become men, the expectations they place upon them and the misogyny that is openly encouraged. I saw it as a challenge to social constructs of gender, masculinity and femininity. What does it mean to be a man and why? Can a woman be free and independent as well as being a wife and mother? Whilst reading this book, a Gloria Steinem quote came to mind:

“We've begun to raise daughters more like sons... but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.”

It's this whole idea we have that traditional masculinity is superior and it's far easier to be a woman with masculine traits than it is to be a man with feminine traits. We've begun to accept the "manning up" of modern women, the rise of female ambition and their slow climb to higher paid jobs. It's not ridiculous for women to want a career anymore because that's a masculine - and therefore a positive - pursuit. But the way we treat men who act in a traditionally feminine way might be the biggest hindrance to equality. And Sam (this book's protagonist) is struggling with the expectations placed upon him to "be a man".

I, for one, thought Sam's character development was excellent. He starts off as someone who separates women into categories (e.g. sluts) because of the influence of the society he lives in and his brother, but over time he learns to accept DeeDee simply as herself and not as part of something a patriarchal society has defined, seeing women as individuals on a level that goes beyond physical appearance: "Starting to understand her was less like learning and more like forgetting the DeeDee I'd created in my mind. Now, outside Ursula's, in the grass by the highway, she was just DeeDee. She was only herself." Linking in to what I said about questioning the concept of masculinity, Sam experiences things that are not deemed typically masculine. When DeeDee comes onto him, he admits to being afraid and feeling less of a man for it. The idea of virginal women being scared and anxious is explored in many novels but it is taken for granted that men have no such qualms, that they are only interested in doing the deed. This book allows Sam to be more than a man, it allows him to be human.


I also, unlike many many others, absolutely loved Sam's mother and what her character seemed to be saying about women. Sam tells us how she became obsessed with Facebook and found a group of radical women online who live by the SCUM manifesto. I can see why this could be viewed as a brushing aside of feminism and placing it all under the SCUM umbrella, but that's not what I took from it. I saw it as the author looking at the other side too, the expectations placed on women and the way they are torn over who to be. It's about a woman struggling with what it means to be a woman today, wanting to be a good wife and mother but at the same time confused by radical feminist ideals that tell her she is being exploited in that position.

This is a paranormal book, but that just forms the background of a story which (I feel, anyway) is full of depth and complexity. In my opinion, this is one sophisticated piece of young adult fiction that is guaranteed to continue angering people. It does have very coarse language that may be off-putting for some, as well as graphic sexual content (or talk of it). But this doesn't really bother me.

I've always seen feminism as being the wrong word. My definition of it is about equality and freedom and choice; but the very word itself doesn't say equality, it says we're excluding half the population. For some, it even says "men are the enemy" and there's no wonder people often consider it a dirty word. Because, really, feminism is about both men and women. Patriarchy and sexism place restrictions and expectations on both sexes that are equally damaging. The concepts of masculinity and femininity create misogyny and I believe this book is primarily about the messages delivered to young men and how these men can easily become casually misogynistic through the masculine expectations of them. Evidence of it is everywhere. Groups of teenage boys trying to prove they're each more virile than the next by whistling and catcalling at girls. It's an attitude which is thrust upon them. But this book is also about how they can be more than that.

I've pretty much exhausted myself and I hope I don't get too hated for this review. I feel like finishing with this quote:

"Fuck it," I said. At a certain point, it's just time to be a man. Actually, no. Fuck that too. Being a man is bullshit; maybe trying to 'be a man' had been the problem all along. At a certain point you just have to trust someone. Even if it's only yourself.