By M-E Girard
M-E Girard’s debut novel, Girl Mans Up, is a coming-of-age story about a queer girl named Pen and what happens when her best friend and parents keep crossing the line—always blaming it on the fact that Pen looks and acts like a boy. It’s about Pen having to make choices about who deserves her respect and loyalty. It’s also about video games, hot girls, guy-code, and Ninja Turtles.
M-E joins us today to answer some hot button questions about identity, queerness, sexuality, and gender.
What is Pen’s identity? What makes her queer?
When I decided to write Pen’s story, I was most interested in exploring gender norms within the binary (man and woman), and how a teen who doesn’t quite fit on their assigned side of that binary might handle what life puts them through. My character, Pen, is not trans. She is cisgender (or simply “cis”), which means her gender identity is in line with the one she was assigned at birth.
What makes Pen queer is her sexual orientation: she is a girl who is attracted to other girls. Her gender expression and presentation complicate things, because she is also a girl who doesn’t look and act according to contemporary North American ideas about what a girl should look and act like. In fact, she very much conforms to our society’s ideas about what a boy should look and act like.
How much awareness does Pen have when it comes to her identity and queerness?
Pen knows very little about things like the gender binary, non-binary-identified people, transness, the concept of self-identifying, or even queerness. She just hasn’t been that curious about it, and definitely doesn’t have anyone in her life who would facilitate these kinds of conversations. This makes it really hard for her to understand what she’s dealing with. It makes her doubt herself because she doesn’t feel smart enough to “know what she’s talking about.” Words empower us, they help us understand what’s going on around us and within ourselves. Words give us the ability and confidence to work through our feelings and speak about our lives—they validate our existence. I know for myself, my
understanding of queerness and where I fit within it changed and evolved the more I learned about it: listening to other people talk about their queerness, reading theory books, reading novels featuring queer voices, etc.
Still, Pen has a strong sense of self—she’s been that way since she was very little. She’s presented herself in the way that felt natural, and she resisted the pushback she was getting, even as a kid. The older she gets, the more this pushback upsets her. She faces near-constant criticism and policing of the way she performs her “girlness.” She feels very dissatisfied with what it seems to mean to be a girl, and she doesn’t believe that all her masculine characteristics belong only to boys.
She knows everyone thinks she’s “not doing it right.” Part of her wants to redefine what being a girl means, but the other part—the part that feels beaten down by the criticism and judgment—feels like maybe she’s hanging on to an identity that she has no claim to. She wonders if she’s going to wake up one day and realize she was something or someone else altogether, and everyone around her knew it all along.
Was Pen always going to be a lesbian?
Yes. I could have told the story from the point of view of a heterosexual, cis Pen, because all of the gender expression stuff wasn’t dependent on Pen being a lesbian, but her being attracted to other girls was something that was important to me for a few reasons: I have always had a soft spot for girls like Pen, and since the inspiration for her came from my girlfriend (who obviously like girls!), Pen was always going to be attracted to girls. Her sexual orientation was also important because I wanted to explore the fact that the way a queer person looks—how identifiably queer they look—will often determine how much and what kind of negative reactions and treatment they’ll get from others. Pen learns that it’s not the fact that she likes girls that makes her stand out; it’s the fact that she looks the way she does.
You talk a lot about language, so why use sexist expressions like “man up”?
I write about real people, and we real people are not always all that pretty to listen to or watch, are we?! Realistically, a lot of people use these sexist words and expressions—often without even realizing what they’re saying. So with GMU I wanted to incorporate this into the story; I wanted to show the seeds of awareness, when it comes to language, being planted within this character’s consciousness.
Pen manning up never had anything to do with acting like a man. Just like Pen decides certain clothes and behaviors don’t belong exclusively to certain genders, she also realizes the definition of “manning up,” the actions and behaviors that constitute “manning up,” don’t belong to one gender in particular, and don’t describe one gender in particular either.
Anyone who reads GMU will hopefully see my attempts to complicate some of the sexist and misogynistic terms and expressions I used. In this story, words are tested on their meanings, and they’re assigned new meanings as Pen experiences life and decides what is true and what isn’t. It happens with the sexist/misogynistic words and expressions the same way it happens with words like respect, loyalty, friend, family. Pen’s whole world is shifting, and part of that shift involves the language she uses and the ways she understands those terms.
Does GMU engage with trans* issues?
I did not write about a trans character, but I did write about issues that affect gender-nonconforming cis people and trans people, often in very similar ways. Pen is a girl, and for the duration of the story, she struggles to retain the right to be who she says she is. She feels like the world is pushing her out of her identity as a girl because the way she expresses her gender is more in line with being a boy or being neither. There are similarities between the narratives of some trans people and some gender-nonconforming cis people. Pen deals with things like daily microaggressions, being misgendered, and bathroom issues. She may even be dealing with some form of gender dysphoria, depending on what one’s definition of the term is.
I hope many readers will be able to relate to Pen’s struggles—trans, cis, queer, non-queer, and straight alike.
M-E Girard lives just outside Toronto, where she splits her time between writing YA fiction about badass teen girls and working nights as a pediatric nurse. A 2013 and 2015 Lambda Literary Fellow, M-E is a proud feminist who is endlessly fascinated by the good, the bad, and the ugly regarding the concept of gender. Her debut novel GIRL MANS UP was published in September 2016 via HarperTeen and HarperCollins Canada. You can find her online at www.megirard.com and all over social media.