I am Pen and Pen is me.
We’re not identical. Yet this is the first time I have read a book with a character whose relationship with their gender and their body felt relatable for the reason of OMG I HAVE HAD THOSE SAME EXPERIENCES. Not all of them, but many. The details are different, the essence is the same.
Pen Oleivera is a masculine, butch teenage girl who for all her life has been getting shit from her parents and her peers for being the “wrong” kind of girl, the kind who wears men’s clothes, hangs out with dudes, loves FPS video games, and is an overall un-feminine person. Pen’s never had a problem with herself, with being female, or being into other girls. What Pen does have a problem with are people’s expectations and assumptions. Her traditional, Portuguese-immigrant parents expect respeito from her in the form of acting like an appropriately feminine daughter. Her douchebag-of-a-best friend Colby expects loyalty for his “bros before hos” mentality in return for treating Pen as “just another guy.” All three of them accuse her of trying to be something she’s not, trying to be a man, because why else would she look and act the way she does?
I am a non-binary, agender person who grew up as female. As a teenager I couldn’t shake the belief that I was “failing” at being a girl, because I had no interest or skill in dressing like a “typical” American girl (clothes, hair, makeup, etc.) and I had almost zero romantic or sexual interest in anyone, much less boys. My process of identifying as non-binary was in direct relationship to my growing hatred of other people making assumptions of what kind of person I was because of my body—that because I looked female, I had to be (or people assumed I was) a certain kind of person. That because I looked like a straight female (despite not being at all straight), I had to be (or people assumed I was) a certain kind of person. I hated (and still do) that my body and my perceived gender would always be filters other people used to make sense of who they thought I was. Wearing certain articles of feminine clothing began to feel more and more like I was wearing a costume, like I was broadcasting an incorrect message of who I was, except I couldn’t figure out how to change the message.
“When I have my clothes on, I feel normal. When my clothes aren’t on, it’s like I lose something important about myself. When I think about someone else seeing me like this, it feels like they’d actually be seeing some other person.”
My problem has never been with my body. But in other people’s eyes, my body broadcasts messages seemingly implicit to it being an AFAB body.
“It’s not like I want to be looking at a boy’s body in the mirror. It’s just that a girl’s body is so…girl.”
How do I continue to be OK with my body while trying to look like the non-binary person I know myself to be? And having other people see me as that person? How can I look like me?
I cannot begin to explain how much it means to me to read about Pen, to read about a character that deals with those same issues of gender presentation, who has issues with herself and her gender not because of internal conflict, but because of external, societal and cultural shit her family and friends push onto her. To read about a character who’s cisgender and has to deal with a lot of similar bullshit trans people experience (ex. getting misgendered, women preventing her from using the women’s restroom, guys yelling at her about what is or isn’t in her pants). To read a book where gender and sexuality intersect—Pen’s masculine and she’s a lesbian; she’s a lesbian and she’s masculine—but neither identity is an explanation for the other’s existence (which is what her friend Colby believes, that the only reason she’s the way she is because she wants to fuck girls).
I loved the messiness of the story—not the plot or the narrative, but the miscommunication between Pen and her parents, Pen and Colby, Pen and her older brother Johnny, and everyone else. The miscommunication isn’t needless obstruction, it’s intrinsically rooted in lack of awareness and knowledge of how to communicate other than the ways and with the words they know. When Pen’s mom endlessly parrots “respeito” as the reason Pen needs to start acting more feminine, it’s because it’s the only way she knows how to say why she thinks Pen’s acting wrong. When Pen tries to explain why she is the way she is, she fumbles and hedges and makes guesses because hey, she’s a teenager, she doesn’t have all the answers or know all the “right” words, and the only reason she’s scrambling for answers is because other people seem to think she has them in the first place.
I loved Pen. Her voice is what carries the entire book – her confident, bad-ass, balls-to-the-wall voice. I loved how she’s all loud and blustery with her friends and in public, but when it comes to Blake, her equally bad-ass crush, she’s sweet and fumbling and adorable. I loved Pen’s dorky love of video games and how she and Blake bond over their shared love of gaming and kicking people’s asses (*swoon*). I loved that Pen’s masculinity and primarily male friend-group doesn’t preclude her developing a friendship with Olivia, one of Colby’s ex-hookups, as well as the extent to which Pen comes to value Olivia’s friendship.
Pen’s friendship with Colby is fascinating, and, even though the story is trained tightly on Pen, I would have loved further exploration into what makes Colby tick. Colby is very much written as your typical masculine, masculinity-conscious, douchebag bro, yet unlike with Pen, his relationship to gender and masculinity is rendered without the same amount of dimension or nuance, without consideration of how imposed expectations of manhood negatively impact him as much as imposed expectations of womanhood on Pen. There’s a lot going on with Colby’s insecurity towards both Pen and Olivia revolving around his need to be superior because he’s a man and they’re women, and it’s even possible he did have feelings for Olivia, but didn’t know how to deal with them without feeling like he was betraying his “code” of what it means to be male in relation to a woman (i.e. girls exist to hook up with, don’t let them get clingy, etc.).
In contrast, Johnny, Pen’s cool older brother, represents the kind of masculinity Pen aspires to emulate—being tough, generous, strong, laid-back, self-achieving, and always having your back. More than anyone, Johnny is the one Pen looks to for support and guidance, and he returns her trust by helping her cut her hair, giving her his clothes, teaching her to dig ditches, and basically being the best older brother.
I also wasn’t crazy about the manner in which Pen’s parents’ broken English was rendered. I don’t know enough about the issues surrounding writing dialogue that’s meant to indicate it’s that character’s second language to say anything more, but it felt a bit overdone. YMMV.
I loved Girl Mans Up, full-stop. The thing about contemporary YA books is that they’re not going to appeal to everyone more so on the basis of the reader’s ability to identify or self-identify with the character(s) than with almost any other genre. I’d recommend this book anyway, because it’s well-written, and Pen and her voice are fucking awesome. But outside of my recommendation to other people, this book meant a lot to me because of who I am, and because of the kinds of things I saw reflected back at me I never thought I’d see. I don’t often read books for self-reflection, or identification—I read to escape. Girl Mans Up is one of the very few books I love because it’s about someone like me. At least in the ways that matter.