A Sorority Novel and Binary Female Characters

While I’ve been savoring the “Short Fictions and Disturbances” in Neil Gaiman’s new Trigger Warning, I also flew through another book this weekend. Dirty Rush was a quick and absurd read about a girl’s crazy experience rushing a sorority. Normally, this is not my kind of book at all, but it was recommended to me for its hilarity and entertainment, so I gave it a try.

Yeah, the cover is ridiculous; I know. As a disclaimer, I am actually part of a sorority myself, but it’s at Hopkins, a school of intelligent overachievers, so my experience with a sorority has been that of a very tame social club, essentially. Compared to my college experience, this book seemed crazier than insane.

Yet as much as I found myself disgusted with the girls’ antics, as I continued to read, I also realized how judgmental I was being. It reminded me of an article I read called “The Girl Myth in YA Fiction (And Beyond),” which I highly recommend you read here. It had always bothered me that even the worst of male characters, if they were charming, could be loved for their complexity (the bad boys definitely have a fan base) while female characters who are imperfect are more often summed up as unlikeable or not relatable. 

This article calls out that kind of “binary” thinking, saying, “Female characters are either likable or they’re not — they aren’t allowed to be more dynamic or more than one of those two subjective, meaningless labels. Sure, she can be described as nice but with a wicked streak, but that ultimately makes her unlikable because she’s not easily identified as one simple thing.”

I was concerned about whether I had also been subscribing to this ideology, but I wasn’t convinced of the truth of this binary judgment until I reached the part of the article describing how female characters in YA fiction were either moral, polished girls or “female characters who say they’re ‘not THAT kind of girl.’ Or, even better, the girl who tells us that she ‘doesn’t know what it’s like to be a girl.’ As if being a girl is only one thing, and you either are or you aren’t.”

So at this point, my rational thought process hit a wall, or rather, a loop. I had judged the book and its characters, become self-conscious about my judgment, tried to consciously resist playing into a type of binary thought about female characters that hurt feminism, and then wondered if I was just overthinking it. I don’t want to perpetuate this kind of oversimplification of young women, but I also believe that as a reader, I have the right to like, dislike, and judge novels as they affect me.

A reader’s interpretation of a book, in my opinion, is the most important part, and I found Dirty Rush lacking in some senses. I was torn between relating to and believing the characters one moment and disliking the simplistic judgment of flat characters the next. Even within the book, there existed the protagonist, the girl who over and over claimed not to be that kind of sorority girl, and her friends, developed, (mostly or comparatively) righteous characters. And then there were all of the other girls, who were villainized and flattened because they did not fit into those two categories. Their complexity was ignored.

Obviously, Dirty Rush is more of a light read for entertainment value than the kind of fiction that people take seriously or to heart (I hope), but it is a type of literature nonetheless, and I can’t say that there weren’t aspects of it that I enjoyed. But I do feel that this book perpetuates a problem with the portrayal of binary female characters.

I’m curious; have others encountered this kind of binary often or exceptions to it?

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2 thoughts on “A Sorority Novel and Binary Female Characters

  1. Jamie says:

    I see this in both the way in which female characters are judged in books as well as the way in which women are judged in life. I’m not sure if this is art imitating life or life imitating art. Perhaps a bit of both. The hopeful news is that I’m seeing a lot more deliberate conversation about recognizing how we have incorporated these views and expectations into our culture with the intent of changing those views. Why do we talk about ‘chick lit’ (a belittling term) but have no categories for male fiction? Does it not seem inequitable that Joanne Rowling became J.K. Rowling because her publisher thought boys would be less likely to take interest in a book written by a woman? The terms we use and attitudes we share become ingrained at a young age. It can be difficult to break those habits. Keep the conversation going!

    Liked by 1 person

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