Last week I had the privilege of reading Geek Girl, the first in the YA series by Holly Smale and couldn’t wait to contribute my two cents to talking about it. Just three days ago, I had the privilege of seeing Holly Smale herself on the DeptCon1 ‘Death to the Patriarchy!’ panel, discussing feminism alongside Louise O’ Neill (author of Asking For It and Only Ever Yours). On this panel, Holly and Louise laid out the facts on the power of patriarchal society – with Holly putting emphasis on how Geek Girl takes place in the midst of the modelling agency; a setting which is widely known to be male-driven.
Geek Girl tells the story of 15 year old Harriet Manners, self-confessed geek and fashion-phobe. Told through her own narrative, Harriet documents her journey from geek to… well, geek who happens to get scouted by a modelling agency (a supergeek model, if you will). Beautifully, achingly endearing, Geek Girl spoke to me in a way not many books did when I was 15. As a very proud 21 year old reader, I can still relate to Harriet’s fears of not fitting in, love of knowing things and ambitions to achieve academically. Actually, as a 15 year old, the only literary role model I had was Hermione Granger – and she is not a role model to be sniffed at – but thinking back to 15 year old me, I know I would’ve loved to have had these books to find solace in. I think most teenage (and older) girls (and possibly some guys, too) who find solace in books will be able to relate to Harriet’s candid narrative.
Another reason I wish GG had been available to me 6 or more years ago is that it would have greatly heightened my understanding of feminism, and what it means to have strong female characters. I grew up mostly reading books where boys where the chosen ones, the heroes, the go-doers and the person the girls needed. How many YA books are there out there where a female protagonist’s sole goal throughout the entire book is to get the attention of the school/local heartthrob/unassuming boy next door who gets hit by the puberty stick and suddenly is desirable amongst all the women in the land? The answer is far, far too many. As a 15 year old, I would have LOVED to have read more book series that put little to no emphasis on whether or not a girl got the guy or vice versa.
GG is not devoid of strong, female characters – Harriet herself, her best friend Nat, her stepmother Annabel, and Yuka Ito, the terrifying fashion designer who gives Harriet her very first modelling job. The most beautiful thing about GG is the fact that amongst all these strong female characters, there is not one vilified male character present to illustrate the strength of the female characters – each woman makes her decisions independent to the male characters without a sense of superiority. Holly writes an impressive female cast with supporting roles given to Harriet’s dad, her stalker Toby and model/love interest Nick. In doing this, Holly illustrates to her readers that it is possible for women to excel in the midst of patriarchal society, thus highlighting the true message of feminism: equality. The message is juxtaposed with the startlingly problematic reality of the fashion and modelling industry, which Harriet implicitly describes through innocent eyes. The fashion and modelling industry is understood widely to be male-driven, and women are expected to ascribe to the standards held up by an industry that dictates how skinny a girl should be, or how she should dress or conduct herself, who she should and shouldn’t be seen with. None of these aspects of the book are thrown into criticism by Holly; rather, the book explores Harriet’s innocently expressed attitude to what is arguably a totally alien world to her.
During the panel I saw Holly participate in, she spoke of how other people often disparaged the concept of her author status, simply because she wrote books about a girl who models. In reading GG, it is more than evident that the world Holly created within the pages is not to be undervalued. Without implicitly stating it, the book transparently boasts a feminist theme throughout. The climax of the story does not lie in whether Harriet and Nick express an interest in each other – it lies in an honest awakening Harriet achieves in the closing chapters. For young (and older!) YA readers, GG is an excellent introduction to feminism. It debunks the myth that to be a successful, happy woman, a man must be degraded to achieve that. In an endearingly gorgeous way, it shows a healthy attitude to relationships, family, and happiness without falling into the trap of YA tropes which reinforce the ‘damsel in distress’ stereotype that often befalls female literary characters.
In short, Geek Girl is wonderful, and if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading it yet – make sure you do.