Let's talk about the hugest of the huge best-sellers of recent years and what they have in common. Above are the three ubiquitous books that the world has embraced--selling zillions of copies, spawning films, receiving thousands of reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads...
All are mystery/thrillers, of course. But what I find most interesting is the fact that all have the word GIRL in their title.
Now, there was a time not too long ago that I wouldn't have dared call any woman a "girl." Having a wife and two daughters, and sharing their experiences, I came to understand why it wasn't acceptable to say "the girls in the office." But recently I've noticed that even my wife has begun to talk about "the gals" and one of my daughters talks about her "girls' night out."
I'm not up on the latest feminist theory, but there is something going on here. I understand that a recent wave of feminists holds that women should use whatever tools they have at their disposal to maximize their success and power--and that sex and sexuality are two of those tools. Still, there's a difference between referring to someone as a "woman" and referring to that same person as a "girl."
I admit I'm curious as to how these titles came to be, about the conversations that were had. Let's take them in order, adjusting the wording a bit.
THE WOMAN WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO--As many people know, the original title of this book in Swedish was "Men Who Hate Women." And that is indeed a key theme of the book. Did we think our slick/schlocky society here in the States wouldn't embrace a book with such a title? I know I wouldn't publish a book with such a title. Here, though, I can see why "girl" works, in that Lisbeth Salander is a young woman, just beyond girlhood, who is the victim of a paternalistic society. Despite her bravado, she's vulnerable--a sort of girl-woman. So, I think using the word "girl" in the title works and fits the book's themes. But I wonder how Lisbeth herself would feel about being called a girl. Something tells me she'd be OK with it--she's more of a raw-emotion kind of person, not a quibble-over-semantics kind of person. I wouldn't be surprised if she reads the "Grrl Power" anime comics that are popular the world over.
GONE WOMAN--Now, there's a title that doesn't work at all. The alliterative "Gone Girl" is so much better. Amy Dunne, our unreliable narrator, isn't a girl. She's a young woman. But she engages in the sort of dramatic antics that we (or should I say, I) associate with teenage girls. She's a dangerous mix of maturity and immaturity (as is her husband, and this dynamic is what sustains the entire book). Amy positions herself as a victim, sort of infantilizing herself (portraying herself as a sweet, loving, happy-go-lucky, innocent person) to manipulate the media, society, and the police. When Amy disappears, it's as if a "girl" has gone missing, not a "woman." But I think this observation only strengthens my point that society perceives a girl as an innocent,and a woman as a person with agency. The clever trick here is that a rather vicious woman manages to present herself a "girl."
THE WOMAN ON THE TRAIN--OK, that title works for me, but "The Girl on the Train" is better. Here's another case where the person of the title, Rachel Watson, is clearly not a girl. She's a grown woman who's a complete and total disaster. She sees herself as "the girl on the train"--it's a way of bringing her back to a more innocent time, when she was younger and happier. The fact that this mess of alcoholic can see herself as a "girl" does create pathos; if she saw herself as a woman, she'd have to take more control of her life rather than play the victim as an excuse to keep drinking. So, again, I think "girl" was the right choice here.
So, can we say that underneath these best-sellers we see a running theme of women's identity, self-presentation, emotional well-being, and place in society? Perhaps, perhaps.
I loved DRAGON TATTOO, quite liked GONE GIRL, and truthfully found GIRL ON THE TRAIN overrated. Everyone in the publishing industry knows that every agent and publisher in the United States has been looking for "the next GONE GIRL," so kudos to Riverhead for finding it (or making it happen) with GIRL ON THE TRAIN. Something tells me that was a savvy bit of marketing on the author's/agent's part and the publisher's part. GIRL ON THE TRAIN suffers from being too long, too predictable, and really not doing anything different from what's been done before--unlike DRAGON TATTOO and GONE GIRL, which I think did a nice job of breaking new ground. But I'm all for any book that keeps people reading and talking.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention an earlier series that has long been a favorite of mine: the GIRL series by Charles Mathes. This is a series in that all the titles feature the word "girl," but the heroine is different in each book. The first, The Girl with the Phony Name, is pictured at left. The other three are The Girl Who Remembered Snow, The Girl at the End of the Line, and The Girl in the Face of the Clock. Mathes' heroines are unlike the dark heroines of the books mentioned above; in fact, they're the polar opposite: upbeat, pleasant, a bit in over their heads but really trying not do anything stupid. They're all girls in that they are rather innocent naifs when the book opens; by the end of their adventures, they've grown but still remain the delightful women we've come to love. Books like this aren't being published any longer, as far as I can tell, and that's a shame. But do look for them if you like a highly entertaining, pleasant read, often with a light Gothic feel, and do start with The Girl with the Phony Name, one of my all-time favorites.