Review of Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers
Some Girls Are
by Courtney Summers
Oh my this book made me angry. I started Some Girls Are during lunch on Friday, got about 24 pages in (I know this because the bookmark is still at that spot), then read the rest in one big gulp on Saturday night. Want to talk about page-turners? I kept telling myself I should stop, go to bed, finish the rest with a clear head in the morning—but I literally could not turn those pages fast enough to find out what happened next. And there was no way I was sleeping without learning what happens to Regina. Even after I’d finished the book, part of me was crazy enough to want to boot up my computer again and start the review, at 12:30 am, because I was just so raw and ready to talk about this book. I didn’t—it’s Sunday morning as I write this—and we’ll see how my thoughts have set now that I’ve slept on it.
Trigger warnings (in this review and in the book) for discussions of rape, bullying, suicide ideation/attempts. Trigger warnings in the book, additionally, for eating disorders.
Up until now, Regina Afton has been a member of the Fearsome Five and the right-hand girl of clique-leader Anna Morrison. But when Anna’s boytoy Donnie attempts to rape Regina at a party and fellow Fearsome Five member Kara spreads the rumour that Regina slept with Donnie, the Fearsome Five becomes a Fearsome Four, freezing out Regina and turning her into a social pariah. Through bullying both overt and subtle, Anna and her minions make Regina’s school life a living hell. As Regina vacillates between wanting revenge and simply wanting the bullying to stop, she must confront the fact that, until recently, she wasn’t only a bully herself—but she liked it.
This is the cornerstone of Some Girls Are. Courtney Summers is so good at writing deep, intensely interesting protagonists, whether it’s “perfect Parker Fadley” from Cracked Up to Be or ostracized Romy Grey from All the Rage. Now we have Regina, who is by any metric not a good person. This book is not a case of “oh no, this poor, innocent girl is being bullied by mean people”. Without going into too much detail, Regina is complicit along with the other Fearsome Five girls in driving another girl towards suicide. So when she falls, she falls hard, and the people she once tortured have a chance to relish her disgrace.
Summers puts us in an interesting position as the reader, then. On the one hand, I want to be the moralizing person who, like Michael says in the book, tells Regina that “nobody deserves” what has happened to her. And that is true, in the abstract sense. No one deserves to be raped or to be the victim of unwanted sexual advances. No one deserves to be bullied. Yet by the same token, I cannot blame the characters around Regina, like Liz, who refuse to forgive her now that she herself is the victim:
I feel hollow, just like I felt in the days after it became devastatingly clear to her we weren’t going to be friends again and I was going to have to make her life miserable. Enough for her …
… to want to die.
“I’m sorry,” I say, and my voice cracks, splitting the word sorry in two.
She lowers her hand and turns to me slowly, setting the brush on the counter. “What did you say?”
I try to find the word again—sorry—but it’s gone. I want to tell her she’s brave, she’s stupid brave for coming into school day after day knowing what is waiting for her, and I want to to tell her she was the best thing in my life for one brief moment in time, and I want to tell her that I’m sorry I stood by while she was ruined, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I am so sorry.
She turns back to the mirror, silent.
It’s one thing to write a novel from the point of view of an innocent person getting bullied and another thing entirely to humanize the bully by writing from their point of view. The former is incredibly important for helping teenagers recognize their struggles and get through them—but Some Girls Are is not such a book. This is a book about a bully whose own squad turns against her, and as a result she starts to understand why the poison is not so sweet from the other end. I find this very intriguing, because while we should never excuse bullies’ actions, when we are talking about teenagers, we should remember they are still vulnerable. Regina is not evil; she is not beyond redemption; she is a product of the social system that has rewarded her for being a bully and a terrible person towards other girls.
And so as this book hurtled headlong towards its final act, I could not stop reading. I was so emotionally charged, so full of anger and doubt and conflict about how I felt about Regina, about Regina/Michael, about what was happening with Kara. I loved when Regina essentially seizes the opportunity to get revenge via the only way she knows how—discrediting Anna in much the same way Kara and Anna discredited her—because it just goes to show how slowly we learn our lessons. Even after all that she has been through, and the growth she has undergone, Regina is still so used to playing this game that she reaches for her arsenal almost automatically. Kill or be killed in the teenage jungle.
Then Anna’s final master stroke is so perfect I had to pause, for a moment, and reflect on the deliciousness of what she would achieve. Now, Anna—there’s a character much closer to evil than Regina; Anna seems to lack any shred of conscience about what she is doing, as her threat that she holds over Regina to get her to obey makes abundantly clear. The moment she confronts Regina with this bargain is so poignant, because I can’t fault Regina for going through with it, not one bit. Regina has finally found someone she cares about, and of course what happens? It gets used against her. High school.
If I were a different person I might choose to share at this point, talk about my own experiences with bullying in high school. Unlike a lot of people, though, I was lucky and was spared that. I can’t pretend to understand what it’s like to be torn down, repeatedly and relentlessly, particularly by people you once thought were your friends. And all this is happening under the noses of parents and teachers and authorities. This is where Summers’ writing resonates for me, as a teacher. I discussed this in my review of Cracked Up to Be, and those same feelings resurfaced reading Some Girls Are. The adults in this book are so clueless, so completely blind (wilfully or not) to what’s happening at this school. I see some reviewers commenting how the situations here are unrealistic, asking why Regina never once went to her mom or a teacher or her guidance counsellor. If you have ever been bullied you know why—and even if you haven’t, you should. Most of us have come up through that toxic environment, been exposed to it to one degree or another—yet somewhere around our twenties or thirties we develop a kind of amnesia for how awful high school is. Perhaps we even stoop so low as to trot out clichés like “it can’t be as bad as you think it is” or “it will get better if you just ignore it”. Like, when do we become so stupid as adults? So part of the reason I read YA books like this is to remind myself, to prevent myself from succumbing to that kind of amnesia.
When it comes right down to it, individual adults are going to have a tough time being effective at stopping bullying. Even those of us who are aware and vigilant for the hallmarks will miss things, whether because it’s happening online in an app we don’t use, or because it’s so subtle and we’re stressed and overworked by our own deadlines that we don’t notice in time. To be an effective anti-bullying activist, then, one needs to step back and look at the bigger picture. Bullying is a systemic problem embedded within the structure of (in this case) our high school system and bolstered by attitudes and role models in wider society (teenage bullies see older people get away with bullying everywhere in media, so why shouldn’t they?). There’s a reason Anna says, “It doesn’t matter … but it’s good practice.”
But I digress.
When I finished Some Girls Are, I was put off by the abruptness of the ending. “That’s it?” I thought. “It’s just … done?” It struck me as unrealistic, but I quashed that initial reaction and thought about it more carefully. And on second thought, the ending actually seems perfect. Sometimes these storms do end abruptly. More to the point, Summers gives us no assurances about what happens for the rest of the school year or after graduation. We don’t get to see if Anna gets her comeuppance. We don’t get to see if Regina continues her journey of redemption or if she falters again. So many books and movies like this climax at the senior prom, ending with a big message, where everyone has either been defeated or learned a valuable lesson. Here we kind of end in a detente of mutually assured destruction, where it’s not clear if lessons have been learned, and there are no winners or losers—just survivors, bullies, and victims, and some people who are a mixture of the three.
Some Girls Are slots into an interesting niche when it comes to YA books about bullying. I love its tone, its ambiguity. I love that it made me angry and feel so many conflicting emotions with regards to Regina’s redemption arc, her treatment of Michael, and her former squad’s treatment of her. I love that it highlights the systemic problems with bullying, the way the little things in high school (like picking teams for gym class) can exacerbate and support bullying. I can see the comparisons to Mean Girls that inevitably make it into the marketing and reviews, but these are very different stories. Some Girls Are is not a comedy; it resolves differently, and it goes further than you can in a PG film. It’s a harrowing read but a powerful one.