Dressing like a boy: the construction of femininity in 13 and Uncomfortably Numb

In the last instalment of our feminist review series, we looked at Marta Chudolinska’s and Megan Speers’ graphic novels and considered how the artists used space to discuss issues of identity. This time around we find ourselves again delving into issues of identity, but this time in a much more literal sense. Mary-Lou Zeitoun’s 13 and Sharon English’s Uncomfortably Numb both take a look at that awkward age in that awkward time: adolescence in the 1980s. As the authors’ young heroines are becoming women, the society around them is still grappling with issues of women’s rights. So the question becomes, as Marnie Harmon and Germaine Stevens develop into women, will it be on their terms, or someone elses?

Don’t forget, you can enter to win one of these tragicomic tales of teenage angst! Just leave a comment below. Your comment can be about anything: you can further the discussion by adding your own insights or you can simply let me know what you think about these two hard-hitting books.

Contest closes Friday, November 16, so start those comments coming!


Late at night in the suburbs of Ottawa, Marnie Harmon is found walking home from a party. She’s thirteen years old. She lights a cigarette and shrugs into her windbreaker, trying to walk like a boy. It’s her “secret weapon,” she tells us offhandedly, “for not getting raped” (Zeitoun 52). When Germaine Stevens finds herself similarly exposed, she too wishes she were a boy (English 75). The heroines of Mary-Lou Zeitoun’s 13 and Sharon English’s Uncomfortably Numb have learned: the adulthood they are on the verge on inheriting is fraught with danger—especially for girls. Both young women find themselves at the crossroads of childhood, watching their classmates break off into groups: preps and punks, dogs and sluts, and—most importantly—men and women. Thrust into the role of “woman” perhaps before they were ready, Marnie and Germaine find their new position comes with all sorts of expectations they hadn’t prepared for. With their parents’ and peers’ expectations quickly building up around them, will either girl ever feel like herself again?


When Marnie enters grade seven in 1980, she finds that her classmates matured almost overnight. Suddenly Marnie and her friends go from “being normal kids who played with everyone else at recess to ‘dogs’” (Zeitoun 10). “Dog,” they are ashamed to realize, is the name given to ugly girls, unfeminine girls—girls the boys would never touch. While the name is hurtful, it is also not unexpected—given what the girls’ peers have come to expect of women in their grade. Marnie is decidedly “unfeminine.” Her teachers, her mother, and even some of her friends have all come to the conclusion that she is having “a problem coming to terms with [her] femininity” (39). Marnie wears baggy pants and prefers her dad’s old collared shirts to tight tops (13); she walks like a boy (48) and has a permanent scowl on her face (46). But given her options, Marnie is happy where she is. Were Marnie to dress or behave differently, she is not sure she would be happy with the consequences.

Marnie’s friend, Louise, for example, has the whole “femininity” thing down pat. When Marnie comes over to Louise’s house so they can get ready for a party together, Lousie asks of Marnie, “Is that what you’re wearing?” (48) Louise has on a baby blue tank top and wide-legged pants that “fit her perfectly” (48). Marnie is wearing a pair of beat up cords and a baggy John Lennon tee shirt. But it isn’t only Louise’s clothing that makes her attractive, Marnie realizes, “it [is] the way she [moves], slinky waist, shoulders back, hips twitchy—like a spring” (48). Marnie thinks she “would never have the guts to walk like that. Boys [are] annoying enough as it [is]” (48). When Louise insists on giving Marnie a makeover, squeezing her into a tiny top and smearing blue eye shadow across her lids, Marnie barely recognizes the new “feminine” version of herself.


Sharon English’s Germaine is older than Marnie, but Germaine finds herself struggling with the same expectations from her peers. Once she hit high school, Germaine traded in her childhood best friend Bono—a tough tomboy—for the sexy and sensationally popular Regina. As Germaine dons the tight pants and hot tops that Marine wouldn’t go near, she finds herself acquiring all sorts of new attributes that she wasn’t prepared for as well. Like “slut,” for example. And “bitch.” Germaine comes to realize that she has very little control over what people are starting to think about her. “You make a statement even when you say or do nothing,” she realizes:

Your body says it for you…. Since I started high school mine’s been saying different things, especially to guys, but they’re never quite the right things, the things that make guys hold your hand or want to walk with you after school. (English 75)

Bono’s androgyny allows her to move undetected through crowds, but Germaine’s tight pants make her the centre of attention every time. When the two girls run into a pair of suspicious men while walking in the woods, the guys ignore Bono, but won’t stop staring at Germaine (72). As their gaze becomes threatening, Germaine wishes she could disappear, or be a boy—like Bono.


If both Marnie and Germaine are having trouble coming to terms with their femininity, can it really be any wonder why when coming into your femininity in Zeitoun’s and English’s fictional worlds means wearing revealing clothing, behaving provocatively, and doing as your told? For Marnie and Germaine, as their figures develop, their bodies become the property of all those around them—and anyone can comment, stare, or touch. Climbing onto the bus on her way to Louise’s house, Marnie receives an unwelcome but telling comment from the bus driver: “‘Hey,’ said the bus driver. I turned. ‘You’d be a pretty girl if you smiled’” (Zeitoun 46). If you smiled—if you were pleasant, got along, did as you were told—you’d be a “pretty girl.” Which really makes you wonder, what exactly does “pretty girl” mean?

As Marnie and Germaine have come to realize, when they’re “pretty girls” they get into all sorts of trouble. When the threatening strangers begin eyeing Germaine in the woods, she curses herself her foolishness for dressing provocatively. “Shouldn’t have bought a bomber-style jacket,” she thinks, “shouldn’t have worn these jeans. Like an invitation. It’s my fault” (English 176). Marnie similarly finds herself wishing she hadn’t accepted Louise’s makeover when she is stumbling home from that party, lost in the suburbs of Ottawa. Her teacher Mr Bennett picks her up to give her a lift home—but when she ends up in Mr Bennett’s basement with Mr Bennett trying to draw her into a kiss, she finds herself thinking “it [is] my fault for being [here] and wearing make-up” (Zeitoun 61). It would just be so much easier if the two women could throw femininity aside and dress like men—if they could dissuade this unwanted attention before it even starts.


What Marnie and Germaine are really hoping for when they wish they could be boys is the ability to define their own position among their peers. They don’t want to be dogs, sluts, feminine, or anything. They want simply to be Marnie and Germaine—whatever that means. Perhaps if everyone would just butt out, they could figure it out. While both authors allow that such freedom is possible for women, it certainly isn’t possible in high school. Both girls need to escape their current situations to find themselves. It’s a conclusion that I think anyone who has been through high school can agree with.


English, Sharon. Uncomfortably Numb. Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill. 2002.
Zeitoun, Mary-Lou. 13. Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill. 2002.

This entry was posted in Letters from the Porcupette (the Intern's Blog) and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.