In reviewing this book, I realize I am late to the party. It was published last August and has sparked many debates on the pervasive grey areas of consent, ‘promiscuity’ and the legal system.
The culture portrayed in this book is all to familiar to me, having grown up in Ireland. The boys sitting by the xbox playing and slighting one another, the girls who have grown up to believe they have nothing more to give than the gift of their beauty and who trade too frequently in the currency of their looks. As a girl-child growing up in Ireland, I remember well adults telling me how beautiful I am, almost because they didn’t know what else to say. They say it so often you internalize it.. But we live in a polarized society where boys are commended for being boys, being athletic, strong and ‘male’. When I was in primary school, the boys played soccer while the girls learned Irish dancing. And I hated it.
(******–SPOILERS HERE–****)Here’s a synopsis of the plot: The protagonist ‘Emmie’ is a beautiful confident school-going teenager who can make men melt with a flick of her hair. She is portrayed as being too confident, she enjoys too much when the other girls are jealous, she luxuriates in grown men gasping when they see her. She expects people to suck up to her, she surrounds herself with uglier girls so she can feel even more important. She is not loyal to her friends and takes the men they want just because she can. When her friend is raped, she advises her not to say anything. The book sets out for you to dislike her, an archetypal ‘mean girl’, maybe the book almost wants us to say ‘she was asking for it’ when the central event of the book takes place- a drug and alcohol -fueled party. At the party, Emmie is slighted by the man she is interested in, and takes up with his friend who is about 10 years her senior. The man gives her MDMA and has sex with her. His and her friends then join them in the bedroom- they take prescription drugs and she cannot remember anything after that. The next day her parents return home from their trip away and find Emmie sunburnt, lying unconscious outside the family home.
On Monday when she returns to school, she is shunned by her friends. A facebook page has been set up and the disturbing contents contain evidence of what happened when she was unconscious. You would think that the natural course of what happens next would show her being wrapped in the protective structures of society, her family, friends, community. Instead she is called a whore, a slut. The students of the school launch a hate campaign against her through social media, her own parents seem to blame her, the consequences of the night are far-reaching, but the person who suffers most is Emmie- believing the rape to be her own fault, believing she ruined her rapists lives.
There are a number of issues explored in this book, importantly the virgin/whore dichotomy of how women are described- Emmie is not a virgin, and wears provocative clothing. But should this mean that we do not protect her in law? Should this mean that men do not have to ask her for consent? Of course not, but this is what is happening time and time again. And consent is such an impossible difficult thing to prove- one word against another. I am sure many women back down, some never tell their stories because they fear being shunned by their friends. This has happened to people I know in Ireland. I am sure it has happened to many more who never open up about it.
Another thing that impressed me was the vivid picture of mothers in Ireland. Emmie’s mother is a typical ‘Irish Mammy’ always running around baking things and having more time for her son and husband than her daughter. Emmie says early on that her mother has a special voice she only uses around men and that she wonders why the mother never uses that voice with her. Growing up with these damaging role models, Emmie goes on to use her sexuality to please men. She says she never really enjoys sex, maybe perversely she enjoys the power it bestows on her in competition with other women. Mainly she strives to make it a pleasant experience for the man. Again the result of this type of mother /role model on the young girl is to make her spoilt, selfish and unable to deal with life. Having a mother who does everything for everyone is unrealistic, it shows the young woman that a woman is nothing in her own right, just a servant to others. In a letter that Emmie had written to ‘her future self aged 30’ she imagined she would have a rich husband and two children at that age. Her expectations of the future are cast in relation to what man she would have- the achievements she imagines are as a trophy, a mother.
Small town Ireland is given a severe bashing, a cultish parochial patriarchy rules over all- the church, the GAA, the male bank managers and police all forming a net that protects young men and the vision of Ireland where we’re all just ‘grand’ all the time. There is no time given to real conversations. Emmie’s mother is happiest sitting in front of the late late (TV show) with her children, not speaking and drinking wine . Everything in the Irish household is based on appearance rather than reality- once the appearances are intact, reality follows suit and not the other way around. ‘Saving face’ in Ireland is ever important. This is why things fall asunder when appearances are disrupted by what happens to Emmie. She has shed off the ‘virgin’ assigned to her by her father, who calls her his ‘princess’. Using the dichotomous concept of femaleness she must then be a whore- the issue of consent is never discussed properly by the older generation- her mother and father both believe she is at fault really… Why was she in bed with a man, if she didn’t want this to happen?Respected men in the community can not be brought down. In the words of Emmie’s mother ‘They’re good boys really, this all just got out of hand’.
As an English teacher I am going to go out of my way to get teen girls, boys and adults to read this important book. Just look at the Stanford case that is on the news right now, our attitudes to women, sexuality and consent need to change, and fast.