Review for If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

if-i-was-your-girl

Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

Note 2: I read the Kindle ebook version of the book.

My Summary: Amanda Harding has begun a new life in hopes of escaping a painful past. All she wants to do is fit in and experience a normal teenage life. At first, it seems like she may succeed: she’s made friends with popular girls and drawn the attention of a cute football player named Grant. However, the fear of being outed as trans lingers, and there’s no telling what will happen if that fact is revealed.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book. One the narrative level, I enjoyed it. There was good characterization, conflict, resolution, emotional arc, etc. It was a nice step toward getting trans narratives into mainstream publishing. I’ll go into detail about this first and then get to the more critical part.

While the primary narrative of the book takes place after Amanda has transitioned, interspersed throughout are chapters recounting past experiences before and during transition. The difficulty of the transitioning process isn’t glossed over. There is bullying, misunderstanding from family, the policing of gender from all sides, difficult conversations, rejection from family and community (especially religious community), depression, anxiety, despair, self-blame, internalized transphobia, etc. Because the author is a trans woman herself, she is able to depict with nuance and realism the detailed physical and emotional experience of Amanda’s transition.

On the more positive side, Amanda’s life isn’t all doom and gloom, the story of the tragic trans person. She’s not sentenced to a life of isolation and constant struggle. Though it takes time to get there, her parents come to accept and love her unconditionally. She finds friends, allies, other LGBTQ people, and even a boyfriend. She also has a mentor and role model from her trans support group, which such an important thing to show in trans narratives. She recognizes and finds beauty in other trans people who don’t share her experience.

Another thing that I liked is that the story addressed the homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny tied to toxic masculinity in mainstream American culture (especially sports culture), the attitudes that lead to violence against trans girls/women in particular. It also draws attention to the general misogyny that girls and women face in being constantly scrutinized and objectified by the patriarchal male gaze.

The narrative is also very explicit about undermining stereotypes and assumptions about gender and sexuality, such as “you don’t have to be a boy to like girls,” and a girl being masculine doesn’t necessarily mean she’s attracted to girls. It calls out shitty representation in media. Amanda has a conversation where she lays out the rules for what’s off-limits to ask trans people (the most basic ones: their genitals, when/whether they’ve had surgery and what it’s like, and their birth names).

Something else I appreciated was the ongoing commentary on the ways in which trans people’s struggles are part of a more universal human struggle. Transphobia is real, and violence specifically against trans people is very real, but the struggle to be true to oneself in the face of societal expectations of conformity to some norm is something basically everyone deals with at some point. It’s a humanizing thing to acknowledge, and builds the foundation for empathy between people with different experiences and identities.

The ending may feel incomplete to some, but for me it’s realistic. Being trans in a transphobic society means that we are constantly having to confront bias and educate people and have difficult conversations. It’s an ongoing process. Sometimes the more important thing isn’t whether others accept and love us, it’s whether we accept and love and make peace with ourselves, because heaven knows that it is something that so many trans people struggle with.

Now, for the criticism.

There was one part where a character proposes a theory that homophobes are just closeted gay people hating on other gay people out of insecurity and inability to accept their own secret gayness. While it’s true that internalized homophobia is a real phenomenon, this generalization is really harmful because it pins the blame of homophobia back onto the very people it victimizes. Ultimately, homophobia doesn’t benefit gay people. It benefits straight people by normalizing straightness and keeping them in a position of power and privilege. The majority of homophobic violence is perpetrated by people who aren’t secretly gay, and straight people have to hold themselves accountable for their complicity. The “homophobes are just closeted gay people” theory absolves straight people of any responsibility to fight homophobia.

From a big picture perspective, this book left a lot to be desired because it represents the experience of a straight, white, cis-passing, thin, conventionally attractive, middle-class, and able-bodied trans person. To her credit, the author does acknowledge this fact in her author’s note, and that she smoothed the path for Amanda in ways that don’t reflect reality. The percent of the trans population who shares Amanda’s identities and positionality is tiny. A large part of the reason this book was able to get published was because it features a trans person who is the most acceptable and privileged among trans people.

So my criticism isn’t necessarily against the author individually as it is against the industry that favors this kind of narrative for the spotlight. Trans people want so much more. We want to see stories that show the struggles of those of us who are non-binary/genderqueer/genderfluid/genderfucks, those of us who are non-cis-passing, those who don’t want to “pass,” those of us who are too poor to access hormones and surgery, those of us with health conditions that make medical transition difficult or impossible, those of us who are fine with our bodies and our gender expressions as they are but not with the way people label us with their assumptions based on them, those of us who are fat, those of us who are disabled, those of us who struggle with intersecting oppressions of racism/transphobia/homophobia/ableism/etc.

And we want to see more than just our struggles with being trans. We want to see our triumphs, our adventures, our conflicts over non-gender-related shit, our loving relationships or happy single lives, our sci-fi thrillers and space operas, our epic fantasy quests and paranormal romances, our happily-ever-afters.

Recommendation: I’ll be honest and say that this book didn’t feel super validating for me personally because there are many ways in which my experiences differ from Amanda’s. That’s not to say that other trans people won’t find it validating or that this is not a good book or an important one. I’d still recommend it to cis people as a way to get your toes wet in the vast ocean of trans experiences. And then, after that, look for other narratives that expand your view of what it means to be trans.

P.S. I’m so relieved that they used an actual trans girl for the cover model because there’s enough erasure to go around with Hollywood casting cis people to play trans characters left and right.

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4 thoughts on “Review for If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

  1. Wow, what a fantastic review – I read this book a while ago, and I definitely agree with everything that you said. I also thought that the depiction of bisexuality wasn’t great. As it was marketed as an LGBT+ book, surely there should have been a more multi-faceted depiction of the B in the acronym!!
    Are there any other books that you could recommend me that are better? I’m really trying to challenge my cis privilege at the moment, and I’d love to hear your views 🙂

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    1. Yeah, it bothered me that of all people, Bee was the one to out Amanda, like what a petty and horrible thing to do when someone has trusted you with their safety.

      To be honest I haven’t read a ton of books with trans main characters, mostly because I’ve focused most of my attention on books by POC, and finding trans POC protagonists is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Most of the books I have read are non-fiction. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin is a good place to start. I’ve also read Some Assembly Required by Arin Andrews and Rethinking Normal by Katie Rain Hill, which are a pair of memoirs by two trans teens who were formerly in a relationship with each other. Of course, those two are also straight white trans people, but their experiences are still worth reading about. If you haven’t read it already, I’d recommend Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness. I haven’t read it yet myself, but it’s on my TBR. Another one on my TBR is Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin, which features a non-binary/genderfluid MC, though it’s not #ownvoices.

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