All Pen wants is to be the kind of girl she’s always been. So why does everyone have a problem with it? They think the way she looks and acts means she’s trying to be a boy—that she should quit trying to be something she’s not. If she dresses like a girl, and does what her folks want, it will show respect. If she takes orders and does what her friend Colby wants, it will show her loyalty. But respect and loyalty, Pen discovers, are empty words. Old-world parents, disintegrating friendships, and strong feelings for other girls drive Pen to see the truth—that in order to be who she truly wants to be, she’ll have to man up.
Girl Mans UpFeatured
It takes serious mental preparation to even read the first chapter as we meet Pen and the abominable creatures she classifies as her friends: Colby the pickup artist, Garrett the outright offensive, and Tristan the actually-okay-but-a-major-pushover. We talk about how women who say things like “I’m not friends with girls, they’re too much drama” reek of internalized misogyny, but Pen’s problem is very different: she has to endure constant casual misogyny from her friends just because she can have friends. Her masculine presentation presumably made forming friendships with girls difficult.
Once Colby forces Pen to be his wingman and Garrett starts calling Pen “Steve” after she cuts her hair, we start to wonder how she can tolerate them. Sadly, the desire to have friends at all can outweigh the desire to have good friends and she’ll excuse longtime toxic friend Colby because he’s “not as bad” as Garrett. It’s not a healthy approach to friendship, but many will recognize the experience if they’ve had toxic friends before.
Girl Mans Up excels because Pen and the rest of the cast never feel like characters in a fictional novel. Every word on the page is a breath from Pen’s mouth and you might forget she’s not a real person. When she starts living her truth and is able to cultivate healthy friendships as well as get into a sweetheart romance with another girl named Blake, your relief will be as powerful as if you knew Pen personally. Hopefully, she’ll make people step up for the butch girls in their community. If I were still in school and knew a girl like her, I’d do my best to be a good friend to her.
Pen’s broken-English-speaking parents will be just as recognizable as Pen herself. It’s understandable they want the best for their two children as Portuguese immigrants to Canada, but the pushy ways implied to be part of their culture and their lack of regard for their children is infuriating. For instance, they’ve already decided Pen will be a nurse no matter what she wants. Parents like these are why QUILTBAG kids might remain closeted to their parents or outright cut them out of their lives once they’re old enough. Thank goodness Pen had her brother Johnny growing up or she’d be in an even worse place.
I also want to say that I appreciate how sensitive and positive Girl Mans Up is in regards to abortion. One character decides to have one and the discussions she and Pen have about it are very healthy. It made me wonder about the differences between getting/having one in Canada versus the United States as well.
What Left Me Wanting:
I’m still baffled by Canadian architecture, though. An above-ground basement? What?
Most likely, Girl Mans Up will make you a better human being for having read it. I consider myself a good, intersectional feminist, but I had no idea what butch girls like Pen faced before now and I hope to incorporate what I’ve learned from her into my activism. That’s how to keep your feminism relevant and helpful. If there’s any justice in the world, Girl Mans Up will become a YA classic and a major example of great QUILTBAG YA.
Pen was a girl who loved to play video games, felt her most comfortable wearing her older brother’s baggy clothes, and was tired of everyone in her life making fun of her or giving her a hard time about not meeting their expectations of her. She wasn’t the girly girl her parents wanted, she wasn’t a pushover like her best friend wanted. Pen was herself and she only wanted people to let her be herself. Her conflict, her growth, came from standing up to people and from having to get the courage to either tell them to back off her or to walk away, even if it meant walking away from a longtime friend.
The supporting cast were a great assortment of characters. They ranged from overprotective and traditional parents, a brother trying to live his own life but also watch out for his little sister, guy friends who could be douche bags one minute and had your back the next, a girl caught up in a mess with one of those guys, and a girl who was exactly Pen’s type and seemed to possibly like her back. It was Pen’s story but there were a lot of characters who had their own smaller arcs within her overall story. My favourite relationships ended up being between Pen and her brother Johnny, and the more subtle one of Pen and her friend Tristan that was sadly didn’t get to see too much of(I would totally read a Tristan companion story).
I think Pen is an important voice. She was someone who knew who she was and was comfortable with it but had to deal with everyone else trying to shove her into a label that she just didn’t want. She wanted to be Pen, she was happy being Pen, and why should she change to make other people happy.