Rebel Girls attempts to repackage nostalgia as a novel, substituting pop-culture references for thoughtful worldbuilding. The result is a poorly-paced, directionless story with a disturbing lack of empathy.

It’s 1992, and there’s a rumor spreading in Baton Rouge…

When it comes to being social, Athena Graves is far more comfortable creating a mixtape playlist than she is talking to cute boys—or anyone, for that matter. Plus her staunchly feminist views and love of punk rock aren’t exactly mainstream at St. Ann’s, her conservative Catholic high school.

Then a malicious rumor starts spreading through the halls…a rumor that her popular, pretty, pro-life sister had an abortion over the summer. A rumor that has the power to not only hurt
Helen, but possibly see her expelled.

Despite their wildly contrasting views, Athena, Helen
and their friends must find a way to convince the student body and the administration that it doesn’t matter what Helen did or didn’t do…even if their riot grrrl protests result in the expulsion of their entire rebel girl gang.

Rebels and Riot Grrrls

Rebel Girl Gif

In the mid-1990s (though not often as early as 1992), thousands of young women were embracing the “riot grrrl” ethos: a punk aesthetic infused with third-wave feminist ideology. Many girls and women found empowerment and community in the music, fashion, and zine-based consciousness of riot girl-dom.

Still, the movement drew criticism. The “riot girl” could be accused of a shallow, privileged sort of feminism, one that was more concerned with how to dress than it was with the problems of anyone who wasn’t white and middle-class. At its worst, the movement confused aesthetic with substance and provocation for progress. It measured success in outrage, not productivity.

I could apply those same criticisms to Rebel Girls. Elizabeth Keenan set out to write a love letter to the 90s high school riot girl, but I didn’t fall in love. Instead, I came away with a powerful sense of all the worst impulses of the riot girl movement.

Athena

Book Cover: REBEL GIRLS

The root of the problem is our “protagonist,” Athena. To be honest, I’m not sure that label applies here. Athena is the main character of Rebel Girls the way Nick is the main character of The Great Gatsby, which is to say, she’s not. She has virtually nothing to do with the story besides being around to witness it.

Our point-of-view character who contributes little to the plot, so Athena’s biggest contribution to Rebel Girls is in her first-person perspective. Everything that happens (mostly people sitting at different tables and talking) is filtered through her brain.

And Athena’s brain isn’t a particularly interesting or pleasant place to be. More importantly, it doesn’t do anything for the book. Athena experiences essentially no character growth; she ends the story with her opinions, values, and prejudices intact. Her self-absorption, rarely challenged by the book, is a distraction from the real story.

the story

The real story, theoretically, is this: There is a rumor going around at this southern Catholic high school that Helen (Athena’s sister) got pregnant and got an abortion over the past summer. And… that’s bad?

It is bad, of course. Helen is staunchly pro-life and this rumor is painful and humiliating for the rule-follower. What’s worse, if the school administration ever got proof (that doesn’t exist) of the abortion (that didn’t happen), they would theoretically have the power to expel her from school (which never seemed remotely likely).

But “this bad thing is happening” isn’t actually a story, so Keenan spends the first half of the book trying to cobble together reasons that this is a problem that needs to be solved. We’re never quite clear on the goal and stakes here. Athena isn’t sure what she’s doing besides “making a statement,” so as the reader, I wasn’t sure either. (See, again: the worst impulses of the riot girl.)

It’s immediately clear from the premise that the real protagonist is, or should be, Helen. Helen is the one with everything to lose, the one who is emotionally affected by what’s happening. Helen is the one with a goal.

So why isn’t the story told from Helen’s point of view?

The answer, I think, lies in the author’s note. (Oh, you authors and your notes. Telling on yourselves for no reason.) Elizabeth Keenan mentions her longtime interest in and study of riot girl music, which seems to explain why she packs each chapter with song references rather than, say, characterization. More importantly, she discusses her personal connection to the subject matter: her own riot girl-dom, picking arguments with teachers at a southern Catholic high school in the early 1990s. Keenan is careful to point out differences between herself and Athena, but acknowledges that they have the same relationship to the early 90s political battles over abortion rights. Athena is clearly a self-insert for the author.

The impulse to novelize episodes from one’s own teenage years is dangerous for YA writers. It can help authors new to writing for teens to connect with that age group, sure, but it also invites a deadly bias. Everyone feels that their thoughts are fascinating and their experiences are powerful. (Of course they are, when they happen to you!) But that doesn’t mean they’ll make a good novel as-is.

Book cover: ME MYSELF & HIM

Rebel Girls reminds me of Me Myself & Him by Chris Tebbetts, another recent YA with an autobiographical basis. The two books have the same problem in this regard: substituting real experiences for storytelling basics like stakes, character growth, and focus.

In the case of Rebel Girls, the instinct to self-insert led the author astray. A character like Athena is the last person that should be narrating these events. Several of her classmates, who are actually involved in the plot, would have made interesting, subversive narrators. But we’re stuck with Athena, whose shocking lack of empathy pervades the book.

failure of empathy

Consumed by teen-movie popularity politics, Athena is supremely unconcerned with the humanity of the people around her. She seems almost unaware that her classmates are people with emotions just as vivid as hers. She doesn’t understand them and doesn’t feel the need to try.

Even at the book’s climax, when another young woman has been very publicly outed about a personal and potentially traumatic history, Athena watches from the background, emotionally unaffected. “This was better drama than 90210,” Athena gushes to the reader, watching a moment that should have been emotionally wrecking with the attitude of a popcorn-crunching movie-goer.

To whatever extent literature is about empathy, about looking past the bridge of our noses to understand the experience and emotions of someone else, Rebel Girls is a catastrophic failure.

This, truly, is the reason that Rebel Girls isn’t from Helen’s point of view. Beyond the author’s desire to self-insert, Helen simply doesn’t have an interior life to inhabit. The book is uninterested in her perspective. She’s pretty, we are told in detail. She’s pro-life, we are reminded often, though Keenan refrains from even the slightest illustration of what that means for Helen. Why does Helen identify so strongly with the pro-life cause, having been raised with staunchly pro-choice women? What attracts her to that movement? What are her beliefs about pregnancy and the unborn?

Rebel Girls just doesn’t care about any of that. It’s not interested in taking the subject matter seriously. Like the worst stereotype of a riot girl, the book tells us that sex, pregnancy, and abortion shouldn’t be a big deal in an evolved feminist society, so they can be treated as jokes in a book for teens.

my rating

As per my rating system, I only give one star to books that I believe: are bad for the world of YA, and I personally didn’t enjoy, and I believe are poorly written from a craft perspective.

I think I’ve made my case for the first qualification. With so much diverse, compassionate YA, I hate to see a book with no interest in empathy on shelves.

And obviously, since I’ve ranted on for hundreds of words, I didn’t enjoy this one. I looked back through my reading notes, and… yikes. A lot of sarcasm there, Katie.

Finally, a quick look at the quality of the book’s writing: it’s rough. It’s really, truly rough. For context, of the fifty-ish YAs I’ve read this year, this one would have to be dead last in command of craft.

~

Honest-to-god, this book starts with the main character getting ready for the first day of school. Not because anything important happens–nothing happens that whole day! Remember that rumor about Helen that incites the entire plot? Athena (and the reader) hear the rumor for the first time on page 96.

Even when you get through the worst of the pacing, there’s little reward. Athena is the only character with more than one dimension. Keenan tries to get away with building characters on tired high-school stereotypes by constantly (multiple times in the first chapter) lampshading by having Athena remark on how “almost stereotypical” her world is. The villainous teachers, school administrators, and honest-to-god cheerleaders are so cartoonishly evil that they reminded me of the teachers in Percy Jackson that turn out to be monsters. Only Percy Jackson plays that ridiculous, pointless meanness for laughs, and Rebel Girls plays it completely straight.

I am notoriously harsh on Catholic school representations, having attended one myself. I hoped that Rebel Girls would be better than poor examples like Heretics Anonymous since Keenan actually attended one herself, but no such luck. Keenan spends much more time info-dumping about the details of the school’s dress code than she does giving the reader any idea of the school culture. Rebel Girls portrays a very specific kind of Catholic environment (a southern evangelical-influenced community), but if I didn’t already know the difference, I likely wouldn’t have gotten anything from the book besides non-specific Christianity. The book reminds us often that the school has a “pro-life policy” (a basically meaningless phrase), but Keenan’s writing makes it clear she doesn’t have a handle on the abortion debate.

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