I remember the first time I noticed men looking at me. I was eleven, maybe twelve. I was with my mother in the car—on the way home from church, of all things—and the thrill of occupying the front seat still buzzed somewhere at the bottom of my throat. When we were parked a red light, heads bobbing to some song on the radio, my mother muffled a laugh and told me the man parked next to us was looking at me. I didn’t believe her, but when I glanced to my right I made brief eye contact with a man who I would have figured to be closer to my mother’s age than my own. He snapped his eyes back to the road, grinning.
“He was looking at you, not me,” I corrected, when the light turned green and we drove away. My mom just shook her head and smiled. “He was checking you out,” she assured me. “You’re a pretty girl.”
I felt sick and exhilarated, small and large all at once. I thought I was marked, somehow, by the gaze of a stranger—like I was able to call myself something new for having been seen.
Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls deals richly in the subject of being seen, of the constant awareness of their own visibility that young women so often feel but so seldom verbalize. The novel’s protagonist Evie Boyd narrates a heady, tumultuous recollection of a summer in her youth, which she spent in the company of a group of people that most now refer to as a cult. The “summer of ‘69” cliché finds itself refreshed in a coming-of-age meditation: as alcohol leads to drugs leads to dark and unexpected violence, Cline’s narrative focus—and Evie’s gaze—remains fixated on the only constant, on the girls. Continue reading