In The Importance of Girl Things, Shauna Pomerantz writes, ‘Why are girl things so despised? Consider the derisive response to music girls like, movies and television shows girls watch, social networking sites girls inhabit, activities in which girls engage, and the clothes girls wear. The criticism is always snide and condescending: girl things – which appeal to, attract, star, and represent girls – are considered, at best, vacuous and, at worst, distasteful.’
Herein lies the beauty and importance of Abigail Ulman’s short story collection, Hot Little Hands; for Hot Little Hands itself is, in fact, the very definition of a ‘girl thing’. Each of the stories in Hot Little Hands navigate girlhood in some way, from the lives of high school-age teenagers (‘Chagall’s Wife’, ‘Jewish History’, ‘Head to Toe’, ‘Same Old Same As’ and ‘Warm-Ups’) to those of young twentysomething women (Claire from ‘The Withdrawal Method’, ‘The Pretty One’ and ‘Your Charm Won’t Help You Here’; Amelia in ‘Plus One’.) ‘Girl things’ such as horse camp, gymnastics, feminised bodies, clothing, periods, crushes, yoga and gossip weave through the fabric of the text. Though the subject matter is often adult – the girls of Hot Little Hands navigate abortion, sex trafficking, young motherhood, drugs, and deportation – the girls themselves are not… even when they technically are.
The girlhood of Hot Little Hands’ characters is defined not by their age but by social constructs. The period of a woman’s life demarcated as ‘girlhood’ seems to be growing longer, with young women living at home well into their 20s, putting off settling down, and figuring out the structure of their lives much later in the game. In Lena Dunham’s Girls, for instance (if you’ll excuse my picking such low-hanging fruit as an example) girlhood extends all the way into the mid-twenties. These women self-identify as ‘girls’ and navigate the world as such – trying to figure out what it is to be an adult, without realising that they already are. On the topic of Girls, Pomerantz writes, ‘Girls is a girl thing because the characters are not interested in becoming women so much as they are interested in exploring what it means to be who they are at this particular moment in their lives.’
Likewise, Ulman’s girls – the adult ones – are allowed to be slackers and screw-ups; are allowed, even as PhD students or soon-to-be mothers, to be directionless. They are what Lauren Duca in The Rise of the Woman-Child defines as women-children, or ‘women in their 20s and 30s, experiencing a liminal period between adolescence and adulthood’. Over the course of three stories which focus on Claire, she is allowed to be messy and rude, sexual and lost. Most of all, she is allowed to be brutally herself. In the first Claire story, ‘The Withdrawal Method’, Claire – a floundering PhD student and musician more preoccupied with casual sex and MySpace than a career or steady relationship – finds herself unexpectedly pregnant.
When I get to the ladies’ room, there’s a line outside. ‘Hey,’ says the girl in front of me. ‘Great show.’
‘Hey, thanks,’ I say. She smiles at me and I wonder if I should make out with her.
‘You’re pregnant, right?’ says the girl in front of her. ‘You can go ahead of me.’
‘Oh, cheers.’ I move to the front of the line and try the bathroom door. It’s locked. The girl who gave me her spot is wearing little black shorts and tall brown boots. I wonder if I should make out with her.
‘Do you date anyone who works here?’ I ask her. She looks confused.
‘The men’s room is free,’ says a guy coming out of the men’s room. ‘You can use it.’
The bathroom, like every public bathroom in this town, is disgusting. The floors are wet, the door handle is sticky, the graffiti isn’t funny and there’s no toilet seat. I half sit, half stand, pull my dress up, clutch it in a bunch, and hope for the best.
Claire, like all women-children, is more likely to miss a rent payment or screw a friend’s boyfriend than to nail a job interview, be somewhere on time or ever pick up a bridal magazine. We follow Claire through two more stories, ‘The Pretty One’ and ‘Your Charm Won’t Help You Here’. A naïve reader might expect that by the time we leave Claire for good she will have her life sorted (whatever that is meant to mean). But at the end of ‘Your Charm Won’t Help You Here’, nothing is settled. For women-children, it’s never that simple. Girlhood is no longer a neat, tangible pit stop on the way to adulthood; instead, it lingers and festers. Even when it seems as though life is stabilising, milestones that should signify adulthood serve only to highlight the woman-child’s lack of it.
Such is the case with Amelia in ‘Plus One’, who, instead of finishing the manuscript she’s been paid an advance to write, decides to have a baby.
She thought about returning to teaching, to save some money and pay back her advance. She thought about telling her agent and editor the truth, that she couldn’t do it, that, for reasons that were opaque to her and everyone else, this thing that was difficult but doable for so many was actually impossible for her. She thought about moving to Argentina and changing her name, like a German war criminal. It seemed like there could be a wig involved in that somehow. And then, one afternoon this past August, just hours before the start of Hurricane Irene, when she had finished stockpiling canned goods and was waiting for her best friend Seth to come over and spend the weekend, she had flicked through her Netflix queue and watched Blue Valentine. And, by the time Seth arrived, she knew what she had to do.
‘Uh, that’s not the message that movie’s trying to convey,’ Seth said, coming in with a paper bag of groceries in his arms.
Amelia’s decision to have a baby is reckless, disjointed – more of a desperate reaction to her problems than a carefully considered life choice. By the end of the story Amelia has settled comfortably into motherhood, but we remain a little unsure as to whether we should consider Amelia’s life ‘settled’ or ‘adult’. As with all women-children, her story remains open to interpretation.
Ulman’s debut is just one of a burgeoning number woman-child narratives, joining the ranks of movies such as Laggies, Happy Christmas, Girl Most Likely and Obvious Child, and books like Miranda July’s The First Bad Man, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, and many of Ali Smith’s works. As Duca writes, ‘Ultimately, the rise of the woman-child across film and TV normalises the messiness of this transitional time and helps remove the sexist stigma by which it is contextualized.’
While for almost half a century we have endured a plethora of man-child narratives (see: John Belushi, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, et al.), the woman-child – flawed, honest, and ever-emerging – who has always existed in real life is finally being represented in our media.
We are only now beginning to witness the woman-child’s narrative with anything resembling frequency – and it is a narrative that is only becoming more nuanced and considered with time. Hot Little Hands is a welcome addition to this ever-expanding canon.
Abigail Ulman will be in conversation about Hot Little Hands at the Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club on Thursday 28 May at Readings Carlton. Further details can be found here. RSVP to [email protected]rnal.com.