Why do so many books include the word “girl” in the title? I wrote about this two years ago, and the trend is still going strong. Maybe it sells well. But why does it sell? What’s so appealing about girls, anyhow?
This article originally appeared on my blog in March 2017, before InMotion Hosting wiped my entire website. I’m reposting it now that I’ve found a backup copy.
How many times are we going to see women (often into their twenties, thirties, forties, even older) referred to as “girls”? It’s not a new phenomenon––see also, Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girls, The Luckiest Girl Alive, et al. But this trend has become a bit ridiculous.
Here are some of the titles I saw on a recent walk through Target:
Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly.
According to its description on Goodreads, Lilac Girls is about a socialite, a teenager, and a woman doctor whose paths cross because of the Holocaust. So, at least one of the protagonists is a girl, although the doctor, who’s about twenty-two at the youngest, is not.
It Girls by Karen Harper.
It Girls details the lives of two sisters, a fashion designer and a novelist. Based on the description, it sounds like this books follows the sisters well into adult life (mentions of marriage, children, careers, “love eludes her,” etc.). Of course the phrase “it girl” dates back to Clara Bow, and the cover (which evokes flappers and Old Hollywood glamour) plays into this aesthetic.
The Roanoake Girls by Amy Engel.
Laney Roanoake, fifteen, gradually discovers secrets about her rich, well-connected, but secretive family, and why so many of their women come to grief. Fair play, sounds like the protagonist is a genuine girl, not a woman several years out of college.
All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda.
All the Missing Girls follows a woman returning to her hometown, ten years after her best friend went missing. She’s trying to care for her ailing father when a new crime “reawakens [her best friend’s] case and breaks open old wounds long since stitched.” The protagonist sounds like she’s well past girl-hood, although her best friend, and the latest victim, must have been girl-aged at the time of their disappearances.
Final Girls by Riley Sager.
The term “final girl” refers to the survivor of a slasher film like Halloween or Friday the 13th. The final girl is the last one left alive, who confronts and defeats the killer. She’s usually the only one out of the group who refuses various vices, such as sex, drugs, drinking, skinny dipping, et cetera. If she does engage in any shenanigans (“hey everybody, let’s go explore that abandoned, ultra-creepy house in the dead of night!”), she’s often reticent, the voice of reason, while others in the group are giggling and naive. Final Girls sends up this trope, detailing the lives of several “final girls,” the lone survivors of massacres straight out of a slasher film. When the first “final girl” turns up dead, the protagonist has to confront her long-buried past, and the massacre that she’s blocked out of mind until now.
The Girl Friend by Michelle Frances.
The Girl Friend (or The Girlfriend?) is a psychological thriller that pits a successful, middle-aged woman against her son’s girlfriend who is “young, beautiful and smart” but comes from the wrong side of the tracks. Shades of All About Eve? Threatening younger woman versus avatar of bourgeois respectability? It’s interesting that the word “girl” is highlighted by this design (Goodreads lists this as The Girlfriend, with no space between the words).
The Girl Before by JP Delaney.
The Girl Before details two different women who rent a modernist apartment from an eccentric architect. The book’s description page on Goodreads led to a complaint about this very issue. The USA Today review says scathingly, “If Tolstoy submitted War and Peace to the publishing process in 2017, it would almost certainly come out the other end of the chute as Girl and Peace.” This book is a New York Times bestseller, though, so maybe 2017 Tolstoy could learn a thing or two about marketing
The Girl Who Knew Too Much by Amanda Quick.
Reporter Ilene Glasson discovers a young woman floating at the bottom of a pool. The dead woman had “a red-hot secret about up-and-coming leading man Nick Tremayne, a scoop that Irene couldn’t resist—especially since she’s just a rookie at a third-rate gossip rag.” Now Ilene has to discover the “red-hot scoop” without dying herself.
What’s love got to do with it?
Few of these books have obvious love stories––at least according to their descriptions. I’d have to read them to know for sure, but much of the emphasis seems to be on puzzles: the secret family history, the series of interlinked murders, the false friend who’s hiding something, the strange and fastidious architect. Romance is a sideline, evidence of an accomplished life (“a successful career, a long marriage to a rich husband…”). I can’t think of any popular “girl” books that feature an ordinary romance. Even Big Girl, by Danielle Steel, doesn’t appear to have a major romantic plot.
Maybe March is just not the month for romance, although there were plenty of romance titles on sale. Most of the titles focused on the man, e.g. Her Hot Scottish Duke or The Greek Magnate’s Secret Baby. What does this mean? I wish I knew.
Do girls need to be rescued?
The most interesting of these books, for me, was this one, a Christian self-help book from Zondervan:
She’s Still There: Rescuing the Girl in You. What an evocative title, as they say in the reviews! Not the inner child, but the inner girl; not accessed, healed, or understood, but rescued. Rescued from what? The book’s description offers some answers:
What’s a woman to do if her life is not taking shape the way that she thought that it would? What happens when she looks at herself in the mirror, lingering just a little longer than usual and realizes that she no longer recognizes the person staring back at her? What does she do when she sees that, somehow, her life has drifted away from all her original hopes, dreams, or plans?
According to Hurst, the answer lies in encouraging, supporting, and helping this woman see “that she is capable of still being the person she intended to be or discovering the girl she never knew was there in the first place.” Banish anomie and acedia by returning to the source; find the self untouched by damage, heartbreak, and sin.
This book garnered mostly positive reviews on Goodreads. Here’s a small sampling:
Reading this book during my “break” from the world was definitely no accident. The reminder that we are always a work in progress so certainly needed in my time of feeling lost. This book feels a little bit like getting to walk alongside a life coach who is helping you once again find a purpose for your life…
This book, She’s Still There, is…super-encouraging, super-practical, and super-real. Chrystal takes stories from her own life plus very important scriptures and wisdom from the Bible and puts those together with steps to take the reader from discouragement to an action plan for getting out of the rut and getting back to the dreams and goals she had as a young girl…
I was beginning to lose my fire and passion as His daughter under layers of disappointments, struggles, unmet expectations and the reality of life. Entering a new season of life as my roles are drastically changing as my children are growing up, I wondered if there was a glimpse of the woman I long to be still inside…
Perhaps this book offers a clue to this ongoing trend. A “girl” isn’t just a child, adolescent, or young woman; she’s someone above the “petty pace from day to day,” the drudgery and disappointment of daily life. She’s the protagonist in a fabulous outfit, not the protagonist’s long-suffering mother, breaking eggs and staring at the clock. She’s solving murders, or committing them, or running from them; she’s unearthing secrets, or changing the face of the city, or making history, even in a small way. She has a place in the world; she matters, not only because of her youth and beauty, but because she is the”person she is meant to be” and not a pale imitation of her.
Why is this self-actualized archetype (if that’s indeed what we’re seeing) associated with youth? Is this born from the same impulse to label Millie Bobby Brown “all grown up” at thirteen, or to pressure models to keep the same body type from 13 to 19? Maybe it’s not enough to maintain a “girlish” figure––your soul has to be girlish as well.
I’m not sitting in judgment on these authors, who, after all, are published and selling books at Target, while I am not. If a book gets more press for having the word “girl” in the title, or if the title perfectly fits the book, or both, then it’s completely reasonable they would use it. But I do think it’s worth investigating why this is a trend, and why now.
More Girl-Related Reading
This essay by Robin Wasserman, “What Does It Mean When We Call Women Girls?“, comes to a somewhat similar conclusion. Wasserman includes several case studies in her essay, including Kathleen Hanna, Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham’s character on—what else?—Girls), and Rachel Watson, the protagonist of The Girl on the Train. Wasserman concludes that “girls” shrug off their roles as wife and mother, seeking an escape from their prescribed roles and responsibilities.
Emily St. John Mandel, in a post on Five Thirty Eight, finds that 65% of the time, the “girl” referred to in the title is in fact a woman. The trend predates The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, though it’s exploded in recent years, to the point where, by 2016, nearly 1% of upcoming books had the word “girl” in the title. 85% of the time, this “girl” lives to the end of the book––more, if the author is also female. Make of that what you will.
Over at NPR, Megan Abbott and Sarah Weinman discuss the trend of books on the “girl train.” Abbott hypothesizes that these books deal with the “perils of being a woman today, of marriages falling apart, of ambivalence with motherhood, the complexities of relationships among women.” Weinman notes that many of these books feature unreliable narrators.