The girls: Lauren, the sexy journalist living “the life” in Boston but losing it between the sheets; Sara, the girl who got the guy of her dreams and the family that comes with it but at the cost of her very soul; Elizabeth, the model-like black Latina who is a television sensation but is about to throw it all away by revealing a very private secret; Amber, the hipster in desperate search of her Latina heritage who discovers her own voice instead; Rebecca, the pencil-skirted cyborg who is feared and respected at work but totally clueless in love; and Usnavys, larger than life with an appetite for sex and food that is only matched by her growing obsession over her daughter. Does it sound like a Latina version of Sex and the City? You’re not far off – BUT WAIT – don’t click another blog just yet, The Dirty Girls Social Club is an important contributor to the literary history of feminism, particularly brown feminism.
Say what??? Yes, The Dirty Girls Social Club is a kind of marker that feminist literature has come a long way – longer than we realize. On the surface, the book does come off as a trite piece of emulation that wouldn’t escape the keen noses of urbane women who haven’t been living in a cave for the past twenty years. So, when a heterosexual male like myself (muy macho!) notices parallels to a certain show on HBO that was immensely popular among the young urban professional set (Sex and the City), it’s a little tricky to take it as serious literature. But such is the dilemma of our time.
With so many things that “I have to watch/read/listen to,” who has the time to waste on something unoriginal, especially when it comes in written form? Because that means that you have to sit down and read it, from cover-to-cover, in order to give it a fair shake. And, no, Sparks notes and somebody blogging the plot at you does not count. Why try anything new, right, when somebody out there claims to have done all the dirty work for you and given it X number of tomatoes or whatever? This is the work. You say you want to become a better critical thinker. Well, welcome to the farm. Get out there and start picking your own tomatoes and I guarantee that you’ll pick ten rotten ones for every perfect one you find. Anyways, I digress. Back to The Dirty Girls Social Club.
The author, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, uses each woman of the club in turn to tell her particular tale in a kind of roulette of narratives. Each woman of the group deals with the complicated social dynamics of such a group of friends while at the same time navigating her way through the treacherous world of men with equal amounts of courage, insight, cowardice, and insanity. Take, for instance, Usnavys. Her parents named her in honor of the vessel that saved them: US Navy. She carries this heritage of gratefulness around her neck like a millstone and tries to force it upon her teenage daughter with predictable results. She’s not all heart though. While holding a romanticized view of her adopted country, she still resents – bitterly – the racism and ideological push-back she gets from Americans which she sees all too evident in her own daughter. While berating her, on the one hand, for not being patriotic, she scolds her for seemingly abandoning her Latina heritage. As you can see, it isn’t territory that hasn’t been covered ad nauseam by so-called immigrant literature. Wash, rinse, and repeat for the other five women in the group with particular character elements to add a little variety to them and you’ve got yourself the cheap, dime-store paperback that this is. So, why keep reading it?
Because, one can argue that the book is nothing more than something to keep in your desk drawer at work for those rare instances when you have to drop a deuce but the latest issue of your favorite magazine hasn’t come in the mail yet. I won’t argue too ardently against that sentiment because I understand where it comes from: the burden of representation. If you are a minority voice in the U.S., then you know the burden we put on those that are in the public eye – through celebrity, publication, syndication, etc. – who identify as our particular minority. They must be better than perfect. Though not necessary, it helps if they’re good looking but I’ll be damned if they’re not well spoken. If they cannot articulate our struggle, then they shouldn’t be on TV or whatever. I get that. I agree with most of it, actually. But when it comes to the realm of the arts (film, television, theater, fine art, literature, etc.), we must make room for one exception which is the right of each under-represented community to be as genius or as banal as they want to be.
Let me illustrate this point with an example from film. At the 2002 Sundance Film Festival a little film made by an unknown Asian-American director with relatively unknown Asian-American actors debuted at the festival’s third screening, Better Luck Tomorrow. At this screening were many critics and filmmakers, including the ones that made the film. At the end of the screening, the filmmakers hosted a panel from the audience about the film and one American stood up and questioned the filmmakers as to why they chose – with the tremendous talent at their disposal – to make a film devoid of morality and decency in portraying Asian-Americans. As the young filmmakers were floundering for an answer, a well-known critic stood up on his chair and said, “What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement, is that nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people?’ This film has the right to be about Asian people and Asian-American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be! They do not have to ‘represent’ their people!” That critic was the late Roger Ebert and the young director of the film is Justin Lin, a UCLA alumnus.
The sentiment that Roger Ebert conveyed in that semi-dark screening room several years ago and thousands of miles away, is the same sentiment that holds The Dirty Girls Social Club together from a critical standpoint. The fact that the book exists, coupled with the fact that it is immensely popular, shows that brown feminist literature has arrived to the extent that the very community that it claims to “represent” does not care for its representation. We read it like a guilty pleasure but no longer in secret or in the darkest corners of the world. The book, its author, and the characters can be whoever the hell they want to be.