Concerning, In Particular, Hey, Dollface by Deborah Hautzig & Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden
By REBECCA, August 17, 2012
A while back, when I was reviewing Siobhan Vivian’s lovely Same Difference, which is about the power of female friendships, I mentioned in the a response to a comment from Past the Ink, that maybe I should do a post about 1970s and 1980s lesbian discovery novels (that is, books where a character realizes she’s a lesbian)—and here it is, in the form of some musings.
So, what’s special about lesbian discovery novels of the late ’70s and early ’80s in particular, you may be thinking? For one thing, since there were so few of them published (I think the only others before Annie On My Mind are Sandra Scoppettone’s Happy Endings Are All Alike (1978) and Rosa Guy’s Ruby (1976)) that they have a particular mood in common. I chose to focus on Hey, Dollface and Annie On My Mind because they are, in some ways, so similar. But also because I feel like Annie On My Mind is often cited as the first lesbian YA novel, when Hey, Dollface totally predates it by four years. Besides, I like Hey, Dollface much more, and it holds a special place in my heart because I first read it when I was 12 or so because I borrowed it from my best friend, J—. Incidentally, when I took out my copy of the book today to write this, I started paging through it and realized that it’s totally J—’s. Her name is stamped in the front cover with one of those personalized stamps in two-tone ink (sorry, J—!). Whoopsies.
So, first things first, I am obsessed with the (1989) cover of Hey, Dollface. I loathe the new YA trend of featuring skinny white girls in fancy dress for no apparent reason on the covers of books. For one thing, I don’t like to have a picture in my head of what a character looks like before I start reading. For another, I don’t like that they’re all prettier than average. Finally, I think it’s boring. There are so many parts of a book that would make awesome covers—I don’t get why anyone would want to look at a model instead of an actual artistically designed cover. But I digress. The point is, even though Hey, Dollface‘s cover features girls who are supposed to be the main characters, I think it’s gorgeous. Maybe because it’s a painting (or a painting-ified photo?) instead of a photograph? Maybe because the girls are just floating white faces being swallowed by black hair, black clothes, and splashed with lipstick and blush? I don’t know; I just know that I love it.
In both Hey, Dollface and Annie On My Mind, two New York City high school girls meet and strike up close friendships because they understand each other where no one else does, and go on to discover that what they feel for one another is more than friendship, then decide what these romantic feelings for another girl mean for them in the long run. My favorite thing about Hey, Dollface (and the reason that I listed it as a readalike for Siobhan Vivian’s Same Difference) is that Val and Chloe are intensely drawn together because of a shared attitude (they think their snobby, rich prep schoolmates are boring and lame) and tastes (they make papier mâché death masks, use Polaroids, and haunt thrift stores). Val’s tastes are nascent—she knows what she doesn’t like, but Chloe shows her a vision of New York that realizes she loves. Oh, and because this is 1978, they’re in Greenwich Village in a totally sincere way:
“I’d never heard of thrift shops till I met Chloe. She taught me the whereabouts and price-haggling of wonderful dark places filled with furs, strange velvet dresses, hats, old jackets, tailcoats and feather boas. And millions of mismatched pajamas. We walked around all day, going into every pokey shop that caught our eye, finding twisted little streets we never knew existed and eating everything we felt like buying.
Chloe liked things I’d never considered before. She adored old pointy-toed spike-heeled shoes if they had a tacky ribbon or rhinestones adorning them. And those pointy glasses women used to wear. She’d pick up what I thought was an outrageous item and gasp, ‘Oh, I have to have this.’ I usually succeeded in talking her out of it; she told me she’d regret it. She said in a year they’d be the latest chic and I’d regret it too” (34-5).
So, when I refer to this subgenre as “lesbian discovery novels,” I mean more than just that the characters discover that they’re lesbians; I mean that they feature friendships that allow one to discover something about oneself. And that is what really interests me about revisiting these two books 30 years after they were published. Late ’70s and ’80s lesbian discovery novels portray certain strong female friendships as vehicles that allow one or both of the characters to discover that they like girls in part because there were so few other books, films, or pop cultural representations of lesbianism. Nowadays, with many more representations of queerness in the cultural ether, queer YA fiction doesn’t have quite the same oh-my-goodness-what-could-these-feelings-possibly-be anymore and, as a result, we have begun to have some really interesting discussions about romantic female friendships, which might include sexual attraction, but also needn’t. Here’s Autostraddle’s “20 Best Young Adult Novels For Queer Girls,” in response to NPR’s lesbian-lacking “Top 100 List of Best Teen Novels, recommended by my dear friend, J—.
I (of course) don’t mean to conflate lesbianism with some kind of cutesy sleepovers and whispers teen phase. Rather, I think that one of the most interesting things about the lesbian discovery novels like Hey, Dollface is that they do manage to push a queer panic button about intense female friendships (especially in the characters’ parents) who wonder things along the lines of Hey, Dollface‘s tagline: “Just how far do the bounds of friendship go?” This is nothing new, of course, echoing a long-held societal nervousness about female friendships that appear fulfilling enough that perhaps men aren’t needed.
Friendship in general, and female friendship in particular, is possibly the most central social element of YA fiction. So, looking at the trajectory of the shifts in how intimate female relationships are portrayed over 30-some years is illuminating. For those of us who grew up with strong, celebratory friendships, whether romantic or not, I think there is a real joy in seeing how important female friendships can be to discovering what we like, who we are, and what we believe in. For that reason, I’m glad to see a more celebratory attitude emerging on intense friendships. Here are a few of my favorites, which you should read this weekend while watching Foxfire, Thelma and Louise, and My So-Called Life, a trio of ’90s gems about important female friendships:
So, what about you? Do you have a favorite lesbian discovery novel from back in the day? A book to recommend to queer girls now? Flashbacks to buying Manic Panic every time I say “My So-Called Life”? Let us know in the comments!