When I was six or seven, my parents busted me for nothing more innocuous than carrying a picture in my pocket. I’d torn an image of my favorite character out of my favorite book and would often sneak it out of my pocket just to stare at it, sometimes rubbing it like a worry stone. It was a woman’s face, fierce with an open-mouth laugh, her gloved hand in the middle of a wild gesticulation while still delicately balancing the trademark cigarette holder. I was madly in love with Cruella de Vil, the villain from The Hundred and One Dalmatians—still am.
At the time, I had zero understanding of what I had done wrong by carrying around this tiny totem to my anti-hero, other than my carefully neat job of ripping up a page in a book. It was just somehow vaguely inappropriate. I knew I was queer by the time I was nine, and yet it seemed to me even then that my parents were far more alarmed by the fact that in choosing an object for my affection, I had latched onto a monster. She did not seem like a monster to me. That’s what they were afraid of—still are.
So when I read Caroline Hagood’s account of her fascination with Ursula, the villain in The Little Mermaid who was fashioned after John Waters’ legendary drag queen Divine, I knew we were kindred spirits. I devoured Hagood’s compulsively readable new hybrid book of memoir and cultural criticism, Weird Girls, there was very little in its 150 pages to which I did not deeply relate.
When I finished reading it, I resolved to buy a dozen copies and hand them out to all the women who keep me feeling powerful and supported whenever my faith or energy has wavered. Then I thought I’d send it to a few book clubs to get it a wider audience, but eventually, I thought I’d like to buy a hundred copies and donate one to every public library within a 100-mile radius of my house to ensure that the next generation of women growing up all around me will have easy access to this necessary little lighthouse with its bloody but unbowed heart of feminist grotesquerie.
In the first three pages: Jill Soloway, the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, Helene Cixous, the fates of Greek mythology, the witches from Shakespeare’s MacBeth, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, and Yoko Ono. At this point, you’re welcome to lean in like the lady in When Harry Met Sally, who is dining at the next table at Katz’s, and say, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Hagood is supersaturated with pop culture references but not with footnotes. She wields the occasional quotation with a light touch that doesn’t require a heap of context or prior knowledge to appreciate.
The kinds of books and films she chooses to discuss have been integrated widely enough into popular culture that Weird Girls is suitable not just for teaching graduate students but for undergrads who are looking for fun Gender Studies electives to make their grueling schedule more bearable. Weird Girls could even be taught to advanced 11th or 12th graders in high schools that have not yet banned books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, frequently analyzed as frames of reference for women’s writing. Weird Girls centers on the broad category of women who make art and is full of glorious little stabs against the diminishment of this category, such as:
“Let’s just say that I will continue to consume—voraciously, religiously, like I’m saving my own goddamn life—‘lost-tampon essay’ for as long as I live. As [Chris] Kraus writes in I Love Dick, ‘I think the sheer fact of women talking, being paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the word.’ And I would have to agree.”
Women’s self-portraits—any attempt to show or tell our ontological position—are most often treated either as tragically sad or else horrific, not worth contemplating in any case. Against this, Hagood pushes back with a reclamation, understanding that “monsters are the part of our world and ourselves that we alternately caress and push away, that play of disgust and desire that lives, as [Julia] Kristeva says of abjection, ‘beyond the limits of the thinkable,’ which is exactly where I want to go with my writing.”
She identifies this sexy-ugly mode of engagement through a variety of examples from literature and film, including a solidly detailed treatment of Charlize Theron’s titular character in Jason Reitman’s 2018 film Tully that will not require the uninitiated to watch the film first—although reading this section of the book caused me to go rewatch the film afterward and I was very glad I did. There’s also a particularly useful synthesis of contemporary female stand-up comedians, where the author deftly analyzes iconic elements in the work of Tig Notaro, Hannah Gadsby, Ali Wong, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, Cameron Esposito, Margaret Cho, and Wanda Sykes in the space of 15 pages.
Hagood’s style is “memoir as glimpsed in a fun house mirror”. She makes hybrid writing look so easy to accomplish. On the one hand, there are a half dozen main threads in Weird Girls, whether thematic, like motherhood, or exemplary, like Wizard of Oz. On the other hand, you can flip open this book to any of its 90 segments, and the essay nugget you land on can stand alone in its own one-to-four-page glory. “I see it like this: to learn and create in profound ways, you need hybridity,” she says. “The monster is part this, part that, part human and part something else we haven’t even found thoughts for yet, which are precisely the terms in which we need to think of our greatest art creations.”
The writing thus performs the main argument while the content itself makes plain the entirety of each specific locus of the argument as it emerges over about a half dozen segments, which is also a two-fold process. On the one hand, Hagood’s transitional material is added in seamlessly so that the next topic has already begun, even as you’re finishing the thoughts on the previous topic. On the other hand, each segment ends with such a punch that your willpower is dead-stopped into reading just one more, and then one more—and then one more.
Indeed, Hagood can slay a last line. Here’s one example: “There are many fancy descriptors of PTSD, but essentially it means your monsters are always walking around with you. For me, then, there’s this choice of whether to embrace them or not, whether to deploy them as members of my own army. The alternative is to be eaten.”
Beyond its cleverness, it certainly makes the point, too. Women will be treated as monstrous no matter what we do, and the inevitability of this means that we should find a way to work with our monstrosity rather than fight it or pretend it isn’t there. This is especially true for those of us who are creatives—those of us with generative instincts to build a manifesto out of the facets of our lives that sadden and terrify the men who don’t know how to witness us, who don’t know how to read us or love us or employ us. Let those men keep fearing when women like Caroline Hagood put their shoulders to the wheel. On this matter, she cites Carmen Maria Machado: “I have heard all of the stories about girls like me, and I am unafraid to make more of them.” Ditto, sister.