Respect is the dominant theme that runs through Girl Mans Up, the latest novel from pediatric nurse and two-time Lambda Literary Fellow M-E Girard. The author explores the idea of respect for oneself, family, and friends, and the conflicts between these individuals and groups.
Penelope (Pen) Oliveira is 16, a lesbian, and the daughter of highly traditional Portuguese parents. Respecting their wishes – which involve conforming to rigid gender roles – while being true to herself is a constant source of strife.
Pen’s always been one of the guys. Her platonic friendship with Colby, one of the most popular and desirable boys at her Catholic high school, has afforded her a certain level of immunity from the brand of bullying specifically perpetrated by teenaged boys, as has Pen’s willingness to help orchestrate Colby’s hookups with girls (and to look the other way when he treats them poorly).
Up to now, dodging her parents’ questions and comments about her appearance and hanging out with the guys has worked pretty well. But when an attraction sparks between Pen and one of Colby’s intended conquests, and the fallout from a previous hookup begins to affect her, Pen realizes that she must assert herself (or, as her brother says, “man up”). Standing up for herself – both in regard to her friends’ demands and generally for her rights as a queer young woman – leads her to question notions of respect related to herself and others.
Girard draws the reader into Pen’s world, showing incredible insight into perceptions of gender and sexuality, interactions between adolescents, and intergenerational family dynamics. Pen is perfectly comfortable being herself – it’s others’ reactions that make her uncomfortable. Her sexual preference is of no consequence to her guy friends until it no longer suits their purposes. These insights are underscored by Girard’s attention to dialogue; the infuriating, hurtful insults levelled by the teenaged boys ring uncomfortably true. So do Pen’s conversations with her parents. Her frustration at language and cultural barriers is palpable, as is her sadness. Awkward conversations leading to new friendships, and those between Pen and her new girlfriend, are realistic and heartwarming.
Pen is not perfect, but her missteps and attempts to rectify things make it easy to identify with her, and render her a loveable heroine. The only character who doesn’t have relatable flaws is Pen’s girlfriend, which, in and of itself is relatable: who doesn’t remember the rose-coloured glasses through which we viewed our first love? As Pen grows through the story, she realizes that, above all else, she must respect herself and what she knows to be right, even when it leads to uncomfortable situations. In addition to being an enjoyable, engrossing story, Girl Mans Up makes the reader question things that we, as a society, take for granted. One such example is the idea that children owe their parents respect. While undoubtedly true, don’t parents owe their children the same? That the author effortlessly inspires such reflection is nothing short of remarkable.