“There she goes again! Why does she always have to be telling everything?” You probably know one of these girls, the kind who not only has opinions but feels compelled to share them. Maybe not even all the time, but when it matters most, this girl is brave enough—or angry enough—to speak up about the injustices she observes around her.
Young adult author Margaret Willey* calls this character the “Girl Who Tells”: “In both adult and young adult fiction, an adolescent daughter is often presented to the reader as the guide most willing and able to travel beneath the surface and into the deeper layers of her household.” Girls Who Tell play a “truth-telling function” in literature because “[i]f there is a weak seam in the family fabric, she is the one most likely to put her finger through it and make it a full-blown hole.” A GWT can’t stand hypocrisy or mendacity, even when she’s told that telling the truth isn’t nice or could hurt someone. She’s self-absorbed, true, but from that narcissism comes the ability to see more than the adults around her are willing to see themselves.
As protagonists, Girls Who Tell initially function as observers from the sideline of the story in what I call the “liminal space” between childhood and adulthood. When I teach this concept, I stand in the actual doorway of the classroom and put my hands on the sides of the doorframe to illustrate this “in-between” place. (The word “lintel” is related to the Latin word limen, meaning “threshold.) Neither still a child nor completely an adult, a GWT has a foot in both worlds, a limbo of ultrasensitivity that leads to impulsive responses, if not downright overreaction.
From this liminal space, a GWT can observe the inadequacies and inconsistencies of the world around her, which leads to a second GWT characteristic: asking questions, particularly about truth and authority. “Why?” is a GWT’s favorite word.
But when a GWT finds her questions ignored or the answers vague or even false, she must speak up and tell the truth from her special—and sometimes limited—perspective. She may not always be right in her analysis but her speaking is always a catalyst for change.
Observer, questioner, and truth-teller, the GWT is the perfect protagonist for literature that attempts to reveal the injustices of family and society. In classics like Little Women, A Wrinkle in Time, The Color Purple, and Anne of Green Gables, GWT characters face consequences for their outspokenness but are still guaranteed happy endings. Reality must be faced, wrongs righted, and truthfulness rewarded.
And in movies like Rachel Getting Married or Girls Town or Real Women Have Curves (based on the play by Josefina López) or Precious (originally published as the novel PUSH by Sapphire), we cheer for Girls Who Tell because even when they’re arrogant, obnoxious, or ill-equipped to handle life’s problems, we know they’ve gotten a raw deal.
In real life, however, Girls Who Tell may face parental anger, peer ostracism, social harassment, or even or judicial punishment or mental institutionalization. Memoirs, diaries, and letters like Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and the Rachel Corrie’s My Name is Rachel Corrie recount the pain, punishment, and sometimes triumphs of young women overcoming prejudices that limit their lives. In real life, we may not always appreciate girls who tell it like they see it and, because of their youth and gender, their voices are easily ignored. They’re just teen girls, after all, what could they know?
But if we listened to the real voices of GWT as carefully as we listen to their voices in literature, we’d learn something astounding: their truth-telling depends on ours.
I’ll write in future blogs about GWT in works that I’ll be teaching this semester, but I’d love to hear from you. What GWT characters—fictional or real—have inspired you?
*“The Girl-Who-Tells.” Margaret Willey. Hungry Mind Review (Summer 1995): 46 & 48.