What ‘Girlhood’ Means in 2021

What ‘Girlhood’ Means in 2021

A conversation with Melissa Febos about her radical essays on youth and gender.


One of the first things readers will notice about Melissa Febos’s new essay collection, Girlhood, is that large parts of it take place not in the period of youth referenced by the title, but rather in adulthood, where the long tentacles of growing up as a girl still twist and take hold. This might be the book’s foremost premise: While girlhood is a time that a person ages out of, its imprint is not so easily left behind. Or as Febos puts it in an essay on her evolving relationship to consent: “[It] could be said more accurately that I was possessed by that younger version of myself. I knew that I couldn’t…have a different experience unless I found her first.”

The passage is a good summary of Febo’s project: In a series of seven essays, she goes in search of that younger self, drawing on sources that range from Jamaica Kincaid to Michel Foucault to, crucially, her own girlhood and those of others. In an author’s note, she makes her intentions explicit: “It is in part by writing this book that I have corrected the story of my own girlhood and found ways to recover myself…. My hope is that these essays do some of that work for you, too.”

I didn’t expect that Girlhood would do much of that work for me—I am a queer transmasculine person who didn’t have a girlhood so much as an 18-year yearning for boyhood punctuated by brief flirtations with what I now see as drag. But rather than an unrelatable text, I found a nuanced and resonant one (including a passage that might just be the best description of queer sex I have ever read anywhere). We were clearly overdue for a leftist, queer, feminist analysis of girlhood in 2021, and Melissa Febos has given it to us.

In a conversation last month, Febos and I talked about consent, the word “slut,” and why she remains optimistic about the Internet. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

—Naomi Gordon-Loebl

Naomi Gordon-Loebl: What made you want to write a book about girlhood?

Melissa Febos: I did not want to write a book about girlhood. I was under the impression that I had already written a lot about girlhood and that I probably shouldn’t have anything more to say about it. I had written in a peripheral way about a lot of the things that I ended up writing about in Girlhood, but never in a confrontational or curious way. It was, “Oh yeah, I got called a slut in junior high school. It’s terrible, whatever,” and then I’d move on with what I was saying.

I think there also was some internalized bias against writing about the subject. Even the title… for a while, it felt a little ironic to me, like a sign that’s advertising tutus, and then you go inside and they sell garbage bags. Now, I actually feel pretty earnest about it. But it was the same thing I felt when I thought about writing a memoir for my first book, where I was like, “Who cares?”

But as has always been my experience with writing about the subjects that I’m circling towards and that keep demanding to be written about, whatever insecurity I have, my essays don’t care. They’re like, “This is what you’re writing.” And it turned out to be an incredibly powerful experience.

NGL: I found that I related to so much of it—which was surprising to me, because my own gender is very different from yours.

MF: One of my fears about this book, and particularly about calling it Girlhood, was that it wouldn’t feel like it was reaching out to people with different gender experiences, so that means so much to me. In so many ways, it feels like a book about how gender didn’t work for me as a young person, and trying to move through that.

NGL: There’s a place in the book where you talk about a camp counselor you had with a shaved head and tattoos, and you write, “I have since learned that recognizing the invisible parts of oneself in another person can feel like a radiant kind of love, can make those parts stronger inside you.” When I read that, I thought, “This feels like the project of the book—the potential for it to offer the same to people who might read it.”

MF: It’s funny, because I have never thought that about that line in particular, but as you were reading it, a ding-ding-ding sound just went off in my head, because that’s absolutely it. Maybe that is the project of everything I’ve ever written—but this book in particular, because it deals with the things that I could not find evidence of and did not have words for at the time. That was a really painful, alienating experience that took a long time to undo—some of it not until I wrote the book, some of it not yet. That version of me at 14, just figuring out that there were spaces where I could express the things that I felt like there was no place for… I feel like that’s probably who I have in mind a lot of the time when I’m writing—giving her words that she didn’t have yet.

NGL: A lot of people talk about wanting to write the book that they needed as a young person, but to have a political project that is also a beautiful piece of writing, a piece of art, is a special balance.

MF: It’s interesting, because I had a lot of moments writing this book where I felt insecure. I have no journalistic training; I’ve never had any job in the news media. I think I had this early impression of political writing—certainly in my MFA program, maybe up until I wrote my first book—where I was like, “I don’t have strong enough opinions,” or “My perspectives are changing all the time.” I had this idea that I had to be exhaustively informed and have unchanging political views about things, which now seems so naive. But it’s still lurking somewhere when I’m like, “I’m not that kind of writer.”

NGL: One of my favorite essays in the book is “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself,” where you examine your relationship to consent. And you do that by reporting on this phenomenon of the cuddle party, where people show up to platonically and ostensibly consensually cuddle with strangers.

It reminded me of something that happened in my own life. When I was in my early 20s, I was dating this person, and she was away on vacation with a bunch of friends, and everybody went to bed except for her and this one guy. And she told me later that he kissed her, and she kissed him back and then said, “No” and put her hand on his chest, which to me sounded very tender. I was really angry and not understanding. I was like, “You kissed him back, you touched his chest.” But she said, “Naomi, this is something that I’m actually proud of, because this is the first time in my life that I didn’t feel overwhelmed by a man’s desire and didn’t feel like his desire was more important than my non-desire. And rather than be angry, you should be proud of me, too.”

I thought about that so much when I was reading your essay. At one point, you write: “It was preferable to tolerate sex she didn’t want than to tolerate the displeasure of men.” I hadn’t thought about what happened with my ex in so many years. But I don’t think I’ve ever read somebody writing about consent in this way—and to do it by reporting on a cuddle party, of all things, is such an interesting entry point.

MF: This was definitely one of those essays that felt deeply uncomfortable while I was writing it. I didn’t have much perspective on whether it would be interesting or useful to other people. It was one of those essays where I was like, “Is this just a supremely self-indulgent scrambling around in myself for something that doesn’t exist? Am I making a whole lot out of basically nothing?” Which of course is so meta, because that’s what the essay is about: those voices saying, “It’s not a big deal. That’s just how the world is. That’s what sex is.”

While I was writing it, I had the weird fear that what I was writing had already been written much better by a hundred theorists or whatever—which maybe it has, but it was definitely new ground for me. I feel really glad that I chose to listen to the part of me that knew there was something there and that it was important, and to follow it for as long as I did when there were so many other voices in my head that were like, “There’s nothing here.”

Are you familiar with the movie Labyrinth with David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly? This is your homework after this. You have to go watch it.

NGL: OK, I’ll take it.

MF: There is this part where the heroine is getting close to her goal, and the Goblin King doesn’t want her to get close to her goal, and she’s walking through these caves and these rock faces come to life and say, “This is not the way. You’re going the wrong way.” They’re performing; their job is to make her stop.

I feel like those voices rumble to life when I get close to the good shit—when I lift up the log and see all the squirmy things underneath. They say, “There’s nothing there. It’s just the same as anywhere else. Nobody cares about that.” It actually works inversely on me now, where I’m like, “No, I think there must be something.”

I think the essay actually started at the moment when my friend forwarded me the link to the cuddle party as a joke and said, “A cuddle party party, ha ha. That sounds like something you would write about.” I was like: “[Gasp] A cuddle party?!” And then I thought, “Hmm, I don’t think you would have that kind of aversion if there wasn’t something there.”

NGL: It’s interesting—something we’ve been talking about is this feeling of not trusting yourself, basically, and trying to cut through the noise to get to yourself on the inside.

MF: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a very visual thinker, so as you were saying that about cutting through the noise to get to the self inside, I was imagining meeting myself and shaking my own hand. That is how I feel about my relationship to my body. It has taken me so many years—more than 25 years—to cut through all of that and say to myself, “Hey, hi, how do you feel about that? Do you want that dude to hug you?” It took that long, and this much writing and talking and therapy and everything, to get to that point where I can be like, “Hey, what do you think?” And then to actually hear the answer—to have the wherewithal to ask the question and hear the answer and then listen to that above what other people are saying—I understand why not everybody’s up for that project, because it’s a lot of work.

NGL: The other thing I was going to say about this essay is that it feels like it’s returning to some old conversations under the umbrella of feminism that we haven’t had in a really long time, but with a very current radical and queer lens. I thought that was remarkable. We’ve reached a weird place around consent where we’re so focused on the idea of it—we’ve zeroed in so far on consent as the thing—that we’ve lost some nuance about what it actually looks like and means. To me, “Cat Person” [the New Yorker short story by Kristen Roupenian], for example, seemed like an attempt to open that conversation up, but it didn’t really work.

MF: It was amazing how spectacularly it didn’t work, because it was such a phenomenon. I talked about it with individual friends of mine, but for all of the national attention it received, it did not start a conversation. In many ways, that’s what the cuddle-party essay is about. The conversation about consent is not over when we acknowledge that a person should say, “Can I touch you here?” and the other person should be able to say yes or no. That’s not the end of how we should talk about consent! What about all the stuff that’s happening inside of us? It’s not about the culpability of the other person involved—that’s just an aspect of the conversation. When can we move beyond that?

Partly it’s the problem of not having a language or discourse around what’s happening inside of us that gets us muddled up, because everything could go the way it should between two people and it can still be fucked up. It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s the culture’s fault, and until we know how to talk about that, it’s just going to continue to be what it is, and it will also confuse and intercept conversations about other things.

I absolutely think we have to talk about it, and I’m glad that you want to—it makes me hopeful. But it’s tricky, because it feels like a little bit of a minefield when there are a lot of spaces where nuance and critical thinking is not what we’re there to do.

NGL: The other place where I noticed a conversation happening that I haven’t seen in a long time was in “The Mirror Test,” where you write about your relationship with the word (and, of course, the concept of) “slut.” Interrogating and wrestling with that word is something that I don’t feel like I’ve seen anybody do in a while. But of course, you’re not doing it in the way that people did a decade ago—you’re engaging with it in 2021.

You have this passage where you write: “I don’t want to take the word slut back like I don’t want to own a gun. It was never mine. You’ll never hear me say it to any woman, not as a joke, not with pride or affection or irony.”

MF: There’s nothing appealing to me about reclaiming it, which doesn’t mean that I judge people for using it. But I finally gave myself permission to not say it. I think also, my response to it for a long time was an idea of toughness—a performance of hardening myself toward both the experience and my past self. In the past, I had referred to that experience in some really cavalier and borderline cruel ways—referring to my past self as a slut. It was a defense, and I have a lot of understanding for the part of me that did that. But it was such a relief to admit the ways that I’d been affected, even by the word. Just to be like, “Right. It fucking hurt.” It still hurts to hear it, on some level…not in any grand way, but I don’t have to say it. I think there was a part of me that felt like, “Oh, I have to prove that I’m OK with it—or if I act like I’m OK with it, then I won’t have to admit that I was wounded by it at some point, so I’ll just use it a lot.”

NGL: You mentioned the minefield earlier, which is a thread throughout this conversation—the Internet and its ability to erase nuance while rewarding simplicity and reductive phrasing.

MF: Reductive interpretation, yeah.

NGL: And, of course, I don’t necessarily think that people who are participating in that are even doing so intentionally—

MF: Yeah, me too. I’m sure that I participate in it sometimes; I know that’s true. I don’t think the Internet is bad—I just think it’s a space that is really good for some things and not good for other things.

NGL: That’s a perfect way of putting it. As a writer, that fear could easily just make it so that you never produce anything. Clearly, that’s not happening to you! So I’m interested in how you deal with it. And I also wonder whether you have hope for the way that that could change—a way that people could meaningfully engage on, let’s say, some of the more famously reductive platforms. Do you have optimism about that?

MF: I do, in a way. I feel optimistic—not about the potential for some better-known reductive Internet platforms to become spaces where we can engage in critical thinking and create space for nuance. (Which is not to say that there aren’t corners where that’s happening—there certainly are, for humor. Some of the most nuanced, delightful, intelligent humor is happening right now in those spaces, and I think it’s a great place for that.)

But when it comes to topics like consent—stuff we don’t have words for yet, stuff where we have to try things out and be wrong and find better ways and have a generous space to do that kind of thinking and creating—I guess what I think is that it doesn’t have to be done in all spaces. What I do have hope for is people not having that expectation—which is also an answer to the other part of your question. The way that I’m able to keep doing it is because I’m not like, “This is the essay that won’t get misinterpreted on that platform.” I’m like, “Of course it will!” It’s fine, because that will also be a space where people will read it and then talk to their friends or their partner or their class and have a nuanced, interested, generous experience with it. Then they’ll go share it on the platform, and somebody else can go have that experience with it.

The nuanced conversation doesn’t have to happen there. Some spaces preclude certain kinds of conversation, and I think that’s OK. It’s a quick-riffing, interactive, reactive space, and that is great for some things and not great for others. There’s a reason why I’m only doing certain kinds of thinking in the privacy of my own page. There is no point at which I’m like, “All right, now is the deep-thinking part of the process where I go to Facebook to figure out the final draft.” It never happens because that’s not the space for that, and that’s fine.

All of that is to say that I do feel optimistic that enough people have experienced the failure of those spaces for holding these kinds of conversations that maybe we can stop looking to them for that and just use them for what they’re good for—and create better spaces and invest in the ones we already have for doing that kind of thinking.

NGL: Wow, what a wise and practical answer. That is a very relieving thought.

MF: I also think I’ve been gifted by my age in some ways, because I am the eldest of the elder millennials. When I started writing and thinking about my work and its reception, and when I started publishing things, the Internet and dealing with trolls on social media just wasn’t a thing. I was publishing in literary magazines that two people were reading, so I wasn’t even thinking about that; it was just about the work. Even though the culture and the field have vastly changed, that formative relationship has held steady in many ways. I’m like, “Sure, crazy things might happen there, but that doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on over here.” I feel very committed to the idea that the writing part is my job. How it’s perceived or handled or passed on or misunderstood is, in most cases, none of my business.

NGL: Something that I worry a lot about in my own writing, and that I imagine any queer writer who’s being read by non-queer people probably thinks about at some point, is inadvertently creating queer trauma porn for straight people—that maybe I’m not protecting some parts of my own story that shouldn’t be necessarily just consumed.

MF: By exposing it to people who are going to be rubbernecking in a gross heterosexual way?

NGL: Exactly.

MF: I have decided that to not write about those things would be to be ruled by those people and to accommodate them to the same extent in some way, because it would be depriving myself and my community of our stories.

There is no fucking straight person or dude or teacher or anyone who ever gets to tell me again that I can’t write about something. This feels like a version of the same thing: “Oh, but if you tell your story, I’m going to do this with it.” I’m like, “Fuck you. Do what you want with it. I’m not actually talking to you.” There’s always going to be people who are watching. I don’t care. It’s not for them; I’m not writing for them. The fact that they might overhear is not going to stop me from having a conversation that feels important with my people. That’s how I feel about that. Fuck them.

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